Tuesday 30 July 2019

A Word About Baby Boomers

Something which lately has begun to make me really mad, is how often baby boomers get blamed for so much by younger generations. It seems they look around, see the world in a mess, realise that many of the world’s leaders are of my generation, and go “oh, it must be all the baby boomers’ fault!”

Ah, no. We didn’t create this world, we inherited it, and blaming us for the state of the world is like blaming someone for the state of a 400-year-old house they’ve been left. Maybe if more of the previous generations were still around, you’d be dumping on them too. But they’re not, so it all – unfairly – lands on us.

So, for the record, let’s look at some of those accusations.

SOCIAL CHANGE. Boomers are often described as ‘entitled’. ‘Confident’ is actually a better word. When we were young, we looked at our parents’ world and found it stodgy, straitlaced and restrictive. We thought we not only could, but should, change the world. It’s no coincidence that a whole heap of fervent social movements cranked into high gear around the time we started coming to young adulthood, everything from feminism to gay rights to black power and indigenous rights. (What? You thought the baby boom was only a white, middle-class, American thing?) And yes, I know that plenty older than us fought too, just as some of us didn’t, but we had the numbers and the youthful fervour to carry things through.

Ever enjoyed a women’s/indigenous/black studies course? Gay and married? Out and proud? A single woman who’s adopted a child or taken out a mortgage, or married and didn’t have to ask your husband for permission to start a business or take out a loan? Used the services of a rape crisis centre, sexual health service, or battered women’s shelter? Pierced a ‘glass ceiling’, or forged a career in a field not traditional for your gender? A stay at home dad? These and many more are things my generation fought for. You’re welcome.

And that struggle, the sheer societal and political inertia, was way more immense than anyone younger than about fifty can now imagine. It wasn’t even the active right-wing push-back of recent years, but rather a total ignoring or just blocking of us, no doubt in the hope that we’d just go away. The sheer energy it took to chip away at this, year after year after year, saw many of our finest burn out. And no, we’re not asking for a medal or anything, but we certainly didn’t expect that forty years later, younger generations would turn around and call us ‘selfish’.

TECHNOLOGY. I recently saw a post sneering about a female baby boomer who was obviously something of a technophobe, and the implication seemed to be that all of us are. Nope. You want technophobes? Look at my parents’ generation, in their 80s and 90s if they’re still alive. And personally, though I’m hardly a genius or geek, if I get my hands on any new tech, I can usually figure out how to use it without much trouble. Several years back, for instance, I sussed out my mother’s new cellphone in about fifteen minutes – by the time she died, she still hadn’t figured out how to even check her texts. She wasn’t alone in this, and I’m not alone in being a baby boomer good with technology either.

And please remember, a lot of this technology was invented or developed by baby boomers. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are or were all boomers, and goodness knows how many of those early technicians, programmers, and other inventors were of our generation too. Quite a few, I should imagine.

ECONOMY. Despite what some think, we didn’t single-handedly create the current destructive economy.  Capitalism has been around for centuries, and the toxic mess that is modern neo-liberalism was dreamt up before boomers were even born. And it was during the 80s, under leaders like Thatcher (UK), Reagan (US), Bob Hawke (Australia) and David Lange and Roger Douglas (NZ) – NONE of whom were boomers – that these policies were put into practise. Plenty of us protested and campaigned against those policies, alas fruitlessly, and now it’s considered ‘business as usual’. NOT. OUR. FAULT.

As for whether some of us are now ‘plundering the world’s economic resources’ to feather our retirement nest, a few might be, but let me assure you, way more of us are in the struggling or desperate classes. And a lot of the most obscenely rich aren’t actually of our age cohort - of the top ten, only Bill Gates (1955), and Bernard Arnault (1949) are definitely boomers. (Jeff Bezos, born in 1964, is only marginally one.) And of those boomers who are ‘plunderers’, they’re not doing it because they’re boomers, but because they’re rich people doing what rich people always do, given the opportunity. Seems like lots of people are just in it for themselves these days, and you can thank those neo-liberals for that.

