An open letter

We occasionally see the open letter published as a personal commentary and as questions to political and other authority figures. It remains a valid means of persponal expression.

Dear politicians, whining media commentators and social stereotypers,

As an older person I want to write to you about your oversimplification of the baby boom generation. It is no secret that you are in the habit of ascribing certain characteristics as if they applied to all of this generation. I’m here to tell you how wrong you are.

First, your sweeping generalisations, some of them at least:

  1. all or most baby boomers are wealthy and own property, especially real estate, that has increased in value, thus increasing the wealth of this generation
  2. baby boomers benefited from the free tertiary education introduced by Australia’s Whitlan government of the 1970s
  3. baby boomers have considerable wealth invested in superannuation funds.

I’m not going to go into figures in my argument here because you of all people know how figures are open to interpretation and can be given multiple meanings. I’m sticking to generalisations as do you.

Now, let’s tackle that first sweeping generalisation of yours — the oft-repeated statement of politicians and their radio talkback show fellow travellers that baby boomers are wealthy, mostly due to their real estate holdings.

Here’s the reality as I have observed it in the diversity of my contemporaries of similar age. Yes, it is true that some have made a killing in real estate, just as did their own parents and just as are younger people today in some cases. It is likely, my observation anyway, that a good portion of those who invested in real estate and who saw their property value boom came from wealthy families who assisted them increase their wealth. Others had the good fortune to buy a modest house in one of our big cities, a house that increased in value over the decades thanks to incentives of politicians and their economic advisers.

Most, it is my guess, and my observation I should say, who bought a home got their deposit, at least, thanks to inheriting whatever wealth their parents had accumulated in their lives, including the family home. The sale of the parental home, when the proceeds were divided among the children, gave them the deposit to take out a mortgage and buy a home of their own. It is not their doing that those homes have increased in value. It is the doing of the financial system and the policies introduced by your fellow politicians.

Now, you have the opportunity to ensure that real estate wealth is passed on to the new generation of children by your taking appropriate economic policy decisions such as that around negative gearing. Will you continue the tradition of domestic property-based middle class and working class inherited wealth as the means of assuring start-up funds in life for succeeding generations?

This wealth in the form of property gives some credence to your sweeping generalisation about the supposed universal wealth of the baby boom generation. That night seem a sweeping statement itself but that is how it comes across in your own statements. Unfortunately, it ignores the large number who did not make real estate investments. Just as we find today, many people do not want to own their own home and find renting preferable. This especially applies to people whose work situates them in some place for only a limited time. I see people living next door to me, a middle aged couple who have a working income, who are happy as renters rather than property owners. They have accumulated no property-based wealth to pass on.

As in every generation, there are baby boomers who had to drop out of the real estate market because of job and income loss, illness or injury or for other family-related reasons. Some lost money in the recessions that dot our economic system. Your portraying the baby boom generation as the universally wealthy generation in your public statements and those of your radio talkback fellow travellers is so sweeping it ignores the diversity of economic experience and distribution within the generation. Should it be news that this generation includes many living on low incomes?

Now, your often-heard assertion that the baby boom generation benefited from the free tertiary education introduced in Australia in the 1970s. That is true to an extent but figures I saw — and I have no record of them to recite to you — suggest that the portion of the eligible Australian population that took advantage of free study was quite a small portion of the total population. I wish I could find those figures and their source so I could back up this statement so that you don’t have to continue generalising and portraying baby boomers as all being educationally privileged.

The reality as I understand it is that today a far higher portion of the population engages in tertiary study than in the 1970s despite successive governments turning tertiary education from a service to increase the wellbeing and the prospects of the people and the nation, into a fee for service commodity. This leaves young people with often a decades-long debt which reduces their wherewithal to purchase a home and start a family.

I was one who accessed that free study and, like others doing so, I could not have accessed tertiary education otherwise. Like them, the study opened opportunities in life that otherwise would have remained inaccessible. Free tertiary education for those who wanted it was a key to a better future rather than some kind of privilege. That’s a different and more positive way of looking at it. The privileged were the children of the families who could afford university study before it was freed by the Whitlam government to all interested.

A better educated populace, thanks to free study, provided the skills needed by an economy that was undergoing change and growth at the time. That contribution of free study to national development is conveniently forgotten by you, it seems. Just like the higher taxes those people paid.

Now, the final of my three points. Oh, there are more but this is just a letter, not a book, so someone else will have to deal with them elsewhere. That final point: baby boomers have a lot of invested wealth in superannuation.

This claim has become a bit shaky recently, with economic crashes and recessions and the like that have eaten into people’s superannuation contribution. It is based on the assumption of continual fulltime employment, but as we know the casualisation of the workforce and the replacement of working class jobs by automation has for a coupled decades, if not longer, caused gaps in employment and reduced annual incomes, and this has meant reduced superannuation contributions.

Additionally, many baby boomers have had to step out of working life for years at a time to care for ageing parents. That meant no income, or what were families with two incomes reduced to one. And getting back into the workforce when you are in your fifties or sixties? Well, the reality of that makes your raising the retirement age a bit of a mockery. But you are politicians, after all, and dealing with reality we all know is not really your forte.

Workforce casualisation, the increase in parttime work, working class and now middle class jobs being replaced by robotics and software with some observers saying that up to 40 percent of today’s jobs are likely to be automated within 30 years or so, and that new jobs created by automation are unlikely to compensate for the numbers lost, suggests that politicians and their fellow travellers might start thinking about this future. My advice to you: get to it!

Let me end here and say that a good many baby boomers, like their parents’ generation, will rely on a government pension for their post-work years. And, let me say, it might pay you to remember that they are now better educated, for a few the legacy of that free tertiary education, and that they vote.

…Yours sincerely.
A baby boomer and a voter.

 

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