A little while ago a friend of mine shared an anecdote concerning her father when he was her age and attending the University of Sydney. In the retelling, he’s marching alongside a misaligned peer—a young politician—who objects to (then) recent cuts to education funding. The image is not unlike that of a scene written and directed by Shonda Rhimes (a truly dramatic TV-series concept that must be optioned immediately). The contingent press forward, bunched up together as they riot and pound the campus pavement, righteously projecting their voices outward. It’s a typical slice of Australian #stupol history and still resonates. At family dinners her father now shares a very different sentiment: ‘If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.’
For The Conversation, James Tilley muses that ‘This maxim—variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli and Victor Hugo, among others—neatly captures the common notion that to be on the left of the political spectrum is to be young and idealistic, while to be on the right is to be older and more pragmatic.’ Joe Hockey, the other young man from that vision, goes on to be the Australian treasurer, because that’s simply how things work and Australian politics is quite predictable: endlessly rewarding vague charismatic personalities on the basis of nepotism and the ability to speak brazenly and cartoonishly enough for whatever role demands it. A televised interview with him is later dug up from the archives, to be shown side to side with his more recent ones. The stark difference between each video could not be more obvious, but it’s also not entirely unsurprising.
Maybe it appears futile, to some people, to speculate on why this phenomenon is so circular, and why the promises of power and influence are so corrupting, but I would argue that it’s a high-stakes conversation and requires analysis. The prevailing discussion makes broad, admittedly satisfying, stereotypes about wide swathes of various age brackets. Part of this equation is the assumption that ageing is an inherently degenerative process (or even a transformative one) when it comes to one’s political leanings—but you could argue that generational warring, and the resulting stereotypes in our media and culture, rather buys into a specific language, one of neoliberal marketing, that sections out age divides so that we can become more easily categorised, divided and alienated, instead of realising our collective power. The thing is that many of the insults and stereotypes levelled at millennials and at boomers ring true—but taking note of these differences doesn’t achieve anything, and draws attention from the more pressing concern: wealth inequality, and more frustratingly, disposability. There are people among both age brackets who suffer because of capitalism’s lack of interest in what they may have to offer, and are uniquely vulnerable to the trappings of the market.
As readers and citizens, the ongoing narrative behind generational warring is one we’ve happily accepted. It certainly appeals to a reptilian-brain impulse to identify and exorcise the ‘other’. One writer, Nick Evershed, claims that these age signifiers are ‘mostly used by marketing companies to sell cereal or juice machines that connect to the internet and have their own cryptocurrency.’ The vernacular of liberal economics, does not, unfortunately, explain social problems with the intricacy they deserve, or take into account the intersecting complexities of class, race and gender in the way we might like it to. It does not show how women over 60 are the fastest growing number of homeless and struggle the most to find employment. Even historian Steven M. Gillon argues that ‘almost from the time they were conceived, Boomers were dissected, analyzed, and pitched to by modern marketers, who reinforced a sense of generational distinctiveness’. This administrative masturbation hides the truly exciting prospect of an intergenerational coalition, seeding distrust and division.
The grievances expressed online by a select portion of the commentariat relate to the state of late capitalism, institutional white supremacy and the general fiscal irresponsibility of the rich. Of course it’s much quicker to blame old people, a time-honoured tradition, using it as a way to revert to what’s easy, and to ignore how moneyed white millennials are just as complicit in continuing to promote the inequality we’re bringing attention to. Such a conversation may present discomfort. As if Silicon Valley, Washington and Wall Street aren’t littered with ambitious 20-year-olds with generational wealth and connections just itching to climb to the top via the same tactics, or as if young white-nationalist groups aren’t made up of intensely aggressive 20- and 30-year-olds.
Lazy generational arguments are often obnoxious and intellectually dishonest, but what was once a flippant ‘parents just don’t understand’ response has evolved into a claim that every baby boomer had equal access to certain benefits and advantages even though they were really only applicable to a specific (yet vocal) subset of a generation, one that was predominantly white and metropolitan. In Australia particularly we look to anything except economic stature to understand our place in society, with class getting swept under the rug as if it were purely the language of university Trotskyists—a dated form of understanding power. It’s as if we aren’t the country to give birth to a dating app for private-school children. Or, as Tim Winton (of all people!) writes in an essay for The Monthly: ‘concerns about the distribution of wealth, education and health are difficult to raise in a public forum without needing to beat off the ghost of Stalin’. A study for the ANU found that, interestingly, only 2 per cent of Australians ‘consider themselves to be upper class, despite the fact that the researchers found around a quarter of the population could be described as belonging to the “affluent” classes’. Many other telling conclusions in the report suggest Australians are mostly blind to the realities of class division and how to identify it, or how to rationalise it beyond aesthetics. However, a thesis on the ‘cashed up bogan’ will rest for now so that I may preserve my remaining two brain cells. In her book iGen, Jean Twenge argues that millennials are more aware of, and receptive to, the language and discourse around sexuality and gender, but their literacy mostly fails when it comes to economics and the intricacies of class difference beyond superficial visual markers. The brainwashing has taken hold!
