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Chlöe Swarbrick. Photo/Getty Images

The OK, boomer uproar blotted out an important intergenerational moment

While baby boomers and millennials were squabbling, New Zealand reached a milestone of political cohesion and maturity.

Baby boomers have become the latest international craze in fancy dress and Halloween costumes, as youngsters borrow their grandparents’ cardies, affect a cruise perma-tan, clutch a “Pension Pot” and flourish an investment brochure for a holiday villa abroad.

Boomers might well retaliate by dressing in Extinction Rebellion livery, accessorised with the latest cellphone, headphones, trainers, international air tickets and box of boo-hoo tissues.

It’s all fun and games – until someone loses a sense of humour.

Intergenerational warfare is as old as civilisation itself, but it’s in danger of becoming downright uncivilised as we fall into the habit of blaming each other’s demographic tribes for environmental degradation, inequality and much else.

 

Nowhere is this more damaging than in our struggles with climate change. New Zealand has just reached a milestone of political cohesion and maturity with all major parties voting to support the zero-carbon legislation, setting us on the path towards reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in time to avert catastrophe. Only Act dissented, but its MP, David Seymour, didn’t vote, so technically posterity can clock this up as a unanimous vote.

This should be celebrated. Seldom have so many MPs had to swallow so many proverbial dead rats, but they did so in order to validate what was, while far from perfect, the best interim plan to enable New Zealand to make progress. National and New Zealand First had much to gain by perpetuating the politicking and blocking or diluting the legislation. Their better angels prevailed.

Instead of this admirable restraint, however, the headlines – here and overseas – seized upon a throwaway line by Greens MP Chlöe Swarbrick that revived the pernicious blame game Parliament had just, surely, put behind it with that very vote. Her “OK, boomer” wasn’t even aptly lobbed. National’s Todd Muller is not a boomer, and was heckling her on a point of arithmetic, not about the urgency of climate-change mitigation – of which he happens to be one of National’s leading proponents.

Yes, the baby-boom generation’s consumption has been a big cause of greenhouse-gas emissions and environmental damage – continuing long after the world first realised the Industrial Revolution was not an unalloyed boon. But step down that road of vengeance accounting and awkward extra facts emerge. By their early twenties, most boomers’ air miles would not have begun to compare with those of today’s young adults. Foreign exchange rules, import controls and steep air fares meant their goods consumption and travel were exponentially lower than for today’s young.

It was subsequent generations, not boomers, who invented and fed hyper-consumption of fast-fashion goods and the ultra-rapid upgrades of technology. To many a boomer, these remain astonishingly extravagant. The boomers paid much higher tax rates, which built the schools, hospitals and roads then woefully lacking in post-war New Zealand, and thought it wonderfully decadent when there was a second choice of TV channel – in colour.

The home-ownership ledger, at least at this point in the generational cycle, undeniably favours the old over the young. But who really wants a forensic account of double-digit interest rates, galloping inflation and grotesquely expensive and rationed goods, including cars and washing machines, plus saving up for the one annual overseas toll call? Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch was funny. This kind of warfare is not.

Every generation faces its challenges. These have included poverty, depression and actual wars in which young New Zealanders of the time sacrificed their lives at a higher per capita rate than others.

Boomers protested against apartheid, nuclear technology and the Vietnam War, and for civil and Māori rights and welfare provisions. They crusaded and, importantly, voted for the world to be made, in these respects, a kinder, safer place.

Do we really need to keep going over all this?

Or is it time for all generations to work together?

Even Vernon Tava’s new Sustainability Party, although an electoral long shot, is at least a welcome effort to highlight the progress this country and others are making in climate-change mitigation, with a focus on the daily-emergent new possibilities for progress. Looking back in bitterness improves nothing and, worse, risks alienating people into nihilistic inaction.

So, OK, boomers and hey, snowflakes: we’re all in this together. And thanks to Parliament’s vote last week, we have, this once, gone forward together. It’s an excellent move.

This editorial was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.