Bryce Edwards: Why “OK boomer” generational warfare is a dead-end

Bryce Edwards: Why “OK boomer” generational warfare is a dead-end

Chlöe Swarbrick’s “OK boomer” retort in Parliament has proved to be the spark that set alight a dry field of latent generational angst. The debate over the remark rolls on and on, revealing that generational warfare is a growing cleavage in New Zealand.

Increasingly, political problems of housing, inequality, climate change and so forth, are viewed through a “generational lens”. This has some validity – there really are some major changes to New Zealand society that relate to demographics and generational changes.

But there’s a limit to the usefulness of an analysis that concentrates on problems being caused by one demographic, with the solution lying in a preference for different demographic. Society is much more complicated than this, and all demographic groups – especially age groups – are less socially and politically homogenous than many generational warriors would have us believe.

The strongest critiques of the “OK boomer” philosophy complain that generation-focused activists are jettisoning any sort of socio-economic analysis in favour of an identity politics approach. For example, writing in the Guardian, US socialist Bhaskar Sunkara argues that the popularity of the phrase used by Swarbrick “tells us something about the cultural dominance of upper-middle-class youth” who prefer to see their enemies, not as businesspeople, property developers, or politicians, but just as a particular age demographic – see: Why it’s time to ditch the ‘OK Boomer’ meme.

Sunkara points out that young generation-focused activists “haven’t had to witness – or deal with the ramifications of – old age and precarity for millions of working people in that generational cohort. Instead they get to revel without self-reflection in oedipal angst about their elders – many of whom were kind enough to pass them their ill-gotten privileges. Workers of all ages, after all, barely earn enough to survive, much less save for retirement.”

He concludes that the identity politics of age is a distraction from the economic realities in countries like ours: “If ‘we’ have to divide ourselves, it makes sense to look for these class divisions rather than inventing common cultural characteristics across generations… That means knowing who your friends are and who your enemies are. Here’s a hint: it’s not ‘boomers’ – it’s that investment banker you went to high school with.”

If there was any doubt that Swarbrick’s “OK boomer” approach was anything more than a throwaway remark, she penned a column for the Guardian doubling down on it, arguing her use of the phrase was in reaction to the fact that “our politics has been run by older dudes in suits” – see: My ‘OK boomer’ comment in parliament symbolised exhaustion of multiple generations.

This kind of identity politics is condemned by veteran leftwing commentator Chris Trotter in a column suggesting that such middle class distractions are perfect for those who really benefit from the status quo: the rich – see: Not so much ‘Ok Boomer’ as ‘Ok Ruling Class’.

Trotter argues that a generational especially suits those who have done so well since the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, because the discontented focus their rage on other sections of society: “whites, males, straights and, most recently and ridiculously, Baby Boomers.” He argues for a return to some good, old-fashioned class struggle – viewing the rich and powerful as the problem, regardless of their age demographic (or their ethnicity, gender, etc).

Similarly, see Steven Cowan’s Chloe Swarbrick: OK Boomer or OK Capitalist? He says Swarbrick’s “casual parliamentary insult not only reeks of smug, middle class conceit but stereotypes the older generation as greedy narcissists, sitting atop a big pile of assets and cash. But, like all stereotypes, it’s not true. In 2015 research by Colmar Brunton revealed that more than forty percent of 50- to 70- year-olds were found to have little or no retirement savings and almost half face spending cuts to make ends meet in their retirement.”

As if to reinforce this point, last week the Herald published Dara McNaught’s arguments about those in aged poverty, using the example of one case study: “With a 40-year work history and a lifetime being mindful about money, Remy didn’t expect to be nearing 70 and struggling to survive. Work hard, save hard, and you’ll be fine – isn’t that how it goes? And if you haven’t got enough by the time you retire, well you’ve obviously been irresponsible, careless, or improvident” – see: Superannuitants caught in the trap of poverty.

McNaught reports: “She can’t work now and is malnourished because she doesn’t have enough money for food. Five years ago, she could manage, just. But superannuation and WINZ supplements haven’t kept pace with steeply rising costs in rents, petrol, heating and especially food. No, budgeting doesn’t cut it.”