What this might reveal are the financial interests of two separated generations—with every new generation comes huge shifts in cultural beliefs and opportunity. This cursory view seems to be the one taken by many liberal academic journals and media outlets in lieu of something more sophisticated. Even political siding is unreliable, as much as the media class would like it to work in their favour—definitions of ‘left and right’ shift over time, or by place. As @prisonculture illustrates: ‘the so-called *center* in the U.S. is the right wing everywhere else in the world’. Which is not to dismiss the way the rhetoric of generational divides resonates with younger people in real ways.
Boomers certainly benefited from an economic growth period that has dwindled, but I’m concerned with who is being scapegoated, and why it is urgent to think about that in 2020, in one of our most severe moments of class inequality. On one side there’s boomers offloading all of their existential guilt onto the generation below them, forgetting with every Daily Telegraph polemic that they raised us and bear some responsibility for creating a legion of narcissists. On the other, you have middle-class millennials with white parents experiencing transient hardship blaming boomers to disguise the thousands (if not millions) of intergenerational wealth they rely on, or will inherit, from their parents.
Many of the assumptions about millennials and boomers also ignore ethnicity, an experience that cannot be so easily applied to all individuals in the same ways. Australia took in immigrants during the baby boom, but the unique reflections of their material experience and the gains of their generation have yet to be articulated outside anecdotal op-eds by their second-gen children. Immigrant parents routinely suffer from loneliness and experience severe neglect, having grown up in a world filled with support only to find they have nameless neighbours and uninterested co-workers.
The fixation on age, then, often reads as reductive and inadequate, an assessment of privilege that feels convenient but often fuels disdain towards the elderly, who are, more often than not, vulnerable. Rather than banding together to address our common need, we become fixated on identifying an enemy, which is difficult to do when that ‘enemy’ is often just a faceless system, and less of a fuel for our often primitive thoughts. Are we more concerned with banding together to create mass movements, or are we more concerned with the short-term reward of ‘being right’? Reporting for the ABC, Rebecca Turner found that elder abuse, for instance, was much higher than any of us realised, ‘quietly felt throughout the nation’s suburbs, which experts say are riddled with hidden victims of financial elder abuse at the hands of, predominantly, their own adult children’.
Further reports show that, in Australia, elderly women are fast becoming the face of public poverty and the highest demographic shown among the homeless—government data shows ‘the largest cohort of Newstart recipients—about 170,000, or 23%—are now those aged between 55 and 64, a clear change from 2013’. The vulnerability of our ageing population is exacerbated when you consider the specific needs and requirements of older LGBT people, for example, among other minorities, who are left out of the equation—presumably because of cultural myths that queerness is some kind of ‘millennial’ thing. The rhetoric of generational divides encourages an ‘us v them’ mentality that ultimately leaves them out of the conversation. In an article for the ABC, Queensland Association for Healthy Communities officer Helen Daintree says ‘older LGBTI people often need special care in areas such as managing the psychological effects of life-long discrimination, ongoing hormone therapies and HIV treatments … despite changes to remove discrimination in the Federal Aged Care Act in 2012, many people still fear stigma in aged-care homes, from in home carers and from other associated care providers’.
The murkiness of age requirements appears clear when the data is laid out before us. Self-interested politicians and state shareholders have a clear motivation for fostering disconnection and communitarian thinking among generations, and for removing the rights of the elderly while appearing to privilege their perspectives, pandering to those who only serve a ‘productive’ need for the economy. The state profits from this. Private companies profit from this, the media profits from this. According to a letter on ageing published by the New Inquiry:
When you think about it in terms of a slur against vulnerability, the workings of ageism attain a greater clarity. Like racism and (cishetero) sexism, ageism is a way of ordering people differentially within society based on how much that society menaces them with death, imposing a relation to time, and therefore value, specific to their body type …
Many of the indignities of old age are, on inspection, the indignities of being socially discarded—feelings of isolation, a fall in status, loss of autonomy. That is, these are not organic facts of the body but outcomes desired, at some level, by someone. Why that is, and who benefits, are both painfully obvious and logically obscure.
Those of us within the media class are often happy to use individualistic markers to talk about ‘privilege’, but collective analysis of oppression outside the familiar discourse clearly remains taboo. An atomised economic attitude encourages a superficial cultural thinking in response. We have seen the rollout of university corporatisation over the last two decades—with especially egregious cuts to the humanities. This means most young people are sourcing their political science from pop culture, youth media and platforms like Tumblr, an interesting starting point but hardly a substitute for a dedicated education. I feel that this immaterial view helps to stall class analysis, even as we can see materialist analysis and inequality returning in the United States and Britain. There is certainly a correlation between age and political position, but it’s clear that the commentary about this link has been oversimplified, attributing these changes to some vague cultural shift.
