Wednesday, 23 January 2008

The politics of generations: baby boomers and after

I have just come across an article in Newsweek (21 January 2008) called Leaders for a New Age that contends we are now seeing the rise to political power of the post-baby boomers:

"men and women too young to have been shaped by either of the two major ideological contests of the 20th century—the battle against fascism and the long twilight struggle against communism."
The examples discussed include British foreign secretary David Miliband, Conservative Party leader David Cameron, Sweden's Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, France's Justice Minister Rachida Dati, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of Denmark's Social Democrats and, of course, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, who has a chance of winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

"Compared with the baby boomers, they are more technocratic, more global in outlook, more comfortable with technology, more idealistic and yet less ideological and less invested in old debates . . . Instead, the new generation has been influenced by the end of the cold war, September 11 and the Iraq War."
In terms of policies, the authors suggest a direction of travel: support for "the continued spread of democracy and liberalism, particularly to Muslim nations," optimism "about the long-term prospects of reining in Islamic terrorism" and general support for "globalization." According to the article, the new generation is much more focused than its predecessors on climate change as well as immigration and its challenges to cultural identity.

The article may speak too soon. A boomer has only just become president of France. Last year, Ms Thorne-Schmidt was defeated at the polls by another. Senator Hilary Clinton, queen of the boomers, may well see off Senator Obama. In other ways, it is too simplistic, glossing too easily over old arguments. On Europe, for instance, there is still a gulf between David Miliband and David Cameron. Britain's political argument over the future of work and pensions policy is unlikely to be reduced to:

"widespread support for a state-provided social safety net, coupled with a realization . . . that current benefits and the tax systems that support them have become overly burdensome and must be reformed."
Also, some boomer politicians, such as Tony Blair, hold many of the views described in the article.
Still, the generational divide in politics is overlooked far too often. Having been born in 1962, I am technically a boomer. But having been active in "progressive" parties in two countries, I have often noticed that the boomers involved have a different mindset from myself and many contemporaries. This has been most noticeable on matters economic. The liberal and left political boomers have tended to be less concerned about arguments over public debt and inflation, more interested in foreign policy and (in New Zealand at least) gender and human rights. Historically, they have also been more likely to prefer statist policies - taxes, spending, regulation - over market-based policies. There was usually common ground, however, over human rights, feminism and gay rights.
Personally, I put this down to the oil shocks and the great inflation of the 1970s, which produced different expectations in my age group and profoundly changed the intellectual climate in western countries. Liberals and social democrats who became interested in politics around this time arrived at a perplexing, uneasy turning point between the politics of values and money, equity and efficiency, ends and means.

In my experience, inside and outside of the political world, the twentysomethings, the true children of the market, are something else again: much less interested in party politics, less likely to see politics as providing solutions to problems like climate change, more concerned with packaged campaigns and causes (see Make Poverty History), more likely to perceive themselves as "consumers" with entitlements in all spheres -and therefore more demanding of personalised public services. They may also be more ambivalent about civil liberties and personal freedoms.

Yes, this is all subjective. So it would be fascinating though to see some detailed studies of the differing political attitudes of the differing age groups - say, the boomers, the Abba-Star Wars generation and the children of the market. I am sure they would present some big threats and opportunities for Liberal Democrats. Voters with a more positive, more outward-looking, more tolerant, more idealistic outlook may be more receptive to a liberal story, told by a new, post-boomer leader. On the other hand, what if (and this only a suggestion) most voters aged under 40 -- the groups where we have done well in recent general elections -- don't relate at all well to our version of social liberalism and essentially see schools and hospitals as goods that they purchase with their tax money? It would be useful to look and plan ahead, rather than seeing what happens and then reacting, as has happened all too often in the past.

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