Baby boomers to blame for everything bad? Balls

Jocelyn Auer, author of Baby Boomers: Busting the Myths, talks to spiked about the dangerously defeatist tendency to blame all of society's problems on one postwar generation.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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Jocelyn Auer, a 69-year-old Australian author, didn’t originally set out to write a book defending baby boomers. As she explained to me during a phone interview, the book was originally conceived a number of years ago as an exploration of the problems older people face ‘managing that transition between work and retirement’. Yet, as she was researching the issue, diligently interviewing numerous fifty- and sixty-somethings about their experiences and ambitions, that very same generation of older Australians seemed to be coming under an increasingly vociferous attack, from politicians and pundits alike.

‘I just kept running into this story about baby boomers [people born between 1946 and 1965]’, she says. ‘[Commentators, academics and policymakers were] constantly blaming and really having a go at boomers. And I found myself getting crosser and crosser about the assumptions being made: the generalisations, the finger-pointing as though, somehow, this group of people had incredible political power, and were responsible for all the terrible decisions being made in the world. And I thought, “it’s not like this”. So I decided to challenge some of the assumptions about baby boomers – that they are uniformly middle class, that they’re all wealthy, that they’re selfish and greedy, and that they’re going to be a huge burden on society.’ And so it was that Auer’s marvellous little book, Baby Boomers: Busting the Myths, was born.

As such, Baby Boomers is an invaluable, vital intervention. After all, it is difficult to understate the prevalence of boomer-bashing not just in Australia, but throughout Europe and the US, too. In the Australian context, Auer cites a 2002 Treasury Report as an example of state-backed boomer blaming, with those in the throes of retirement identified as ‘the looming cause of younger generations facing an unfair tax burden’. A 2003 op-ed in The Age was more explicitly vituperative: ‘[Baby boomers] are a tough, greedy, self-indulgent lot who have not only failed to look out for their children but have not bred enough of them to sustain the nation’s tax and public-spending base.’

Such sentiments are all too familiar outside Australia, especially in the interminable aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. For example, UK government minister David Willetts turned out The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children’s Future in 2010, which was quickly followed by leftish journalist and broadcaster Francis Beckett’s equally influential What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?. A boomer himself, Beckett was typically self-mortifying: ‘We [have] created a far harsher world for our children to grow up in. It was as though we decided that the freedom and lack of worry which we had inherited [from the postwar settlement] was too good for our children, and we pulled up the ladder we had climbed.’ There is now even an adolescent-sounding lobby group, the Intergenerational Foundation, which is dedicated to ‘measuring’ in a ‘systematic way, the extent of intergenerational unfairness’.

In the US, the picture is much the same. Last year, the National Journal carried a front page on boomers with the word ‘leeches’ plastered across it. The feature’s author, Jim Tankersley, was in no doubt that boomers have gorged themselves on momma’s economic pie. ‘The facts as I see them are clear and damning’, he wailed. ‘Baby boomers took the economic equivalent of a king salmon from their parents and, before they passed it on, gobbled up everything but the bones.’ Over at the Daily Beast, self-glorifying hackademic Niall Ferguson joined in the generation blame game: ‘Never in the history of intergenerational transfers has one generation left such a mountain of IOUs to another as the baby boomers are leaving to their grandchildren.’

As Auer explains, this portrait of generational conflict, with younger generations expected to bear the burden of their elders’ past profligacy , not to mention their continued, illness-ridden existence, is not without a microscopic grain of truth. ‘There will be a period soon when there’s a bigger than usual number of older people, so there are issues that arise from that.’ That is, the ratio between those working and those not, will increase. In the UK, a House of Lord committee predicted that ‘a 50 per cent increase in numbers of over-65s between 2010 and 2030 and a doubling of over-85s in the same period. And in Australia, as Auer notes, the population aged 65 and over is expected to rise from 13.5 per cent in June 2010 to 23 per cent in 2050, while that of working-age people is expected to fall by seven per cent to 60 per cent in the same period. So this does, understandably, prompt discussion of issues around the costs of pensions, aged care and healthcare.

But the often nasty vilification of the boomer generation goes way beyond a discussion of pension costs and financing the healthcare system. In fact, it disfigures public debate of these issues, turning them from issues to be tackled into portents of societal collapse. And, apparently, it is all down to those greedy, selfish boomers, who spent while the economic sun shone, and now expect ‘us’ to foot ‘their’ bills. Yet as Auer writes in Baby Boomers, the generational framing of social, economic, and political problems does not help anyone; it merely allows society to misattribute blame. ‘Complex issues to do with ageing, healthcare, employment and education that deserve attention as issues relevant to society as a whole become problems created by the baby boomers themselves, acting as though they were one, in their own interests and against the interests of others. Baby boomers are to blame. “They” are the cause of the high cost of housing. “They” can bring down the economy. “They” make younger generations pay. If “they” want jobs, the jobs will be there.’