I think the demographic that needs to be understood is the comfortable middle class, families that remain protected socially and ideologically so they can continue to serve a role: to reaffirm kyriarchal power through something as simple as voting. The link between algorithmic targeting and age-based culture wars is not accidental. The New Inquiry’s Rob Horning describes it as ‘advertising metrics and personality traits converging’. The siloing of identity can be observed across the political spectrum, and at one point factionism may have made sense to address specific needs in different communities, but now it merely serves to sell—to target, to market. Additionally, the commitment to radical politics has different stakes for those from different backgrounds. I think of the way migrants commonly class signal and perform wealth through niche signifiers (nouveau rich) in order to protect themselves and assimilate within a hostile environment—but that disparity is similarly ripped away from the media commentary, as if critical understanding of societal structures would pose too much of a danger to media stakeholders.
You might be able to understand why this argument holds up nonetheless. It sounds good enough, and believable. The fixation on generational divides and attached identifiers seems to uphold these differences. They make the world seem predictable, logical and linear, despite all evidence to the contrary, implying a comforting and pacifying kind of circular political trend. They can quell discontent, redirect it. They can act as convenient ranking systems, turning contradictions and varied, complex answers into one salient, corrective argument creating easy headlines for readers, flattening and homogenising the shape of cultural trends and beliefs into a clean shape. The change is almost inferred to be a sort of psychic transformation that accords with cultural progression.
Another possibly more uncomfortable interpretation is that many young progressives attribute to themselves a certain strand of politics as an extra-curricular choice when it’s socially permissible to do so, and thus feel less of an obligation to keep up the act as they move into wealth. It brings to mind the writing of Adrienne Maree Brown, who expressed concern about whether people are absorbing radical theory genuinely and acting upon it, rather than using it to perform an identity—arguing that ‘people take the language and not the lesson’. Their investment may seem progressive in the way of language but, materially, nothing may change. They are not speaking back to institutions, or necessarily making them more inclusive, but shaping themselves to the position demanded of them by capital. We could maybe call this a type of ‘tokenism’ that one willingly options. Performing a political dogma or touting it merely as an aesthetic may be born of a desire to belong, or a need for something to push up against and rally against, rather than a coherent and structured thesis to live by or practice. Andrea Long Chu articulates some of these problems with modern feminism by associating it with being a ‘fandom’. She elaborates:
what I mean by fandom is that it’s actually a form of generating feelings of belonging that uses forms of knowledge, not insofar as they are true or false, but insofar as they help produce a feeling of being with others. So there are protocols that have developed on the internet about being feminist, and if you follow those protocols, then you can feel feminist, and you can feel part of a group.
That desire for belonging is certainly a legitimate reason for gravitating towards activism, and in the past might have been a necessary starting point or conduit for political action and resistance, but now those impulses are increasingly rerouted and co-opted for other consumerist ends. Supré loves a ‘girl power’ tank top range just as much as its competitors!
When trying to understand large-scale cultural shifts, Naomi Klein has repeatedly written that we need always to ‘follow the money’. In this instance, companies interested in the attention of youth and youth culture redirect those energies, encouraging them to buy products rather than to rail against the market. However, even beyond the traditionally youth-oriented mission of social media marketing, we’ve seen these marketing queues being used in Australia and the UK to tap into older demographics who have less digital literacy, with the liberal party recruiting the marketing company Topham Guerin—whose focus is on creating emotionally manipulative ‘boomer memes’ to target marginal demographics in the regions and outer suburbs. The company has been criticised for editing videos in the style of ‘deepfakes’ and spreading misinformation on behalf of their clients who aren’t digital natives and are more prone to the pull of social media propaganda. Given this information, I have become less interested in how often we hand-wring over identity to the point of paranoia rather than shared experience and values in practice. The truth is that young middle-class people like those at Topham Guerin are just as likely to express behaviours reflective of individualist, entrepreneurial exploitation in the pursuit of career gains.
A number of liberal publications, including The New York Times, have sought to understand, on a basic level, what differing age groups advocate for and stand against, to elucidate on which side of the political spectrum they generally lie, but rarely go into the nitty-gritty of why this split occurs. In 2014, David Leonhardt wrote: ‘There was a time not so long ago when the young seemed destined to be liberal forever … Less than a generation after young people were marching for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, they voted overwhelmingly for Ronald Reagan.’ What isn’t mentioned is that the hippies were predominantly college students, middle-upper class, and happy to trade in their fashion for suits after long hair was no longer socially convenient. If this sounds ominously familiar to a particular section of today’s moneyed, hyper-woke millennials, the select few who are happy to curate a public image of progressivism but disdain/ignore anyone who isn’t useful to them or their career, they might be on to something.
