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Gap is one of credibility

August 19th, 2009

Talking of zombie ideas that wont die, my column in last week’s Fin (run under the headline above) was yet another assault on the generation game. I don’t suppose it will stop the likes of Greg Melleuish, but perhaps it might persuade a few people that this kind of stuff serves only to obscure the real issues.

If there is one thing more inevitable than the ups and downs of the business cycle, it is the generalizations about generations that accompanies every phase of the cycle. Unemployment has been rising for a year and, right on cue, commentators have emerged to blame the young.

This round was kicked off by some remarks made by Employment Participation Minister, Mark Arbib, at a young Labor conference in Sydney. His message that young people should take whatever jobs they could get, and the implication that many were being too ‘picky’, set off a familiar media frenzy.

In one sense, this story is timeless. An ancient quote, spuriously attributed to Socrates, says: ‘The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they allow disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children now are tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.’

It is safe to assume that this statement was made in a period of prosperity, when young people had a lot of opportunities. Exactly the same was said about young people during the long postwar boom that peaked in the 1960s, during the spurious Internet boom of the late 1990s and as recently as 2007. The only difference is that these cliches are now presented with a generational label.

This started with the discovery (or invention) of the Generation Gap in the 1960s, a label that implied, falsely, that members of the Baby Boom generation thought and acted as one. Most early discussion of the Generation Gap flattered the Boomers, presenting them as rebels with a cause, set to sweep away the hypocrisies of the older generation, and institute a new age of love and harmony. But the standard complaints of the older generation against the young got a good airing, which continued right down to the tiresome ‘culture wars’ pursued by the Howard government and its intellectual supporters.

With the economic crisis of the 1970s, the tables were turned. Their older brothers and sisters had been able to pick and choose among jobs, but those born at the tail end of the baby boom faced youth unemployment rates of 30 per cent or more. Having missed out on most of what is supposed to characterize the Boomers, this group has been retrospectively labelled Generation Jones (slang for an unfulfilled craving).

It was at this time that terms like ‘dole bludger’ became popular. Ignoring the obvious fact that, when there are no jobs, entrants to the labour force will remain unemployed, commentators sought to blame the victims of the crisis, rather than consider the systemic failures that had brought it about.

By the 1990s, the players had changed again, but the rules remained much the same. Upwardly mobile members of Generation X, now in their 20s and early 30s, were impatient to push aside the Boomers who were sitting in so many of the plum jobs they desired. Meanwhile, Boomers criticised X-ers in terms familiar from their own youth. If unemployed, they were bludgers (remember the Paxtons?) If employed and doing well, they were selfish and disrespectful.

Now it’s the turn of Generation Y. When labor market conditions were tight, they were labelled as arrogant, fickle job-hoppers. Most strikingly, employers complained that they were ‘disloyal’. This from a group that has spent much of the last two decades sacking loyal employees en masse whenever they thought it would improve the bottom line.

As the recession approached, Gen X employers and commentators couldn’t contain their glee. Newspapers, including this one, were full of stories about how Gen Y would finally get its come-uppance. Now the same tired old script is being played out yet again.

About the only sensible comment in the entire saga has come from Lindsay Tanner who observed, ‘One of the things that annoys me in public debate a lot is that people tend to generalise about generations … I think that if you look at the average 25-year-old now you will see all kinds of different attitudes, all kinds of different people, different circumstances. ’

Ever since the generation game began, it has consisted, almost exclusively, of claims about work and the lack of it, coded in terms of birth years. It’s time to drop this generational nonsense once and for all, and to focus on restoring sustainable full employment.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow at the University of Queensland. He is a member of Generation Jones.

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  1. HD4020
    August 19th, 2009 at 00:50 | #1

    Interesting blog, but it’s missing an important part of the equation: Generation Jones (born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X). Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. In fact, the Associated Press’ annual Trend Report forcast the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. Many experts now believe it breaks down more or less this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978

    I was a bit surprised to see this comment, since the post obviously mentions Generation Jones (read the signoff). It turns out to be an automated spam comment with a link to a site, which I’ve deleted. I’m leaving it up as an example of a new(ish) phenomenon, at least for me: another way of making spam look genuine

  2. Freelander
    August 19th, 2009 at 04:34 | #2

    Possible title
    Zombie Economics: Six ideas that don’t even know that their dead

  3. conrad
    August 19th, 2009 at 07:23 | #3

    It would be good to know what the Paxtons are up to now. It would be funny if they had become a middle class success story.

