I’m pleased to see that John Quiggin has debunked a recent article by that pathetic parody of Sixties radicalism Richard Neville, about the imagined political apathy and disengagement of “Generation X” compared with Neville’s “Baby Boomer” generation. As John remarks:
Of course, this piece produced the appropriate response from outraged GenXers on the letters page, which only encourages hacks like Neville to reach for this piece of boilerplate next time they have nothing worthwhile to write. I’ve been bombarded with generational cliches since I was old enough to turn on a TV set. I look forward to a time when the idea that you can classify a person by the date on their birth certificate is accepted only in the astrology columns.
Sadly, Paul Watson (now a casually-employed legal academic at a Melbourne university) predictably fails to get the point, and drones on as usual like a broken old LP record about the supposed mendacity of “Boomers” and the resultant suppression of the lifestyle opportunities and aspirations of “GenXers” like him.
A typical example of Paul’s peculiar world view is this quote from a fairly recent post:
And in any case, few GenXers need the assauging, modular precepts of Buddhism in order to be relieved of their attachment to material things. Courtesy of four decades of boomer subjugation, most of GenX has been, ahem, pre-emptively relieved of the risk of any such attachment.
Apart from John Quiggin’s point about the inherent silliness of classifying people and their actions by their dates of birth, there’s an even larger fallacy undermining Paul’s pet grudge against “Boomers”. They/we haven’t actually been running the joint for “four decades”, or anything like it. I, for instance, was born in 1953, almost right in the middle of the most commonly-accepted “Boomer” generation years (1945-1963). Four decades ago I was 10 years old and still in primary school. I don’t recall being in a position to subjugate anyone very much, apart from other kids on the footie field.
The sorts of policies Paul blames for his allegedly deficient life opportunities (downsizing, outsourcing, casualisation of employment, HECS fees etc) were almost entirely implemented by politicians and bureaucrats born well before the Baby Boomer years.
Mark Latham is the first ALP federal leader born during the Boomer years (he was born in 1961), and the Coalition still hasn’t had a Boomer leader. (see Dave Ricardo’s comment).
Generally speaking, the natural cycle of anyone’s working life means that they will probably not achieve positions of significant influence or leadership, whether in politics, the bureaucracy or the corporate world, until their 40s. As an example of a roughly median age Boomer, I turned 40 in 1993. In most cases, it simply isn’t rational to “blame” Baby Boomers for policy decisions made during the 1980s or earlier. The New Right policies that mostly seem to bother Paul were implemented largely at the urging of a cabal of right-leaning industry, bureaucratic and academic figures including Hugh Morgan and John Stone. Almost none of them were Baby Boomers. Similarly, HECS fees were introduced by the Hawke Labor government. Neither Hawke nor Keating were Boomers, nor were many other of their Ministers.
The most that can be said is that Boomers enjoyed some advantages that “GenX” and subsequently-born Australians don’t. Thus I won a Commonwealth Scholarship which meant I (or more accurately, my parents) didn’t have to pay university fees, and then the Whitlam government abolished fees completely anyway. HECS fees weren’t introduced until 1989 (meaning that at least some Generation X members, though presumably not Paul Watson, also enjoyed the benefit of an entirely free university education).
However, it isn’t true that I (or many other Baby Boomers) experienced the unalloyed luxury of plenty of jobs and full employment, as Paul Watson seems to imagine. I first entered the legal professional job market in 1982 (after a few years in the public service), a time of national recession when there was a glut of young law graduates in New South Wales (because both UTS and Macquarie had just started producing law graduates, on top of the longer-established stream from UNSW and University of Sydney). Consequently, I decided to accept the first reasonable law firm job offer I received, in order to get some initial practical experience. As it transpired, that job was with a firm in Darwin, and I’ve been here ever since.
It’s certainly true that challenging and lucrative legal work, and opportunities generally, were plentiful in Darwin back in 1982-3. That’s the main reason why I stayed. But it’s still true today. Paul Watson could have done what I did at any time and been gainfully employed in Darwin right now as a lawyer on a good salary with prospects of partnership within a fairly short time (depending on his ability and willingness to work). Instead, for whatever reasons, he chose to stay in Melbourne and remain unemployed until recently. I don’t blame him for that choice; it’s none of my business anyway. What I do find irritating, however, is his propensity to blame others (and specifically a mythical construct called “Baby Boomers”) for the consequences of the deliberate choices he’s made.
There’s no such thing as “Baby Boomers” or “Generation X” in any meaningful sense. They’re just particularly egregious examples of humanity’s seemingly irresistable impulse to create groups or tribes that define themselves by excluding the “Other”, finding comfort both in the resulting sense of inclusion and the ability to blame someone else (e.g. Jews; Blacks, Asians; Boomers) for any misfortunes they may suffer. Ceasing to view the world in that way is part of growing up. Some people never do.
PS – This post reads rather more ad hominem than I’d like. Nevertheless, focussing on Paul’s attitudes is a useful way of teasing out much more broadly-held attitudes that merit discussion and analysis. In fact I have a high regard for Paul’s blogging and I agree with many of his posts. But his work would certainly benefit IMO from puttying over his “GenX” chip-on-the-shoulder and concentrating on real issues.
PPS – Another point worth making is that, in a somewhat perverse and even ironic way, the labour force phenomena to which Paul Watson objects (casualisation etc) are a result of the Baby Boom. The Boom created a 20 year labour oversupply that is only now beginning to be corrected as older Boomers take early retirement. That labour oversupply allowed employers (overwhelmingly of an older generation) the luxury of reducing workplace security and other employment terms and conditions that had been hard-won over the preceding century or so.
It’s largely a result of supply and demand, although the effects could perhaps have been dampened had the political will been present. Moreover, arguably Boomers themselves have been the main casualties. The victims of downsizing and outsourcing who find it most difficult to re-enter the workforce after being retrenched are those over 40 i.e. Baby Boomers. Some of the bosses who sacked them were no doubt Boomers themselves, some were older and some younger. But so what?
I think we can confidently look forward to reversal of the current trend of treating workers as disposable commodities, as the Boomer-induced labour oversupply gradually turns into a labour shortage over the next 20 years. But that too will be a result of supply and demand. Can we sensibly ascribe fault to any particular age group for any of these events? Perhaps all those randy soldiers who returned from World War II and engaged in an orgy of fornication that produced the Baby Boomers in the first place?