The futility of generation wars

Long-read

The futility of generation wars

Boomer-bashing doesn’t only insult older people – it hurts young people, too.

Jennie Bristow

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From the early years of the 21st century, the idea that old people have screwed up the world has become the received wisdom. From economic crisis to environmental catastrophe, from the Brexit vote to the election of Donald Trump, from the lack of affordable housing to the persistence of ‘unaffordable’ pensions, blame for a whole range of presumed social evils is levelled at that catch-all category — ‘the older generation’.

The only hope for the future – insofar as there is one in these dystopian times – is seen to lie with ‘the younger generation’, imagined to be as yet untainted by the sins of their fathers and mothers. The young, we are told, will lead action on climate change by ‘striking’ from school; reverse the tide of political populism by voting for the right kind of people with the right kind of values; and generally save us from ourselves.

The fantasy that life would be better if only we never had to grow up is not a new one. Nor is the idea that we should look to children to lead the way to a better, more innocent future. But until fairly recently, these notions existed on the fringes of mainstream political and cultural debates, regarded as idealistic kite-flying at odds with a more mature reality.

Nowadays, the conceit that we are living through a ‘generation war’, with the old on the side of the (bad) past and the young on the side of the (good) future, is becoming an increasingly dominant frame for policy and media debates. This disturbing and destabilising development is the focus of my new book, Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ and Why Boomer Blaming Won’t Solve Anything. Many have voiced disquiet with the demonisation of old age, and old people, that goes along with the ‘generation wars’ narrative, inciting older people to feel guilty and defensive just for having lived for a few years. But what prompted me to write Stop Mugging Grandma was that an aspect of this debate has been too often overlooked — namely, that the generation-war narrative is equally damaging for younger people.

Boomer-blaming and Millennial-baiting

The idea that the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation, born in the two decades following the Second World War, is responsible for all the economic, social and political problems we are facing today is a myth, constructed by politicians and commentators who lack the historical imagination to see a way out of the fine mess of things today. Boomer-blaming is a toxic cocktail of anxieties about population ageing, concerns about levels of public spending and the welfare state, and angst about the cultural legacy of the 1960s.

The scapegoating of Baby Boomers is no accident. This is the generation currently reaching retirement, at a time when austerity politics has placed the need to reduce public spending on pensions and healthcare high up the political agenda, which means the Boomers make a convenient target. Yet calls to improve ‘fairness’ between the generations present a bizarrely inaccurate and homogenous account of the Boomer generation, as if they are all blessed with luck, affluence, large houses and gold-plated pensions, and engaged in a conspiracy to protect their own interests at the expense of their children. This is dangerous, divisive nonsense.

In Stop Mugging Grandma, I argue that the overheated debates about generational conflict have become an off-the-peg way for political elites to avoid engaging with the deeper economic and social problems that people do care about. Stagnant wages, job insecurity, the overheated housing market, and the crisis of the welfare state are all major concerns that affect people in their daily lives, and impact on the way they plan for the future. But attacking older people is no remedy for the difficulties we face today. On the contrary – it makes things a whole lot worse, for old and young people alike.

The myth that present-day problems can be blamed on the greed and avarice of the older, Boomer generation forms the basis of Grandma-mugging as a policy agenda. It is claimed that not only is Grandma richer than her children and grandchildren – she is richer than she should be, and therefore forcing her to share her ill-gotten gains is not just politically expedient, but also morally right. But the implications of this myth go much wider than the raid on Grandma’s pension. It is an attack on the right of any generation to expect more than the basic necessities, to aspire to more than what some bean-counter judges to be ‘prudent’ or ‘fair’. In making Boomer greed the focus of their attacks, the generals in the new generation wars are launching an all-out assault on aspiration.

This twisted idea of adults, as the default cause of problems rather than the solution, is central to the ‘generation wars’ fantasy

In the tacky drama of Boomer-blaming, the main role assigned to the younger, ‘Millennial’ generation – born in the last two decades of the 20th century – is that of lead victim: an earnest, well-educated, hard-working young person, who has been robbed of the ability to get a good job or buy a small house as a result of years of Boomer excess. But it has spawned an equally ugly backlash of Millennial-baiting, with all sides hurling the common insult: You Want Too Much. Young people, with their lives stretching before them, are finding their expectations systematically ground down. They are told that it is ‘entitled’ to expect that years of education will result in a decent job, house, and pension; that ready access to iPhones and avocado-on-toast make up for the swirling insecurities and resentments that now seem to characterise their existence.

