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The Nation: The Generation Debate

On The Nation: The Generation Debate
Lisa Owen: The recent debate of superannuation and rising house prices is fuelling a generation war. Millennials say they’re being shut out of the Kiwi dream of home ownership and baby boomers are to blame. Boomers say if the young ones worked harder and stopped spending their money on smashed avocado at cafes, they’d save thousands. So who’s right? And what’s the solution? Well, joining me now in the studio this morning are millennials Morgan Godfrey and Jessica Palairet and baby boomers Stephen Franks and Ella Henry. Welcome to you all.
Stephen Franks: Kia ora.
Stephen, let’s kick off with you. Millennials – are they hard done by, or have they got some kind of generational character flaw?
Franks: I don’t think the latter, but I certainly think they’re hard done by. I think it’s absolutely terrible that they’re paying four times what we would have paid in salary terms for a house. And it does affect them as a group, and baby boomers have benefitted, but it’s not whether there’s a war. I mean, all of these gross generalisations just don’t work. Where they go wrong is saying, ‘We can identify and should identify and hold accountable the people who have made, actually, the decisions that are causing that’ – Peter Dunne blocking RMA reform; Robertson bringing in interest-free student loans and inducing people to think that debt doesn’t matter; a country where the millennials vote Green and the Greens don’t like RMA reform.
Morgan, are you feeling maligned at all? Is this a fair call about mobilising politically, in essence?
Morgan Godfrey: Yeah. I obviously don’t agree with Stephen’s prescriptions, but I think he’s right that rather than treating baby boomers as this big, undifferentiated block, we should actually look at the people who were in power – whether they were baby boomers or not – and actually hold them to account for the decisions they made, whether it was Muldoon scrapping the superannuation fund when he was in office, and now the prospect of an ever-increasing retirement age for millennials. So I think the future is kind of bleak for us.
Do you feel the future’s bleak, Jessica? You’re at university. 33% of millennials get a degree. Only about 19% of boomers did. 30% of boomers didn’t even finish high school. So do you feel you’re missing out on something that previous generations had that you don’t now have?
Jessica Palairet: I think it’s great that more people are going to university, but the reality is the student experience is actually harder than ever. We have had students who get—$50,000 on average is a student loan, and that shackles them for a really large part of their life going on. We get $176 from the government per week as the accommodation supplement, but the average rental property in Auckland with one bedroom is $250. Students are under more pressure than ever, and that’s actually reflected in mental health statistics and just how many more young people are seeking help for severe mental health problems.
Franks: No, that’s because they’re snowflakes. That’s because they’ve been bred—This is part of our problem. I mean, we did it. Our generation did it. But we tell people to focus on what’s wrong and what you’ve lost. This is the best time ever to live in the world, and your concern, for example, about student debt – the average graduate is going to earn over their lifetime three times what the non-graduate earns. And, see, you treat that debt, which represents about a seventh of your cost of your education as a problem. You should be saying thank you. I mean, my point is, really, you’ve been trained to w—
Morgan, you’re a snowflake. You should be thanking this generation.
Franks: You’ve been trained to whine.
Godfrey: That’s a really easy thing for someone to say if you were of a generation who went to university without fees and didn’t have to struggle under a $50,000, $60,000 debt. I had a $60,000 debt when I left university a couple of years ago, and I don’t even dream of paying it off any time soon. We’ve got to look at the facts here. In 1965—
I just want to bring Ella in on this point. Because you’re at university too, in a different capacity,…
Ella Henry: I am. I am.
…surrounded by students who are saddled, as Jessica says, with $15 billion of debt. Are you weeping for them, or are you…?
Henry: Actually, I am. Although I am living testimony to the theory that if you hang around a university long enough, they will give you a job. I’ve been very fortunate. I’m the first in my family ever to go to university and hopefully not the last, and creating that as a model for my whanau was really important. But, I mean, I was part of the group that protested against the introduction of the Education Amendment Act in 1990, and I think all of the things that we prophesied have come to pass. We’ve created a generation of haves and have-nots that did not exist. We’ve changed the social timbre of New Zealand society. And at the end of the day, if I’m described as a baby boomer, I don’t really care, because that’s a social construct that was made up. The reality is we have as a nation to look at ways to become more united not more divided.
Well, Stephen, you got a free law degree.
Franks: No, it wasn’t, actually. There were fees. I worked every holiday. In fact, I worked probably much like people do now. I drove one day a week, and a friend took the notes, because I needed to earn money.
So, what, are you saying they’re just not adaptable enough, they’re not working hard enough?
