Why hating baby boomers makes sense - but might be the wrong way forward

Auckland university students protest fee increases in 2012. Is a war between generations coming?
FIONA GOODALL/FAIRFAX NZ

Auckland university students protest fee increases in 2012. Is a war between generations coming?

Is intergenerational war just around the corner? The Brexit vote, the housing crisis, and the accompanying avalanche of opinion pieces sure make it feel like it. But conversations with economists, millennials, and boomers suggest that while some hatred might make a lot of sense, the way forward is in unity. Henry Cooke reports.

The arguments between the young and old are well rehearsed, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. 

Millennials rail against a bubbly property market that locks them into damp boomer-owned rentals forever, sky high student loans, and continued inaction on climate change.

In turn, baby boomers note that everything millennials have boomers gave them, record-low interest rates, and how much harder university entrance once was.

Property prices are currently rising by $10,000 a month, figures from QV show.
LAWRENCE SMITH/FAIRFAX NZ

Property prices are currently rising by $10,000 a month, figures from QV show.

The complexities matter, but you can boil both sides down pretty easily: millennials say boomers don't know how lucky they were, and continue to be; boomers say they actually had it plenty hard. Tensions rise.

READ MORE:
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*Stacey Kirk: How have Boomers stuffed thee? Let me count the ways
*What do Millennials owe Baby Boomers?  
*Budget Buster: The joys of being a millennial

Yet away from the comment sections and opinion columns, real people in each generation are fairly calm. They would just like the other side to understand.

"What frustrates young people is that from our perspective the older generation don't appreciate what they had growing up, and so don't feel strongly about preserving it for our generation," said 21-year-old Leroy Beckett of Generation Zero, a youth climate action group.

"I don't know if its a product of them benefiting from those things and throwing them because they no longer need them, or because they don't realise they helped them get where they are today."

Beckett is clear on what "things" he means: affordable housing, free tertiary education, and a stronger social welfare system. 

On housing the numbers appear to back him up: in the 2013 census 74.9 percent of those aged 60-65 owned their own home, compared to 36 percent of 30-34 year olds and 18.4 percent of 25-29 year olds.

CAN YOU REALLY BLAME BOOMERS?

Two baby boomers I talked to noted that they weren't exactly in control of New Zealand's housing prices in the 1970s, or the economy's transformation in the 1980s.

Baby boomers had battles to fight too.
Supplied

Baby boomers had battles to fight too.

"Thinking in terms of generations is a great over-simplification. I think it is really much better to look at the impacts of technology and policy - demographics are not necessarily deterministic," said Kemble Pudney, 64.

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Julie, a woman in her mid 50s who didn't wish to disclose her last name, agreed - can you really judge such a large group of people for enjoying policies they didn't set up?

"Every generation has issues, there's difficulties for everybody," Julie said.

"We bought a house in Raumati in the 90s because that was the only place we could afford, and we were working in town - the mortgage rates were ridiculous.

David Lange wasn't actually a baby boomer - but we blame them for decisions his government made.
dominion

David Lange wasn't actually a baby boomer - but we blame them for decisions his government made.

"I'm sure there are plenty of people in my generation that are extremely selfish - but that's the same for any generation. There's always people born into wealth.

Both of the boomers owned their own house with no extra rentals. Both were concerned about growing student loan debt - after all, they have kids.

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub, an (older) millennial himself, doesn't believe a generational war is coming - he believes it's already in full swing.

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub: "People didn't sit there in 1986 and plan to become millionaires by owning houses in Auckland."
Supplied

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub: "People didn't sit there in 1986 and plan to become millionaires by owning houses in Auckland."

"It's already happened. In terms of the chances of younger people owning homes, young people being paid better than their parents - these things are under attack," Eaqub said.

'YOU AREN'T RICH BECAUSE YOU'RE SMART'

In housing, Eaqub is especially fiery.

"A lof of the wealth and the success of the boomers is in fact burrowed from the future. [...] Millennials are hard done by and boomers are doing well out of that. They are sitting on undeserved asset price wealth that has essentially been stolen from their children and grandchildren.

"From that perspective I really do resent where the boomers are at - it's not because they are really smart that the house prices are going. They think 'I'm rich I must be smart' - well no you're rich because you were at the right place at the right time."

Economist Eric Crampton: "I have a hard time understanding how the youth of today are worse off with zero percent loans ...
WAYNNE WILLIAMS

Economist Eric Crampton: "I have a hard time understanding how the youth of today are worse off with zero percent loans for their studies, then a 33 percent top marginal tax rate."

"I begrudge them for their complicity, but I don't think they did it intentionally. People didn't sit there in 1986 and plan to become millionaires by owning houses in Auckland."

Eaqub's critique and proposed solutions come the left: he argues that some form of redistribution is necessary, a return to the welfare state that boomers grew up in. But it isn't just the left who think young people are being locked out of the housing market.

"Young folk do have some very legitimate grievances about what boomers have done to the property markets," said right-leaning Gen X economist Eric Crampton.

"We are approaching a point where only rich old people can afford to live downtown. Once that starts tipping here you will see what happens in Sydney - where older people have killed all the nightlife."

Restrictive zoning laws, usually driven by boomer NIMBYs, were to blame.

"Go to any local board hearing where they are trying to talk about intensification or terrace housing - it's just a sea of grey heads," Crampton said.

Crampton thinks millennials arguments fall flat when they venture out of housing.

"Boomers had the opportunity to enjoy 66 percent effective marginal tax rates, to apply for permission from the Reserve Bank to get the foreign currency for a magazine subscription, and – if they were lucky – to get the import licence for televisions."

"I have a hard time understanding how the youth of today are worse off with zero percent loans for their studies, then a 33 percent top marginal tax rate."

A WAY FORWARD

Eaqub pushes back against anyone who says generational analyses don't make sense, because "life is lived in cohorts." But he doesn't see intergenerational warfare as a way out.

"If we want to make change we can't do it on the basis of division, it has to be on the basis of unity."

"The benefit boomers got was because of the investment made by the greatest generation after the war. There was no resentment of the boomers by them."

"Things weren't perfect then, but there was a consistent trend of progress."

Of course, such a movement might require young people to actually go out and vote - something they have consistently failed to do in the recent NZ elections, and in the EU referendum overseas.

Beckett's organisation works to get young people involved, particularly in relation to transport and climate change. But involvement doesn't always mean voting - especially for parties led completely by baby boomers.

"A lot of people who created the problems we are facing today are still the ones who dominate the conversation around how to fix them, and that's not how change happens," Beckett said.

"On a national level I don't think we see party politics as a way to create that change. There's a disconnect."

But Beckett noted that the two generations were still alike in one crucial way: fear of younger people.

"It is going to be very interesting to see how millennials cope with people born post 9-11 becoming cool."

"I am terrified of being made irrelevant by the post millennials."

* Comments on this story are now closed.

 - Stuff

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