Battle for the ages - Boomer vs Gen Y

MICHAEL FIELD AND KIRSTY JOHNSTON
Last updated 05:00 23/12/2012
boomer
RICHARD PARKER

Boomers vs Gen Y: The battle lines are drawn.

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Each generation loves to bemoan the sins of the next. But none have drawn the battle lines quite so firmly as the ageing Baby Boomers and their young foes, Generation Y. Michael Field and Kirsty Johnston take on the debate

One group is on the verge of retirement. The next is just about ready to take over the world. Or they would be if - depending on your point of view - they weren't either a) saddled with such huge debt from their predecessors or b) jumped-up little ingrates.

Welcome to the current clash of the generations. In one corner, we have the Baby Boomers - born during the 20 years after World War II - and in the other, Generation Y, born between 1980 and 2000.

Your typical stereotype goes something like this.

Baby Boomers: Born to the survivors of the Great Depression and two wars, Boomers were handed everything on a plate, and they took it all. With the sexual revolution of their youth but a distant memory, they're now smug, multiple house-owning, powerful car-driving bores who believe the next generation owes them for "changing society". They're soon to retire and suck the life out of the country.

Generation Y: A direct result of the "self-esteem" movement of the 1990s. Ambitious, impatient, self-promoting, Facebooking, narcissists who grew up with parents telling them "they could do anything". Gen Y have entered the workforce believing they could teach the boss a thing or two, that flexible hours are of paramount importance, and that appropriate work-wear includes jeans and an "ironic" T-shirt with a cat on it.

Exaggerated? Yes. But the underlying ideological clash is truly there. And the issues at stake? Debt, housing, and, well . . . debt.

Both sides increasingly believe they are owed something by the other and as Boomers move closer to retirement, the mutual resentment is growing - Boomers think they deserve a happy life's end, while the Y-ers feel bitter about moving through life unable to afford what their parents or grandparents had.

"It's a really interesting debate - they call it the creation of a bankrupt generation," says Auckland University sociology head Professor Alan France.

"The Baby Boomers had it pretty good - free education, pension, they made a lot of money in investment and in the housing boom. Now that's changed and young people are feeling aggrieved they're picking up the tab. That's where the tension arises."

The popular view is that Boomers are too wrapped up in themselves to understand the resentment, while Generation Y are too "want it all, want it now" and might be overplaying the criticism somewhat.

Auckland business strategy adviser - and one of the final crop of Boomers - Tibor Mackor admits his generation will leave an unpleasant legacy.

"I believe that the debt bubble will come to define the end of the Baby Boomer period," he says. "The Baby Boomer and the rest of the world wanted to keep living the way they had for the past two decades."

Boomers have drained a lot of the money away and Gen Y, still another 12 years away from their peak spending years, will have a tough decade.

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Boomers, Mackor says, are moving away from spending, if only because they have most of what they now need.

"Most will not be spending on jewellery or any other such luxuries to make them look more attractive as many will be in a relationship of some sort or other."

Mackor agrees that generation experienced extraordinary change.

"The 1970s were alive with riots, unemployment, because the vast numbers that were coming to employment age could not find work. This generation then went out and started their own businesses and so the world started growing economically with them."

Baby Boomer Donna Brooke, who owns a corporate retreat in Tairua, thinks her cohort remains a big market with solid disposable incomes.

"It is going to be the Baby Boomers who will come in for wellness retreats, and they are an audience I know. They want the nicer things in life; we want the nicer things in life."

She says the Boomers are good employees as well - they give their all and work longer. "The X-ers, especially, are prioritising in a different way - social life, family life all comes first. If you want someone with knowledge and with the right work ethic, you will employ a Baby Boomer."

Gen Y entrepreneur Marcel Roos, the president of the Auckland Young Professionals society, sees the other side of the story - especially in the workplace, the most common place where the generations go head to head.

"Boomers come from a totally different age where technology wasn't so big and the mindset was different. Often, Gen Y can see more efficient ways of doing things but their boss might not want to hear about it. That can be frustrating," Roos says.

"Also older people are more formal - you see it in the clothes and in the hours they work. Whereas young people are happy to work their hours around their lifestyle - to start late or finish early."

He believes that many of his generation start out at university believing they can have what their parents had, but quickly see it's not possible to the same degree, and focus on other things instead.

"Choosing a lifestyle becomes a bigger part of it. For many people, they only want to earn enough to survive and to travel - it's not all about money."

Council planner Kylie Brewer, who belongs to the Young Farmers network, says the Boomers' legacy isn't just a financial debt, but also an environmental one.

"Rivers [which Boomers] used to swim in as children are now heavily polluted. So there's a bit of cleaning up to do, that we have to deal with.

"I'm not resentful, it's just something you have to accept and get on with. It's about raising awareness . . . Most of the time they just don't have any idea."

PhD sociology student Jai Bentley-Paine, a Gen Y leader from the protest group "We are the University" says young people today invest in themselves, because they have to. There is a lack of social security and a huge pressure to "go it alone". But they are also socially aware.

"I don't think the self-centred, narcissistic, Facebook-updating, Twitter-feeding type of person is actually accurate. We're more socially responsible than that."

He does believe education is one valid issue at the centre of the friction between the generations - for Boomers, education was more a right than a commodity, and it was free.

"That was something that was very important that has changed. There's a huge difference in resources and what's available," he says.

But he doesn't necessarily support the idea that all the tension is to do with age.

