The futility of generation wars
From the early years of the 21st century, the idea that old people have screwed up the world has become the received wisdom. From economic crisis to environmental catastrophe, from the Brexit vote to the election of Donald Trump, from the lack of affordable housing to the persistence of ‘unaffordable’ pensions, blame for a whole range of presumed social evils is levelled at that catch-all category — ‘the older generation’.
The only hope for the future – insofar as there is one in these dystopian times – is seen to lie with ‘the younger generation’, imagined to be as yet untainted by the sins of their fathers and mothers. The young, we are told, will lead action on climate change by ‘striking’ from school; reverse the tide of political populism by voting for the right kind of people with the right kind of values; and generally save us from ourselves.
The fantasy that life would be better if only we never had to grow up is not a new one. Nor is the idea that we should look to children to lead the way to a better, more innocent future. But until fairly recently, these notions existed on the fringes of mainstream political and cultural debates, regarded as idealistic kite-flying at odds with a more mature reality.
Nowadays, the conceit that we are living through a ‘generation war’, with the old on the side of the (bad) past and the young on the side of the (good) future, is becoming an increasingly dominant frame for policy and media debates. This disturbing and destabilising development is the focus of my new book, Stop Mugging Grandma: The ‘Generation Wars’ and Why Boomer Blaming Won’t Solve Anything. Many have voiced disquiet with the demonisation of old age, and old people, that goes along with the ‘generation wars’ narrative, inciting older people to feel guilty and defensive just for having lived for a few years. But what prompted me to write Stop Mugging Grandma was that an aspect of this debate has been too often overlooked — namely, that the generation-war narrative is equally damaging for younger people.
Boomer-blaming and Millennial-baiting
The idea that the ‘Baby Boomer’ generation, born in the two decades following the Second World War, is responsible for all the economic, social and political problems we are facing today is a myth, constructed by politicians and commentators who lack the historical imagination to see a way out of the fine mess of things today. Boomer-blaming is a toxic cocktail of anxieties about population ageing, concerns about levels of public spending and the welfare state, and angst about the cultural legacy of the 1960s.
The scapegoating of Baby Boomers is no accident. This is the generation currently reaching retirement, at a time when austerity politics has placed the need to reduce public spending on pensions and healthcare high up the political agenda, which means the Boomers make a convenient target. Yet calls to improve ‘fairness’ between the generations present a bizarrely inaccurate and homogenous account of the Boomer generation, as if they are all blessed with luck, affluence, large houses and gold-plated pensions, and engaged in a conspiracy to protect their own interests at the expense of their children. This is dangerous, divisive nonsense.
In Stop Mugging Grandma, I argue that the overheated debates about generational conflict have become an off-the-peg way for political elites to avoid engaging with the deeper economic and social problems that people do care about. Stagnant wages, job insecurity, the overheated housing market, and the crisis of the welfare state are all major concerns that affect people in their daily lives, and impact on the way they plan for the future. But attacking older people is no remedy for the difficulties we face today. On the contrary – it makes things a whole lot worse, for old and young people alike.
The myth that present-day problems can be blamed on the greed and avarice of the older, Boomer generation forms the basis of Grandma-mugging as a policy agenda. It is claimed that not only is Grandma richer than her children and grandchildren – she is richer than she should be, and therefore forcing her to share her ill-gotten gains is not just politically expedient, but also morally right. But the implications of this myth go much wider than the raid on Grandma’s pension. It is an attack on the right of any generation to expect more than the basic necessities, to aspire to more than what some bean-counter judges to be ‘prudent’ or ‘fair’. In making Boomer greed the focus of their attacks, the generals in the new generation wars are launching an all-out assault on aspiration.
In the tacky drama of Boomer-blaming, the main role assigned to the younger, ‘Millennial’ generation – born in the last two decades of the 20th century – is that of lead victim: an earnest, well-educated, hard-working young person, who has been robbed of the ability to get a good job or buy a small house as a result of years of Boomer excess. But it has spawned an equally ugly backlash of Millennial-baiting, with all sides hurling the common insult: You Want Too Much. Young people, with their lives stretching before them, are finding their expectations systematically ground down. They are told that it is ‘entitled’ to expect that years of education will result in a decent job, house, and pension; that ready access to iPhones and avocado-on-toast make up for the swirling insecurities and resentments that now seem to characterise their existence.
The weasel words of ‘intergenerational fairness’ incite young people to see themselves as victimised by their elders. The young are encouraged to view economic problems through the cultural prism of generational grievance – to believe that their power to make a better life for themselves, let alone a better society, is limited to clearing up a big, hopeless mess. On the other side, Millennial-baiters blame young people’s lack of grit and resilience for their dissatisfaction, telling them that they should put up, shut up, and sort it all out.