  4. August 19th, 2009 at 08:38 | #4

    One thing about “generations” that seems striking to me is the acceleration of the supposed transition from one to another. Boomers had a good long run before being replaced. Gen X hadn’t been around very long before someone (not sure who) decided we needed a new one, Gen Y. That one had barely got out of the starting blocks before I was hearing about Gen Z, who are still children and are therefore getting a pre-emptive collective identity!

    It’s starting to get out of hand.

  5. Jim Birch
    August 19th, 2009 at 09:55 | #5

    I’m relieved to to know that I’m not the only one concerned about this continual crossing of the legs by these indolent GenYs.

  6. August 19th, 2009 at 10:12 | #6

    Yes! This drives me crazy. I am a ‘gen Y’, and few things frustrate me more than the constant media coverage of our apparent collective indolence, idleness and ignorance. Bernard Salt in particular is an endless annoyance.

  7. Janet
    August 19th, 2009 at 10:16 | #7

    “One thing about “generations” that seems striking to me is the acceleration of the supposed transition from one to another. Boomers had a good long run before being replaced.”
    I seem to remember a long period of complaining about the dominance of ‘old men’ before the ‘boomers’ got their so called ‘long run’. Some countries are still waiting for a ‘boomer’ leader.

    I hate the generation thing for the simple reason that I am a boomer (or Generation Jones, according to the tighter descriptions) who doesn’t own a home, doesn’t have a healthy super fund but does have a HECS debt.

  8. Roger Jones
    August 19th, 2009 at 10:26 | #8

    I am generation Jones. And let me tell you – the whole generation thing is crap. A whole generation like me? Scary. I know lots of other Joneses who were born at very different times. Now Generation Quiggin – that’s got a ring to it. I know Neal Stephenson would approve.

  9. nanks
    August 19th, 2009 at 10:34 | #9

    @Janet

    I’m a ‘generation Jones’ (a term I only heard recently), got the high unemployment in the 70′s and now the unemployable coz I’m over 50. So much for a PhD and a Uni medal (from JQ’s university). Not complaining though – lol

  10. CJ
    August 19th, 2009 at 10:39 | #10

    Not quite on topic, but Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic has been discussing unemployment and job selection. One of the quotes that he has posted is: “To the people who say that the unemployed should accept menial jobs, I would say… why should I? Speaking from personal experience, I put in 4 years getting an undergraduate degree and 2 years getting a professional certification so that I wouldn’t have to work in a warehouse. From an economic standpoint, does it make sense to force talented workers into dead-end jobs just to survive? Or to give them a safety net, and let them find a job more suited to their skills?”

    The few people I know who have lost jobs in Australia are young financial sector employees. None of them has taken on menial work. Instead, they’ve taken on study opportunities (masters, language, post-graduate medicine).

  11. smiths
    August 19th, 2009 at 11:04 | #11

    the real trick is to create the problem and create the solution

    A team of Canadian mathematicians have been picking their large, delectable brains over whether humankind could survive a zombie apocalypse.

    Their conclusion?

    “An outbreak of zombies infecting humans is likely to be disastrous, unless extremely aggressive tactics are employed against the undead,” says the paper, titled When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection.

    http://www.canada.com/Mathematicians+create+model+fighting+zombies/1897372/story.html

  12. smiths
    August 19th, 2009 at 11:08 | #12

    ahhrrgg, just noticed that piece has already been posted in the other thread, sorry

  13. August 19th, 2009 at 11:11 | #13

    Also I am supposedly from ‘Generation Jones’. The absurdity of the generation generalisations is that the late 60′s (when the ‘babyboomers’ came into voting age) gave us Nixon and didn’t save Withlam in 1975.

    Reading ‘Wikipedia’ about ‘Generation Jones’ it tells us that they ‘are more conservative that their older (babyboomer) brothers and sisters’. But Obama, this Kennedyian progressive president was born the same year I was (1961). Go figure.

    I must admit that mainstream music in the mid 70′s was pretty crappy. The ‘babyboomers’ had a better deal there ;)

  14. philip travers
    August 19th, 2009 at 12:27 | #14

    I think I will have a menial job without pay or progress forever,as a Generation Jones,who done his nana in a dole queue,and done his nana a number of times,whilst the creeps with degrees across that life span hardly land a blow as progressives against the tardy Arbibs.Who is like a young Turnbull before his balls dropped and sounded more masculine since then.I am happy I have found some common sets of experiences here..thank you Prof.Quiggins.But, Obama has recently on his Facebook site claimed a different age to 48 meaning another round of controversy has been swimming in from Hawaii,because the older Obama again would not be an American Citizen ,but a invited to registered birth at the American Territory then.Actually I think Generation Jones in Australia are our nations population hope ,rather than dependents,for the simple reason that the propoganda rub of society has been brutally applied a number of times I even had the experience of being verballed by Police.Not bad is it when you see the bloody Ruddites wanting to sool the Police onto the “layabouts” again through high pitched Arbib.