Franks: No, I think it’s much more an attitude thing. The education is focused on ‘the world’s going to hell in a handcart’ instead of how amazing it is that we’ve got far fewer poor people, we’ve got far less disease, our environment in improving. There’s a whole lot of stuff that has become a substitute religion for this generation that I think is their real problem – much more than the economic problem. And it’s just—
No a negative outlook?
Franks: yeah. Fear of change, fear of the future.
Are you fearful, Jessica?
Palairet: Not at all. I think the future’s going to be great, and I agree that the world is getting better. But just because the world’s getting better and it’s better than it was in the 1980s...
(PHONE CHIMES)
…doesn’t mean it’s great now, right? You still have lots of people who are really struggling. We still have lots of inequality. And we work over our summers. Everybody I know gets a summer job, but that just doesn’t cover it any more. You can’t just live off what you’ve earned over summer. Generally, half of it goes toward paying your rent, and then the other half…
(PHONE CHIMES)
… is only about, you know—
Henry: You should probably turn that off.
Franks: I tried. I don’t know how.
Someone should turn their phone off.
Henry: Get a millennial to sort it out for you.
Franks: Can you turn my phone off?
A millennial might be able to help you. We’ll leave you to do that. But I also want to ask – Jessica, are you the consumer generation? Because the accusation is that you are going out, buying too much smashed avocado and drinking too many lattes. So are you the consumer generation?
Well, look, so, that accusation was actually in relation to students and young people not being able to buy a house,...
Yes, it was.
…which is absolute rubbish, right? I mean, just think about it. We can’t save a $100,000 deposit because we buy too much smashed avocado on toast? No, we can’t afford a $100,000 deposit because it’s really a huge amount of money when you’re also paying off your student debt, and that $100,000 deposit doesn’t even guarantee you a house any more because there’s a shortage of supply of affordable housing for young people.
But it was also intended as an indicative measure of whether you are expecting too much. I mean, overseas travel is a lot cheaper these days, isn’t it, Morgan? Electronic consumables – cheaper. One comparison – 1987, a colour TV cost you 3.5 grand. In today’s money, a similar TV will cost you around 1000 bucks. So is all of this choice a good or bad thing for your generation?
Godfrey: Yeah, well, I guess I want to give another comparator there. In 1965, one year after the baby boom had ended, New Zealand was the sixth wealthiest country in the world in incomes per capita. Fast-forward to today – we’re now the 30th in income per capita. So, actually, things were better then, because the country was richer. It was richer than it is now.
This is why they’re pessimistic, Stephen – because the good times have passed. You had them.
Franks: Well, no, relatively, they’re much better, in terms of—
Godfrey: For some.
Franks: No, they’re better for everyone.
Henry: No, they’re not. No, they’re not. I’m sorry. There’s a large proportion of our Maori population who are still amongst the poorest in this country.
Franks: They are poorest in relative terms. The wealth they have—
Henry: And it’s extraordinarily bourgeois to tell them that they’re better off now, because they’re not.
Franks: Throw your Marxist stuff around if you like, but the bourgeois—Nearly everyone has a car. In 1965, there was a large number of families—
Do you both have cars?
Godfrey: No.
Palairet: Actually, I do have a car.
Franks: Yeah. Nearly everyone has stuff that was a dream then, but that’s not to say that relative poverty doesn’t matter; it does. How you feel in relation to others is incredibly important. But you’ve been encouraged to think that the— Let’s take an example. You had a demonstration of people going to parliament during the week, asking the government to get rid of impure thoughts in people. This is this anti-rape talk.
Sexual violence, yeah.
They want the government to sort out impure thoughts. At the same time, you’ve got rappers – a whole genre of music—that is essentially all negative and throwing around really foul considerations in that area, and you have religions which— Even the Salvation Army now says the government should be looking after children. I don’t think that you’ve got prescriptions for being more wealthy. You could have had the Auckland Council increasing land supply. No pressure from young people to do it.
Palairet: The problem with increasing land supply is much more one from the baby boomer generation, though, right? You’re the ones that owned properties who are Nimbys and refused to allow intensification.
Franks: I agree.
Palairet: It’s actually the baby boomer generation, I think, that’s held up intensification.
Franks: Absolutely.
Palairet: Young people are generally all for it.
Franks: No, they don’t. They hate developers. They support the Green party.
Henry: He makes a very grandiose, very bold—
Come on, Ella, what do you think?
Henry: I mean, essentially we agree about some of the main issues – that we don’t have enough houses and we don’t have enough jobs to have that kind of parity, and whilst things may have improved for a significant proportion of New Zealanders, there is still an equally a large number for whom there are real problems associated with underemployment, under-education, ill health, and those are things that we on our watch should have fixed up better.
