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How generational change can be an ultimately destructive social force

By Daniel Flitton - posted Thursday, 1 April 2004

Stories tell of a Hungarian aristocrat at the turn of the 17th century who slaughtered hundreds in a demented quest for eternal youth. Erzsébet Båthory would bathe in the blood of the young women she killed, hoping to recapture her own forgotten beauty. It's a chilling metaphor for extreme generational conflict.

Stereotypes abound in any assessment of the struggle between the old and the young. For any group - whether linked by common age, religion, gender or ethnicity, a conservative or progressive world view - what goes for one cannot be attributed to all. Still, recognising this severe limitation doesn't prevent repeated characterisations. Much is said of the contrast between aspirational "Baby Boomers" and the apathetic "Gen-X" for instance. Conflict seems to dominate inter-generational relations.

Groups define themselves by what they are not. They bond together by excluding those on the outside. Distinguishing one from another inevitably involves some tension. In a generational setting, this distinction usually comes about when making life choices. "Learned" advice is rarely accepted. Instead, young people often seek desperately to remake the mould. And society generally accepts that at some stage all children will reject, even loath their parents. Otherwise they're not considered normal.


Generation mythology casts "Gen-X" as value free, options junkies - a cynical sub-society. Their concern is for the self, enjoying the fruits of revolutions by their forebears, kicking back, determined to be independent while refusing too much responsibility (especially a mobile phone bill). This generation is portrayed as a Freudian regression to the primordial id, clamouring for consumer pleasures while rejecting the moral guidance of the superego. More choice is their mantra - they haven't struggled for anything.

This is a handy caricature. As a consequence, it devalues any ideas of the young as mere sideshows to the pursuit of selfish materialism. This is especially useful for conservatives in the "boomers" generation who seek to preserve their affluent position, firmly in control of societal directions. Recent data about the coming impact that retirements will have on the country's economy only reinforces the perceived need to determine relevant priorities.

If "Gen-X" hasn't yet made a trenchant impression on modern society, it is because the opportunities are only now presenting. While some desperately seek to find purpose for their generation by reflecting on the past, the true brief is for the future.

Generational categories are so problematic because they are just so hard to determine. Look at contemporary Australian politics. Where does Mark Latham fit for instance? In his speeches and interviews, he has talked about a "new generation" of politics in Australia. The 20 years between Latham's age and that of the Prime Minister certainly seems to put John Howard into a different generation. Does that make Latham the "Gen-X" messiah?

Who cares? Ultimately, all Australians have to live together, old or young. Dividing the country between the six states and two territories is one thing. Dividing the country into age groups just breeds pointless resentment. Retirees might be flocking to Queensland's Gold Coast, but that shouldn't change the motto of the "Sunshine state" to the "Blue-rinse state".

Everyone can bring something to politics. The real challenge is to include, not to exclude people. Certainly, demographic change brings new challenges and this data is important to understand. But exploiting the challenge for political gain offers no solutions. Howard might be too old, too set in his ways. Latham might be too young, too inexperienced. But hopefully this won't become the key contention in the upcoming election. Slogans like these are a distraction. The important thing is ideas for the future. That is the eventual destination for all generations.


Nevertheless, history gives a good guide of what to expect. Conservative commentators take the easy option to marginalise dissent, to present youthful anti-establishment tendencies as mere aberrations on the path to settling down (selling out). The young, enjoying too much free time and not enough hard work, are waylaid by utopian notions of justice and equality. All this is natural before the cynicism of age conditions them to consumerism, paying off the mortgage, stability and acceptance. Fight as they might to oppose the status quo, one day they'll realise they've become the status quo. Just like we did, says this conformist clique.

It's hard to determine what's more miserable - the loss of values, or championing the fact that you sold out your own.

The comfortable and satisfied seek to rob from youthful expression, disguising such ideas as their own. Condescension from the wise (most often male) is always "yes, yes, but you're wrong, we already thought of that". Dissent is ridiculed as uninformed, naïve - nihilism. But the core ideas are drained, plagiarised for stability. All to persuade the critics to work within the system.

Crucial questioning of a staid society never comes from the indoctrinated. Often, it is the task of a new generation. Erzsébet Båthory's dementia was to sap the young to sustain herself. Should we follow the same path, society is the poorer.

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About the Author

Daniel Flitton is a Visiting Research Associate at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and works at the Australian National University, Canberra.

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