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.