The danger of generational politics

Released yesterday, Richard Cooke’s essay in The Monthly has really touched a nerve. Lots of friends have shared the essay on social media, saying how it captures how they feel about the dominance of the Baby Boomers.

For many young people, it is increasingly hard to find a secure, well paying job. Many rack up big debts to pay for their education but still can’t find a permanent job. At the same time, housing is increasingly unaffordable with any hope of home ownership disappearing. At the same time, they feel patronised by an older generation who condescendingly say they just need to make sacrifices like they did. Yet it was a different age, an age of secure jobs, free education and more affordable housing, something almost inconceivable today.

This resentment at Boomers isn’t anything new, it has been bubbling away for awhile. While Generation Less is being released next month, a decade ago Please Just F* Off, It’s Our Turn Now was released. The young sticking it to older generations isn’t anything new, the Baby Boomers rebelled against their parents, but something makes the current situation different. There is a pervasive sense that young people today will be the first generation since the Great Depression that will be worse off than their parents.

What’s more is that young people are increasingly angry and frustrated that they have been sold a lie. They have grown up in an individualised, consumer-driven world where it was about their choices. The idea that you can do anything you want to do, work hard and you’ll be successful and the future would keep improving was uncontested. There was an emphasis was on social mobility and equality of opportunity, “growing the pie”, not redistribution. Post-GFC, people are starting to realise that it is utter bollocks.

The strange thing is that it has taken the form of intergenerational rather than class conflict. Young people are railing against an unfair distribution of resources, privilege from the ownership of capital or having wealthy parents, a system rigged against them. And yet it does not manifest as a form of class consciousness, even one that is intersectional. A single female pensioner that does not own her own home is in a similar position to a young renter with insecure work except with fewer options. Essentially timing has meant that it is more likely to be the Boomers who have accumulated wealth and capital but it is mostly about class. But why is generational politics rather than the politics of class the dominant narrative?

I would argue that the erosion of traditional institutions and forms of identity, particularly class, has played a big role. Structural changes have meant the demise of traditional career paths, declining union density, decoupling of where you work and live have all played a part in the breakdown of traditional sense of class identity. With many people no longer living and working in the same community or staying in the occupation for long periods of time, the strength of class identity has eroded away.

At the same time, there has been the rise of identity politics. Age fits quite well within an identity politics framework. While not the same as other manifestations of identity politics, there is a sense of institutionalised disadvantage and there are common experiences that unite a disparate group of people, creating a common identity that resonates with many people.

This growing intergenerational conflict is not unique to Australia. It is happening across the world. The big danger for progressives it that unless addressed properly it becomes a right-wing vehicle for dismantling the welfare state and pursuing anti-tax individualism, based on resentment.

Fundamental to the welfare state is the idea of intergenerational solidarity. Solidarity is about feelings of sympathy and responsibility for others. Welfare spending is essentially a compact of intergenerational solidarity. Younger workers pay taxes to support older workers’ pensions and healthcare costs but they benefit from previous generations’ investments in infrastructure, innovation and environmental protection. The understanding is that everyone benefits from the support of others and that we are part of a larger community of shared interests.

Intergenerational conflict undermines that compact, particularly when fiscal pressures caused by an ageing population has meant a push to rein in support for the young, particularly as the old become a larger proportion of the population. Any sense of reciprocity is destroyed because while the older generations get or maintain support, the young lose theirs and thus do not have a stake in social supports. While older generations have a (rightful) sense that they should get support as they contributed financially, younger people ask, “Why am I subsidising the old when I don’t get any support?” It is a recipe for a highly divided and stratified society.

Shifting the focus to class and rebuilding intergenerational solidarity won’t be easy. It requires a cross-generational understanding there is a shared interest in tackling inequality and entrenched privilege but it needs to be done. If it isn’t, the intergenerational conflict will only get worse and it will further breed resentful, toxic individualism.


