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 read the book a month ago. GM seems to break down the population for analysis just about every way except using some variation of class. Except when he’s banging on about the greed and irresponsibility of unionised workers, that is.

    I read it as a paean to economic rationalism. It gets weirder as it goes because he does recognise the social suffering caused by neoliberal policies and the terrible impact of the 1990-1 recession, but then seems to long for a populace that would just be happy to sacrifice even more for the good of the “reform” agenda he’s so entranced by.

    Some really interesting facts and stories in there, but in the end he can only explain the current disarray of the political class in terms of some huge dummy spit by ordinary voters no longer willing to take the harsh medicine he wants doled out.

  2. There is no doubt that the West experienced a youthquake in the second half of the 1960s.

    Because millions of boomers voted with their feet, some longstanding institutions and attitudes were challenged. A few were disrupted. Echoes of that youthquake persist.

    So-called boomers comprised the foot soldiers of the diverse movements that drew on the energy of this youthquake.

    Mouthpieces purporting to speak for other generations defined those generations in terms of alleged relations with the boomers. Megalogenis is simply the latest example of this arid methodology of cultural analysis.

    Although some echoes of the 60s youthquake persist, they are now much weakened and dissipated. These days generational configurations explain very little. Resort to it is an admission of intellectual laziness or intellectual exhaustion.

    Megalogenis conjures up “Generation W”. Does this stand for “Wanker”?

  3. Dr Tad and JQ have hit the nail on the head. The absurd generation game is what people play when they want to pretend that class does not matter.

    Also, it can be valid to form an initial judgement of a book by its first page. This may not be true of books published 100 or 150 years ago but I think it is true today. Authors of both fact and fiction ought now to be very aware of the importance of a good introduction to their work. The world is awash with published books and many of them are mediocre works. A discerning reader sometimes needs to judge quickly and discard so as to not waste his/her time on inferior works.

    With the modern writing and editing tools available to authors, particularly word processing and even voice recognition, there is no excuse for not working and re-working that crucial first page and first chapter again and again (not to mention the rest of the book).

  4. In his collection of columns, “Power Plays”, Oakes describes having dinner at the home of a US diplomat in October 1975.

    “The other guests were the US labor attache, who was a senior CIA operative, and a British MI5 agent working in Canberra under diplomatic cover” (125).

    According to the column, they wanted to know what would happen if the Coalition used its Senate numbers to block supply. Oakes reports that he told them that Sir John Kerr would dismiss the Labor government.

    It is not widely known that on 11 November 1975 the “lease” on Pine Gap expired and Whitlam, as PM, would have had to decide whether to grant a new lease for the US spy base.

  5. Like a lot of journalists trying out long form non-fiction, Megalogenis is good on detail but poor on analysis. His book serves as a pretty useful primer of the past 40 years of Australian economic-policy making. But he comes badly unstuck when he tries to knit it together.

    The generation W stuff I just found silly and irritating. It’s been a recurring theme in newspaper and magazine supplements for the last 20 years to try to define each micro generation (X, Y, Z) in relation to a largely mythological boomer generation.

    It’s become a sort of lazy overlay when a writer is stretching for significance – so we get the largely imported references to Woodstock, LSD and spoilt older siblings who wrecked it all for everyone else. Who ARE these people? I was born in 1958. I was too young to be a hippie and too old to be a punk. I was nine years old when Woodstock happened and was too young for Sunbury. It just gets sillier the more you try to pin it down.

    My theory on GM, as good as he is as an economic journalist, is that he’s one of the generation of journalists who came of age under Keating and have never gotten over their infatuation. He bought into the narrative about “the opening up of the Australian economy” and has always resisted examining the power relationships underneath all that change.

    That means he avoids asking the tough questions and delivers as sort of view from nowhere.

  6. 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.

    Does this mean 1954 was a golden birth year? So-called generational differences are sociological misunderstandings of the influence that increasing living standards has on culture, ideology and patterns of behaviour.

    It is reasonable to expect that advances such as plastics, transistors, motor vehicles, air travel, and the pill, occurring at particular times will stake out quite marked cultural and behaviour differences.

