Neal Curtis: Lucky generations squandered benefits of post-war social mobility

From the perspective of today's young people, these previous generations have created potentially unlivable social and environmental conditions. Photo / 123RF
From the perspective of today's young people, these previous generations have created potentially unlivable social and environmental conditions. Photo / 123RF

• Neal Curtis is an associate professor in Media and Communication at the University of Auckland.

Every generation feels misunderstood by the generation that preceded it. At the moment it is the turn of Millennials. Having been born into a world of immersive screens, networked communications and virtual reality, the opinion of those more used to "real life" is that this generation is out of touch, literally divorced from the world, living in a simulated bubble of desire and self-satisfaction.

Quite often they are also carelessly dismissed as work-shy.

In recent years the term Millennials - roughly referring to people born between 1986 and the present - has increasingly been used as a pejorative, targeting young people who voice their concerns about the job market or the cost of a university education. Older generations shout them down with claims about how hard life was for them, and how they didn't expect everything handed to them on a plate, all the while regurgitating charges of entitlement and narcissism inspired by Jean Twenge's book Generation Me.

This, however, hides the fact that preceding generations, those we refer to as Baby Boomers (1945-1965) and Generation X (1966-1985) were given much more than they care to admit. In their desire to further their own fantasy of the rugged individual, they forget an important aspect of social history, namely that they benefited a great deal from the largesse of the public purse.

At the centre of my criticism is that these generations benefited from massive public investment in infrastructure and services. Post-war construction in the UK was essential, but in the United States this also involved the full development of Roosevelt's New Deal and the Keynesian economics that stemmed from the Great Depression, an approach to economics that also benefited New Zealand and Australia.

Boomers in the UK particularly benefited from the incredible social mobility that was the result. What annoys me the most, then, is when Boomers make claims about being "self-made" without any comprehension or recognition of the huge advantages they received from an economy boosted by public investment.

Gen Xers also benefited from the post-war consensus, but often look down on Millennials for their social compliance and instrumental thinking. Gen Xers like to think of themselves as rebels and punks who tore down the mask of 70s suburban civility, but in grand political terms, they did nothing.

Their revolt and dissent ultimately turned into a nihilistic morass of individual expression that Reagan and Thatcher turned into the free-market ideology of "choice". Both Boomers and Gen Xers wasted the post-war consensus and the collective desire for change that emerged in the three decades immediately after the war.

By the time Millennials were being born, Boomers and Gen Xers had voted in politicians who would begin to strip away social security, undermine public investment and any legitimacy there lay in dissent.

Boomers and Gen Xers produced a culture in which Millennials are expected to be compliant drones in an age when risk has been moved away from corporations and been placed squarely back on the shoulders of workers.

In this environment the right to an education has also been turned into the obligation to take on debt, and in every interaction Millennial are reduced to customers; not students, patients or citizens, just customers. Boomers and Gen Xers benefited from grants for university or from low fees in the US because the universities were not yet committed to maximising profits over education.

In my job as an academic I work closely with these young people and I find them incredibly positive, resilient, creative, hopeful and hard working. They deserve so much more than the paltry scraps left by Boomers and Gen Xers who have no idea how lucky they were.

From the perspective of today's young people, these previous generations have created potentially unlivable social and environmental conditions. From times of collective support, public investment and the legitimacy of rebellion, Boomers and Gen Xers have handed down environmental degradation, possessive individualism, instrumentality, pointless consumption, conformity, unnecessary war, plutocracy, growing inequality, rising problems in mental health and a culture of spite, and in my view, epitomise the blindness to privilege that so blights our culture.

- NZ Herald

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