Key Points:

For those at the forefront of the baby-boomer generation, the 1981 Springbok tour was an epoch-making event. Most people were split into deeply divided camps, the conservatives insisting politics and sport did not mix and liberals intent on stopping the progress around New Zealand of a team selected on racial grounds.

The violence and disruption remain fresh in the memory of many of that generation. Perhaps that is why journalist Barry Soper decided he would revisit John Key's thoughts about the event during this week's televised leaders' debate. And why Helen Clark, who strongly opposed the tour, sought to make capital out of the National Party leader's apolitical attitude.

Both must have been startled when, subsequently, there was considerable criticism of their tack. Those aged under 40 clearly viewed their line of questioning as esoteric and largely irrelevant. This, they thought, was something that happened 27 years ago.

Clearly, the Springbok tour does not matter to them as much as it did to the baby boomers - and with reason. The issues that spurred this confrontation vanished relatively soon after the tour.

The apartheid regime was dismantled, Nelson Mandela was released from prison to lead the new South Africa, and black and Coloured players began to wear the Springbok jersey. For succeeding generations, an issue of unarguable importance in 1981 lost its gravity and momentousness.

It is, of course, always so. A preceding generation viewed the 1951 waterfront strike in similarly cataclysmic terms. Many households were divided as the Government of the day drummed up the perception that communism had reached these shores and was wielding its influence in the more militant unions.

Draconian measures enforced during the 151-day strike included a ban on publicising the watersiders' case and penalties for anyone who fed, paid or otherwise helped the strikers' families. The Army was even called in to work the wharves, so the country's export trade was not interrupted.

But within a relatively short time history had placed such dramatic events in a new perspective. Communism was tarnished irreparably when the 1956 Hungarian uprising was crushed, and the trade union movement fell under the moderate sway of the Federation of Labour, which had supported the Government during the strike. The emotions aroused in 1951 seemed far less relevant.

A generation earlier, it had been the Great Depression. Many people who lived through it were seared by its impact. Some, determined they would never go hungry again, stored canned food for the rest of their lives. Others clung to the same job until they retired. Yet even its importance waned in a period of post-World War II prosperity and stability.

And it has continued to diminish as, a hiccup or two notwithstanding, generation after generation has enjoyed a buoyant economy and high employment. The 2008 global financial event is the first occurrence to seriously challenge that picture.

Since the 1981 Springbok tour, there has, in fact, been no episode that any generation could regard as being of a similar defining nature. Could it be that such a signal event has now arrived?

Generations have been able to immerse themselves in a world dominated by computer technology, the web, galloping globalisation, deregulation and a rising Asian influence without economic hardship or even fear of its intrusion.

The dramatic events of the past few weeks have changed all that. Governments have remade the economic landscape. The worst may be yet to come. If so, this could, indeed seem to be an episode of unarguable importance. But will it be so when prosperity returns? And will questioning during a 2035 leaders' debate of a candidate's attitude to it appear largely beside the point?