Monday, December 8, 2008

The 60s generation passes the baton (reluctantly)

First published by the New Zealand Centre for Political Research (

In the first party leaders’ debate on TV One during the election campaign, Newstalk ZB political editor Barry Soper tackled National leader John Key on the subject of the 1981 Springbok tour. He wanted to know what Key’s position had been.

You could almost hear the groans from thousands of living rooms, including my own. The tour was 27 years ago, for heaven’s sake; couldn’t we leave it alone? What possible relevance could it have in 2008?

Viewers aged under 40 would have been puzzled rather than exasperated. After all, who cared whether a young John Key (he would have been only 20) took part in protests against an ancient rugby tour?

I still think Soper’s question was silly, but in one sense it pinpointed a factor in the elections that seems largely to have escaped comment.

The 1981 Springbok tour was the high-water mark of the protest era in New Zealand. For those who opposed the tour, it was as much the defining event of their generation as Gallipoli and the Great Depression had been for their grandparents and parents. If you wanted to be cruel, you could say that for many of the protesters it was the only time in their life that they did something exciting and vaguely dangerous.

But more than that, 1981 was the ultimate expression of much that the rebellious, university-educated, baby-boomer generation stood for. It was a significant factor in the momentous political changing of the guard that occurred three years later. With the defeat of Robert Muldoon in 1984, the baby-boomer liberals moved from the streets, where they had so recently been bloodied by police batons, into the halls of power.

Soper, like me, is a member of that baby-boomer protest generation. I wouldn’t have a clue what his position was on the tour, and in any case it’s not relevant. But clearly the tour still resonated with him as a sort of political litmus test.

Moreover, he obviously didn’t think he was alone in wanting to know what Key’s attitude had been, and he may well have been right. To the thousands of liberal baby-boomers who still thrill to the memory of matching through the streets chanting “amandla awethu” (“power to the people”), what Key thought about rugby and apartheid may well have been a matter of some significance.

Key’s answer to Soper’s question – that he couldn’t really recall what he thought about the tour, because he was preoccupied pursuing the young woman who is now his wife – would have brought cries of disbelief and denunciation from veterans of the protest movement. How could anyone presuming to run for the highest office in the land not have had a firm view about the 1981 tour? And even worse, how could Key have considered it so unimportant that he couldn’t even remember what his view was? In the theology of the earnest, middle-class liberals who led the opposition to apartheid, this was tantamount to heresy.

But the brutal truth is that Key represents a generation for whom the tour didn’t matter, and matters even less in 2008. Now he’s prime minister, and the post-war liberals who have called many of the shots politically for the past 24 years are going to have to get used to it.

The left-leaning baby-boomers who helped keep Labour in power for nine years, and who watched with mounting despair in their artfully restored inner-suburban villas as the results came in on election night, are having to come to terms with the unpleasant fact that “their” people – of whom Helen Clark is the embodiment – are no longer in control. The baton has been passed to a new generation with quite different values and attitudes.

In that respect, Soper’s question identified a symbolic turning point, even if that wasn’t its purpose. The baby-boomers have had their shot at power and now it’s someone else’s turn.

I’m not a political scientist and I don’t “do” demographics, but the population statistics must surely show that the balance of electoral power has shifted, as it had to do, from my generation to generations X and Y – those born from the mid-60s on.

Admittedly these terms need to be treated with caution. “Baby-boomer” is the sociological term of convenience for people of my generation but in many ways it is unsatisfactory. I prefer to call it the sixties generation, a broader and looser description yet in many ways more accurate. My reasoning is that the 1960s – the era of the protest movement and student radicalism, hippiedom, drugs, Bob Dylan and the Beatles, sexual liberation (the pill) and Carnaby Street fashion – was the decade that encapsulated the profound political, cultural and ideological shifts of the time.

Technically the baby-boomer generation consists of those born between 1946 and 1964, but there were people born outside that era who exemplified baby-boomer values and people born within that era who do not. I know many people now aged in their late 60s and early 70s – too old, strictly speaking, to be baby-boomers – whose political views were shaped not in the dreary, prosperous and conformist 1950s but in the turbulent and exhilarating 1960s.

David Lange, for example, was born in 1942 but was unarguably a baby-boomer in terms of his politics. He was an idealist and a modern social democrat. Unlike the political leaders of the preceding generation, such as Holyoake, Kirk and Muldoon, he had the benefit of a free university education that was crucial in shaping his liberal attitudes.

Key was born in 1961, technically still well within baby-boomer parameters, and like Lange he went to university. But his formative experiences occurred during the 1980s, an era when many of the 1960s-era values so cherished by the liberal baby-boomers were being upended by Rogernomics.

That’s another thing the discombobulated baby-boomers will have to get used to. If it’s an article of faith among the liberal left that the 1981 protest movement was an heroic rejection of racism and authoritarianism, then it’s equally an article of faith that the economic reforms that came later in the 1980s were a betrayal of the egalitarian, social-democratic values that defined “their” New Zealand. But to all intents and purposes, people of Key’s generation have experienced only the post-Rogernomics New Zealand.

