Monday, 8 June 2015

Youngsters v oldsters

Excitement erupted on the local Twitterverse Saturday morning about a “battle of the generations” hosted by the very TV network most of that section of the Twitterverse had vowed never to watch again after John Campbell's departure.

But most of this Twitterverse are immune to irony.

The debate, on TV3's The Nation, pitted “baby boomers” Michelle Boag, Tau Henare & Simon Chapple against “Team Gen X and Y,” Geoff Simmons, Julie Anne Genter and Asher Emanuel over who is really doing it tough.” 

“Have the Boomers really reaped the benefit of a free education and cheaper houses and then pulled up the ladder behind them?” gushed the promo.  “Or are Generations X and Y just unwilling to make the sacrifices needed get their feet on the rungs?”

Talk about falsely framing an issue.

Anyway, to a man and woman the Twitterverse reckoned the debate was a cracker, and “Team Gen X and Y” nailed it.  I have a small interest in this area, so I roused myself and tracked down the “debate” online. [Part 1, Part 2.]

At times, from the oldsters especially, it sounded more like Monty Python than mighty conflict.  “Eee, lad, when I were young used to have to live in’t shoebox in’t middle of road, and dad used to thrash us to sleep wit’ belt.” “Shoebox! Luxury!! When we were were young we had to live in plastic bag in septic tank. And father used to beat us around the head wit’ broken bottle. If we were lucky!”

But from the youngsters, it sounded like whining. Like Oliver Twist not only asking for a second bowl, but putting the hand out for the whole pot.

None of either group, not one, even touched on the monetary transfers between generations made possible by the welfare state. That’s because one group are big-time generational beneficiaries of the welfare state; and to the other group, it’s a sacred cow that can’t be questioned.

Author David Thomson questioned it around half-a-generation ago1 in his book, Selfish Generations; The Ageing of New Zealand’s Welfare State (Later updated and entitled Selfish Generations? How Welfare States Grow Old). In it, he argues that

that the history of the welfare state since the 1930s has been a direct response to the needs of the baby boom generation and its parents.

From birth, education, household formation, housing, health care and retirement income provision for their parents, Thomson argued the baby boomers enjoyed and then gave themselves benefits that were and will be ultimately paid for by others at just the very time they needed them themselves – from their cradles and, ultimately right up to their graves. From baby bonuses at birth, to family benefits and free education through adolescence and early adulthood, to state advances to house and feed  their own young families, to subsidies and welfare ever since … they are, he said, the “selfish generation.”

The idea is that modern welfare states were born when boomers were born, and “have turned out to be like a poorly managed ‘commons,’ in which those who had first access to the asset were able to take out far more than they were required to put into the common pool…”

Arguably then, free life-time health care, free trips to Waiheke and locking in superannuation now  “could be seen by future taxpayers as the last roll of the dice by the baby boomers.”

A group of self-interested politicians (almost all of whom are members of the “selfish generation”) attempted to lock in benefits that the country may subsequently discover it can't really afford, or simply doesn’t want to pay. The growing NZSF will be the most visible manifestation of that last gasp. As it becomes by far the largest pool of investment capital in the country, it will be an ever-present symbol of what is already the largest single claim on taxpayers' resources. The NZSF will, in fact, become an impediment to any needed change and that is probably what the government intended.

So the argument is, I think, fairly sound, and should at least have been taken out for a canter. But, naturally, none of the young debaters – a Green MP, a Salient editor, Gareth Morgan’s economist – would want to knock the welfare state. So instead they just got very shrill.

Mind you, the oldsters could just as easily have argued in response that “ultimately, the idea of intergenerational transfers has been overplayed”; that “new generations are benefiting from the established capital stock and technology” built up by preceding generations. But I reckon none of the three would have even understood what that meant.

So instead, they just sounded like Four Yorkshiremen.



1.  Just so we’re clear to which generation Thomson is referring, and to which his argument could be extended …

published in the wake of pivotal changes to New Zealand’s welfare state. Thomson’s thesis is that the welfare state has operated in the interests of one generation, that born between 1920 and 1945, and he examines the various ways this ‘selfish generation’ has maximised its benefits, breaching the unwritten welfare contract between them in the process. Later ones in particular have paid, and will continue to inject, greater financial resources into the maintenance of the welfare state than earlier ones, and will reap fewer of its benefits. Thomson is careful to point out that this process is integral to welfare states ‑ and in this respect New Zealand is not alone – and is not a deliberate plot to disadvantage one generation in favour of another.
    Thomson’s argument is persuasive, as he sets up and then rejects alternative interpretations for the actions of the welfare state. The suggestion that ‘the first welfare generation has remained the only welfare generation’ is not always obvious from the examples given, for it appears that such a definition could be extended to include those born up until the mid-1950s as well. The ‘crude and yet deliberate’ focus on generation to the exclusion of other social processes does leave crucial avenues unexplored, and Thomson’s brief forays into the differing effects of the political ageing of the welfare state on women and Maori give an indication of the directions in which further analysis could lead. As a frank and detailed study of changing social policy and priorities, this work is a major contribution to New Zealand historiography.
(From a review by Bronwyn Dalley, then in the History Department at the University of Otago.)

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