Little wonder then that Auer’s principal objective is to explode the myth of the baby boomers as a coherent subject of history, a uniform entity bleeding the rest of society, not to mention the planet, dry. As she shows in the context of Australia, the white, middle-class mythical archetype of the boomer, complete with two or three kids, money to spend, and an overweening sense of entitlement, is just that: a myth. The boomers are in reality a very diverse grouping, only united it seems by the arbitrary fact of having been born in a 20-year period following the end of the Second World War.

For example, according to a 2006 Statisticians’ Report census, work patterns vary tremendously among boomers. Sixty-eight per cent of Australian boomer men are in full-time employment, 10 per cent in part-time employment and 17 per cent are not in labour force or unemployed. The differences among female boomers are even more marked, with just 35 per cent of boomer women in full-time employment, 32 per cent working part-time, and 30 per cent not in the labour force. Chuck in the wave of immigration between 1945 and 1965 (nearly 32 per cent of Australians were born overseas), the massive variations in education (many boomers left school at the first opportunity while others were educated up to postgraduate level), and, perhaps most pertinent of all, the financial inequality among boomers (one quarter of Australian boomers possess just 4.4 per cent of the group’s net worth), and the image of the boomers as one big agglomeration of avaricious, university-educated whities quickly becomes unsustainable.

Indeed, there is clearly something odd about simplistically posing socioeconomic problems in terms of generations at all. ‘A lot of the generalisations – whether they’re to do with baby boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, or whatever the next one is – often don’t apply to a lot of the people in that generation’, explains Auer. ‘I think it’s a lazy way of looking at and resolving some very important issues.’

Yet, aside from laziness, why is there such a preponderance of boomer bashing today? Auer cites political expedience as a factor: ‘It’s a good way for governments to sidestep some issues which are important and which need addressing. It’s easy to blame, for instance, the rising costs of healthcare on older people, rather than look at the serious issues around healthcare costs.’ (In Baby Boomers itself, Auer notes that Michael Tatchell, writing for the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, attributes four fifths of rising healthcare costs to the demand for higher-quality services and new treatments and medicines.)

As Auer puts it, the Australian government (and in this regard it is far from alone among Western governments) is ‘cultivating blame’, playing one generation off against the other. Noting the influence of The Pinch, she writes that ‘boomers [are being cast as] the baddies and the younger generation as innocent victims’. This ‘kind of morality play’ feeds on and exploits ‘underlying tensions between parent and child in otherwise supportive and positive relationships’.

And that’s the thing with the common commentariat tendency to blame it on the boomers. Not only will this approach fail to address serious issues, it is, as Auer tells me, ‘a divisive approach’: ‘It doesn’t help to blame. As an analogy, in Australia we get really bad bushfires. And these often prompt discussions around “who is to blame for starting the fire?” and “who will pay out?”. But very often that act of blaming becomes a substitute for looking at the fact that we live in a country that has bush land, and that sometimes we build too close to the bush land. There are a whole lot of other things going on, but the blame game means we don’t have to pay attention to them. I think instead of being divisive, of looking for the generation to blame, it would be much more fruitful to realise that on many issues there will be common interest between younger and older generations, from how long we work to pension arrangements. After all, while younger people are not at that stage of life yet, they will be eventually, so these are issues for them, too – they’re just coming at them from a different perspective.’

This, in many ways, is the key refrain of Baby Boomers. Economic problems, policymaking decisions, indeed, the nature of work and the meaning of retirement, are generation-neutral issues; they are issues to be addressed by society as a whole, not insurmountable problems to be pinned on one generational grouping for the bitter, blame-happy satisfaction of overgrown teenagers. ‘There are a lot of commonalities as well as differences between generations, I think.’ Quite.

Generational conflict is not a new phenomenon, of course. As Frank Furedi has explained elsewhere on spiked, there are countless historical examples of the ‘young’ defining themselves against their parents’ way of life in the name of a better future. But that is what is so degenerate about this current round of internecine, intergenerational warfare. In addition to it being endorsed by governments, themselves peopled by self-loathing boomers like David Willetts, it is also thoroughly lacking in any ‘future-oriented’ idealism. The miserablism of this approach, the catastrophe-laced pessimism of its commentary, is writ large in the catchphrases of the boomer-bashing discourse: ‘the demographic timebomb’, ‘the ageing crisis’, and so on. Quoting professor Diane Gibson from the University of Canberra, Auer points out how this rhetoric of fear cultivates a sense of ‘society’s inability to cope’: ‘[Ageing is] too important to allow ourselves to be sold on ideas of apocalyptic ageing, ageing tsunamis or even (sic) “exploding populations” of older people.’

Underpinning this sense of ‘society’s inability to cope’ is the Malthusian orthodoxy of our time: namely, that we have reached our planetary, and, therefore, economic limits. There is no more to go round; those darned boomers, consuming resources and wealth like there’s no tomorrow, have used it all up. And it’s this orthodoxy, this apocalyptic fiction in which the boomers serve as the principal protagonist, which needs to be challenged. Jocelyn Auer’s spirited work is a very good place to start.

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.

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