"Things are never that simple. You can't oversimplify. You can't say ‘this golden generation spent our future'. I think it's more about inequality.

"In every generation there are people who are more prevalent than others.

"It's almost like drawing false battle lines."

 

A GEN Y'ER WRITES 

 

It must be nice to live in a world where everything your generation did was amazing and the next could never possibly live up to it.

Where you'll always be right, have done it all and have absolutely no qualms about the state you've left the country in.

I imagine this Baby Boomer paradise to be a kind of smug bubble, full of Abba songs and mortgage-free homes where all that's left is to hang on to your job until retirement and look forward to the advent of grandchildren.

And I can also imagine how at that stage of life, a group of lippy, tech-smart, ambitious young people who liked to point out your flaws would seem both annoying and threatening and you'd probably, quite rightly, want to put them in their place.

Currently, it's a bit trendy to have a go at Generation Y - the 15-35 age group - a rash of recent "studies" have found we're not only narcissistic and have a huge sense of entitlement, but we can't take criticism, we take forever to grow up and we also cheat, lie and steal.

These same studies also purport that to "deal" with Generation Y in the workplace you have to be prepared as they're ruthlessly ambitious but also want a "lifestyle" and to wear jeans in the office like some kind of psychopathic version of Mark Zuckerberg.

I'm sorry but, what? Yes Generation Y's are ambitious and value free time just as much as their careers. But it would pay to remember that this is the first group to grow up with two parents working fulltime, and many with solo parents, so quite rightly, family has become important.

This is also the group who were brought up with parents who told them they could do anything. You filled our hearts with confidence, our ears with the peppy girlpower of the Spice Girls, and sent us off to school where "everyone was a winner" - and now you whinge when we enter the workplace believing we deserve to be listened to?

It's almost as hypocritical as spending your youth protesting for feminism and sexual freedom then voting against gay marriage.

As arguing for solo women to have the security to leave their husbands then begrudging the next group in need of any form of decent social welfare.

As buying six houses and owning them freehold then turning a blind eye when today's youth are unable to afford to even enter the housing market.

As having a free university education and then denying that to your children.

As happily as lining up to take a pension when you don't need it.

Resentment? Maybe, but they say children learn from their parents, and as we're repeatedly told, ours strove to make a difference and to live the lives they felt they deserved.

 

--KIRSTY JOHNSTON


A BOOMER WRITES

 

October 1961 was a defining month.

Julia Childs wrote her first cookbook, Private Eye appeared and the Soviet Union exploded the largest nuclear bomb ever. Parliament here abolished the death penalty and by month's end, a record 5338 babies had been born.

One of them, on the last day of the month, was one Peter Robert Jackson.

Baby Boomers make a difference.

Statistics New Zealand (SNZ) defines the baby boom as the period between 1946 and 1965 - that is people now aged between 47 and 66. In that space, created after thousands of soldiers returned home from World War II, babies were born at a rate never seen before. 1961 was the biggest year - 65,000 babies and the Pakeha fertility rate was 3.5 births per woman; it was almost seven for Maori.

The population was just 2.5 million then; today we average around 5000 births a month with nearly twice the population with a two births per woman fertility rate.

The introduction in 1961 of the oral contraceptive pill ended the boom, but the cohort continues to dominate in a way no other group yet does. In June there were 1,310,550 Boomers.

The biggest group, 313,180 are 45 to 49 years old followed by 305,400 in the Jackson group - 50 to 54 year olds. The oldest of the boomers, 65 to 69, total 190,950.

Baby Boomers lost 450,000 people in emigration out of New Zealand, while the next generation, Gen X between 1963 and 1980 - 32 to 49 - gained from a big immigration input.

Today both cohorts are roughly the same size.

Way back when I was a cadet reporter on Wellington's Evening Post (and Jackson was working downstairs in the linotype department), our elders were completely different.

One of our seniors was minus an eye - a Guadalcanal wound. Another had post traumatic stress from duty on Murmansk convoys. The bloke who decided where our stories went had flown bombers over Germany.

The dominant generation then had experienced war and the older ones had memories of the Great Depression. They had fought for the country and came with a strong sense of entitlement - a right to free education, subsidised private housing and cheap milk.

SNZ says the boom, which was replicated in the United States but did not occur with quite the same punch elsewhere, came as a result of the marriage boom as soldiers came home. A third of the brides had their first child within a year.

It wasn't so much oppressive but these men wanted quiet weekends with the shops closed and veneration of the RSA and Anzac Day.

Prime Minister Rob Muldoon has gone to the war; his successor David Lange, born in 1942, was not strictly a Boomer but Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley were.

Boomers put them in office and demanded change.

A Ministry of Economic Development paper says Baby Boomers deserve their distinct recognition because they encountered "enormous change, increasing diversity in family forms and experiences, and a rapidly decreasing average family size". Marriage rates were lower than they had been for the parents' generation, and divorce rates increased. Stepfamilies increased and the later in the baby-boom era people were born, the more likely they were to have been single parents.

"For the Baby-Boom generation, the pace of change during post-war years was startling, particularly regarding the expectations and norms about family formation, the use of contraception and having children," MED says.

SNZ says Baby Boomers "redefined the norms at every stage of the life cycle so far and they will also diversify the social, economic and demographic characteristics of the empty nest syndrome".

They warn the spirit of change that has dominated Baby Boomers' lives, may well continue on into their older years.

--MICHAEL FIELD

- Sunday Star Times

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