    The differences (which everyone focusses on) are less relevant than the causes of these differences. So if the next generation is unemployed and blighted by disrupted weather and food supplies, you can expect a very nasty change in future cultural values and social behaviour.

  7. The CIA conspiracy against Whitlam would have required considerable ineptness by him for it to work:

    For example, not amend the supply bills so that they took effect on date to be set by a resolution of the House rather than on royal assent, as is usual practice.

    Secondly, go back to the Lodge for Lunch rather than tell his colleagues that they were dismissed.

    Third, not go straight back to the House and withdraw the supply bills from the senate before they could be passed.

    Forth, not tell his senators to disrupt Senate proceedings while he was arranging for the supply bills to be withdrawn by the House from the senate. the senate president Justin O’Byrne resigning would have slowed things down, for example.

    Fifth, his senators not wondering why the Libs suddenly wanted to pass supply in 5 minutes

    Whitlam would have had to be unindicted co-conspirator with the CIA.

  8. but what is he going to say to the ones who are coming after him when they start on about how useless he was way back when?

    he can start honing those phrases all he likes,it won’t do any good.

  9. 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.

    Like Mr Denmore (#6) I was born in 1958. For much of 1970, 1971 and until 2 December 1972 (ie as a 12 to 14 year old boy) I was terrified that I would be conscripted when I turned 18. The Vietnam Moratorium movement, together with environmental causes and some other issues experienced as a young teenager, changed the course of my life. So I’d consider myself part of the Vietnam generation, JQ, although born after the cutoff you mention, which was suggested in Jonathan Pontell’s contribution to the generation game.

  10. Speaking as someone who loosely defines his generation as ‘that particular group of primary school kids who were given their very own passbooks a few short years before ATMs were introduced and made them obsolete’…

    Bring back conscription, please. Let’s have a populace with some real stake in choosing whether or not it’s worth invading another country, and participating in the killing of hundreds of thousands of its populace.

    Not one, which, given its choice, would prefer to vote for a 2% cut to mortgage rates over ending a decade of mass bloodshed.

    At least conscription made the country care about whether it wanted civilians and soldiers dying and canberra boy terrified…now we only go out and march when the war starts.

    /removes tongue halfway from cheek

  11. [video src="" /]

    I am glad they figured out it made more sense just to *give the card back to the customer straight away*, rather than posting it back by mail, long before I had to use them!

  12. Sorry to be a bit OT here, but comments are closed in the thread where Norman Hanscombe stated that:

    a) “Bob Brown supported the first Gulf War” (specifically the ‘initial invasion’); and

    b) “Bob Brown’s motion in ’91 called for intervention in Iraq without requiring prior U.N. endorsement.”

    Well, I’ve gone and got the hard copy of the Hansard and I can report as follows:

    a) Norman, and everyone else who piled on unthinkingly, was totally incorrect to suggest that Brown ever called for any action “without UN endorsement” – the exact opposite is evident from the text I was directed to.

    b) Brown supported “the United Nations intervention and sanctions against the Saddam Hussein invasion of Kuwait, …”

    I notice that Norman put a full-stop after “Kuwait”. Such a shame that such a scholarly chap seeking to enlighten us all should make such a slip.

    The full Bob Brown quote is as follows:

    “On the matter of misrepresentation, I supported the United Nations intervention and the sanctions against the Saddam Hussein invasion of Kuwait, and I point out to the House that had those sanctions been applied as a means of resolving the issue we would not be seeing the current slaughter going on in the northern part of that country.”

    I’m in the process of putting the entire transcript on a dedicated page on my site – you know, in the interests of honest discussion.

    It really makes a great read and IN CONTEXT it tells us a whole lot about our current state of politics in this country and how we have declined since 4th April 1991.

    In conclusion, I hope we have a hell of a lot more political representatives of Bob Brown’s calibre in our near future.

