Sunday, 13 June 2010

A few more reasons why my generation isn't saving the world

Over on Huffington Post, Will Bunch has an interesting piece about Generation Jones, the cohort of people born between 1954 and 1965. He argues that Generation Jones is coming to power all over the world. But he’s not satisfied that we’re trying hard enough to solve its problems. Bunch believes that pragmatism has won out over idealism because our underlying anxiety about careers and personal economic security has left Jonesers with an innate aversion to taking risks.

The Next Greatest Generation? Hardly. The reality is that Generation Jones is showing up just in time, when the planet really does need saving -- and we are blowing it, big time. The challenges faced not just by the United States but by the entire world -- global warming, a deadly addiction to fossil fuels, governments addled by debt yet unable to stop spending billions on weapons -- require bold, boat-rocking risk-takers, people who have looked into the abyss of humankind and are not afraid to make daring moves.

This is simply not my Generation Jones . . . We are careerists -- clinging to our conviction that we can change the world not by forceful ideas but by the mere force of our own often-coddled personalities, even if the ideas and passions that once animated our humanity have been buried under pages of resumes and cover letters.

Ouch. Bunch goes on to describe Barack Obama and his new supreme court nominee, Eliza Kagan, as case studies of our generation’s cautious careerism and reluctance. And he wonders if the progressive ideals of Obama, Kagan other Jonsesers have now lain dormant for so long that they might never rise again.

I have argued previously that the leaders from Generation Jones need to start putting their political cards on the table and showing what they stand for and what they are going to do with their time in the sun. That applies to leaders from the moderate left, like Barack Obama and Australia’s prime minister Kevin Rudd, and to those from the moderate right, like New Zealand’s prime minister, John Key. All have been criticized, including by their own sides, for not being bold or visionary enough.

So I can relate a lot of what Bunch says. I grew up in New Zealand and not the US. He may be exaggerating parts of his argument for effect. Yet I can relate to his basic argument. When I was at secondary school, in the late 1970s, the senior teachers gave us stern lectures about how gruesome the job market was going to be. They were correct. By the time we got to university, unemployment had reached levels unknown since the great depression of the 1930s. The two oil shocks added in inflationary pressures and made a grim economic cocktail. But in my home country’s case, Bunch may be going too far when he claims that for Generation Jones, “progressive ideals were buried”. For instance, most of our Generation Jonesers supported the ban on nuclear warships visiting New Zealand.

And I suspect that it’s more than just the graduate job market of the 1980s that has made the leaders from Generation Jones wary of taking big political risks and reluctant to embark on big policy projects. The broader sweeps of politics and the fates of previous risk takers and visionaries have been important too.

Take Barack Obama. He came of age during the triumph of Reagan and witnessed the death of post-war American liberalism. American politics was fundamentally transformed during the 1980s and Bill Clinton did not try to turn the clock back – or forwards.

Kevin Rudd would have seen Gough Whitlam’s Labor government come to office in 1972 promising big shake-ups, especially in social and foreign policy. But Whitlam and co flamed out after just three years. When Labor returned, in 1983, they were led by Bob Hawke. Hawke’s government achieved a great deal, especially in the economic areas. But he branded his administration as reformist rather than radical; Hawke’s leadership style was based on the quest for consensus rather than promoting grand ideological designs. When his successor, Paul Keating, tried to paint big pictures, Australians just wanted the family snapshot. In 1996, they showed Labor the door – and Rudd himself failed in his first attempt to enter parliament.

His opponents used to mock John Key’s lack of interest in New Zealand’s turbulent politics of the early 1980s. But he and his Joneser senior ministers remember all too well what happened in the 1990s, when their National Party abandoned the safety of the conservative middle ground and undertook major cuts in social spending and broke the promises they had made to superannuitants (pensioners). The fourth National government saw its popularity plummet and at the 1993 election saw nearly all of its huge majority melt away. For many years, the memories of those years provided their opponents with a powerful political weapon.

Now for the big questions: what have Obama, Rudd, Key and the other generation Jonesers who are running the world learned from their predecessors’ sometimes bitter experiences? How do they plan to apply that knowledge to the massive challenges they face – most notably in saving our environment for future generations? And how are their leadership styles different from those of the political leaders that Generation Jones watched on TV in the 1970s and 1980s?

I have a sneaking fear that, in different ways, they don’t know the answer to the first two questions and that the answer to the second is based more on electoral tactics – polls and focus groups – than a clear sense of political ideals and policy strategies.

Let’s hope this concern is misplaced. There may be a new cause for hope. The UK has a new coalition government, whose prime minister, deputy prime minister and half of cabinet were born between 1954 and 1965. Perhaps they will show us what my generation is really all about.

Posted via email from Neil Stockley

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