We have an unhealthy obsession with providing people with another age group to blame for the social, economic and cultural changes in how we live and work
Successive generations’ healthy disregard of the previous generation’s tastes, habits and customs is a necessary ingredient of human progress. But there is something about the current carving up of the population into ever smaller generational slices of entitlement and opprobrium – from baby boomers and Generation X to millennials and Generation Z – that borders on unhealthy obsession. Part of this is a growing awareness of a "shift in the demographic map".
This is particularly marked in the northern Hemisphere and is accompanied by other profound social, economic and cultural changes – rising economic prosperity and inequality and insecurity, declining political support for state organised welfare, shifts in the make-up of family, decreased deference to hierarchy. Together these challenge how we live, work, consume, and care for and support each other.
Generational roles and expectations can no longer be taken for granted and we are no longer certain about where we stand in the emerging order. Anxieties abound – and projecting these onto imprecise categories of "age others" bolsters a vague sense of shared injustice among those of a certain age – and provides "generations" with another age group to blame. What this generation blame game misses, however, are the ways in which these dubious generational categories mask the profound differences between the people swept into them.
Back to the ‘baby boom’
One label that has become symbolically powerful, even if it remains relatively meaningless, over the last decade is the "baby boomer". This is applied loosely to those born during the post-World War II "baby boom" who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Commentators have cast the category in a variety of ways, but one of the most egregious examples of the rhetorical gymnastics required to construct the stereotype is Philip Inman’s "secret baby boomer millionaires".
According to this, anybody who has an income of £35,000 a year and a work-based pension, enjoys retirement for a full 25 years and is in possession of housing asset wealth of £300,000 is – or will be – a millionaire baby boomer. The implication is that they are cossetted and in need of cutting down to size.
But there are, in fact, many factors that might impede the royal road to this exalted status in retirement that play out over a lifetime, from class, health and disability, to gender, race and ethnicity. These complications, however, are conveniently effaced in the selfish boomer narrative.
Recent research carried out by Karen Glaser and Debbie Price, president of the British Society of Gerontology, and others, points, for example, to a very deep and persistent gender division in retirement. The gender pay gap means that median income-earning women have considerably worse pensions than men, and if they take any kind of career break (to look after children or others), will be even worse off in retirement. This a gender issue, not a generational one.
Indeed, it isn’t easy finding evidence of Inman’s millionaire baby boomers among the retirement income statistics of median income-earning women, and even harder among the three quarters of the female population who have taken "career breaks". But the problem is not just that real lives more often than not diverge from the stereotype of the protected baby boomer, but that the model of the coping, smug, self-sufficient retiree who does not need state support has become the policy archetype.
This has very pernicious consequences when it comes to the generation currently entering care and dependency. Unlike baby boomers and millennials, this group doesn’t have a label of its own in the public imagination, but gerontologists increasingly refer to the "fourth age"; people in deep old age, who, when crossing the threshold of independence can be abandoned into a wholly inadequate system of social care.
Moreover, in the absence of family, neighbourly or state support, and inadequate and inappropriate services (public or private), having financial resources doesn’t necessarily help. Masking these age differences gives rise to a deep ageism that makes the state’s abandonment of the fourth age acceptable.
If the generation blame game masks difference, it also masks how overlapping experiences can act as the basis for intergenerational solidarity and resistance. As US cultural critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette observed, throughout the 1990s, a contrived war between baby boomers and the following Generation Xers, born in the 1960s and 1970s, was waged in media and political discussions. In this war of words, younger US citizens were taught that they should no longer expect the pay and rewards that the bloated and selfish baby boom generation had.
The shattering of the American Dream to accumulate wealth over a lifetime happened under the cover of generational injustice. It wasn’t blamed on economics or politics, but on older people. And the same talk of a "war" is now happening between millennials and baby boomers.
What is entirely missed in the UK and Europe’s more recent embrace of phoney generational politics is this general degradation of lifetime expectations for all. It is not, as the UK’s most enthusiastic cheerleader of strict intergenerational accounting, the Intergenerational Foundation, would have us believe, that economic and social order will miraculously be restored once we have worked out the correct proportions of public and private wealth to which each generation is rightfully entitled. The real problem is that ordinary folk of all generations are being conned – and coached to blame it on each other.