Alan France: Why the notion of 'generation wars' should be confined to political scrap heap

Baby boomers are very concerned about their children (and grandchildren) and in fact not only do many help with ...
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Baby boomers are very concerned about their children (and grandchildren) and in fact not only do many help with childcare but also provide financial support.

OPINION: Almost before Bill English had finished his speech on the proposed changes to New  Zealand superannuation the media was falling over its self to claim that we were about to see a "war" between generations.

It was claimed that changing the age of eligibility would once again advantage  "baby boomers" and penalise other generations.

The baby boomers are seen to be winners, having their incomes protected while future generations have to accept losing substantial superannuation income.

At one level there is some truth to claims that baby boomers have been having it good. Throughout the early part of the great recession the disposable income of over 65s in New Zealand increased by 4 per cent while for the young it declined by nearly 2 per cent.

Evidence produced in 2014 also showed that the risk of poverty has been shifted from the elderly to the young. Of course we also know that over the past 30 years New Zealanders have been having to pay for their post-16 education while baby boomers seemingly got it all for free.

Yet to describe what this as creating a "war" or a "battle" between generations is irresponsible and fundamentally wrong. Framing the challenges New Zealand face in these emotive and conflictual ways is not helpful and in fact distracts us from some far bigger problems that politicians should be addressing.

First, let's be clear this issue only emerged because Bill English wanted to seem responsible over Super while not upsetting his voting base. This was never about millennials. In fact when it comes to the youth question in New Zealand I see very little discussion about challenges the young face.

Yes, we might talk about a "housing crisis" and young people unable to buy a house but we don't talk about homelessness among the young, the problems and tensions of living at home into their mid to late 20s, the challenges of long-term debt or the difficulties of finding secure work that is well paid.

Second, the idea of "war'' suggests conflict between generations, yet there is a range of research around the globe that shows this is not the case. Millennials, like generations before them, want to have a good income, a home, a family, and opportunities to enjoy life without worrying about the future.

But not only that, baby boomers are very concerned about their children (and grandchildren) and in fact not only do many help with childcare but also provide financial support, lending (or "gifting'') to their children to help them rent or to get on to the housing market.

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They help pay back student loans and they let them live at home free. They are not Skiing (Spending the kids' inheritance), many of them are working hard to help their children into better lives.

Finally, what this debate continues to ignore is social and economic inequality. Not only do we need to recognise the way it exists within generations but also how it is maintained and distributed across generations.

As was noted in many of the recent discussions, baby boomers did not have it all good. In fact as a "generation" their experiences of growing up have been, like generations before them, shaped by inequality. There have been "winners" and "losers" and in fact social mobility across classes in New Zealand has seen little movement.

The rich and privileged have remained such (in fact, it has grown) and those in poverty have taken this into their later years. In fact, what is also clear is that in supporting their children the rich are now transferring their wealth earlier.

We always thought this happened at the end of life but "gifting'' by some baby boomers is seeing inequality maintained with a young person's social class position being well established by the age of 38.

The winners and losers are fundamentally as they have always been and New Zealand policy makers do little to address these issues.  

So maybe rather than get drawn into false "battles" we should look harder about how we develop policies that increase social mobility and help us address the challenges young people face. Is it not time New Zealand that we created a fairer society for all?

Alan France is Professor of Sociology in the School of Social Science at the University of Auckland.

 - The Dominion Post

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