Both sides of the rhetorical ‘generation war’ seek to dissolve the creativity and optimism of youth in an acid bath of existential bitterness, in which the kids are expected to sink or swim. And in doing so, both sides express the problem at the core of the ‘generation wars’ narrative: an abject disregard for the responsibility that adults have in shaping their world, and bringing the younger generations into it.
‘Adulting’ and the evasion of responsibility
Much of the earnest miserablising about the plight of the Millennial generation focuses on its members’ apparent inability to grow up. Some blame low wages and high housing costs for trapping young adults in a perpetual ‘kidulthood’; others bemoan young adults’ reluctance to leave home, take the jobs that are on offer, and establish independent relationships for their continued infantilism. There is some truth to all these claims – but they evade a more fundamental cultural problem. That is, in an era where adults are cast as the cause of the world’s problems, and the only hope for the future is seen to lie with children and future generations, what incentive is there for young people to grow up?
Arguably the most pernicious effect of the ‘generation wars’ narrative is that it feeds a wider destabilisation of adult identity. The relentless war on ‘the old’ is not limited to attacks on pensioners – as we all discover sooner rather than later, nobody is young forever; and before you can say ‘frothy coffee’, the bright-eyed youth that is feted and patronised today will be tomorrow’s berated old git.
We can already see this happening with Millennials, whose sympathetic status as benighted youth is diminishing by each year of maturity. This is hardly because they are getting old – in a society where people can expect to live to their eighties, a thirtysomething is still a spring chicken. It is because, once they become adults, young people are positioned as complicit in the problems of the world — another generation that has allegedly screwed up the future.
This twisted idea of adults, as the default cause of problems rather than the solution, is central to the ‘generation wars’ fantasy. It is why the presumed needs of younger and future generations are constantly presented as the reason for breast-beating and belt-tightening among those already scraping a living, and why the ‘voice of youth’ is increasingly presented, not as something politicians should listen to, but as something they should take a lead from (provided, of course, it is the ‘right kind’ of voice from the ‘right kind’ of youth).
In this context, adulthood – and the mature identity associated with this life stage – has become destabilised. Traditionally, an adult was something you became. Not overnight, and not because of any particular event, but a state of being that you grew into, signposted by certain life events: leaving school, moving out of the parental home, getting married, starting a family, reaching the legal age of majority (age 18, in the UK – until 1970, it was 21). And for all the burdens of adulthood, it was the point at which you could start shaping your own life and the world around you.
Even the cult of youth famously associated with the countercultural movements of the 1960s did not seek to avoid adulthood altogether, but to turn it into something more fun. The 1960s kids were in a hurry to grow up, so that they could benefit from the freedoms of maturity, and also the responsibilities – showing the old guys how it should be done, and stamping their own mark on society.
Now, ‘adulting’ is cast as something that you do – as and when you have to. Defined by Oxford Dictionaries as ‘the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks’, the transformation of adulthood into a verb reflects a deep ambivalence about what it means to grow up, and why you would want to.
The term is widely associated with Millennials, whose apparent struggle to manage the basic transitions from school to work, from home to independent living, from single person to family unit, and from the expectation of protection and support to the assumption of responsibility for others, has become emblematic of their generation. Millennials’ adoption of the language and practice of ‘adulting’ can, as Katy Steinmetz argues in Time magazine, be regarded as a self-deprecating reflection of their ‘delayed development’:
‘[T]his jokey way of describing one’s engagement in adult behaviours – whether that is doing your own taxes, buying your first lawn-mower, staying in on a Friday, being someone’s boss or getting super pumped about home appliances – can help those millennials acknowledge and/or make fun of and/or come to grips with that transition (or how late they are to it).’
The trouble is that being an adult is not an activity — it’s a state of being. And growing up is not something that can be done only on days when you feel like it. As Steinmetz observes:
‘To say you are “adulting” is to, on some level, create distance between you and what are implied to be actual adults who are adulting 100 per cent of the time and therefore have little reason to acknowledge it. Or if they do, they might instead use phrases like “going about my normal day”.’
In constructing a sentiment of distance and division between the generations, the ‘generation war’ narrative also incites young people to place a distance between their present and future selves. New adults are implicitly discouraged from bridging that gap from dependent victim of circumstance to the architects of their own lives. At the same time, it tasks young people – because of their immaturity – with the responsibility to sort out ‘the future’ for the rest of society.
And this is why, in the phoney generation wars, the young will be the biggest casualties.
First published by spiked, 21 June 2019.