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John Quiggin

The end of the generation game

Australian Financial Review,Re|view Section,

27 October 2000

One of the standard ploys in journalism, marketing and political commentary is the generation game. The basic idea is to label a generation 'X' or 'Y', then dissect its attitudes, culture, and relationship with other generations. The most famous generation, of course, is that of the Baby Boomers, born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s, and their most enduring contribution to the generation gap is the 'Generation Gap' between children and their parents.

The generation game is played with particular vigour in cultural commentary, but its reach seems to be extending all the time. No US Presidential election would now be complete without voluminous commentary on the generational backgrounds of the contenders. There is even a branch of economics called generational accounting, which is supposed to show whether one generation is subsidising another through the tax and welfare system.

At first sight, discussion of this kind can carry with it an air of fresh insight, but most of it stales rapidly. Much of what passes for discussion about the merits or otherwise of particular generations is little more than a repetition of unchanging formulas about different age groups the moral degeneration of the young, the rigidity and hypocrisy of the old, and so on.

Demographers have a word (or rather two words) for this. They distinguish between age effects and cohort effects. The group of people born in a given period, say a year or a decade, is called a cohort. Members of a cohort have things in common because they have shared common experiences through their lives. But, at any given point in time, when members of the cohort are at some particular age, they share things in common with the experience of earlier and later generations when they were at the same age.

Most of the time, age effects are more important than cohort effects. The primary schoolers of the 1960s were very like the primary schoolers of today and, of course, totally different from the middle-aged parents they have become. The grandparents of today are more like their own grandparents than the bodgies and widgies they may have been in the 1950s.

The same applies to the standard rhetoric that one age group applies to another. For example, Mark Davis in Ganglands quotes various baby-boomer pundits denouncing the younger generation as 'slackers' and dole bludgers'. In the 1970s, precisely the same thing was being said about the younger members of the boomer cohort, then in their late teens and early twenties. In turn, much of the prejudice about dole bludgers was derived from the mixture of horror and envy which greeted members of the first wave of baby boomers, the hippies of the 1960s, with their rejection of the work ethic and indulgence in sex and drugs.

Age-group posturing of this kind changes in response to changing social circumstances, but only very slowly. As far as the role of younger age-groups is concerned, nothing much has changed since the discovery, or invention, of the teenager in the 1950s. The discovery resulted primarily from the arrival of near-universal high-school education, which suddenly created a uniform mass experience, with an associated set of common rituals.

The discovery of the teenage generation was rapidly followed by the 'teenager problem' and then the 'generation gap'. The archetypal cultural statement of the 'teenager problem' is the film Blackboard Jungle which launched the first great Rock'n'Roll hit, Rock Around the Clock. The movie has all the usual clichés, and the then-mandatory happy ending in which enlightened adult authority is restored. The defining moment is the scene where the teenage delinquents smash a teacher's treasured collection of records from the swing era. The idea that each generation should have its own musical style, incomprehensible and repellent to older generations, has never been put more simply and brutally. Although it has gradually been stripped of any subversive content, the same idea dominates the music industry today, with products targeted at every demographic from preteens to golden oldies.

At the other end of the age scale, the increase in life expectancy has gradually weakened the hold of age-specific categories. Fifty years ago, few people could expect to live past eighty, and anyone over sixty was considered old. People aged between forty and sixty were middle-aged in the literal sense of being in the middle of their adult life. Today, hardly anyone between forty and sixty admits to being middle-aged. Middle age, if it exists at all, seems to commence in the late fifties, while government-sponsored advertising campaigns tell us that no-one is 'old', merely 'older'. A recent Harris Poll conducted for the National Council on Aging found that almost half the people between 65 and 69 now consider themselves middle-aged. So do one-third of people in their 70s. But these changes have taken place over many decades. The parents of the Baby Boomers were already taking umbrage back in the 1960s when their children referred to them as 'middle-aged and middle-class'.

Once we strip out the more-or-less constant social distinctions associated with membership of a given age-group, the idea that we can say much about any particular cohort becomes far more dubious. In fact, cohort effects are only of much importance between the ages of 16 and about 25. The experience of childhood is dominated by family and school, and, while both families and schools have changed since the 1950s, the rate of change from one decade to the next has been quite slow.

On the other hand, by the time the members of a given cohort reach their late twenties, their live courses have diverged so much that they cease to form a well-defined group with common experiences. The differences between men and women, rich and poor, workers and bosses, married and single, parents and nonparents count for much more than the commonality that comes from sharing a date on a birth certificate.