One superannuant writes with humour about blaming boomers for using too many resources. Rosemary McLeod explains: “we’re needing the costly, underfunded health system as we disintegrate. We’re a burden on the system we funded through taxes” – see: It’s the Boomers’ fault: we created these Millennial monsters.

Furthermore, “We paid mortgage rates in double digits to hang on to them while successive governments, in the grip of mad market theories of economics, stopped building homes for people in need. We shouldn’t have. Or something. Compulsory acquisition of our houses can’t be far off, to force us into the army camps for the aged springing up everywhere.”

And she points out that woke identitarians therefore have her demographic in their sights: “We’re the one group that woke people feel free to mock. They’re woke on gender issues, race issues, human rights, their own rights, cannabis use (which we made mainstream, by the way) and kindness every which way, except toward us.”

According to Massey University’s Steve Elers, the “OK boomer” approach is akin to pointing the finger at the “pale, male and stale” as if they are the homogenous problem – see: Punching up with ‘OK, Boomer’ and ‘pale, male, stale’ may get a laugh but they’re just air swings.

He argues, “classifying and ordering people into a single collective group based on race and ethnicity, gender, and age doesn’t actually do any good for advancing social causes or arguments”, but can actually “mean losing allies who were supportive of particular social causes and arguments.”

This week’s Listener editorial makes a similar case: “Intergenerational warfare is as old as civilisation itself, but it’s in danger of becoming downright uncivilised as we fall into the habit of blaming each other’s demographic tribes for environmental degradation, inequality and much else” – see: The OK, boomer uproar blotted out an important intergenerational moment.

The editorial points out that baby boomers have played a nation-building role in paying higher taxes, building the welfare state, and fostering progressive social change, before concluding: “Looking back in bitterness improves nothing and, worse, risks alienating people into nihilistic inaction. So, OK, boomers and hey, snowflakes: we’re all in this together.”

Similarly, business journalist Rob Stock argues that “the language of intergenerational fairness obscures just as much as it illuminates”, and “It tars a whole group with the same brush, and so doing unifies those using the language: Millennials are the lazy generation, greens are socialists in disguise, all beneficiaries are potential cheats, farmers are animal abusers, men are to women what bicycles are to fish, all baby boomers only care about keeping their tax rates low and the prices of their houses up” – see: Give Baby Boomers their dues.

Stock also suggests that it’s a mistake to talk “about Baby Boomers as if it is a homogenous generation, and the root of all social wrong today, and forgetting all its successes, and the fact that many Baby Boomers are actually poor as dirt”.

Some writers have identified the core economic issue at the heart of the growing generational discontent – housing unaffordability. In his evaluation of the generational war, millennial Richard Meadows says: “Time to address the trillion-dollar elephant in the room. Back in 1980, you could buy a decent house for $28,000. That was only two to three times the median income – a level of affordability which was normal for decades. Today, a median home costs six times the median income (and in Auckland, nine times). Houses are fully two to three times less affordable today than they were for the boomers” – see: The Boomers are OK.

So, are boomers to blame for the housing crisis? Peter Calder says this view would be a divisive mistake, distracting “us from the conversations we should be having”. He says the fault lies with former and contemporary politicians who have not only refused to deal with the problem, but continue to benefit from it – see: Baby Boomers weren’t sitting idly by, it was the politicians.

Here’s Calder’s main point: “The only Boomers who could have stopped the national average house price rising from $110,000 to $600,000 (and in Auckland from $130,000 to $800,000) in the past 25 years were the ones sitting in Parliament… The sitting-by took place, all right, but it was calculated, for electoral advantage, and not idle at all. To say that my generation ‘failed to see’ what was happening is insulting.”

Finally, although his analysis might also escalate the generational wars, Damien Grant’s latest column is worth checking out, simply because it ends with his own clever generational poem riffing on Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” – see: Quit whinging Millennials, Boomers built your houses and endured actual nuclear war.