Divide and Conquer: Who benefits from setting Generations X & Y and the Baby-Boomers at each other's throats?
WHEN DID IT BEGIN – this war between the Baby-Boomers and Generations X & Y? When did it become something more than the normal bickering between those who wish they still were, and those who (infuriatingly) still are – young? And how did I become so sensitised to these anti-Baby-Boomer attitudes that I’m now posting on the subject?
The proximate cause – as the forensic scientists would say – was a story by Tim Watkin on the Pundit blogsite. According to Tim, the Baby-Boomers were "locusts" –poised like a pestilence to devour what little remains of New Zealand’s patrimony:
"The baby-boomers start retiring now", wailed Tim, "which means the first locusts are already landing on our crops, and behind them comes the swarm ready to devour our welfare budget. Yet our politicians are sitting there like the monkeys with their hands over their eyes, ears and mouth."
For the first time in a long time I experienced that awful feeling of being condemned not for anything I had done, but because of my membership in a particular group. Like every other New Zealander born between the years 1946 and 1966, I did not choose my birth date – and yet, there I was, squarely in Tim’s gunsights.
I cannot say my mood was improved upon reading, a little further down, that: "[The Baby-Boomers] have given themselves generous and repeated tax cuts, meaning fewer services and assets for the generation coming behind. I used the locust metaphor because the baby-boomers (not all, of course, and in a broad, generational sense) have simply gorged themselves without thinking about what they leave behind."
Tim’s rather mealy-mouthed qualification notwithstanding, this accusation really flicked my angry switch. So this was how the younger generations saw us? As selfish insects who "gorged themselves" without the slightest thought for future generations?
I recalled the Baby-Boomers who had raised the banner of ecological sustainability; the Baby-Boomers who had fought tooth-and-nail against the onslaught of Rogernomics; men and women with no other thoughts in their minds except to preserve the planet and keep safe the ideals of fairness and social justice for future generations.
I thought about the vast cultural and political transformations wrought by young middle-class students of the 1960s and 70s: in civil rights, women’s rights, Maori rights, gay rights. I remembered the struggles waged against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, sporting contacts with South Africa, and for a woman’s right to choose. Two decades of unceasing agitation against the cultural and political institutions of the rigid post-war consensus: militant anti-communism; fast-frozen gender- and race-relations; a stultifying cultural conservatism – all made palatable by an ever-rising standard of living and expanding material wealth.
And, finally, I thought of the tens of thousands of young New Zealand workers who’d unleashed the most protracted period of strike action in New Zealand history. Because, yes, it was the working-class Baby-Boomers who made the 1970s and 80s rock-n-roll with militant union power: working on the chain at the freezing works, driving trucks, building dams, manning the production-lines in the big import-substitution factories of Auckland, Porirua and the Hutt Valley.
Not that I imagine young Tim ever gave much thought to where all those fifteen-year-olds ruthlessly drafted-out of secondary education by the School Certificate examination eventually ended up.
Just as it never occurred to Tim that the tax-cuts he so casually attributes to the greed of the Baby-Boomers couldn’t possibly have been their doing. It was, after all, Rob Muldoon who began cutting income taxes back in the early 1980s. Roger Douglas and Bill Birch (neither of whom are Baby-Boomers) kept on cutting – but not for the sake of young New Zealanders in their 20s and 30s.
The reduction in the top rate of income tax was for the benefit of those in the top income brackets, and in the normal course of events such people tend to be older rather than younger. The men and women (they were mostly men) entering their prime earning years in the 1980s and 90s weren’t Baby-Boomers, they were of Roger Douglas’s and Bill Birch’s generation – New Zealanders born in the 1930s and 40s – not the 1950s and 60s.
A moment’s more thought would have reminded Tim that the real "Baby-Boomer Government" led by Labour’s Helen Clark (b. 1950) – didn’t cut taxes, it raised them.
And it’s about here, of course, that we come to the ultimate cause of this nasty little war between the Baby-Boomers and Generations X & Y - historical amnesia.
Having the generations who were its primary victims at each others’ throats is exactly what the neoliberal architects of Rogernomics require. Those responsible for the changes which transformed New Zealand society from one of the most equal (in terms of income share) to one of the most unequal in the OECD have no interest whatsoever in New Zealanders accurately recalling "whodunnit".
And, of course, Generations X & Y either weren’t old enough to appreciate what was going on between 1984-93 – or had yet to be born. All they know about what happened in the 1980s and 90s is what other people tell them. And that’s the trick, you see. To make them believe that the reason they have to pay student fees; the reason they can’t afford a house; the reason they have to keep putting off getting married and starting a family: it’s all down to those greedy bloody Baby-Boomers!
And we Boomers: affronted and hurt by the false accusations of Generations X and Y; and not a little confused ourselves about how everything turned so comprehensively to shit over the past quarter-century; we get all angry and defensive.
"Who do these little bastards think they are?" we say. "We haven’t noticed them marching down the street for peace, justice and equality – like we did. We haven’t seen them taking part in strike action. Shut up in their rooms: with their PCs and iPods and cell-phones; downloading, texting, face-booking and tweeting their lives away; who the fuck are they to point their fingers at us!"
Divide et Impera. Divide and Conquer. It almost never fails.
While the victims of the neoliberal counter-revolution scratch and tear at each other for a share of the social-services cake which, with every passing budget, emerges from the oven just a little bit smaller than the year before, the men and women who bake it refill their glasses and offer up a votive prayer to Pluto – the God of Death and Money – that those whose lives they've so comprehensively constrained never grasp the simple and unchanging truth. That greed is ageless.