The weasel words of ‘intergenerational fairness’ incite young people to see themselves as victimised by their elders. The young are encouraged to view economic problems through the cultural prism of generational grievance – to believe that their power to make a better life for themselves, let alone a better society, is limited to clearing up a big, hopeless mess. On the other side, Millennial-baiters blame young people’s lack of grit and resilience for their dissatisfaction, telling them that they should put up, shut up, and sort it all out.

Both sides of the rhetorical ‘generation war’ seek to dissolve the creativity and optimism of youth in an acid bath of existential bitterness, in which the kids are expected to sink or swim. And in doing so, both sides express the problem at the core of the ‘generation wars’ narrative: an abject disregard for the responsibility that adults have in shaping their world, and bringing the younger generations into it.

‘Adulting’ and the evasion of responsibility

Much of the earnest miserablising about the plight of the Millennial generation focuses on its members’ apparent inability to grow up. Some blame low wages and high housing costs for trapping young adults in a perpetual ‘kidulthood’; others bemoan young adults’ reluctance to leave home, take the jobs that are on offer, and establish independent relationships for their continued infantilism. There is some truth to all these claims – but they evade a more fundamental cultural problem. That is, in an era where adults are cast as the cause of the world’s problems, and the only hope for the future is seen to lie with children and future generations, what incentive is there for young people to grow up?

Arguably the most pernicious effect of the ‘generation wars’ narrative is that it feeds a wider destabilisation of adult identity. The relentless war on ‘the old’ is not limited to attacks on pensioners – as we all discover sooner rather than later, nobody is young forever; and before you can say ‘frothy coffee’, the bright-eyed youth that is feted and patronised today will be tomorrow’s berated old git.

We can already see this happening with Millennials, whose sympathetic status as benighted youth is diminishing by each year of maturity. This is hardly because they are getting old – in a society where people can expect to live to their eighties, a thirtysomething is still a spring chicken. It is because, once they become adults, young people are positioned as complicit in the problems of the world — another generation that has allegedly screwed up the future.

This twisted idea of adults, as the default cause of problems rather than the solution, is central to the ‘generation wars’ fantasy. It is why the presumed needs of younger and future generations are constantly presented as the reason for breast-beating and belt-tightening among those already scraping a living, and why the ‘voice of youth’ is increasingly presented, not as something politicians should listen to, but as something they should take a lead from (provided, of course, it is the ‘right kind’ of voice from the ‘right kind’ of youth).

In this context, adulthood – and the mature identity associated with this life stage – has become destabilised. Traditionally, an adult was something you became. Not overnight, and not because of any particular event, but a state of being that you grew into, signposted by certain life events: leaving school, moving out of the parental home, getting married, starting a family, reaching the legal age of majority (age 18, in the UK – until 1970, it was 21). And for all the burdens of adulthood, it was the point at which you could start shaping your own life and the world around you.

Both sides in the ‘generation war’ seek to dissolve the creativity and optimism of youth in an acid bath of existential bitterness

Even the cult of youth famously associated with the countercultural movements of the 1960s did not seek to avoid adulthood altogether, but to turn it into something more fun. The 1960s kids were in a hurry to grow up, so that they could benefit from the freedoms of maturity, and also the responsibilities – showing the old guys how it should be done, and stamping their own mark on society.

Now, ‘adulting’ is cast as something that you do – as and when you have to. Defined by Oxford Dictionaries as ‘the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks’, the transformation of adulthood into a verb reflects a deep ambivalence about what it means to grow up, and why you would want to.

