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The radical self-interest of the Baby Boomers

Opinion

Don't count on the Baby Boomers to lead a demographic charge to more progressive politics, writes Malcolm King.

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“Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.”  Variously attributed to Winston Churchill, Benjamin Disraeli and Victor Hugo, among others.

Commentators and policy specialists believe that as the conservative voters of the War Generation, born in the 1920s and ’30s, pass away, we’ll see the emergence of the progressive Baby Boomer vote.

The Boomer’s ideals were formed in the 1960s and early 70s – between the Beatles first album and the end of the Whitlam Government in 1975. Their vote may help young people who are facing some of the toughest economic times since the recession of the early 1990s.

One Crikey article states the demographic decline of the War Generation will cost the federal Coalition about one per cent of the vote over each of the next three elections. If true, that’s bad news for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. But before you get all psychedelic and ‘drop out and tune in’ to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit, I believe the opposite will happen.

There are two theories that deal with attitude formation and ageing: life cycle theory and cohort theory.

Cohort theory says the greatest impacts on the formation of political opinions over a life span are made by our parents, culture and the significant events of our formative years. It suggests that because the Boomers grew up in a progressive, socially liberal and economic epoch, that they will vote to the centre left. It’s pretty simplistic, I admit.

Some of the Boomer’s formative experiences include unprecedented access to university education and healthcare, the rise of feminism, and the genesis of Indigenous land rights campaigns, environmentalism and LGBT movements.

Unfortunately these so-called enlightened attitudes were inculcated in a minority of the post war generation and a fair sample are now writers and commentators in Australia’s media. They espouse small ‘l’ liberal values while the nation continues to drift to the right.

One problem with Cohort theory is that it is impossible to extrapolate voter intentions with any degree of certainty. For example, ‘Boomer Fred’ can be excited by the O-Bahn construction on Hackney Road in Adelaide because when its finished, the drive home will be quicker. Yet ‘Boomer Martha’ thinks it’s a waste of money and will punish the government for building it.

Studies of Boomer voting patterns of the two major parties – which are unreliable – show that about 47 per cent vote for the Coalition and 43 per cent vote for the ALP. Ten per cent of voters are undecided. The pattern is further scrambled by the rise of the Greens and the fact that some older folk vote ALP in state elections and then vote for the Coalition in federal elections.

The Boomers have accumulated assets they wish to protect. They look for social stability rooted in the traditions they feel comfortable with. They will vote for the party that they believe, most rewards hard work and ambition.

Life cycle theory says that as people age, they become more conservative and orthodox in their political views. They become nostalgic ‘Scrooges’ who look to the past to shore up their political values. For these folk, the future is a frightening place. They vote for stability not change.

Adelaide journalist Shirley Stott Despoja gave a good example of life cycle theory when she wrote in the media recently: “I believe that as more old people survive longer in our communities, the mood will change, and making the past come alive… will be even more acceptable. If I am right about the brutal way of life that seems to threaten us from the future, places of the mind will become necessary retreats for everyone.”

There was a practical example of the theory in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs back in 2013 and again in 2015. About 300 angry protesters, many in their 60s and 70s, got stuck in to John Rau, the Minister for Planning, for agreeing to proposed high-rise housing for young people in their neighbourhoods. The real issue wasn’t the environment or rising population. It was property values.

In South Australia, there are about 400,000 Boomers. That’s 26 per cent of the population. We haven’t yet seen a large bloc of older people use the ballot box to endorse reactionary and self-interested policies in either council or state elections but it’s on the cards.

One of the reasons is the rise of radical self-interest. A fundamental difference between the War Generation and the Boomers is the former understood the importance of collectivity. The Depression and World War II forced people to cooperate and to act in reciprocal ways to survive.

Financially, the Boomers came of age during one of the greatest economic growth periods in Australia’s history. While they may be generous to family and ensure their children are well cared for, they are less inclined to think about the welfare of their neighbour’s kids let alone families battling in the poorer suburbs, where manufacturing is on the skids.

That’s why it’s important that the 400,000 Australians in the 18-24 year age group who are not registered to vote, get on the electoral roll. Their voices should be heard.

The Boomers have accumulated assets they wish to protect. They look for social stability rooted in the traditions they feel comfortable with. They will vote for the party that they believe, most rewards hard work and ambition.

Some who have traditionally voted conservative may recognise that if their children are battling to get a job let alone buy a house, then a vote for fairness and a return to the egalitarian values of the War Generation may be in the offing.

But don’t hold your breath.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change.

Read more from Malcolm here.

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