Being Kiwi: The war babies generation

The Herald marks its rebirth in a compact format with a special week-long inquiry into how our national identity has changed down through the generations. Today, we look at those aged 60-79 - the war babies.

Murray Thompson, 79, with Pukeatua School pupils (from left) Mika Harris, Nikita Beck, Emma Anderson and Julia Mickell on the steps of the Matapihi Education Centre where he's a volunteer. Photo / Christine Cornege
Murray Thompson, 79, with Pukeatua School pupils (from left) Mika Harris, Nikita Beck, Emma Anderson and Julia Mickell on the steps of the Matapihi Education Centre where he's a volunteer. Photo / Christine Cornege

Every time Murray Thompson comes back from his walk, his wife, Jessie, asks: "Who the hell did you chat to this morning?"

"My wife can't believe it, I have my walk in the morning and it takes me an hour," he says. "I love people, there are so many good people out there."

In the 50 years since he moved into the Cambridge district as a teacher at rural Te Miro School, Mr Thompson seems to have got to know just about everyone.

From Te Miro, he moved to Cambridge Intermediate as deputy principal and then commuted to principals' jobs around Hamilton. At 79, he still works as an education consultant, doing appraisals for 27 schools this year.

He also typifies New Zealanders of his generation - today's grandparents - in being heavily involved in the community. "War babies", as another former principal born in 1943, Ian Hughes, describes them, may mark the peak of what is still seen as a Kiwi characteristic - joining things.

In his youth, Mr Thompson played rugby and cricket, then refereed. He refereed a curtain-raiser at the great 1956 All Black-Springbok decider at Eden Park where New Zealand became the world's first team in 60 years to beat South Africa in a test series.

He joined the Cambridge Rotary Club many years ago and has been its president twice. When the Cambridge Harriers ran a half-marathon two weeks ago, 45 Rotarians and spouses turned out as volunteer marshals.

When the Life Education Trust started in Waikato, he chaired its local organisation and ended up on its national board.

He is volunteer education manager of a trust which has built a 47km pest-proof fence creating a nature reserve on nearby Maungatautari mountain. He lobbied the Education Ministry to install a classroom for the project at Pukeatua School, and enlisted Rotarians to donate thousands of hours of labour to it.

He became a justice of the peace in 1994, and when people started asking him to do weddings he became a marriage and funeral celebrant as well. He and Jessie have had a number of friends come to stay with them when they were dying.

"My wife was a fantastic nurse," he says. "She loves to look after them. And I'm a cook. That's what being in a [small] town is like."

As if by osmosis, the generation now in their 60s and 70s has absorbed the values of the welfare state that began with the Social Security Act of 1938 and extended to all families when the family benefit became universal just after the war.

Like those who were already young adults when those acts were passed, they are grateful for their good fortune.

"I've been really lucky, it's a bit of a lottery," Mr Thompson says.

From Canberra, Wellington-born civil servant John Husband, 62, echoes him: "I'm pretty damned lucky."

This is still a relatively homogeneous generation, predominantly European and mainly still at home. Mr Husband is one of only 10 per cent who have moved to Australia, less than in both the younger adult age bands in this series.

Asked for the typical characteristics of a New Zealander, this age group is more likely than any other to talk about generosity and compassion.

"I like to think we are friendly, warm and caring," says Gail Marten, 63, in Rotorua.

"We do think of other people before ourselves," says Mr Hughes, who coached rugby, chairs the Cambridge Neighbourhood Support trust and serves on the Cambridge Marae trust.

Cambridge Primary School office manager Sandra Hazelton, 60, recalls the "community spirit" when she was growing up on a Waikato dairy farm. "Someone could ring and say, 'I can't get to school, I've got a sick child, could you go and grab the kids."'

Christchurch secretary Trisha-Rose Tirase, also 60, says being Kiwi means being "green and community-minded". "We're very much in tune with the land ... If we don't want something to happen, like going nuclear or whaling, then we'll stand up."

