The generation game

by John Quiggin on December 17, 2003

The current fad in Australian political and social discussion (and a recurrent fad elsewhere) is to pose issues in terms of generations (Baby Boomers, X, Y etc). I’ve been arguing for a while that this is little better than astrology, and I develop the point further in today’s Australian Financial Review (subscription required) where I have a fortnightly column. Here’s the piece, with some cuts (made for space reason) restored, and hyperlinks added.

It’s almost impossible these days to open a newspaper without seeing some reference to generational conflict, generational change and intergenerational equity. Issues as diverse as the leadership of political parties, the price of housing and the appropriate level of public savings are routinely discussed in terms of the birthdates of those affected.

Moreover, arbitrary markers such as the decline in the birth rate in 1961, are used as a basis for labelling people as Baby Boomers or as members of Generations X and Y. All of this is little better than astrology, but seems to be taken seriously by people who should know better.

As I pointed out several years ago

most 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.

Oddly enough, to the extent that there is anything remotely new in generational rhetoric, it was perfected by members of a generation that is never mentioned in these discussions, and even lacks a name. Those born in the low-birthrate years between 1930 and 1945 were too young to join the ‘Greatest Generation’ that fought World War II, and too few to share in the experiences of the Baby Boomers.

Nevertheless, they were the first cohort to be known as ‘teenagers’, the first to experience a ‘generation gap’ and both the first and last to have music that was specifically their own, creating both rock music and the now-cliched postures of rebellion that go along with it. The archetypal phrase ‘never trust anyone over 30’ was popularised by Abby Hoffman (born in 1936) and Jerry Rubin (born in 1938) – not one of the famous Chicago Seven was a Baby Boomer.

Membership of a particular age cohort is an important factor for those who reach adulthood at a time of war or economic chaos, but otherwise is relatively unimportant. Even in these cases, age is less important than class or educational levels (not to mention gender) in determining life experiences and life chances.

But the generational analysis that is popular at present doesn’t even have this limited validity. The great divide in terms of the experience of coming of age falls in the early 1970s with the collapse of the long postwar economic boom and the end of the Vietnam war. Those who reached adulthood before the 1970s, having been born during 1930 and the early years of the baby boom entered a labour market with an endless supply of jobs.

Employment opportunities for new entrants to the labour market dried up rapidly in the early 1970s. By the time the last of the baby boomers left school, the rate of youth unemployment was 30 per cent, higher than today..

The pop sociology surrounding generational discussion makes a complete mess of all this, splitting groups with similar experiences, and lumping together people with nothing in common except the fertility of their parents.

The real problems arise when economists get in on the act. The Intergenerational Statement released as part of the 2002-03 Budget .was a prime example. Projections of public expenditure over the next 30 to 50 years revealed that, under current policy settings, expenditure would grow more rapidly than tax revenue, creating a gap that would need to be filled either by higher taxes or by changes in public spending policies.

This result was presented in terms of generational conflict. In reality, however, it reflected nothing more the long-term structural trend in which the share of GPD allocated to services, particularly health care, has grown.
There are good economic reasons why the expectation of future growth in spending demands should lead us to support larger surpluses in the near future than would otherwise be the case. The most important such argument is that this helps to avoid costly variation in tax rates over time.

Given such surpluses, it is natural to raise the question of how they should be allocated. Since the object is to smooth tax rates, investments that do not yield a financial return to the public sector may be disregarded. One possibility is to reduce public debt. Over the long term, however, higher returns may be achieved through equity investment, whether this takes the form of passive investment in a diversified portfolio or active ownership of public enterprises.

The New Zealand government has adopted a portfolio investment approach as part of its plan for smoothing the financing of health and retirement incomes policy. A similar approach has been advocated for Australia by Ric Simes of Lateral Economics.

There are sound arguments to support these proposals. But casting the issues in generational terms obscures the issues. Even if we are not inclined, like Groucho Marx, to ask, ‘What has posterity ever done for me’, it is hard to sell the idea that we are morally obligated to scrimp now in order to benefit future generations who will, undoubtedly, be substantially richer than we are.

Arguments about tax smoothing and structural change may lack the pop appeal of claims that we are robbing future generations. But these are the arguments we need to have if we are to are to formulate a long-term Budget strategy.

{ 3 comments }

1

Dick Thompson 12.18.03 at 2:07 am

And one more thing about my generation (I was born in 1933, so am one of its oldest). Ours was the one that fought the civil rights war in the South, while the boomers were still in high school.

2

Rex 12.18.03 at 5:30 am

John,

Its all very well to dismiss the labels GenX GenY and so on as just so much astrology, but aside from the fact that jounalists love this sort of stuff because its easy writing and they don’t have to think, surely there is a case to be made for analysing trends in a longitudinal manner, and these labels are legitimate ways of grouping people born in different time periods.

Exactly the same situation occurs with the stock market. The Dow, Dax or All Ords goes up and down daily, and it trends up or down over time. So that we now refer to the “Long Bull Market of the 90s”, The 87 Crash and so on. These labels represent periods where common trends occurred.

Why is it not legitimate then to use a label GenX, and say that in general, we can say that these people will experience certain economic conditions?

Rex

3

Richard 02.01.04 at 7:36 pm

The decline of the birth rate in the US in 1961 was not as pronounced as it was in 1963.

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