August 10, 2018

Horse 2452 - Boomers Ruined Everything And Millennials Are All Self-Entitled: Or Why Generational Stereotypes Are In Fact Useful

Boomers Ruined Everything And Millennials Are All Self-Entitled: Or Why Generational Stereotypes Are In Fact Useful

One of the recurring themes of novels that I read, particularly those from the earlier half of the nineteenth century, is a desire of parents to make sure that their daughters are successfully married off so that they will be looked after. There are of course whole societal norms and expectations which have subsequently passed away but the desire of parents that their children will leave and be functional members of society very much remains.

There is also a secondary trope which even has the German label of the bildungsroman, where you have some protagonist who is usually a boy who strikes out on their own and in the process learns something about themselves and about life in general.

The fact that these two tropes are so heavily featured in literature must surely reflect something about how human society operates. There is of course a natural desire that all things will eventually grow up and mature but that is also coupled with the internal tensions that that poses.

If a human lifespan is about four score and seven years for a particularly good innings, then one lifetime ago puts us bang in the middle of the Great Depression. Two lifetimes ago is during the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign and during the Presidency of James K Polk. Three lifetimes ago and you end up in the middle of the eighteenth century and well before there are the republics of Germany, France, Italy or any sense that the United States could even be a thing.

From antiquity to about the beginning of the industrial revolution, the world pretty well much looked the same as it had done in people's grandparents' and great-great grandparents' day. Since then, the world has changed so many times over that the world looks unrecognisable to older people.
We move from a world where computers, motor cars, and electricity are so commonplace as to be completely mundane; to one where factories are only starting to be equipped with steam engines and where clean safe running water isn't even available to royalty; to one three lifetimes ago where if you didn't live in a city, then you either worked the land or inherited a trade, and the chances are that you never travelled more than twenty miles in your whole lifetime unless you were called away to fight in a war. When the world changes that much, it is reasonable to want to compare different periods of time.

With the rise of better statistics, people began to notice that there were differences between generations, let alone people separated by entire lifetimes, and this was absolutely accelerated during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when technology changed rapidly and major world events such as two world wars and the depression, very severely marked off differences between children and their parents.
This really became obvious during the 1950s and 1960s, when demographers, governments, and marketers, realised that they needed to plan for the differences and could sell different things to different people.
Beginning in the 1950s, we see the invention of the teenager, the beginning of the recognition that the children born in the post-war baby boom would be markedly different from their parents who had lived through the war and the solidification of labels to describe generational differences.
For the purposes of making the case, I'm first going to have to establish what the various generations actually are:

1885- 1900 - The Lost Generation
1901 – 1924 - The G.I. Generation
1925 - 1945 - The Silent Generation
1946 - 1964 - The Baby Boomers
1965 - 1980 - Generation X
1981 - 1995 - Generation Y
1996 - 2010 - Generation Z
2011 - 2025 - Generation Alpha

Already we can see that there are some distinct problems. The generations themselves aren't the same length but determined by a common set of experiences; this is fine when you have distinctive catastrophes such as wars and the depression but the relative calm that has been deliberately cultivated following the Second World War has tended to blur the edges of later generations.
It's also of note that these labels almost exclusively apply to Anglosphere countries. Quite a number of countries which were behind the dismal side of the Iron Curtain have their independence as a distinct marker, Germany has reunification as a very strong marker, countries in Africa tend to use their independence and civil wars as demographic divisions, and China uses things like the Cultural Revolution and the May 35 incident in Tiananmen Square as theirs.

If you were to take a survey of all of the major important drivers of social change in the world, in the latter half of the twentieth century (because the Baby Boomers weren't even alive until 1945)  if you look at Britain's NHS (1948) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the International Political Covenant 1951, the International Refugee Covenant 1951, the United States' Interstate System (1955), the rise of Unions and the beginning of equal pay across the sexes, the social upheavals such as the civil rights movement of the 1960's and the Civil Rights Act 1965, the Aboriginal Referendum 1967, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 et cetera, what we see is a great string of social and structural improvements which all happened or were implemented either while the Baby Boomers were children or before they had a meaningful impact in parliaments.

