We Can Do Better Than Generational Tribalism

Another week, another opinion piece adopting a stance of generational tribalism, either patronising Generation Y for their apathy and their transient lifestyles or condemning the Baby Boomers for destroying the planet and holding back progress with their out-dated conservatism.

While there is truth in both sides, what is missing is some perspective on the political grounding that their respective identities rest on. Each label attributes essential traits to groups of diverse individuals for no other reason than the decade within which they were born. Before asking what attributes these generational groups may collectively identify with, we must ask, whose interests are being served and whose interests are being ignored in applying these labels?

Within the context of the debate, it has become almost impossible to draw an accurate picture without referring to these generational labels. The Baby Boomers are perhaps the most powerful generational entity in modern history, dominant in size relative to adjacent generations and emerging in a period of opportunity, invention and stability. Yet they were also the generation most preoccupied with the use of generational labels in media and academia to make sense of the different attitudes of those who came after them.

It makes sense- they grew up with and orchestrated great changes that felt like radically new eras were being ushered into existence, including the social upheavals of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the birth of neoliberal doctrine in the 1970s, points that are still used as referents for the abundant nostalgia of conservatives, and to a lesser extent, liberals, as they try to universalize their formative experiences and narratives. Defining differences based on these highly contingent circumstances is illusory and arbitrary, yet generational labels have a very real effect on the way generational groups are viewed by others, and, more importantly, the way they view themselves.

Last year, one of the most inflammatory articles on generational politics, “The War Against Youth” in Esquire, despite its false essentialisms, insightfully comes to the conclusion that America is becoming a “patronage society”. The dramatic increase over the last few decades in government debt alongside reduced spending in social services most affects those at the bottom of the ladder, or those without even a handhold on the bottom rung, i.e. young people. At the same time, it privileges those who can rely on private wealth, including those young people who inherit monetary and professional wealth from there parents. In this manner, intergenerational effects are most keenly felt among those disadvantaged in other ways, which has the gradual effect of amplifying social and economic inequality.

Conversely, calls by young(er) people to raise the retirement age or means-test pensions, while lessening the economic debts to be paid by younger generations, also have a differential effect among older generations. The implications of this are straightforward: a young person may have more in common with older people of similar ethnicity, or economic class than someone of their own generation, but they must be given the chance to define their identity and alliances instead of having these imposed upon them.

There is also the fact that many minority groups were born into better opportunities afforded to them by the civil rights movement, a situation that brings with it a particular set of expectations and much less freedom than was afforded to those who had a genuine chance to carve out their own opportunities. Much of the contemporary discourse around young people, especially in education, tends to focus around the extremes of those who are “high achievers” and those who are “at risk”, thereby marginalizing those who seek to carve out their own success in ways that have not been trodden or properly anticipated by previous generations. This places too much pressure, for example, on talented and hard-working individuals within disadvantaged ethnic minorities to be exemplary at school and then university of their own accord, rather than focusing on the interests on the groups from which they emerge.

Conversely, as a model for youth empowerment, the focus on “high achievers” tends to narrow the ability of talented, privileged or conscientious kids to make any claims other than those that support greater political engagement in the narrow sense, or an education system that will produce more individuals like them. The failure of the Australian National Youth Roundtable is a clear example, wherein politicians in charge of consultation sessions had gotten so used to either listening to similarly-minded young people or actively excluding others through the application process that they started ignoring the whole listening process altogether.

Understanding this, complaints about Gen Y’s sense of entitlement and inability to choose between a myriad of opportunities appear to apply to an ever-narrower demographic therein. Yet despite the illusory nature of these complaints, they have very tangible effects on the expectations placed upon individuals within this generation, and beyond.  And given that the very nature of politics has been defined by older generations in a way that often excludes young people and focuses on short-term interest, it becomes harder and harder for us to demand that government mediate and mitigate these social and economic inequalities.

As should be evident, I, the author of this article, do not pretend to have an impartial view of the matter. Yet it is consummate truth that most of the partial and divisive labels and projects have been undertaken by privileged groups within the Baby Boomer demographic. In many ways, those labelled ‘Gen Y’ are perfectly entitled to respond in those same terms when they are victimised by their parents and society. However, to achieve real change, we must take a more nuanced and enlightened view which recognises our collective challenges as well as a broader range of differences founded on gender, ethnicity and economic inequalities steering our society in significant ways.

I call for a broader view of history than the one our current politics are caught up in, and the sooner we realize this, the sooner we can rise above generational tribalism. So many aspects of progress are gauged both on the right and left of politics according to outdated categories born out of the rupture of the 60s and 70s. Yet, to achieve true progress beyond our current predicament, we must take stock of the fact that the referent of progress is changing beneath our feet, and both our struggles to survive and to reach new heights are more and more intertwined.

The rallying cry of us at Gen Y can be understood as a rebellion to the out-dated adage that ‘if you’re not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative at forty you have no brain’, and the implication that we are controlled by, rather than control, our lives and histories. What is at stake is not just the life-cycle of an individual, but rather our fundamental social and economic conditions.

A good place to begin re-imagining progress as well as intergenerational relations might be climate change, the biggest political concern of Generation Y and successive generations, yet an issue that did not register alongside the great post-war projects. In many ways, the divide in international negotiations between established Western high-polluting countries and emerging developing countries that need to pollute more in order to increase standards of living for their citizens mirrors the conflicts between young people and older generations. Full of hope for unprecedented progress that will exceed whatever our parents achieved, we at Gen Y are nonetheless burdened by the immense costs of that progress, many of which our parents have already left us with, and moreover the knowledge of those costs, which we cannot afford to ignore.

Climate change presents the greatest cost, a disaster that if it unravels will render the great dreams of the post-war period and our own period meaningless. Yet, with climate change, as with no previous phenomenon that any previous generations have experienced, we have acute knowledge of the consequences our actions will have on those who will be born many decades after us, and are therefore able to take this as a gauge of something perhaps bigger than progress- our ability to evolve, and ultimately survive, as a global society. It is time we move on from these arbitrary identities and the system that ties us to them and tackle the real challenges facing us.

This article was originally published in The Typewriter.

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