Much of what passes for “generational theory” is simply the perpetuation of trite generalities. Commentary about Generations X, Y and Baby Boomer often reveals more about our tendency to believe whatever theories confirm our pre-existing notions than the “essence” of these groups of wildly diverse people.
On the cusp of generations X and Y (born in 1980), my own identity is quite inconsistent with the person that pop sociologists tell me I am. I know how to send an email (who doesn’t these days?), but I don’t use technology as the primary medium of social interaction. I don’t belong to Facebook: all my friends exist in the real world. I am politically engaged, though in theory I shouldn’t be.
Of course, it’s always easy to dredge up exceptions to the rule; my own e-backwardness stands in contrast to the cyber-fixation of some of my generational peers. But there are also many older, retired people who place technology at the centre of their daily lives (if not their identity). If anything, this shows the extent to which we are all a product of a changing environment.
It is therefore with scepticism that I read that baby boomers are “reaching traditional retirement age but refusing to get old” - presumably meaning that they are working past 65, and then staying more active once they retire, than previous generations. In my view, there are very sound structural reasons for this to be the case: there is little need to make reference to the boomer “ethos” to explain these broad patterns.
(Some) boomers are staying in work longer because they are scared of the financial consequences of not doing so. The standard of living afforded by the basic age pension is now so woeful that those with modest nest eggs would be daft to retire unless their health or other circumstances demand it. Our marketing and advertising culture has also raised expectations of an adequate retirement income beyond cheese and vegemite sandwiches for dinner.
Staying in work is of course more of an imperative for lower-income workers; their more prosperous counterparts have the luxury of easing into retirement earlier. Those with the means to do so have been planning (or acting on their financial planner’s advice) ever since the government told them in the 1980s that they couldn’t rely on the pension.
These are the boomers who lead the “active lifestyle”: traveling overseas, buying sports cars, bungee jumping. They do so because they can afford to, while their generational forebears, who relied to a greater extent on the pension, could not. This is a generation of workers who, after the mass demonstrations and purple haze of their youth, put their heads down in middle age and worked hard. It is no wonder they want to experience everything that they missed out in earlier in life.
Naturally, there are many individuals who conform to none of these stereotypes. Some boomers simply weren’t part of the 60s revolution, while others have maintained the alternative lifestyle right up to the present day. And there are many with money who don’t splash out, preferring to preserve it for extreme old age or to help their kids enter the property market. The boomer narrative really depends on who you run into on the street.
But there is a certain set of baby boomers about which I am prepared to make massive generalisations: politicians.
A great many boomer politicians, and their families, had access to better social services in their youth, in relative terms. Yet as they accrued status and success, they set about systematically dismantling the foundations of the welfare society. They imposed market mechanisms in many areas of policy: healthcare, education, aged care, and even employment services for the hardcore unemployed. In the last decade, the notion of a decent safety net has become an absurdity.
Most notably, although many politicians still enjoy the fruits of a free university education, they have refused today’s students anything approaching the same privilege.
In this sense, boomer politicians have grown old before their time. They are risk-averse, reluctant to do or say anything that would compromise them or the party. In public statements they are often derisive of today’s youth, and anyone else that dares question their orthodoxy. You are unlikely to see boomer politicians discovering their inner wild child, at least in public (recent scandals notwithstanding).
At what point did boomer politicians abandon the principles they fought so hard for in their younger days? Were they really persuaded by the promises of the hollowed-out state? Or is it part of the natural progression of the life course - to grow more conservative as you age? Is there another explanation that has more to do with power and influence?
I wonder if we’ll see something of a reversal once more politicians realise what’s in store for them after retirement. Not even the most generous superannuation packages can alleviate a health system stretched to the limit, or provide a dignified life in an overcrowded aged care facility. But I suspect they will be too late in catching on.