Comparing generations in such an anthropological way can feel like an ahistorical view, an elision; many of the most accomplished activists and elders among us deserve recognition for their ongoing work and continued belief in resistance. So often they are pushed aside in favour of young, attractive-looking activists with dyed hair and undercuts who are magazine ready and easily digestible. Activist Angela Davis considered this and writes:
It has become especially important to identify the insidious promotion of capitalist individualism … A similar process has attempted to disassociate Dr Martin Luther King Jr. from the vast numbers of women and men who constituted the very heart of the mid-twentieth century US freedom movement. It is essential to resist the depiction of history as the work of heroic individuals in order for people today to recognize their potential agency as part of an ever-expanding community of struggle.
Indeed, if anything, parts of the silent generation—those now in their late seventies or older—have shown as much commitment to civil rights as any other age group. In organising meetings, I frequently find myself in conversation with older women, women who are the most targeted by cruel government policies, the most ignored and infantilised, and frequently pushed aside even by their families and communities. At some of the protests and actions I attended against Adani constructing a new mine in North Queensland, older citizens were some of the most participatory and enthusiastic. And why wouldn’t they be? They are leaving behind a world that their grandchildren will inherit; many of them remain among the most vulnerable in our social hierarchy. There is absolutely nothing that would suggest these people haven’t engaged in activist causes their whole life—I believe in the sincerity of their protest, and felt emboldened by the level of engagement.
Differences within generations, for instance, based on race, sexuality or class are rarely mentioned in these descriptions, although there are brief moments of recognition when it comes to difference.
How many non-European immigrant working parents have had the opportunity to settle into routine, comfort, safety or power in the way that white parents have? Many middle-class millennials arguably abide by frighteningly Trumpian values—relentless self-branding, nihilistic and accelerationist thinking, hyper-competitiveness. While there are more socialists among us, there’s an equal amount of young white extremists edging towards neo-Nazism and fascism, and many polls show that young white people predominantly still favour capitalism over socialism. Assuming that our Twitter feed is the same as our city or even as our country is indicative of a cultural blindness. It presumes a shared ideology that cannot always be coherent, and dooms a whole swathe of young people to falling off the pedestal they’ve been put on. It’s an uncomfortable reality to tussle with, essentially the promise of more chaos beyond the chaos that already exists, instead of a return to some kind of order. As long as there is power to defend, there will be an army of embittered stakeholders ready to jump to action, who rear their head when they feel their territory is being ceded. In an article for Politico, author Sean McElwee writes:
The next generation of Americans, they say, is ‘post-racial’—more tolerant, and therefore more capable of easing these race-based inequities. Unfortunately, closer examination of the data suggests that millennials aren’t racially tolerant, they’re racially apathetic: They simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it … And when it comes to opinions on more structural issues, such as the role of government in solving social and economic inequality and the need for continued progress, millennials start to split along racial lines. When people are asked, for example, ‘How much needs to be done in order to achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality?’ the gap between white millennials and millennials of color (all those who don’t identify as white) is wide.
Accumulating wealth comes with its own shift in priorities. For those living an unexamined life, to involve themselves in the more pressing concerns of their neighbourhoods and communities, acceptance into the middle and upper classes comes with the threat of personal co-option and the trading off of one’s core values. This is to say that people have certain class interests. Many young people—particularly students—go on to join the middle class and become petty bourgeois, and so their class interests change. Capitalism begins to look not like a problem but like a system and structure that ensures their power. As bell hooks rightly said: ‘No insurgent intellectual, no dissenting critical voice in this society escapes the pressure to conform … we are all vulnerable. We can all be had, co-opted, bought. There is no special grace that rescues any of us. There is only a constant struggle.’
The reason for the conservative swing, though, may be even more depressing. More progressively inclined older people are simply abandoned by their own age bracket. An article in New York Magazine affirms this, since:
white people suffer proportionately less from poverty than non-white people, tend to live longer, and in better health, which is conducive to political and other civic activism [and] it’s not just a matter of people naturally growing more conservative as they grow older. It’s also a matter of the wealthier—and more conservative—people surviving more often, and for longer.
The way we view politics has become something of a fool’s game. We prize those who engage in politics and activism in a way that seems worthwhile, even if the way they treat others is abysmal—valuing those who preach ‘good politics’ rather than the change they push for in their environments. We make generalisations. It might be helpful to cast some doubt over media representations of generational divides. Too often, they rely on a binary method of thinking rather than a dialectical one, and have a stake in an agenda that diverts attention from how wealth is being funnelled upwards. •
Jonno Revanche is a writer and critic living on Gadigal and Kaurna land, and has contributed to the Sydney Review of Books, the New Inquiry and Teen Vogue.