Those decrying Chinese homebuyers actually fear losing their own privilege

My earliest political memory was from when I was 10 years old.

I remember hearing bits of Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech on television, stating that Asians “have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” It was the first time I felt like I didn’t belong, that I was not really Australian, and never could be in the eyes of others.

You don’t forget what it feels like, and it was only afterwards that I really started to notice the racist undertones in public discourse.

Until recently, I thought we had moved past most of the anti-Asian (and particularly anti-Chinese) sentiment of the late 1990s. Sadly, I have been proven wrong.

You can hear similar protestations today but they are couched differently. Susie O’Brien’s column about cashed-up Chinese nationals taking over suburbs near good schools is a good illustration of how this discourse now plays out. 

As a “Chinese” person who owns property in the inner suburbs of Sydney, who went to a selective school, and who shops at a local Asian grocery store with signs in two languages, I must be Susie O’Brien’s worst nightmare.

In her column, O’Brien displayed the thinly veiled anti-Chinese sentiment that you see in “respectable” media outlets, including Fairfax. It covers-up a fear by the conservative upper-middle class about a loss of their privileged position.

The rhetoric reminds me of NIMBYism, except with racist undertones. The racist (and classist) feelings are dressed-up in concerns about cultural change and unfair processes that prevent the pursuit of educational opportunities and access to housing.

The inability of young people to afford housing where they grew-up is a well founded concern, but those complaining about new Chinese neighbours don’t focus on the government policies that have driven up prices such as the 50 per cent capital gains tax discount, negative gearing, or planning laws.

Media reports and public concern about “the Chinese” driving up property prices gloss over the obvious point that you can be ethnically Chinese and also an Australian citizen. The idea that someone who is speaking in Mandarin (possibly to their parents) or looks Chinese must be a foreigner reinforces the idea that to be considered Australian, you must be a white English speaker without an accent.

It’s not as if Chinese migration to Australia is new; China has been our largest source of migration since 2010-11, before the current boom took off. 

There is a particular reason why the upper middle-class is so concerned about “the Chinese”. Recent migrants and their children are far wealthier and more privileged than Chinese migrants have been in the past. 

The complaints are occurring because properties being bought are in the inner ring of more affluent suburbs. The Chinese nouveau riche are migrating, becoming Australian citizens, and moving into “their” areas.

The established upper-middle class do not like the demographic change and are uncomfortable with the fact that these migrants – who are not the same as them culturally and do not value their upper-middle class traditions or institutions – are their socio-economic equals, not the less well-off Asian migrants they have been used to.

The rhetoric used about Asians in secondary and tertiary education is very similar.

Recently there have been stories in Fairfax papers about selective schools becoming “full of Asians” (they’re taking over!) who go to coaching colleges and are not “well-rounded”. These stories have been doing the rounds for over a decade, including when I was still at high school.

The most notable example was a complaint by the Old Boys of Sydney Boys High, who were concerned the school wouldn’t have a first grade rugby team if Asian enrolment increased.

Similarly, there was a media frenzy over a decade ago about the number of Asians being accepted to medicine solely based on their university admission scores. They too were accused of not being “well-rounded”. The term pops up again and again to delegitimise their place.

In both cases, the rhetoric implied an unfair process was allowing Asians to take over, leaving other (non-Asian) kids to miss out as a result. The answer proposed was to change the selection process, not to address underlying causes such as concerns about social mobility, or by expanding access to quality public education.

None of this is to say that housing affordability is not a problem and access to quality public education is important. But the current rhetoric, laden with racist undertones, is being used because sections of the upper-middle class are finding that their privileged position is being undermined and they do not like it.

Many do not suggest or support solutions that would actually improve housing affordability or make quality education more accessible for the vast majority because they do not care. Those decrying the current situation and blaming “the Chinese” should be called-out on their privilege and concern with maintaining it for themselves.

Published at New Matilda on 17 June 2015