Franks: Yep.
Henry: And I am a parent of millennials, and a centennial, which I just found out is a thing, and I worry that they are worried, and as a parent, I want the best for my children. I think that this talk of a division between generations is actually really problematic.
I want to talk about that more soon, but let’s take a look. The Nation took this debate out onto the street to see what other people thought, so let’s hear what they had to say.


Lisa Owen: Morgan, do you own a house.
Godfrey: No, I’d never dream of owning a house.
Is it because you’re hopeless?
Godfrey: She might think I am, but, no, I don’t think—You know, this whole idea that millennials are snowflakes or they’re lazy, I think it’s a talking point. It’s not actually an argument. Like I said before, millennials actually work longer hours than generation X. They earn less than baby boomers at the same stage in their life, and we’re facing things like student loan debts. We’re probably facing a more uncertain future than any other time in the past half-century because of the fourth industrial revolution, changing world of work and all of those things.
Psychologists who have studied your generation have tagged it ‘generation wuss’ and a generation with a lack of resilience. Do you think any of that is fair?
Godfrey: I don’t think that’s fair at all. That talking point again – the whole idea that millennials are snowflakes or wussies or soft, I think it’s actually a consequence of millennials being seen as a bit more progressive than other generations were, and I think that a lot of baby boomers with power – not baby boomers as a big block – kind of fear that. There was that interesting poll in the U.S. that found that more millennials had a favourable view of socialism than they did of capitalism, which sent people into fits of rage.
Well, let’s start with the boomers. Are you scared of the millennials? Is that the problem?
Franks: No, I feel sorry for them. I think their lack of resilience is my generation’s fault. Not collectively, it’s the fault of—
Well, let’s address it, because that’s the second time you’ve said that. You raised – the boomers raised – the millennials. It’s on you, isn’t it?
Franks: But the boomers didn’t. Each individual family raised them, and the idea that it’s a collective thing, and you can change it by collective derision just doesn’t work. The kids who have been protected from being allowed to swim where they might drown, who don’t get school camps, the generation that can no longer climb on a roof with without a scaffolding. These things are the product of particular politicians responding to particular pressures. It’s not a generation thing.
It sounds like you’re just being told to toughen up.
Godfrey: The nanny state.
Franks: No, they’re not. I’m saying—I’m ashamed of what’s happened – not on my watch, because I haven’t had power, but in the law. There’s nine times as many people doing judging roles as when I started. A whole lot more people telling these kids what they can do and can’t do, and the responses from your generation – a common thing is, ‘are we allowed to do that?’ which wasn’t the mind-set which we were given when we started.
Palairet: Stephen, I’m struggling to see the problem, though, because the real struggle for young people is not being able to buy a house, being shackled with lots and lots of debt, huge mental health problems and struggling to find a job when you leave university. Those are the real problems facing young people, and I just don’t the link between those issues and young people just not being resilient and strong enough because we weren’t allowed to climb trees, or that you didn’t let your kids climb trees, I don’t know. Those parenting decisions, those aren’t the real problems facing young people today.
Franks: Well, they might be. The notion that we are now facing more mental health problems with the incredible lack of real threat that you’ve had trough your lives compared to my father’s generation and even mine. When we were kids, Dad had just come back from an enormous war, and the idea of an atomic annihilation was part of our schooling. A lot of people really feared that they might not be there in a year’s time. I just think that it’s actually at an individual level that kids have now been told that they should be anxious and they should be nervous and blame others.
Ella?
Henry: If I shared your views, I would not be able to do the job that I do, which is teaching at a Maori faculty at Auckland, AUT, because all of my students are Maori. They all come from low-decile schools, which means they all come from impoverished communities. These kids have never actually experienced the wealth of which you speak, and they come from communities of intergenerational poverty, and for many of them still, in 2017, they’re the first in their family, their whanau, their hapu, to ever make it to university. And so being burdened by these things, the additional debt, the lack of possibility of ever owning a home, and the fact that New Zealand has the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world shows that there are real mental issues associated with being young,
Franks: They are real.
Henry: They’re not imagining them. They’re not snowflakes. They are real.
Franks: They’re real, all right.
Well, you talked about policies, and Stephen’s talked about policies that were made and decisions that were made by politicians. So I just want to ask you about that Jessica. Your age group – only about 65% of you are enrolled to vote, and I think only about half of that age group turned out – not even half – at the last election. So don’t you have to mobilise, and why aren’t you? If you want change, isn’t part of that on you?
Palairet: I agree. Young people should, and actually need to be, voting more than they are, but I get why a lot of young people aren’t voting. The reality is a lot of young people feel disengaged from the political system. There’s only one MP who’s younger than 30, and policies aren’t really directed towards young people and don’t really direct—
Yeah, but you can break that cycle.