The term is widely associated with Millennials, whose apparent struggle to manage the basic transitions from school to work, from home to independent living, from single person to family unit, and from the expectation of protection and support to the assumption of responsibility for others, has become emblematic of their generation. Millennials’ adoption of the language and practice of ‘adulting’ can, as Katy Steinmetz argues in Time magazine, be regarded as a self-deprecating reflection of their ‘delayed development’:

‘[T]his jokey way of describing one’s engagement in adult behaviours – whether that is doing your own taxes, buying your first lawn-mower, staying in on a Friday, being someone’s boss or getting super pumped about home appliances – can help those millennials acknowledge and/or make fun of and/or come to grips with that transition (or how late they are to it).’

The trouble is that being an adult is not an activity — it’s a state of being. And growing up is not something that can be done only on days when you feel like it. As Steinmetz observes:

‘To say you are “adulting” is to, on some level, create distance between you and what are implied to be actual adults who are adulting 100 per cent of the time and therefore have little reason to acknowledge it. Or if they do, they might instead use phrases like “going about my normal day”.’

In constructing a sentiment of distance and division between the generations, the ‘generation war’ narrative also incites young people to place a distance between their present and future selves. New adults are implicitly discouraged from bridging that gap from dependent victim of circumstance to the architects of their own lives. At the same time, it tasks young people – because of their immaturity – with the responsibility to sort out ‘the future’ for the rest of society.

And this is why, in the phoney generation wars, the young will be the biggest casualties.

Jennie Bristow is senior lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University and an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies.

Her new book, Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ And Why Boomer-Blaming Won’t Solve Anything, is published by Yale University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Comments

Tom Burkard

22nd June 2019 at 6:49 pm

My son went through a brief phase when all of his friends thought it was naff if your parents wouldn’t dole out the dosh on demand, but fortunately he got a job at a Chinese takeaway. The woman who owned it heard him ranting at me on the phone, and very shortly after this I got another phone call from my son apologising. By the time he was 17 he was pretty well grown up–and most of his friends grew up too. The ones I worry about are the middle class kids who have parents with open wallets–this can delay maturity almost indefinitely.

Patrick Taylor

21st June 2019 at 10:38 pm

Yes, pity the poor millennials. they’ve had it SO tough. Barely a week goes by without another Guardian article letting us know how hard it has been for the millennial generation and how easy life has been for the boomer generation.

The most hilarious article in the last year was making the case for why millennials are no longer having sex, because life is so stressful for them

Patrick Taylor

21st June 2019 at 10:43 pm

It is worth pointing out that the previous generation spent their life under the cloud of potential annihilation in a nuclear exchange. Generations before that living through thousand-bomber raids over our cities every night.

Generations before that lived (or mostly died) through several millennia of wars, disease, grinding (actual) poverty, hunger and grief.

Yet this millennial generation, no doubt suffering post traumatic stress at the price of avocado toast at their local hipster cafe and having to live with their parents rent-free, are so ground down by life that they can no longer have sex. Sat complaining about their lot in a consoling circle-jerk of onanistic self-pity.

Poor lambs. My heart goes out to them.

(In truth I don’t know any millennials who fit the pathetic picture these articles paint. All the young people I know get on with their lives with the good cheer and optimism that characterises anyone of sense and spirit. But when the Guardian writes that sort of guff they just make it too easy to mock this generation. If they actually wanted to help, they should stop doing it.)

Ageism seems to be the only acceptable form of bigotry left and the bien pensants of the Guardian liberal left have embraced it with gusto

James Knight

21st June 2019 at 4:49 pm

Young people should be angry about house prices and rents. However, the attempt to get them to blame old people is just about stoking division and neutering that anger. So instead of demanding more houses are built all the focus is on turning private landlords into bogeymen. Or demanding rent controls. Anything to evade the fundamental issue. High house prices that screw the young are not an accident, the housing shortage is manufactured and stems from political decisions.

Stephen Kenny

28th June 2019 at 1:13 am

It’s more, it’s central bank policy – read up on Mark Carney – it generates what they are pleased to call the ‘Wealth effect’, which, I assume, means the effect of wealth without the wealth.

William Brown

21st June 2019 at 12:10 pm

Mummy, daddy and teachers all frightening their children and charges with ‘end of world’ predictions. What a time to be alive…

gershwin gentile

21st June 2019 at 12:09 pm

It’s not the fault of baby boomers. Just the leftist middle class.