To them, the programme of deregulation, liberalisation and asset sales that horrified the liberal left (and rescued a moribund economy in the nick of time) would seem unremarkable. It’s all they have known. Grim reminders of the supposed treachery of the Douglas-Prebble-Bassett cabal – such a potent element of liberal-left folklore – are largely lost on Generation X-ers.

The extent of this generational shift is illustrated by the fact that Helen Clark in her 20s was immersed in politics (she was active in Labour’s famous Princes St branch) and taking part in protests against the Vietnam War while Key, at an equivalent age, was well on his way to making his first millions with Elders Merchant Finance. Only 11 years separate them in age but in reality the gap is infinitely wider.

So now the ageing liberal left faces the dismaying prospect of a future in which “their” leaders, the spokespeople for the sixties generation, are doomed to become yesterday’s men and women, since it seems unlikely that the reliable but unexciting Phil Goff (another baby-boomer) will be anything more than an interim Labour leader, elected to tide things over while the talented and ambitious young thrusters, such as David Cunliffe and Darren Hughes, jockey to become the next Clark.

All this has caused much wringing of hands since the election, but it’s no bad thing. The veterans of the Vietnam and apartheid protests may have convinced themselves they have a monopoly on idealism and political morality, but an honest stocktake of the baby-boomer era would show that in many ways we’ve stuffed things up spectacularly.

The sixties generation were a cosseted lot, arguably the most affluent and indulged generation in history. They responded to their good fortune by rejecting the values of their parents and rebelling against authority and conformity.

All this was very liberating, but it came at an enormous cost. A lot of babies were thrown out with the bathwater. My generation may have achieved unprecedented personal freedom, but it also created a legacy of social and family breakdown, crime, drug abuse and unhappiness on a tragic scale. John Key’s mob can’t do much worse.


bootie said...

Yip, as SA expats we are also getting extremely tired of the constant hammering on things of 27 years in the past, as if we had any say in the matters then.

Shall we start constantly wailing about the role NZ played in the Boer war which led to the demise of 28,000 women and children in concentration camps as well? My grandfather lost his first wife and 3 daughters in the camp at Irene near Pretoria.

As for apartheid, much has been said in the West about what bad people the whites were in SA, but somehow it's quietly forgotten that apartheid was alive and well in the USA until 1970, and in the UK until 1963.

And as for Apartheid in SA, maybe this would be an eyeopener where it really all started under British rule:

British segregationist legislation included:

1) The Franchise and Ballot Act (1892), which limited the black vote by finance and education;
2) The Natal Legislative Assembly Bill (1894), which deprived Indians of the right to vote;
3) The General Pass Regulations Bill (1905), which denied blacks the vote altogether, limited them to fixed areas and inaugurated the infamous Pass System;
4) The Asiatic Registration Act (1906) requiring all Indians to register and carry passes;
5) The South Africa Act (1910) that enfranchised whites, giving them complete political control over all other race groups;
6) The above-mentioned Native Land Act (1913) which prevented all blacks, except those in the Cape, from buying land outside 'reserves' and effectively stole 87% of their land;
7) The Natives in Urban Areas Bill (1918) designed to force blacks into 'locations';
8) The Urban Areas Act (1923) which introduced residential segregation in South Africa and provided cheap labour for the white mining and farming industry;
9) The Colour Bar Act (1926), preventing blacks from practising skilled trades;
10) The Native Administration Act (1927) that made the British Crown, rather than paramount chiefs, the supreme head over all African affairs;
11) The Native Land and Trust Act (1936) that complemented the 1913 Native Land Act and, in the same year,
12) The Representation of Natives Act, which removed blacks from the Cape voters' roll.
13) The final 'apartheid' legislation by the British was the Asiatic Land Tenure Bill (1946), which banned any further land sales to Indians.

Quoted from Apartheid South Africa: An Insider's Overview of the Origin and Effects of Separate Development, by John Allen.

Joe W said...

My generation may have achieved unprecedented personal freedom, but it also created a legacy of social and family breakdown, crime, drug abuse and unhappiness on a tragic scale.

Maybe. What's plain, though, is that most of the pampered generation of lazy journos remaining from that era are unable to think outside of the knee-jerk language of marketing.
For example, "Baby boomers."

Karl du Fresne said...

Why don't cowardly fleas like you step out into the light where we can see you, instead of hiding behind pretentious pseudonyms?

Vaughan said...

As one of the 60s generation, I have a new take on our old motto of not trusting anybody over 30.

I now say about political leaders: "Don't trust anybody under 60!"

In your 20s, you are into excitement so are prone to get us into all sorts of trouble.

In your thirties you haven't gone through the fire that is the mid-life crisis and so are still vulnerable to being too tough, or too weak, or too lacking in compassion and wisdom.

In your 40s, you plunge into your mid-life crisis (designed to make you figure our you real values) so you are all over the place.

In your early 50s you are still incorporating what you have learned in your crisis and are experimenting with the new adjusted self.

But in your sixties (and late 50s), just like the last plate of porridge in Goldilocks, you are just right.

Elders rule!