Last refuge of the incompetent

Confirming my view that the generation game is, for journalists, the last refuge of the incompetent, Richard Neville lets off a spray on behalf of the Boomers against Gen X. A typical para

Around the time US snipers were taking aim from the rooftop of Falluja’s last functioning hospital, and images of their infant victims started to appear on websites, an old-fashioned student demo erupted in Sydney.

At last, I thought, the era of the zombie workaholic is over. It’s back to reality, instead of back to reality TV.

But no, these respectable ruffians in branded chinos were holed up in a vice-chancellor’s office to protest against the rising costs of education. No posters of dead Iraqi babies. The students have a point about the fees, but why can’t they get upset about other people’s problems?

I hate to break it to Richard who was, perhaps, a bit out of it at the time, but a large proportion of student protests in the 60s and 70s were about internal university issues, and a lot more were about the issue of the draft, directly relevant to those protesting against it. Quite a few of those attending probably wore Levis jeans and, some, as cool kids at high school, had probably made life a misery for those unfortunate enough to have parents who thought that King Gee was good enough. Finally, contrary to what Neville implies[1], there were loads of young people at the marches I attended in protest against the Iraq war.

Of course, this piece produced the appropriate response from outraged GenXers on the letters page, which only encourages hacks like Neville to reach for this piece of boilerplate next time they have nothing worthwhile to write. I’ve been bombarded with generational cliches since I was old enough to turn on a TV set. I look forward to a time when the idea that you can classify a person by the date on their birth certificate is accepted only in the astrology columns.

Update 06/05More on this from Ken Parish and I should also acknowledge Geoff Honnor who beat me to the punch on this one. Paul Watson recognises the silliness of Neville’s attempts to define Gen X on the basis of a sample apparently provided by his daughter’s affluent boyfriends, but doesn’t yet concede that it’s the whole idea of defining generations that’s absurd.

fn1. The story makes it pretty clear that Neville himself hasn’t been to an antiwar march for quite some time, and is relying on what he sees on TV.

16 thoughts on “Last refuge of the incompetent

  1. Erm, isn’t the average uni student today a bit too young to be considered Generation X?

  2. Its typical that someone of your vintage would seek to dismiss generational indicators of values, beliefs and behavioural characteristics, John, but I and all my contemporaries know that they are in fact extremely reliable.

  3. Surely generational vintage is a reliable predictor of some types of attitudes and behaviours?
    This is particularly the case with social relations based on cultural fashion (ie mores, modes & morals) rather than the more intractable natural traditions (race, class, gender).

  4. Has anyone checked the opinion polls from the 1960s? Did most young people really oppose the Vietnam war?

    And does it really follow that if you don’t take to the streets you don’t care? Maybe it just means you don’t see the same connection between slogan-chanting and social change that Neville does.

  5. My heart sank, too, when I saw that stupid Neville article. I’m sick of being public enemy no.1 because I was born in the late 50s; I drive a car made in 1990, “own” a small weatherboard house which really belongs to the bank, have experienced downsizing and career change, do not own a holiday house, have pathetic super, and I don’t know if I would recognise a pair of Manolo Blahniks if I saw one. I thought Neville’s comment on students demonstrating against Uni fees appalling– of course university education is an issue of major importance. Neville is really taking the Howard/Nelson line here — Uni students are all just middle class wankers who must be made to pay. And it’s really a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t; we all know the stereotype of the scruffy demonstrator, but if they dress neatly, then, you know, they aren’t the deserving poor.
    The problem is that I am now lumped with people like Neville, just as feminists are blamed for Germaine Greer’s eccentric outpourings because she’s seen by tabloid journalists as some kind of queen of the feminists.

    And… That Levi’s anecdote is so spot-on. Flashback to teenagerdom. Aaaargh!

  6. ” look forward to a time when the idea that you can classify a person by the date on their birth certificate is accepted only in the astrology columns.”

    Hear, hear John. I can’t believe the SMH devoted two op-eds to this pseudo-scientific concoction of spivs in the advertising industry.

  7. Stereotyping is generally futile and only blinds people to the variety of thoughts that all people of all ages have.

    While it is generally expected that older people are more “conservative” and that younger ones are more liberal (in the north american sense), i have met enough enlightened elders and enough narrowminded young liberals to know that exceptions are always the rule

  8. Good to see you on insight last night as well john… it was interesting discussion.

    Highlights were the guy from IPA not making a coherent point. Katter with 200 “thousand million”…. The guy from CIS was however coherent and i can definately respect his opinion even though i don’t agree with it….

    The two former labor ministers talked well, and definately the rationalism that infected the keating goverement lead to its undoing in 1996, the struggle since for labor to regain power has been difficult. For instance, my father (a dairy farmer) blames labor for deregulation of his industry and sees john howard as a protectionist. and i can’t convince him otherwise. I do not understand why the farmers in the community vote for the nationals, they have held ultimate power for the last 8 years (if they withdraw from the coalltion the liberals are stuck) and farming in australia has in no way improved.

    John stone was even more interesting, he didn’t agree with much….

    And if you made it home in time john you would have been able to watch SBS the cutting edge special on saudi arabia… excelent show that has only reinforced my opposition to the war on iraq.

    Follow that with lateline interviewing richard clarke 🙂 wow, what a night

  9. Being 23 years old and a Uni Student (for 5 more weeks at least), I believe I am too young to be a Gen Xer. And when I was at the last student protest in Melbourne, I was actually in my dinner suit (A long story).

  10. “For instance, my father (a dairy farmer) blames labor for deregulation of his industry and sees john howard as a protectionist.”

    John Howard a protectionist? Who would’ve thunk it? (sarcasm)

  11. Unrelated, but are you going to be covering the Copehagen Consensus on global warming? I read it today and it seems there’s not much even you could get angry about. Will you retract your previous comments about it now?

  12. Pk, all I’ve seen so far is the “proposal” paper by Cline. I have some technical disagreements, but as you would expect, no major objection to the paper. I imagine given the Mendelsohn is to write the reply that I won’t think much of it, but this part of the process is the ordinary give-and-take of public debate.

    It’s the ranking of priorities by the panel where I suggested that there were grounds for concern. This remains to be seen.

  13. Not entirely sure I agree with you, John, that the “whole idea of defining generations… is absurd”. While there is perhaps no subject on which more total rubbish ‘informed’ by unsupported generalisation and invalid inference from personal anecdote or experience mars the quality of public discourse, there is a very respectable case for observing some historical regularities in cultural and political conflict between generations. Much of this is based on Mannheim’s work in the first half of the 20th century, and despite Turner’s recent book, the theoretical and empirical scope of knowledge on this is little advanced – though Elias says some fascinating things in his book ‘The Germans’ about differences in political behaviour and continuities among post ww1 and ww2 generations.

    There would be a strong argument that this is an area where really rigorous and well funded social science research could inform public debate. Unfortunately, as I found out when trying to compile a reading list for a course called ‘Youth and Deviance’ at UQ two years ago, too much of the ‘research’ in this area emanates either from a narrow criminological focus or the sort of impressionistic narrative favoured in cultural studies…

  14. My G-G-G-G Generation
    I’m pleased to see that John Quiggin has debunked a recent article by that pathetic parody of Sixties radicalism Richard Neville, about the imagined apathy of “Generation X” compared with Neville’s “Baby Boomer” generation. As John remarks: Of course, …

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