Megalogenis and the generation game (updated)

Update On reflection, I went a bit over the top here. Generational stereotypes press my hot buttons, but that’s no excuse for the excess aggression in this post. I respect George Megalogenis as a journalist and, except on this point, I’ve found him to be insightful and thoughtful. So, apologises for losing my temper here. I will try to write a proper review of the book soon. End update

When I started reading George Megalogenis’ new book The Australian Moment I was stopped on page 1 by a piece of generation-game nonsense so silly I could scarcely believe someone as smart as GM would write it. Several people commented that it was unfair to judge a book by its first page[1], which is true, though I don’t see that there is anything wrong with commenting on the first page.

Anyway, after finishing a couple of other books that had jumped ahead in the queue (notably Red Plenty about the hopes for, and ultimate failure of, planning in the Soviet Union), I got back to The Australian Moment last night.

It started well. The discussion of the Whitlam government was excellent with some keen insights and use of declassified US State Department cables I hadn’t previously seen[2]. Then on p29, we get a quote from a young fogeyish Paul Keating in 1970, saying that “husbands have been forced to send their wives to work”. Graciously admitting that Keating is too old to be a baby boomer, Megalogenis nevertheless asserts that he “spoke for boomer men”.

Really? On the standard dating of the baby boom from 1946 to 1964, the youngest of them were six years old at the time, and even the oldest (at 24) were mostly unmarried. I doubt that many of them were worrying about household budgets. In any case, the terminology of “sending wives out to work” was crankily old-fashioned even in 1970. Keating was probably the last (in the sense of latest-born) person ever to use it in Australia. Boomer women joined the workforce as a matter of course when they finished school. The big problem for boomers entering the workforce in the 1970s wasn’t the need for two jobs but the lack of any.

At this point, I went to the index to check whether the generation-game stuff gets any better. It doesn’t. To take one of many examples, Megalogenis touts his own “generation W”[3] as responsible for punk rock, and, in particular the Sex Pistols (fronted by John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, born 1956), The Saints (Ed Kuepper, born 1955) and The Ramones, (formed in 1974, when most of Generation W was still unborn).

My point here isn’t that Megalogenis needs to redo his generation stuff with more accurate dating[4], though that would be better than nothing. It’s that any approach to political analysis that classifies people by birthdate is doomed to failure. As I pointed out more than a decade ago,

by the time the members of a given cohort reach their late twenties, their life courses have diverged so much that they cease to form a well-defined group with common experiences. The differences between men and women, rich and poor, workers and bosses, married and single, parents and nonparents count for much more than the commonality that comes from sharing a date on a birth certificate.

So what am I going to do here? If I could I would get Megalogenis to rewrite his book, deleting every reference to generations. Since that’s not possible, I will do the next best thing, and skip a couple of pages every time the word is mentioned. With that omission, the book promises to be a good read.

fn1. In reality, of course, given that it’s impossible to read more than a tiny fraction of the books that are printed every year, we all, quite literally, judge books by their covers most of the time.

fn2. No mention of the rumors, rife at the time, of CIA involvement in Whitlam’s dismissal.

fn3. An amalgam of Gens X and Y, consisting of those born between 1964 and the early 1990s. W stands for “Wogs and Women”.

fn4. If you are going to play this game at all sensibly, you need to split the Baby boom into the Vietnam generation, born before 1954 and therefore, if male, liable to conscription, and Generation Jones, born after 1954, who entered the workforce after the collapse of Bretton Woods. But the best thing to do is not to play the game at all.

29 thoughts on “Megalogenis and the generation game (updated)

  1. I look forward to it!

    (I think my grumpiness came from how he went on about greedy plebs & trade unionists; much worse than his Quarterly Essay)

  2. I liked this book, John. At least from the 80s onward. And I think Megalogenis is a first rate journalist and probably a lovely guy. But you have made me re-think the whole Gen W thing. I thought initially that you dismissed it because you weren’t part of the cool club ie, Gen W. I said to myself, if only he’d had read Faultlines, he’d understand what Gen W is all about (shared experiences of a generation of peoples). But the more I think about it, I don’t think it passes the test of time. Megalogenis, himself, admits that now he has “made it”, he is now part of the majority ( by which, presumably he means rich, unencumbered by the prejudices that beset him as a child). And, given that, I wonder how he can possibly put himself in the head-space or shared experiences of people who do. And by people, I mean women and “wogs” (to quote Megalogenis) – who still face prejudice every single day. It also bothers me that he groups a generation by victimology – sex, race, socio-economic grouping. I now find myself insulted by it. It’s hardly helpful and I’m not sure how accurate it is. In my view, it simply sums up his experience in growing up in Australia in the 70s and 80s and his observation that some of his peers had similar experiences. To go from here to postulating similar experiences for an entire generation seems to be a leap of faith that even I can’t take. And it isn’t necessary anyway. The points he makes outside this paradigm are perfectly valid.

  3. Dr Tad, on your remark, “Like most neoliberals, Megalogenis”, do you know of anyone who actually self-identifies as a neoliberal? even communists are proud to be communists.

    In Neoliberalism: From New Liberal Philosophy to Anti-Liberal Slogan, Taylor C. Boas & Jordan Gans-Morse looked to find anyone who self-identified as a neo-liberal at http://people.bu.edu/tboas/neoliberalism.pdf

    They did not uncover a single contemporary instance in which an author used the term self-descriptively, and only one—an article by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (1999)—in which it was applied to the author’s own policy recommendations.

    Digging into his archives, they did find that while Friedman (1951) embraced the neoliberal label and philosophy in one of his earliest political writings, he soon distanced himself from the term, trumpeting “old-style liberalism” in later manifestoes (Friedman 1955). The paper is “Neo-liberalism and its Prospects.” Milton Friedman Papers, Box 42, Folder 8, Hoover Institution Archives. 1951. Hardly a smoking gun?

    They do find that: the term is often undefined; it is employed unevenly across ideological divides; and it is used to characterize an excessively broad variety of phenomena

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