Franks: You’re blaming others again. You’re saying, ‘It’s not our fault; they aren’t giving us the people—the right ones to vote for.’
Palairet: No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that I think it’s bad that young people don’t vote, but I understand why they’re not voting, and I think we can do more just to teach young people at schools about civics, just to give them a basic education around why voting is so important and just how your vote can make a difference. I understand why young people don’t vote. I think there are quite simple things we can do to really mobilise the youth vote.
Henry: And if you look at where the non-voting patterns are by looking at election patterns, you will see that the lowest turnouts are often in the most impoverished communities. So we are again talking about a poverty issue.
Palairet: Yeah.
Henry: And not just an economic poverty, but a poverty of mind, because this is the community that is the least connected, the most disenfranchised. So mobilising that community is all of our responsibilities.
So who is responsible for young people not voting, Stephen?
Franks: The particular people? I would say media for cynicism. You do not see a programme – you don’t see a fictional programme where a politician isn’t regarded as fictional and self-seeking. My experience as a politician is more politicians were desperately keen to do the best thing that they could. And there’s a whole lot of stuff that makes people cynical and disengaged, and a lot of it’s cultural.
Godfrey: I don’t think we should mistake voting as the only way to participate in politics.
Franks: I agree.
Godfrey: If you look at any climate change march, it’s primarily young people. If you look at the TPPA march – on both sides, those who supported it and those were against it – usually on either side were millennials. And I think actually that’s possibly a more rewarding way to engage in politics than simply turning up to the ballot box every three years to vote for people you might be a bit ambiguous about.
Franks: That’s politics as a religion substitute again. You know, let’s feel the transcendent joy of all being together and shouting about something we don’t know anything about, and, you know, we want to argue against our own interest. That’s my point. The millennials that are active are usually, to me, the intellectual losers who just like it instead of religion.
Palairet: Absolute rubbish. The millennials who get out on the street and protest about climate change are fed up by seeing the leaders of today leaving climate-change policies pretty much non-existent and feeling so annoyed about that, because it’s our generation that’s going to face climate change.
Frank: Then want to climb on a plane and use half a ton of kerosene to get to the United States and who have holidays overseas, which my generation didn’t, and who instead of cutting out a holiday or two use a lifetime of bags in one flight, say, ‘Ooh, let’s make our activism stopping old people having plastic bags.’
Godfrey: Oh, that is a bizarre talking point, because millennials don’t have disposal income like baby boomers do. We don’t have spare cash lying around. We don’t have spare houses here, there and everywhere. Millennials have actually—in a study in the U.K., were more likely to have borrowed money from their parents or friends, or have sold something that they own, simply to make ends meet week to week. So this idea that millennials are flying to the U.S. to attend a climate change conference or something like that is bizarre.
Did you have any overseas holidays as students? While students, overseas holidays?
Godfrey: Yeah, that my older parents had to pay for.
Right.
Franks: Well, you had them. You didn’t turn them down to save the planet from all that kerosene being burned.
Do you think there is a generation, all of you, that doesn’t think it’s the most hard done by, you know?
Henry: You know, I’m just about to wing into one of the scariest countries in the universe – old age. It’s scary. It’s a scary place, you know, and nobody gets out alive. So, obviously, the older I’m getting, the more I would love to be able to blame somebody else for all of my ails and woes, but there is also a sane, rational part of me that says, ‘You know what? We actually have to walk together,’ and this is not a bad place to do it. New Zealand is not a bad country. I’ve spent enough time in other places in the world to know we do some things really well in this country, and we all have a responsibility to ensure that our grandchildren grow up in a better world.
So the thing is, when these guys are all in their rocking chairs and the millennials hold the power, what’s going to stop your generation from falling into the same trap that you say they did?
Palairet: Well, I think that millennials today, we are able to look at policy with one eye on the future, and you actually see that with a lot of the things that we care about already – things like climate change, things like the Superannuation age, I think is a good example of it. And I think that millennials are able to be immersed in the technology age and make policy with one eye on the future, and I think that a lot of baby boomers, just because they’re tied to their housing capital, suffer from short-termism in terms of their thinking and know that if property prices go down, then that’s their retirement savings going down, so we can’t support policies that will really do much about our housing policy, even if it would do a lot for young people. So I think that, sort of, those differences mean we’d actually be really good by the time we get into old age.
I’m sure you want to jump in on that, but we’re going to let the millennials have the last word.
Franks: I want to support her. I agree.
Good chat. Great to have you all with us.
Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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