Although they have worries about the future, reported in an accompanying story, most of the 60 to 79-year-olds interviewed for this series feel New Zealand has become a better place, on balance, in their lifetimes.

"Overall, people are friendlier and society has improved," says Jeanette Taylor, 66, in Christchurch. "We look out for the worse off a lot more than we used to."

Mr Hughes says education has been transformed from making children "regurgitate what the teacher said" to encouraging them to "discuss what's happening and why".

"I find them far more open, easy to talk to. If I go back to when I was first teaching, they were not," he says.

All but one of those who live in New Zealand in this age group are glad to be here. The exception, Mrs Tirase, pines for "the tropics of Australia and the outdoor lifestyle it gives you".

The three New Zealanders in this age group who live in Australia are also glad to be there. "Home is definitely here in Australia," says Mr Husband, who has been there since 1967.

The group has more mixed views than any other age group on New Zealand's growing ethnic diversity. Murray Thompson worries that Britain, where one of his sons lives, has been "flattened" by too many immigrants swamping British culture and straining services. "In theory I think it's great, but I'm not sure," he says. "I guess it's a balance."

In West Auckland, Samoan-born Mrs Niuula Toala-Keresoma, 75, says: "There are lots of Asian migrants here and at times I'm not happy about that. But there are lots of Pacific people here and people from other cultures and I don't know how to feel about that."

But even in this age group, nine out of the 14 people with views on the subject welcome increased diversity.

"They bring a different point of view," says Nevis Stanaway, 64, a teacher aide at Cambridge Primary School who has worked with many students who need help with English and with their families. "I've learned a lot from these people."

Snapshot: New Zealanders aged 60 to 79
European 86%
European-Maori 1.3%
Maori 4.7%
Asian 3.7%
Pacific 2.4%
Other/mixtures 1.8%

Where we are:
New Zealand 88.3%
Australia 9.8%
Rest of world 1.9%

Source: Statistics NZ

The question

Who are we?
What does it mean to be a New Zealander in today's interconnected world?

The context:
This week's changes in the New Zealand Herald are the biggest in our 149-year history and respond to equally momentous changes in our population and society that question our national identity.

The methods:
A DigiPoll survey of 750 New Zealanders plus in-depth interviews with 91 people in New Zealand and 16 NZ-born people in Australia, including similar numbers in five 20-year age bands. The NZ interviews were arranged with the help of primary schools spanning the socio-economic decile range in north and west Auckland, Cambridge, Rotorua and Christchurch. In addition, historians at the online encyclopaedia Te Ara selected 30 key events that helped to shape our identity over the past 100 years.

The team:
Greg Ansley, Kurt Bayer, Simon Collins, Yvonne Tahana, Lincoln Tan, Vaimoana Tapaleao.

The series
Yesterday: Pioneer stock - Aged 80-plus
Today: War babies - Aged 60-79
Tomorrow: Opening up - Aged 40-59
Thursday: Children of Rogernomics - Aged 20-39
Friday: Sport unites the nation - Aged under 20.

What shaped us:

Key events 1932-52

1938
The Social Security Act. The act proclaimed the welfare state. It provided benefits for the unemployed and the sick and provided a commitment to protecting the weak which most New Zealanders have supported ever since.

1942
Fall of Singapore. On February 15 the "impregnable" British base at Singapore was captured by the Japanese. New Zealanders realised they were a Pacific people who could no longer depend on the British navy.

1945
The Kiwi weekend begins. From 1945, shops and factories could not open on Saturdays. The Kiwi ritual of Friday night shopping and sport on Saturdays took off.

1946
Family benefit introduced. The universal family benefit paid 10 shillings for every child without a means test. It encouraged mothers to stay at home and helped fuel the baby boom.

1947
Assisted immigration scheme begins. Over the next 30 years more than 100,000 young people were encouraged to settle, mostly from England and Scotland and about 6000 from Holland. They brought energy and skills, and an ability to play soccer!

Source: 30 key events 1912-2012 selected by Dr Jock Phillips and his team at the online encyclopedia Te Ara. More online at: http://blog.teara.govt.nz

- NZ Herald

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