There is also the rather curious fact that for most of the history of the world, the rate of return on capital outstripped that of the rate of wages growth. For a very brief period of time following the Second World War and the hideous destruction of both capital and people, for about thirty years, the period which is known in France as Les Trente Glorieuses, the rate of return on labour actually managed to be greater than the rate of return on capital. The net result of that was wages rising in real terms and income inequality actually falling. Right across the OECD, real wages peaked towards the end of the 1970s and in the case of Australia in particular, real wages peaked in Q3 of 1979.

What do we see which immediately follows this? There is the election of Margaret Thatcher's Tory Government in 1979, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the election of the Hawke Labor Government in Australia. These three governments are emblematic of the kinds of policies which were undertaken across the anglosphere in the 1980s and 1990s. Reagan's administration kind of smashed the ability of labour unions in the United States to ever have any real ability to do very much again; in some cases, most famously the air traffic controllers, his administration actively sacked people. Thatcher's Tory Government went about privatising everything that it possibly could, thus leaving the newly private industries with the task of destroying the power of unions. The Hawke  Government in Australia when faced with the remnants of high real wages, actively kneecapped the unions and was able through the Accords to render them lame. The latter half of Hawke's time as Prime Minister and the beginning of Keating's is marked by a similar program of privatisations to Thatcher's in Britain.

The various governments which followed, HW Bush, Clinton, W Bush, Major, Blair and Brown, Keating and Howard, all continued on that same path of privatisation and after having finished that task, when there was practically nothing left to sell off, set about fundamentally altering both the tax base and the relationship of the state to its obligations with regards to people's retirement. In Australia, it is now possible for monies in a superannuation fund to enter, live inside, and exit, completely tax free. This might not sound particularly damaging but it legally enshrines the reassertion of capital, so that the rate of return on capital once again outstrips the growth in wages.
I will almost certainly be accused of conflating the actions of government to the people but ultimately governments are elected and empowered by the people to enact policy. From 1979 the Baby Boomers for the first time became a majority of voters, and this was the case until 2013. As far as representation in parliaments go, Baby Boomers were the majority of sitting members in the US Congress from 1984 - 2016, in Australia from 1983 - 2016, and in the UK from 1983 - 2017.

The current make up of the Australian Parliament is:
1 - Silent Generation
99 - Baby Boomers
110 - Generation X
16 - Generation Y
The fact is that virtually all of the senior positions in the Government are held by Baby Boomers. Whatever current beefs that you happen to have with the current government, for the most part are still with member of that particular generation who are enacting policy.

It is either a mistake or incredibly short sighted to say that government as a thing controls most of the governance of a nation. If we use the size of government compared to GDP as a measure of actual governance, since controlling wealth and money is the instrument through which power is exacted in an economy, then government is only responsible for about 25% at most.

It is still the case that the majority of dollars in Australia that are not immediately spent in the hideously selfish act of keeping in one's self clothed and fed, are owned by the Baby Boomers. Other measures such as who owns property and who owns investment property are even more skewed towards the Baby Boomers. Still other measures such as who controls payrolls and the management of companies which are larger than twenty employees are still even further skewed towards the Baby Boomers.

The current actions by the banks, the ASX 200 and the vast majority of Pty Ltd companies (because according to ASIC the average date of birth of a Pty Ltd company owner is 1957) are majority Baby Boomer controlled. When you think about it, that makes a degree of sense because in order to run a business successfully it helps if you have a pool of working capital behind you; the only way to build up a decent pool of capital is to have money left over as savings and if you're on comparatively worse wages and are more likely to live a hand to mouth existence, that is impossible. It probably also follows that there is a time lag in owning a company, just as there is representation in parliament, for the same reasons.
Companies are separate legal persons from their owners but the actions of companies are the result of real people making decisions. The decision to pay falling real wages is absolutely the result of someone making that choice and if we consider that date of 1983 to be valid, then that choice has been made by the Baby Boomers.
The very beginning of Generation X nominally entered the workforce in 1983 when they turned 18 years old, which was 4 years after real wages had peaked and at about the same time when the shift from the Silent Generation to the Baby Boomers being in control of the economic life of the world happened. Generation Y entered the workforce in 2003, which was well after the modern system of superannuation had been implemented, and Generation Z entered the workforce at the height of the Global Financial Crisis where they found themselves competing directly with the Baby Boomers who had always been at the bottom end of wages.
The decision to kneecap labour and the rewards due to labour through wages, and the decision to engineer the economy through taxation legislation to reward superannuants was absolutely made by the Baby Boomers. The effect of entrenching economic privilege after someone has retired was a welcome bonus. Of course this does have the unfortunate side effect of carrying forward; so we should expect to see current economic inequality carry forward into retirement forever, if indeed poorer people will ever be able to retire at all. Our taxation system is being set up nicely so that richer people will be able to spend their twilight years in relative comfort and I think that we're going to witness the reestablishment of poorer people reaching the end of their working life and then dying abruptly as the support systems of healthcare and the old age pension will progressively be deliberately destroyed.