Jerry Owen

21st June 2019 at 12:43 pm

Yes , an astute point, just like it’s not all kids, it’s mainly just middle class leftist students.

Malcolm Turner

21st June 2019 at 10:02 am

With ready access to mobile ‘phones and the easy observation of ‘facts’, ‘truth’, the younger generation no longer have to refer to their parents for explanations or moral guidance, they believe.

The trouble with data is that it needs some sort of mechanism to unravel it. Facts on the Internet are easily dispensed but there is no authority to parse, question, argue, validate or deny. You can choose which web site or blogger is your truth and gravitate towards un-challenging positions.

That children only spend nine months in the womb and yet are the most complicated of creatures tells you something about the general progress of intellect in the child. While most creatures are programmed and performs functions immediately, the child is still in the process of reasoning development well into their early middle age.

To endorse their whims (the school strikes) is an intemperate step. Children are notoriously amoral but are excused their foibles, it’s part of learning (they are not named in crime before the age depicted here because they are not responsible, not considered malign but, rather, merely having a bad day and need to be put right. Why put their names to the record?).

To be parented by the Internet and to only hear the siren voices most practised at thought grooming is upon us and anyone endorsing processes which allow misconceptions, excuse bad behaviour and accept misdirection will have their child stolen.

Many a U.S. cult has shown how easily people are suborned. Adults that do not stand against their children are people giving their kids over to others less scrupulous. A child that only hears what it wants to hear is a menace to itself and a stark warning for the future.

christopher barnard

21st June 2019 at 9:46 am

If the kids are united they will never be defeated.

By the way, in every photo of young climate protesters everyone is white.

Eras Bonus-Mus

9th July 2019 at 1:55 pm

Yes, strikingly unlike photos of e.g. Brexit Party MP’s.

Jeremy Fissure

21st June 2019 at 8:37 am

When I was young I was aware some kids were decent and some were knobs. Now I am older I am aware some old uns are decent and some are knobs. Its not a generational thing its a ‘some folks are knobs’ thing.

Ian Wilson

21st June 2019 at 8:34 am

I liked this article, some good points raised. A 30 year old had the cheek to say some of these points to me recently in the context of Brexit – I’m 46.

Alexander Nöthlich

21st June 2019 at 7:37 am

The older generations indeed are to blame, but not in the way it is portrayed. The problem is an educational one, the obsession with youth, where adults try to stay hip or cool or whatever you may call it just to get approval from young people. Young people are here to question the status quo, destroy existing structures and rebuild them, which is a good thing, but we, the older generations have to start doing our f*** job, which is to oppose new and many times destructive ideas with the knowledge we have and be vocal about it, so that only those ideas will survive which are sound and bullet-proof. The fight is not older generations against younger generations. The fight is against adults that are unwilling to comply with their duties as educators in pursuit of the idea that you can stay young forever, because: you can’t.

Jerry Owen

21st June 2019 at 9:35 am

I’m sure your post means something .. to you anyway.
‘Young people are here to destroy existing structures’. Absolute cods, the young are here to learn get a job and to raise the next generation of workers, just like all previous generations. The old pay for the young, the young get old and they in turn pay for the young.
I will be impressed with the young when they refuse their inheritances, you know that nice house, the saved pensions in the bank.

Alexander Nöthlich

21st June 2019 at 9:49 pm

There’s no disagreement between what you say and what I meant, maybe I didn’t express myself correctly. Let’s put it that way: The younger generations are here to replace us, but not only physically but also culturally. We, the older generations, which they eventually will become, are here to defend what’s good about the existing order and, of course, teach them. We are not here to be their cheerleaders in every stupid idea that crosses their mind. We, in fact, have the power, but we cannot just hand it over to them, we must be the wall they can rail against until, one day, they themselves become older and the next generation is coming up to replace them. I was just saying, that we, the older generations, have to know our duties. We cannot blame the youth for anything, we can and must correct inappropriate behavior, but when things go wrong, it’s on us, the settled and powerful to take responsibility, starting with one’s own family. It’s not school’s or society’s fault when our kids become whiny snowflakes or simpletons. It’s ours, the parent’s (aka older generations) fault.

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