One untold big story of 2008 was a political power shift, from the baby boomers to generation X.
The baby boomers are, broadly speaking, the cohort born between 1946 and 1961. Having ruled much of the world, they are now on their way out. The boomers are being replaced by “generation X”, the 28 to 45 year olds; though some would say that there’s also a transitional generation, currently in their late 40s.
Look at what’s happened in 2008.
In the United States presidential election, Barack Obama (born 1961) trounced John McCain. McCain was born in 1936 and is not a baby boomer. Earlier in the year, however, Obama saw off Hilary Clinton, born in 1947 and the queen of the boomers, to become the Democratic party’s standard-bearer. Obama’s two immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were both born in 1946.
In the race for London mayor, Conservative Boris Johnson (born 1964) ousted Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone (born 1945 and a baby boomer, if only just).
In my home country, New Zealand, National’s John Key (born 1961) defeated Labour prime minister Helen Clark (born 1950).
There could be more change to come. In the next UK general election, due in 2010, if not sooner, prime minister Gordon Brown (born 1951) will face Conservative leader David Cameron (born 1966). The Liberal Democrats are also led by a generation X-er, Nick Clegg (born 1967).
Many of the key members of Brown’s cabinet – Ed Balls, James Purnell, David Miliband and Ed Miliband -- were born in the late 1960s, though Purnell was born in 1970.
Other examples of post baby boomers in power or on the way up before 2008 are Sweden's prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, France's justice minister Rachida Dati and Helle Thorning-Schmidt, leader of Denmark’s Social Democrats.
There is a cruel irony in this generational shift. The baby boomers were the mainstay of the “sixties generation”; the self-styled driving force of a revolution that questioned established authority and the existing order, in foreign policy (most notably over Vietnam), education, gender and race. They took on many core values of the World War II generation and its predecessors.
Now these old “change agents” are the old guard and younger voters are moving them on. Barack Obama defeated Hilary Clinton by providing a more convincing narrative of “change” and “hope” and winning more support from under 35 year olds. He offered a liberation from America’s bitter political divisions of the last four decades and the Clintons are a potent symbol of one side of America’s culture wars. Boris Johnson’s core message was that, after eight years of Ken, it was time for a change in London. John Key campaigned as a “fresh” alternative to three term prime minister Helen Clark.
The boomers’ time at the top has been very brief. In the different forms of Clinton and Bush II, they have occupied the White House for just 16 years. The representatives of the GI generation were there for twice as long (1961-1993). The UK boomers’ dominance dates from Tony Blair’s 1997 victory, giving them even less time at the top than their American counterparts have enjoyed. Only in New Zealand, where they first came to power in 1984, have the boomer politicians arguably had a long tenure.
Looking at what the boomers leave behind, and what might be about to change, there’s another rich set of ironies. Baby boomer politics started out as being about war, peace, love, feminism, creativity, human relations and happiness. The driving force is self-fulfilment, self-expression and self-actualisation. At their most annoying and tiresome, the baby boomers have practised the politics of self-indulgence. They grew up in more benign economic times and didn’t have to worry too much about money. The post-war prosperity and then the revolt against the Keynesian economic settlement, happened all around them.
In terms of hard policy, however, the most significant legacies of Bill Clinton, Blair and Brown are in the area of political economy. They reconciled their parties with, adapted and then embraced, the market economics of Reagan and Thatcher (even if those were not exactly the same in the US and Britain). They, and, George W. Bush, have presided over the rise and rise, and now, the collapse, of turbo-capitalism. Brown, its erstwhile champion, now has to lead Britain through the consequences. Bush II and Blair also fought the Iraq war, with all its disastrous consequences for American and British prestige.
So with a new generation taking over, there is the prospect of new ideas and fresh approaches. These are surely needed now. As for what the new way may look like, Newsweek’s Jeremy Kahn offered a few opinions at the beginning of 2008.
"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."
He suggested they could take a distinctive direction of policy 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." Kahn saw the new generation as being much more focused than its predecessors in climate change as well as immigration and its challenges to cultural identity.
Nearly a year on, much of that description of the post boomers still seems plausible. For instance, Barack Obama has promised Americans a transformation, through rejecting the "old" politics in favour of a “new”, post-ideological version. (“There’s not a black America and a white America . . . a liberal America and a conservative America . . . there’s a United States of America”).
But Kahn’s observations now seem incomplete. Some generation X politicians look a little more grounded in conventional ideologies than they seemed this time last year. Step forward, David Cameron.
Kahn was writing months before the world recession and the threat of deflation really hit. The full nature of Obama’s solutions won’t be known until months after he takes office. There will have to be a lot of improvisation, and the details may look rather different to his campaign promises, some of which included protectionist rhetoric (not quite what Kahn suggests). But improvisation was also the rule with previous presidents, such as FDR and Bill Clinton.
As they innovate and improvise, the post baby boomers will need help. For instance, Obama’s incoming treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, born in 1961, is a post-boomer but other key cabinet appointments are experienced, familiar faces: Robert Gates (defence), Lawrence Summers (head of the National Economic Council) and Hilary Clinton (State). The last two of these are baby boomers. So are many key world leaders, such as Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy. And the politics of the emerging powers, such as China and India, follow very different rhythms.
The post baby boomers are taking over, but they won’t be able to run the world on their own.