  15. August 19th, 2009 at 12:36 | #15

    I’m afraid academics must take a large part of the blame. We love to develop typologies and taxonomies; indeed they are essential before a lot of research and analysis is even possible. Any kind of theory that involves generalised propositions about social categories risks creating false perceptions.

    It’s like shooting fish in a barrel to demonstrate the deep-seated flaws in many scholarly typologies (Miles and Snow’s prospectors, defenders etc in their widely-cited work on organisational strategy is a case in point). The alternative approach to analysing organisations and societies, based on complex adaptive systems theory, is so challenging to rationalist scholars that they refuse even to grapple with it. They just mutter ‘postmodern bullshit’ in a dismissive tone and get on with applying for another ARC grant to do quantitiative research designed to position human beings or institutions in yet another rationalist model of some kind.

    We can hardly blame the popular media for adopting and adapting an over-simplification methodology when they probably learned similar models at university.

  16. Socrates
    August 19th, 2009 at 14:10 | #16

    It is indeed a very old tactic:

    “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
    frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
    words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
    respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
    [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint” (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

  17. may
    August 19th, 2009 at 14:38 | #17

    a classic wedge!

    those young whipper-snippers v them tight fisted wrinklies v smartarsed metrosexers v dole bludging,singleslut useless drain on society v

    me.

    woe.

  18. Steve
    August 19th, 2009 at 14:51 | #18

    I remember hearing the expression “Nintendo Generation” some years before I had ever heard of GenY, and vaguely recollect that it was suggested to start some time in the mid 70s or so. Maybe that one didn’t quite catch on. If you google it, there are plenty of links though.

  19. nanks
    August 19th, 2009 at 14:57 | #19

    i think the generation gap works best the other way – by flattering young people as a ‘new’ generation, filled with ‘new’ knowledge and ‘new’ capabilities. Easy to exploit through flattery and by denigrating the possiblity of knowledge from experience you undermine criticism of products and ideologies from a whole population of older people.

  20. smiths
    August 19th, 2009 at 17:01 | #20

    my little boy who is eight said to me the other day that he wanted to be in generation x when he grows up

  21. Alice
    August 19th, 2009 at 18:10 | #21

    All I know is I caught a bus home today (doesnt happen often but Id been out to lunch with a workmate). Well, in fact it happens so infrequently I was shocked enough to text my hubby and say the younger gen were ALL plugged into to something…either ipod music OR texting OR taking calls on mobiles OR staring at screen games. Its the plugged in gen.

  22. Donald Oats
    August 19th, 2009 at 18:11 | #22

    Perhaps the “Generation Gap Syndrome”^tm should become one of the Zombies, as it has all of the criteria covered: it’s actually an old idea, merely recycled with a quick lick of paint and an update on the current idioms in language; it-just-won’t-die-and-stay-dead; it feels right, and so is easy to accept without further scrutiny; it is an enabler of much economic discussion and analysis of the financial behaviour of each labelled generation, and why they are – supposedly – different; it leads analysts up the garden path if they don’t think about whether the assumptions behind the “Generation Gap” categories are actually valid; it provides the writer’s equivalent of spac-filla for disguising the intellectual cracks in the writer’s article.

    Of course, if you accept “Generation Gap Syndrome”^tm as zombie #7, you’ll need to make a slight change to your title.

    PS: “Generation Gap Syndrome”^tm sounded kinda catchy, maybe good for a book title, hence the “^tm” :-)

  23. Alice
    August 19th, 2009 at 18:43 | #23

    But it wont last forever – the lure of being plugged in (its OK whilst Mum and Dad are paying)….I spoke to some kids in my son’s circle of friends and they are well aware of the reach of the telecommunications giants into their pockets and the cost of the “plug ins”….discernment arrives.

  24. Alice
    August 19th, 2009 at 19:32 | #24

    You know – these gens are turning over every five years!! Niot enough time to even create a gen (seriously – is it so much marketing rubbish…???)
    They really arent even gens – a gen is at least twenty years damn it.

  25. August 20th, 2009 at 00:06 | #25

    “…I was shocked enough to text my hubby and say the younger gen were ALL plugged into to something…either ipod music OR texting OR taking calls on mobiles OR staring at screen games…” [emphasis added].

    Is this conscious irony?

    “…a gen is at least twenty years damn it”.

    Not in the good old days, when life was short and people shorter. But that smacks of a certain older generation grumpiness (or so the stereotype might suggest). But is this conscious irony?