In a world where our numbers mean not only has the economy grown (as it tends to do with a larger population), we’re perhaps more visible, and the wealth of the wealthiest boomers more bloatedly huge, so it seems like we’re everywhere. Plenty of us don’t like them anymore than you do. I for one would gladly see those obscene inequalities disappear.

ENVIRONMENT. FYI, we didn’t single-handedly destroy the environment either. The damage that’s starting to be really visible now, is the result of trends that began long before we were born (think Victorian factories belching smoke, rivers choking with pollution long before World War Two, plastic introduced while we were still babies). Rachel Carson’s seminal book ‘Silent Spring’ was published in **1962**, when even the oldest of us were barely in high school.

To take just one environmental issue as an example – New Zealand has a problem with its old rubbish tips. We have a long coastline, and in the past, local councils have used many pockets of it to dump rubbish in. Just this year, one of these old tips, previously thought safely capped, was washed out during a storm, and the clean-up is still underway months later. And it’s just one of many such former tips around the country which are now threatened by rising sea levels – and most of which date back before we were even born. Get the picture?

I grew up in a world where the height of environmental consciousness was being a ‘tidy Kiwi’ and picking up our litter. A lot of us moved on from there, joining Greenpeace, marching for a nuclear-free zone, some even became back-to-the-land hippies. Speaking strictly for myself (though I know I’m not alone in this), I’ve been ‘reducing, reusing, recycling’, not to mention composting, since long before it got fashionable. I consciously work on ways to further reduce my impact on the planet, as I’m quite sure many others do.

We may not have done as much as younger people would like, but we’ve not been idle either. And though I can’t prove it, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that real efforts to clean up the environment have only begun as we’ve gotten older and at least some of us have gathered power and influence. If those efforts aren’t going to be enough, blame those Victorian factory owners, the 20th century industrialists, the generations who created those sorry rubbish tips, and everyone who ignored all the warnings as far back as the 60s. The damage is cumulative, and the world has certainly reached a tipping point, but humankind has been ruining the planet for the last two hundred years, there’s no way you can put all the blame on us.

POPULATION. I’ve even seen assertions that we’re also to blame for the falling birth rate in Western countries. (Supposedly, we’re too selfish to have kids. Never mind that many of us, including me, have.) But the birth rate has actually been steadily falling in most of the developed world for over a century, the baby boom was actually just a temporary blip in this. It’s an inevitable process, that as a country becomes more industrialised, religion loses its grip, improved medical care ensures greater infant survival, and people can get their hands on better birth control, family sizes always shrink. It’s worth noting that it was our parents’ generation who were the first to use the Pill, which in many countries was initially for married women only.

CHARACTER. Every time someone of my generation is rude or selfish or whatever, it’s blamed on them being a baby boomer, not just because they’d be a nasty person whichever year they happened to be born in. We’re not perfect, but all the worst traits we display I can see in other generations too. We vary in our politics – yes, the Trumpf is technically a baby boomer (b 1946), but so is Obama (b 1961), and let’s face it, Trump would be an arrogant, narcissistic arsehole whatever generation he was born into. Andrew Wakefield is a boomer, but so is one of his major opponents and critics, Dr Paul Offit, and anti-vaxxers seem to be mainly of childbearing age. And need I point out that it’s not my generation who’ve brought back the Nazis and made them socially acceptable in at least some quarters? Personally, I’m as horrified as any else is by that, as are many of us who grew up when ‘Nazi’ was the worst insult and the ultimate evil.

Being greater in numbers may mean we’re more visible, but we’re still just human. A lot of the things said about us seem to basically boil down to ‘I hate that there are so many of you’, which is of course nothing we can help! And that many of those who did the biggest damage are now gone or going is no excuse for jumping all over us!

I’m hoping I don’t sound apologetic here, because I refuse to apologise for the year I was born in. We are not The Enemy, not some kind of malevolent selfish force hell-bent on using up the world’s resources for itself, and to hell with the future. So please, stop blaming us for everything bad about the world. That’s as ridiculous as blaming everything on millennials. It’s a prejudice, a kind of ‘ism’, and like all such, it’s intended to shame and silence an entire group, and alienate anyone who might take their part. And that’s not on. Quit with the hate. We’re all in this world together, and we all bear the responsibility of making it better.