Duncan Greive and Branko Marcetic discuss capital gains tax. Photo: Getty
Duncan Greive and Branko Marcetic discuss capital gains tax. Photo: Getty

PoliticsApril 29, 2019

Stop demonising the boomers

Duncan Greive and Branko Marcetic discuss capital gains tax. Photo: Getty
Duncan Greive and Branko Marcetic discuss capital gains tax. Photo: Getty

If we want to have nice things again, our best bet is to unite across age, race, gender or other lines under shared economic interests, rather than divide ourselves generationally, writes Branko Marcetic.

Duncan Greive and I have a disagreement.

Well, actually, we mostly agree. I, too, am disappointed by the prime minister’s abandonment of the capital gains tax, and I also chalk up that abandonment to a self-interested class of New Zealanders. We just disagree on who exactly those New Zealanders are.

There are several reasons why demonising baby boomers in the wake of the CGT decision makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. Most importantly, I think demonising boomers redirects our well-justified anger away from the true source of our problems, channeling it into needless divisions that make it harder to fix them.

Boomers are usually defined as those born between 1946 and 1964 – in other words, anyone aged around 73 to 54 today. They’re typically described as statistically the wealthiest generation, which benefited most from the generous welfare state that dominated postwar New Zealand society. Which is true – to an extent.

Things look a little different once you zoom in a little, where the idea that boomers are exceptionally propertied starts to get a little murkier. According to the Ministry of Social Development, in the 2013 Census, only 60% of those aged 65-69 (boomers, in other words) were owner-occupiers, compared to nearly 52% of those who were aged 40-44. Compare that to the whopping 82% of those aged 65-69 in 2001 – the preceding Silent Generation – who owned their own homes.

More discouraging statistics abound when you dig deeper. More than 60% of those aged 65 and over rely on superannuation for all or most of their income, meaning they make at the very most $33,000 a year if they’re married, and $21,000 if they’re living alone. Those over 65 are the most likely age group to have persistent low income, and more likely than other age groups to drop into low income territory. 2013 Census data shows only 8.7% of those aged 65 or over at the time got more than $60,000 a year in income, the largest share (25%) receiving between $15,001 and $20,000.

In other words, talking about dastardly, selfish boomers – or the elderly in general – as a blanket group tends to flatten out the very real class divisions within them, divisions that exist within any age, racial, gender or other social group.

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom for boomers. Getting a fortnightly stipend from the government isn’t too shabby, and was one of the reasons older generations weathered the global recession better than other groups (even if their wealth in assets disguises that many are low on actual liquid cash). And I envy that boomers, like other older generations, got to benefit from the comprehensive postwar welfare state that was left in tatters by the time my family arrived in New Zealand (by which time a substantial number of boomers were only just coming into adulthood).

But it’s not really tenable to blame boomers as a group for the ills of New Zealand society. Take the issue of ending of free tertiary education. Fees were first introduced by David Lange (born in 1942), who pushed through a stream of other market reforms based on the ideology of finance minister Roger Douglas (born 1937). Voters aged 18-34 in 1990 (solid boomer territory) abandoned Labour in droves next election, most of them voting for the Greens, New Labour or just staying at home. The government that followed, which was most instrumental in reshaping tertiary education into the debt factory that it is today, was headed by Jim Bolger, who’s even older than Roger Douglas.

Or let’s look at the CGT. NZ First’s anti-CGT stance was reportedly based on polling of its voters, but those aren’t necessarily all boomers. While the party tends to do better where there are older voters, it also does so with older voters on either side of the boomer age range – among those over 75 and between 45-55. And if we’re to take this kind of reductive analysis, then we may as well blame rural and Māori voters for the death of the CGT.

More to the point, where was the loudest, most concerted opposition to the CGT coming from, pushing onto the public the false narrative that the tax would devastate those in the middle and the bottom? It came from business groups, investment company executives, property investors and so on. It came from the wealthy real estate investors who comprise a substantial amount of the National Party’s mostly non-boomer leadership. It came from media commentators like Duncan Garner, Mark Richardson, Mike Hosking and Kate Hawkesby, all of whom (Hosking just barely) fall into Gen Xer territory and, more importantly, had a direct financial interest in its failure.

In other words, it came from the same quarters who consistently oppose any social democratic reforms, and whose exact generational placement is less important to a debate over something like the CGT than their class interest.

The fact that Jeff Todd, the man who headed the ministerial consulting group that in 1994 recommended drastically hiking tertiary fees, was a member of the Silent Generation was likely less of a factor than his status as a senior partner at Price Waterhouse. And Prime Minister John Key and his tertiary minister Steven Joyce, who together pulled the tertiary education ladder away from younger generations while cutting taxes for the rich, may have been boomers, but they were wealthy boomers.

It can be tricky talking about this stuff. Wealth and income isn’t inevitably straight line to ideology and voting habits, they both tend to concentrate in older populations (a feature of any generation, not just boomers), and there’s some evidence that economic concerns may have led some non-rich older voters to recoil at the thought of the CGT, too. Let’s not even get into the way that class intertwines with a host of other social markers.

But blaming the boomer generation ignores that, whether it’s the CGT’s downfall, the end of free tertiary education, or the general hollowing out of New Zealand’s social democracy, these things are overwhelmingly a product of the unequal way wealth and power is distributed in our society. If we want to have nice things again, our best bet is to unite across age, race, gender or other lines under our shared economic interests, rather than divide ourselves. We shouldn’t resent boomers for all the benefits they’ve reaped, but create the kind of society where we, in effect, are all boomers.

After all, whose interests does the average debt-ridden twenty-something working a dead end job have more in common with: a boomer getting by and possibly even paying rent on $380 a week, or Max Key?

Keep going!