  26. Alice
    August 20th, 2009 at 07:29 | #26

    @P.M.Lawrence
    I was just wondering what comes after gen Z – do we start again at gen AA…??

  27. smiths
    August 20th, 2009 at 10:39 | #27

    its all very well to say that generational comments have always existed and this lot are no different to any other,

    but no generation of children has grown up as commercialised and brainwashed as this generation,
    in western countries their exposure to sex and violence is more pervasive and warped than any other in recent times,
    and it is linked to ‘cool’ and the new value system of dog eat dog and get rich at any cost,

    i dont think anyone who isnt currently raising a child between two and sixteen years old can possibly understand how pervasive and malicious the culture is

  28. August 20th, 2009 at 10:42 | #28

    Could someone please see to it that Bernard Salt reads this post…

  29. Alice
    August 20th, 2009 at 11:23 | #29

    @smiths
    Unfortunately the gen naming blaming and shaming game is used to maximum benefit by advertisers and politicians. So the gens X,Y,Z,and so on ad nauseum can be used to plug kids into expensive aparatus. Key marketing strategies….identify the target market,play on their developing fragile senses of “belonging” and self confidence – so necessary for teenagers = “oh MUM – everyone else has got an ipod, a mobile, a whatever…..” Unfortunately and sadly, the gen game then is used by firms to further commercialise andn indoctrinate youth and politicians to paper over their own shortcomings…not enough emmployment? Well – its because this gen doesnt really want to work, they are so picky etc.
    A nice little earner the generation game…
    Thats why the gens labels get changed so often PM, not because Im a grumpy older gen indulging in conscious irony or because people once reproduced younger and were shorter …… based on that the real gens are longer than 20 years now..yet a new one pops up in ad land every five years or so now.
    I would suggest ad land should really start using the term gen X, subgen X1 etc to correctly define the target market for each new product launch.

  30. veltyen
    August 20th, 2009 at 11:41 | #30

    The ABS is a site worth fossicking through at the best of times, though I am sure that I’m not telling anyone anything new.

    The “Baby Boom” Lasted from 1944 (before the end of the war, which is interesting in its own right) until 1974 – during this time fertility was relatively constant at around 3.

    In 1972 to 1977 (1977 was the last year at fertility 2 – every year since then has been lower) there was an obvious linear drop to the current rate which oscillates around 1.9, just below replacement. Again relatively constant. This drop matches the rise in unemployment from 5% (1975 and later).

    The obvious solution is that there are two generations – The boomers born between 1945 and 1975, and genX between 1975 and 2005. :)

  31. gerard
    August 20th, 2009 at 18:36 | #31

    The tyranny of the discrete mind. As if lines can be drawn separating one generation from the next.

    OT, but speaking of the Fin, did anyone catch Latham’s ripping into Gillard today? It’s fine to write a hit-piece, but airing an old friend’s private correspondence in a national paper? that’s low!

  32. gerard
    August 20th, 2009 at 18:40 | #32

    bollocks John, why am I always in moderation these days?

    No idea. I’m afraid. Only WordPress knows for sure – JQ

  33. Monkey’s Uncle
    August 20th, 2009 at 23:27 | #33

    The thing about these generational arguments is that if you get beyond the cliches and simplistic generalisations, it is actually quite a fruitful area of research.

    The problem with discussing generations over time spans that are close to 20 years in length is that it obscures a lot of more interesting microtrends. If you break people down into smaller groups (such as five year periods) there are actually much more significant and fascinating differences in beliefs among people.

    It is disappointing that such a fruitful area of social inquiry has become so debased. I presume part of the reason for this is that anyone with a unique understanding of demographics and psychology could do a lot better for themselves consulting for business instead of tapping out newspaper columns. Newspapers are written primarily for the consumption of those who want their simple worldviews confirmed, rather than actually get to the bottom of things.

  34. August 22nd, 2009 at 20:51 | #34

    It is absolutely the case that the generational nonsense is a fantastic way of concealing actual problems in areas such as employment. And of course it is being way over simplified as an analytical tool. Anyway, here is my own rant on the issue: http://godardsletterboxes.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/generation-nothing/

  35. Alice
    August 24th, 2009 at 10:02 | #35

    @melissa
    Wholeheartedly agree melissa. Gen X, gen Y, gen Z, net gen, gen total confusion – is total crapola as you say..cheap little marketing ploy used to sell toys to kids and terms used as pat little scapegoats for ineffective governments to buckpass their responsibilities to maintain the economic health and the advancement of Australian people. In the same way the term “dole bludgers” was kicked off in the 1970s as Firth noted – stay tuned for some pollie real soon to announce Gen NWW – (no want work) – its coming to a newspaper near you soon.

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