Try And See It My Way: As the Latin root of the word – generāre, to beget – suggests, a “generation” is the span of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring. A period of, roughly, 20-30 years. Obviously, those born during this period cannot help living through the same historical events; facing the same challenges; sharing the same joys and sorrows.
THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF NOISE this past week about generations. Bill English’s NZ Superannuation announcement has sparked an explosion of arguments about when particular groups of New Zealanders were born, and to what, in terms of state support, their respective birth dates entitle them.
We have heard again (and again and again) about the perfidy of the Baby Boom Generation. We have been invited to feel the pain of the Millennials. There has even been an only half-tongue-in-cheek call to arms directed at the enigmatic Generation X.
Also in play – lest we forget – is the “Greatest Generation”. Though their numbers are fast declining, these are the New Zealanders who lived through the Great Depression and fought the Second World War. The first Kiwis to enjoy the social security of Labour’s “cradle to grave” welfare state.
But what exactly is a “generation”?
The Act Party leader, and its sole MP, David Seymour, offers a guide. In the Act Newsletter of 6 March 2017, he writes: “Adjusting the age [of eligibility for NZ Super] only works if it captures the massive Baby Boomer cohorts set to be retiring through to 2030. The impact of this adjustment will fall on gen-x (born 1965-80) and millennials (early eighties to late nineties). Again, an earlier, more gradual adjustment is needed.”
But Seymour’s divisions are far too arbitrary to constitute a reliable definition of “generation”. His deadly foes, the perfidious “Baby Boomers”, appear to include every New Zealander born between 1946 and 1966. Generation X, on the other hand, includes only those born in the 15 year period between 1965 and 1980. The Millennials (sometimes referred to as “Generation Y”) are an even more indistinct group: encompassing Kiwis born any time between the “early eighties to late nineties”.
As the Latin root of the word – generāre, to beget – suggests, a “generation” is the span of time between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring. A period of, roughly, 20-30 years. Obviously, those born during this period cannot help living through the same historical events; facing the same challenges; sharing the same joys and sorrows. It is on the basis of these common experiences that a term like “Baby Boomer” acquires a measure of respectability.
What Baby Boomer does not remember The Beatles? Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind”? The Vietnam War? Who can deny that the Boomers were raised at a time of unprecedented and prolonged economic prosperity? Or that the confluence of general affluence and the rapid expansion of higher education gave rise to a cultural revolution that is still unfolding fifty years later?
But if the first of the Baby Boom generation’s offspring started appearing between 1965-70, when did Boomers’ children begin having children? Did they, like their parents, start their families around the age of twenty? Or, by the time the Baby Boomers’ kids reached adulthood, had the average onset age of family formation advanced from the early 20s to the early-to-mid 30s?
Viewed from this perspective, in the roughly 70 years since the end of World War II there have only really been two generations: the Baby Boomers and the children of the Baby Boomers. And, if that is the case, then there are really only two coherent assemblages of historical events available for consideration when it comes to any discussion of defining generational experiences.
For the Baby Boomers, it was the social-democratic era, which extended from 1945 until the mid-1980s. For their children, it has been the neoliberal era, which kicked-off here in 1984 and is still with us today.
It is difficult to conceive of two more divergent eras. The social-democratic era was distinguished by economic, social, political and cultural expansion. The neoliberal era by the reverse.
One has only to consider the extraordinary generosity of the social-democratic state: its commitment to full employment and elder support; its provision of health care and housing; its democratisation of learning; and its empowerment of civil society; to grasp the true extent of New Zealand’s fall from grace.
To hear David Seymour tell the story, that fall has been the life’s work of the selfish Baby Boomers. He could not be more wrong. The vast discrepancy of experience between the Boomers and their children is not based on the social pathology of a single generation, but on the mutually-protective selfishness of a single social alliance.
Between the capitalist owners of New Zealand, and the professionals and managers who service them, there exists an unshakeable resolve to extinguish the social-democratic era’s legacy of social solidarity by eliminating every last institutional instance of, and opportunity for, its popular expression.
The only inter-generational conspiracy that makes ethical sense in 2017, is an electoral plot which commits the Baby Boomers and their offspring to the rescue of their children and grand-children.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 March 2017.