From what I have seen of Generation X, they (we (I?)) haven't exactly rolled themselves in glory and certainly not really made any attempt to unruin the world. Those people who control wealth and power are quite content with their lot in life and can see no reason why they should deign to help those less fortunate. When it comes to serious issues such as unruining the education system, they also seem content to perpetuate the inequality in educational outcomes.
As for Generation Y, they have only just begun to be represented in power but fact remains that just like the tail end of Generation X, they've lived in a world of real falling incomes for their whole life. The very beginning of Generation Z is only just now beginning to conflate acquire the franchise, and Generation Alpha is still in primary school or in the newest of cases has spent nine months in a warm wet place and has now recently found that the world is scary, but can only respond by screaming and pooping their pants. Generations Y, Z, and Alpha haven't yet had the power to ruin anything except their parents’ sanity and sleep.

If anything I'd say that the Baby Boomers have unreservedly and by every known metric ruined the world. Some of them have created better toys for us to play with but on the whole, when we it comes to matter of designing society, there is really no argument by which you can say that they haven't.
When it comes to Generation X who aren't really millennials, and Generations Y & Z supposedly having a sense of entitlement, I'd suggest that they are fighting the good fight to try to reclaim some sense of a better society which the Baby Boomers smashed. They demonstrably do not have a sense of entitlement because they have never been entitled to much of anything. Generations Y & Z find themselves suffering from ever increasingly more terrible and difficult work environments, zero hours contracts, the woeful undervaluing of their labour (and even suffering from having to give it away for free if you include unpaid internships) as well as mounting debt from undertaking higher education; which the Baby Boomers will openly boast that they got for free.
The complaint that Generations Y & Z and presumably Alpha (though the oldest of those is only 8 years old), is founded on the very real problem that the members of Generations Y & Z saw the benefits that the Baby Boomers and established, and had it all taken away in front of them. It is incredibly churlish to accuse someone of being self-entitled when your actions mean that they are not entitled to anything. Say what you like about the toys that Generations Y & Z might have, it solves nothings of the problems that they paycheques don’t extend far enough to pay for housing and living expenses and they are increasingly likely to never own a house in the first place.

In my experience which is entirely subjective and therefore demonstrative for the purposes of this next part of the discussion, people tend to only view the world through the prisms of their own experience. In fact, to a very large degree, people can only view the world through the prism of their own experience because it is literally impossible to view the world through anyone else's. Because we all have a one point perspective upon the world, there is a massive tendency to assume that everyone else must also see the world precisely the way that we do. It's an incredibly limited way of thinking but to actually bother to imagine the world complexly requires both effort and empathy and those things are not necessarily natural to a selfish brain contained in a single point perspective meat bag.
What this means is that we end up inventing useful fictions about the world in order to explain to ourselves how the kosmos actually works. If the system of the entire kosmos is literally too massive for a single mind to conceive, then we end up making wee little models instead. The problem with building models of the kosmos and especially when the kosmos has changed, is that our models will invariably be wrong. Older generations will naturally conclude that either the world that is broadly the same, or will complain that the world has changed, and younger generations who weren't even in existence can not conceive of how the kosmos actually was without any actual lived experience.

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