Monday, 18 January 2010

Generation Jones leaders should put their cards on the table this year

We are seeing a major shift in political power. Having ruled much of the world for more than a decade, the baby boomers --usually seen as the age cohort born between 1946 and 1961 -- are now on their way out. The boomers are being replaced by what the social commentator Jonathan Pontell calls Generation Jones*, a sub cohort born between 1954 and 1965.* They form a bridge between the baby boomers and Generation X, born between 1961 and 1981.

Evidence of the new shift piled up during 2008. In the United States, Barack Obama (born 1961) trounced John McCain, who was born in 1936 and, therefore, 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. On January 20 2009, Obama replaced a baby boomer, George W. Bush, who himself followed Bill Clinton, another baby boomer, in 2001. Obama’s inauguration marked the end of 16 years of boomer rule.

In the race for London mayor, Conservative Boris Johnson (born 1964) ousted Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone (born 1945 and arguably a baby boomer, if only just).

In my home country, New Zealand, National’s John Key (born 1961) defeated three term Labour prime minister, Helen Clark (born 1950).

These three joined other Generation Jonesers at the top, like France’s president Nicolas Sarkozy (born 1955), Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel (born 1954), Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd (born 1957) and Sweden's prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt (born 1965). According to Jonathan Pontell, two-thirds of EU and NATO leaders now come from this cohort. Several key figures in Obama’s administration are also Jonesers.

There’s more. In this year’s UK general election, due in 2010, prime minister Gordon Brown (born 1951) will almost certainly lose to Conservative leader David Cameron (born 1966).

The change in ruling generations could have a profound of the substance and the style of politics. Baby boomer politics were all about enhancing personal freedom and self-fulfilment. Their legacy is 1960s and 1970s feminism, gay rights, the fight against apartheid, a new push for indigenous peoples’ rights, a new look at nationalism in Asia (well, Vietnam). Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and their contemporaries also carried on and sealed in the pursuit of greater freedom in the economic sphere. So turbo-capitalism is part of the boomer legacy too.

The theory is that Generation Jones still wants to change the world, but they are less ideological and more pragmatic. Last April, Pontell explained:

". . . We are practical idealists, forged in the fires of social upheaval while too young to play a part . . .

". . . Our practical idealism was created by witnessing the often unrealistic idealism of the 1960s. And we weren't engaged in that era's ideological battles; we were children playing with toys while Boomers argued over issues. Our non-ideological pragmatism allows us to resolve intra-Boomer skirmishes and to bridge that volatile Boomer-GenXer divide. We can lead."

I was born in 1962, which makes me one of Generation Jones, and Pontell’s argument rings a lot of bells with me.

Last year, however, the new generation leaders were ‘pragmatic’ enough but kept the ‘idealistic’ part of the formula under wraps.

On the moderate “left”, for example, “practical idealism” looks more like old-fashioned political caution. This has been a theme of several commentaries on Barack Obama’s first year in office. Drew Westen, the author of The Political Brain and a self-described “leftist”, has bitterly lamented the lack of fire in Obama’s belly and his reluctance to take risks, “to take anybody on.” Given Obama’s record and the fact that Generation Jones is meant to be about a pragmatic pursuit of ideals, I don’t think any of that is especially surprising.

Westen has also slated the president for having “no vision, no message” and of simply not wanting to enunciate a progressive vision of where his country should be heading in the 21st century.

In my experience, when those on the “left” accuse one of their own of lacking a progressive vision, they usually mean that s/he doesn’t subscribe to their vision. Westen has a point though. Obama’s core political beliefs have always been a hard to pin down and his political message is more opaque now than it was during the campaign. Politics Daily’s Walter Shapiro has called the forces driving the Obama presidency “elusive”. He points to a “never show your cards vagueness” on key issues in health care reform, on top of a reluctance to challenge Wall Street and the bonus culture and concludes that Barack Obama remains, “more than any president in memory, an enigmatic figure who defies easy categorization.”

Analyses of Australia’s Kevin Rudd (in office since December 2007) tend to use phrases like “work in progress”, “voters still don’t really know him” and “lacks a narrative”.

Jonesers from the moderate “right” have been open to similar sorts of criticisms. John Key has remained popular in his first year and more in office, partly because he has eschewed economic radicalism and stuck to middle of the political road. But Key is now under some pressure to explain how he will reposition New Zealand’s economy for the difficult challenges ahead. [click here, and here].

As for David Cameron, he is not in power and that so it is unfair to judge him by the above standards. But I’ve yet to hear a convincing definition of “Cameronism”. The Tory leader’s core beliefs remain a mystery. Such a comment may seem predictable from the likes of me, but a recent issue of The Spectator contained some scathing (and well-argued) articles claiming that Cameron has no “big idea”.

And, can anybody tell me what Mayor Boris is trying to achieve?

Pontell may be correct about Generation Jones and the opportunities that lie before it. President Obama is not fighting the old culture wars dating from the 1960s. Rudd has tried to fashion a fresh approach to social democratic politics. John Key has jettisoned the type of neoliberal ideology that caused his predecessors to self-destruct during the 1990s. In his quest to detoxify the Tory brand, David Cameron does not define himself in Thatcher-era frames. All of this is defensible, from an electoral point of view.

But I’m still not sure about the values and drivers of the leaders from Generation Jones - what their “practical idealism” is really all about. Perhaps there will be some clearer answers in 2010.

* I have previously written just about the Baby Boomers and Generation X, while mentioning a sub-cohort from 1955-65, but am happy to stand corrected and consider the theory about a distinctive “Generation Jones”.

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