  13. Apologies again,

    If anyone hears that “Bob Brown supported the first Gulf War and called for intervention without United Nations endorsement” and they want to check the Hansard from the Tasmanian House of Assembly for 4th April, 1991 – full extract in context is here:

  14. There are clearly generational issues. The Baby boomers have put pressure on services all the way along – hospitals, schools, universities, jobs, housing and lastly on the medical and retirement industries. The population bulge did result in what Katz called the Youthquake when lots of young people resented that they were too young to vote but could be called up to fight a war in Vietnam. The energy of that group also resulted in good rock and roll and women having numbers to demand that they be allowed to continue working after marriage. However as Prof Q outlines there were also great differences.
    In the 70’s there were baby boomers wearing polyester suits or bell bottoms, there were those who liked Abba and those who preferred the Sex Pistols. To overstate the generational aspect is to mislead as there is a great diversity in baby boomer circumstances as Prof Q points out. To avoid the issue of class in this kind of analysis shows how News Corp group think can impede clear thinking.

  15. @Jill Rush

    Jill says “There are generational issues,” but then heavily qualifies that statement. Fair enough, but I think what Jill is pointing to as “generational issues” and impacts are really properly termed “cohort issues”.

    A generation is an ill-defined group as all generations fully interleave and overlap in a large population and as class differences are usually more important than “generation” differences as already pointed out. A cohort can be clearly defined e.g. those born in any one year or from say 1951 to 1960 inclusive. A cohort which represents a “bulge” or a “waist” in the population “pyramid” can have impacts or effects but these stem from weight of numbers or lack of them and these are cohort effects. Equally a particular cohort could be more educated than an earlier one because of an expansion in education.

    Am I being merely “semantic” in insisting that we term these “cohort issues” rather than “generational issues”. I think not but then I am not a demographer so I guess I don’t really know.

  16. I’ve deleted a number of comments that didn’t add anything to the discussion

  17. on “sending wives out to work” was crankily old-fashioned even in 1970, the marriage bar in the public service was repealed in 1966 and that was with a private members bill. the sex discrimination bill and status of women’s advisor to the PM was controversial in 1972-75.

    see too A POLLUTION THEORY OF DISCRIMINATION: MALE AND FEMALE DIFFERENCES IN OCCUPATIONS AND EARNINGS by Claudia Goldin which constructs a pollution theory of discrimination in which new female hires may reduce the prestige of a previously all-male occupation.

    When work took more brawn than brain, the attribute distributions of men and women were rather far apart. As machines substituted for strength, as brain replaced brawn and as educational attainment increased, the distributions of attributes narrowed by sex.

    Male firefighters or police officers, to take two examples, may perceive their occupational status to depend on the sex composition of their own police station or firehouse.

    some occupations have changed sex over time e.g., librarians, bank tellers, teachers, telephone operators, and sales positions.

    when typists were primarily men, it was claimed that typing required physical stamina. But later, when typing became a female occupation, it was said to require a woman’s dexterity!


  18. Ikonoklast, “Cohort” takes out the emotional lode of the generations where old and young are pitted against each other. However the baby boomers in a democracy have numbers and so those issues that arise because of age will naturally influence policy.

  19. Just want to point out that the ‘baby boom’ didn’t really end in 1964, in this country at least. A couple of charts:


    As you can see, the population bulge extends to people who were born before 1976 or thereabouts, i.e. well into ‘Gen X’.


    Note that there are two major drops in the fertility rate. The first is in the first half of the 1960s – the end of the ‘baby boom’, caused by the arrival of the Pill among other things.

    The second, larger, drop in the first half of the 1970s was caused in large part by the advent of the two-income family as the ‘new normal’, as Prof. Q mentions. I suspect that the increase in the number of single-parent households, i.e. after the relaxation of divorce laws that came with the introduction of the Family Court in 1976, may have contributed too.

    Perhaps we should refer to people born after 1975 as ‘baby busters’.

    (Disclaimer: this writer was born in the ‘pivotal’ year of 1954.)

  20. Pr Q said:

    Generational stereotypes press my hot buttons.

    Dont forget gender-, race- and sexuality- stereotypes. They press your hot buttons too. So many hot-buttons to press and so little time to press them.

  21. Thanks for the update. We’re all entitled to the odd slip up, including GM, and you. GM is something of beacon in Australian journalism for his non-partisan approach and research-based practice.

  22. 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)

  23. 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.

  24. 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

    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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