Are Baby Boomers really selfish sociopaths?

Baby Boomers at a climate march in Melbourne in 2014. Photo: Takver-Flickr

It is not unusual to hear someone blame the crisis in affordable housing and healthcare or the very expensive tertiary education system on Baby Boomers, the generation born between 1946-64.

Writing in Business Insider, in an article entitled “This is how our parents became the most selfish generation”, senior finance correspondent Linette Lopez quotes Cornell economics professor Lyn Stout as saying: “All of our social cues are telling us to be selfish right now. Lopez adds that Baby Boomers love this because it means they do not have to consider the needs of others, or sacrifice for anyone outside their immediate networks.

Similarly, Jane Smiley, writing in The Guardian, concurs with the essential point made by Bruce Gannon Gibney in his book A Generation of Sociopaths, “that boomers are selfish to the core, among other failings”.

Smiley uses the example of baby boomer and former US congressperson Joe Walsh to discredit all Baby Boomers. Responding to TV host Jimmy Kimmel’s plea for merciful health insurance, in which he pointed to his newborn son’s heart defect as an example of its importance, Walsh tweeted: “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anyone else to pay for somebody else’s health care.”

Former Australian Human Rights Commissioner Chris Sidoti also once called the Baby Boomers “the most selfish generation in history”. Sidoti not only accused them of “refusing to pay their share of tax”, he said though they had been given a “free ride” through tertiary education, they were guilty of imposing huge debt burdens on subsequent generations, most notably though the introduction of the HECS debt scheme by Boomer politicians.

Lopez, Smiley, Gibney and Sidoti attribute the attitudes of a few Baby Boomers to all of them. This is not only a faulty generalisation, it demonstrates that they, like many others, have been duped into a myth created to conceal the real culprits and that plays into their “divide and rule” ploy.

Selfish sociopaths?

About 5.5 million Australians fit into the category of Baby Boomers. Are all of these Baby Boomers selfish sociopaths?

The annual average labour force participation rate for those aged 55–64 rose from 43% in 1992 to 64% in 2014, while for those aged 65–69 the rate rose from 10% to 26% over the same period, according to a 2015 analysis put out by the government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

The rise in workforce participation of both of these older age groups was more marked among women. In 2014, the participation rate for women aged 55–64 was 56%, up from 25% in 1992, while for men the rate rose from 62% to 72%.

Participation rates for women aged 65–69 rose from 5% to 20% over this same period; for men it was 15% to 33%.

Baby Boomer women today are four times more likely to be working past the age of 60 than their mothers were 30 years ago as financial stress forces more of them to postpone retirement.

None of this indicates that Baby Boomers are having a “free ride”, as Sidoti suggests.

Additionally, many baby boomer parents — most of whom left home at 18 — are supporting their children who have to live at home till their late 20s and even early 30s due to high rent and property prices. They are supporting their offspring without strings attached, well beyond what was the case when they were growing up.

The AIHW report also noted that the working-age population — those in their 40s, 50s and 60s — are in some cases not only supporting teenage children or children in their 20s and 30s, but also providing care for younger children, ageing parents and, in some cases, partners and young children from second and third families as well.

A 2017 AIHW report found that 20% of men are putting in 50 hours or more of work each week. Many of these are Baby Boomers.

A 2016 report to the Victorian teachers union stated that teachers (predominately women, and many of whom are Baby Boomers) work at least 50 hours a week on average.

To this we can add the findings of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2016 report Willing to Work, which said 27% of people over the age of 50 reported experiencing age discrimination at work. Much of the discrimination took place when applying for a job. One-third of these gave up looking for work.

Generation of rebellion

Far from being selfish, many boomers were historically a part of a huge social movement.

It was hard to get a job if you were a woman in the ’60s or ’70s. Parents and peers believed a woman’s place was in the home.

There were no women apprentices, no women bus, tram or train drivers, no equal pay, no child care and no maternity leave. It was often said that women were not capable of driving a bus or tram — or even a car. The saying “bloody women drivers” was all too common.

In response, Baby Boomers started to take action.

During the ’60s, the movement to end the Vietnam War and conscription gained momentum. Many women started to stand up for their rights and demand change: for equal pay, free community-based child care, the right to work and an end to sexual discrimination.

Aboriginal activists and groups demanded Indigenous land rights, an end to racism and the right to vote.

There were demands for universal healthcare, free education and a cleaner environment.

Baby Boomers wanted an end to poverty and welcomed refugees from Vietnam and many other parts of the world. In sum, they wanted a better world.

After the 1972 election of Labor’s Gough Whitlam to prime minister, Baby Boomers enjoyed the extension of publicly-funded healthcare (through Medibank, now Medicare), the introduction of free tertiary education and many other changes in social, indigenous and arts policies.

Labor’s election was the result of the dramatic social changes and unrest of the times. These advances came after decades of hard struggle that involved a lot of dedication and personal sacrifice.

No one gifted these reforms to the Baby Boomer generation on a silver platter.

If Baby Boomers can be blamed for something it is that, for a period of time, Australia had affordable housing, a much better financed and resourced healthcare system, no fee universities, greater access to child care and steps towards equal pay and job opportunities for women.

But over the next decades, the capitalist class sought to progressively erode and overturn these advances. This is what capitalism does — unless we hold the ruling class to account.

Inter-generational unity

The issues facing young people today suggest life is getting more difficult and that the standard of living for most has gone backwards.

Youth unemployment sits at 13%. Suicide is still the leading cause of death for those under 25. Rates of youth homelessness have jumped and housing affordability is nothing but a dream for many.

The cost of tertiary education prevents many young people from low socio-economic backgrounds and rural areas from attending university. Financial pressures mean both these groups are forced to work long hours in part-time jobs, frequently juggling irregular shifts with study pressures. Students often report having to sacrifice food to be able to pay rent and bills.

At the same time there is inaction on key environmental and social issues at both the federal and state level.

The bleak present — and even darker future outlook — for young people today are not a result of Sidoti’s “selfish sociopath Baby Boomers”.

Many Baby Boomers are still active today in campaigns and, in some cases, leading them, be they for a sustainable, safe environment, women's and indigenous rights, improved public transport, a first-class healthcare system or other socially progressive reforms.

Many want to ensure that younger and future generations have a better future.

The present distress that many face is a result of a cut-throat class society that pits one group of people against another to protect and disguise its own economic objectives.

The wealth gap is growing. This is a result of the top 1% and corporations not paying their fair share of tax. In the 2015-26 financial year, 732 big companies pay no taxes at all in Australia. The same cannot be said of any of the Baby Boomers who work in these companies.

It is a result of the bankers, energy companies and corporations who control our lives: they are the selfish sociopaths who benefit from and encourage division, fear and hatred while ripping off working people of all ages.

It is also a result of the inaction of politicians who, while obtaining huge wages, superannuation schemes and other benefits at taxpayers’ expense, also point the finger at Baby Boomers.

It is unity and action we need if we want a better future. Young people are leading the fight today, especially in the climate movement — and Baby Boomers are there right alongside them.

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