Journalist and sub editor
Whenever the term “Boomer” comes up in a Millennial/Gen Z confab it’s invariably spat out with the same vitriol you imagine accompanied the mention of Visigoths in ancient Rome, the Mongols in 13th century Vienna and royalty in revolutionary France. Freakin’ Boomers!
Amazingly, there was a time when Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) were welcomed as a breath of fresh air – a vast, well-educated cohort who rejected the values of their parents, embraced progressive ideas and had an appetite for change.
Don’t Stop: Bill Clinton’s 1992 election put the first baby boomer into the White House.Credit: Peter Turnley/Corbis
Boomer love peaked during the 1992 American presidential election campaign of Bill Clinton (born 1946), who took as his theme song Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop.
For months, we were assailed with images of vibrant, well-groomed Boomers singing and dancing along to Christine McVie’s optimistic anthem, with sax-playing Bill and his super-smart feminist wife offering voters generational change: “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow/Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here/It’ll be better than before/Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone.”
In the past few years younger people, most of whom are unfamiliar with the role Boomers played in the Civil Rights movement, bringing an end to the Vietnam War and helping to usher in the social and political transformation, now regard them as the enemy. They believe Boomers are a wall standing between them and economic well-being.
Millennials and Gen-Zedders see Boomers not as enterprising or hard-working but having the dumb luck to be born in an era when it was possible to accumulate wealth and buy investment properties, so desperate to remain relevant they will not let go of power, whose selfishness and narcissism was called out by the #MeToo movement, whose indulgent lifestyle means their carcasses are now clogging up hospitals.
That animosity toward Boomers even threw up in the early days of the pandemic the very nasty, admittedly very funny expression “Boomer remover” (it disappeared pretty quickly as the death toll soared and those who used the expression found themselves unable to visit their grandparents trapped inside of old folks’ homes).
Anti-Boomerism is once again surging in the final days of the Voice to parliament referendum, with Gen-Zedders and Millennials preparing to blame the predicted failure of the vote on those who once marched to end the conflict in South-East Asia and are now marching around shopping malls.
A couple of smart-arse advertising creatives even launched a campaign, “groom a Boomer”, to get young people to persuade their parents and grandparents to vote Yes.
Anxious as I am to defend my generation – “But I marched against the bomb in the 1980s!” I recently pleaded to my cynical young colleagues at WAtoday – the facts don’t back me up: the majority of Baby Boomers (those aged between 59 and 77) intend to vote No.
How did it come to be that a cohort who came of age during a time of political disruption and social progress now have a problem with throwing their support behind a document that does little more than acknowledge our First Nations people and give them a voice?
We fought to end apartheid in South Africa, we challenged American military might by marching in our hundreds of thousands against the invasion of Iraq, we voted to legalise same-sex marriage. Surely, the Voice referendum requires no greater of a leap of the political imagination.
Pulitzer Prize-winning American scholar Louis Menand provides an answer to my quandary in his much-discussed 2021 New Yorker essay, It’s Time to Stop Talking About “Generations”.
Menand argues that when we discuss generations we focus on a smallish group of disruptors who come to stand for the whole. The majority of Boomers, contends Menand, were not that different from the older generations they were supposedly rebelling against.
“Most young people in the sixties did not practice free love, take drugs, or protest the war in Vietnam,” writes Menand.
A majority of boomers will be voting no, but that doesn’t mean there is not a passionate support for the Voice among older voters.Credit: Steven Siewert
“In a poll taken in 1967, when people were asked whether couples should wait to have sex until they were married, sixty-three per cent of those in their twenties said yes, virtually the same as in the general population.
“In 1969, when people aged 21 to 29 were asked whether they had ever used marijuana, 88 per cent said no. When the same group was asked whether the United States should withdraw immediately from Vietnam, three-quarters said no, about the same as in the general population.”
Menand concludes his plea to stop thinking of generations in such clear-cut terms and acknowledge our attitudes are shaped by forces more significant than our birthdays by pointing out that the culture of any age is not created by those in the target age group but the generation before, such as boomer heroes Andy Warhol (born 1928), Jack Nicholson (1937), John Lennon (1940), Bob Dylan (1941) and Mick Jagger (1943).
While Boomers were clearly not as progressive as they are in my Woodstock/Big Chill-infused imagination it seems the Millennials and Gen-Zedders are equally complex, with a sizeable chunk – 39 per cent of those in the 19 to 34 category – lining up with their parents and grandparents to vote No.
Social researcher Rebecca Huntley told the Sydney Morning Herald that while Gen Z and Millennials were more open to the Voice than Boomers, many still have the same qualms as the older generation.
“Everybody knows what marriage is and everybody knows somebody who’s gay, but the abyss … between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians is enormous,” Huntley says.
“In [focus] groups, people would say, ‘I don’t know any Aboriginal people, and even if I did, I don’t know how I could talk to them about this, so I’m just going to get all my information from social media’.”
Most Boomers will vote No on Saturday, and they will be seen as responsible for ruining the Voice party.
But, like it was in the 1960s and 70s, there are many who have not abandoned the rebellious spirit of the era. They are as passionate about the Voice to parliament as they were about the rights of women and people of colour, about stopping the threat of nuclear war and about challenging American imperialism.
While it is fun to slap a label on someone or even to live up to the expectations of that label, terms such as Boomer, Millennial and Gen-Zedder about as insightful and useful is judging someone by their star sign.
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