For the crucial decade from 16 to 25, however, common experiences related to growing up at a particular time can be very important. Whether the labour market is in a boom or a slump when you finish school can make a big difference to your subsequent career. For males, an even more important question is whether the years of military age coincide with a major war. Peacetime and wartime generations, or boom and slump generations, can be very different.

Vietnam was the perfect generational war. It was big enough that it required mass conscription of unenfranchised 18-year-olds (the lottery element and the deferment system only enhanced the unfairness of this), but small enough that it required no economic sacrifice from the adult electorate who voted for it. Still less was there any hint of centralised direction of labour or a general system of conscription for the entire male military-age population, as had been applied during World War II.

The generation gap was only heightened by the fact that the war took place during the last decade of an unprecedented (and subsequently unrivalled) 25-year boom. In times of high unemployment, there is a steady supply of young men willing to put on a uniform in return for a steady wage and full board, but few in the 1960s saw fighting the Vietcong as an appealing employment option. Even among those who went willingly, there was a sense of exploitation that has been reflected in the subsequent political rhetoric of Vietnam veterans, which is radically different from that of the older-generation RSL.

At least for males then, there is something in the idea of a 'Vietnam generation'. But the facile identification of this group with the 'baby boomers' is quite misleading. Demographically, the baby boom began in 1946 and petered out in the early 1960s, so that the beginnings of the baby boom and the Vietnam generation coincided. Economically and culturally, however, the Vietnam generation have a lot more in common with the 'baby bust' cohort, born during and just before World War II, than with baby boomers born after 1954.

Economically, the crucial dividing point was the breakdown of the Bretton Woods system of economic management in 1972, quickly followed by the oil shock of 1973. Those who entered the labour market before 1973 were faced with an abundance of jobs and easy access to career paths. They were mostly unaffected by the crises of the 1970s and early 1980s, which bore disproportionately on the young, that is, on the cohorts born between the late 1950s and the early 1970s.

It was not until the recession we had to have, from 1989 to 1992, and the waves of downsizing in the 1990s, that the end of postwar prosperity really hit the Vietnam generation and the baby bust cohort. Although the focus of policy attention remained firmly on youth unemployment, the real story of the 1990s was the disappearance of jobs for workers over 50, and particularly for men over 50. The employment rate for this group has fallen from nearly 100 per cent during the postwar boom to around 50 per cent today.

The cultural affinity between the Vietnam generation and the baby bust cohort is equally strong. In fact, most of the cultural icons of the Vietnam generation were actually born before 1945. Obvious examples are the Beatles and Rolling Stones, not to mention James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Throughout the 1960s, rock music was made by the children of the baby bust, who were in the fortunate position of having the largest audience in history. Other members of the baby bust cohort took the chance to establish themselves as the social and political voice of youth, a position which they then sought to maintain well into middle age.

The era of rock music as a generational statement ran from the mid-1950s to about 1970. The deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, and the breakup of the Beatles are commonly taken to symbolise the end of the rock revolution. In fact, though, every decade has its rock martyrs from Buddy Holly in the 1950s to Kurt Cobain in the 1990s. What mattered more than the occasional deaths and breakups was the survival of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and other megabands. Having started out as teenage rebels (sometimes with judicious adjustments to their official ages) these 1960s icons maintained their position at the top of the rock world as they went from their 30s into their 40s and 50s. The days when popular music belonged to the young were over, and the music industry was back in the saddle.

By the 1970s, when the later baby-boomers were in their teenage years, countercultural events like Woodstock had been replaced by the mass-market stadium rock of bands like Grand Funk Railroad The postures of youthful revolt persisted, but they were now merely marketing statements directed at one among many market niches. Middle-aged viewers of the Olympics are given the nostalgic opportunity to remember when they hoped to die before they got old, even as the same slogan is offered to their teenage children.

A combination of circumstances in the late 1950s and the 1960s created a generational moment for those who were young in that blissful false dawn. For that brief moment, the distinction between the young and the old seemed fundamentally important. Generational cliches took root and have become part of our culture, but they have outlived their usefulness. The winners and losers in a world of globalisation, attacks on the welfare state and resurgent market forces cannot be neatly parcelled into age groups, however often commentators on both sides of the debate attempt it.

Professor John Quiggin is a Senior Research Fellow of the Australian Research Council, based at the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

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