Mine is the lucky generation – our parents endured hardship, enjoyed unsurpassed economic growth and shielded us from the past. But what will be our legacy?
I grew up in a well-to-do suburb of Oslo, Norway. My parents endured the oppression and uncertainties of the German occupation of World War Two, but my formative years were safe and secure in a free country that was confidently growing into prosperity. My winter holidays were spent in the family mountain lodge, the short season of long summer days on the coast of the fjords. In my early thirties a work opportunity brought me to the endless summers of ‘the lucky country’.
Despite the distance, my two home countries have much in common. Vast underground resources producing endless wealth, low population density, a long coast-line, peaceful neighbours, a stable and predictable climate and a self-sufficient economy largely resilient to the extremes of world volatility.
My mum lamented the distance between us, but both her and my dad were quietly chuffed with their ‘adventurous’ son. My dad would have turned one hundred years old last week, and it gave me pause to reflect on what my parents’ generation left behind, and if mine is returning the favour.
The ‘Silent Generation’ – those born in the 25 years or so before 1945 – had the unenviable task of rebuilding a world almost obliterated by the worst mass killings in history. From that conflict grew a unity borne on necessity. The United Nations was formed, new trade alliances forged and the slow and painful process of unshackling the dominions from their colonial masters began.
The threat of war remained, but was paradoxically kept in check by the spectre of nuclear Armageddon. Foreign policy was defined by the cold war and military conflicts were mostly confined to ‘obscure’ places like Korea, Indochina and Congo.
The Western World, at least, entered a sixty-year period of relative peace and harmony, and unsurpassed economic growth.
America led the way, its economy stronger than ever. The Marshall plan helped European countries get back on their financial feet. In the East, MacArthur showed magnanimity in victory and a subjugated Japan was given leeway to recover – for the benefit of many, including Australia.
Outside of the Soviet block despair was replaced by optimism throughout Europe, heralding a period of innovation and growth. Television replaced radio as the mainstream medium for entertainment and news, inter-continental flights made ocean-liners redundant and soon monkeys and men were flying in space.
IBM ‘gave’ us the computer and by the seventies the first microchip was invented by Intel. A resurgent Japan started the ‘personal device’ revolution with the Sony Walkman the same year.
But it was also a time when BIG ideas and projects were conceived and executed. In Australia the Snowy River scheme was both visionary and brave, albeit not quite as audacious as the Apollo moon landing.
In Norway and elsewhere the emphasis was on creating the welfare state, changing the way people looked at government: from a provider of security and services nobody else would do, to the idea of a cradle to grave safety net encompassing health, education and social services.
Still dominated by a strong and independent agricultural sector, the resources industry and abundant trade, Australia took a bit longer to embrace social change. It wasn’t until the seventies of Gough Whitlam’s educational revolution and the introduction of universal health care that the idea of a welfare state took hold here, too.
And all the while the economy kept growing. There were jobs for everyone, at least if you were white. Wages kept rising, home ownership became possible for a rapidly expanding middle class and Holden and Ford could barely keep up with demand.
Punctured by the oil crisis that quadrupled prices in 1973 (which incidentally also enabled oil production in the North Sea), the occasional stock market crash and the odd recession that we ‘had to have’, the growth continued unabated well into the new millennium.
The Silent Generation did a pretty good job of providing for us Baby Boomers and the X generation. We have had unprecedented peace and prosperity. But what are we leaving behind?
The luck’s running out.
It took a few years before we understood the impact, but the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was a turning point that most of us didn’t see coming. It not only unmasked a financial market that had been taken over by the free-wheeling and unscrupulous, but it revealed how fragile and unfair our growth dependent economies had become.
The warning signs had been there, of course. But intoxicated by the growth story, neither governments nor the populace wanted to heed them. So we continued to spend and borrow and burn fossil fuels like there was no tomorrow.
Fast forward to 2018 and not much has changed. Outside of Iceland and the odd scapegoat here and there, none of those directly responsible for the GFC have suffered the consequences.
Continued spending has been fuelled by low interest rates. Despite being indebted to the hilt home ownership in our big cities and many other places is out of reach for more and more of my children’s generation. An increasingly ineffective and equally indebted public sector ‘led’ by short-sighted politicians is stretched to the limit looking after the less fortunate.
In blind deference to the idea that economic freedom is good for everyone we have allowed the mining companies to enrich themselves at the expense of the country – not to mention its original custodians. We have allowed the banks to run riot with the liberties accorded them, sold off public utilities in a misguided belief that market forces always work for the common good and made providing welfare a vice rather than a virtue.
Our once proud and innovative education sector is screaming out for reform, unable or unwilling to embrace the enormous changes that the information revolution has brought about. And the way it’s going, David Gonski will be six foot under before his recommendations are enacted, by which time they’ll be out-dated. An increasingly under-funded university sector is plugging the gaps by prioritising kids of wealthy Asians that can afford to pay.
The job market is also changing much faster than policy makers can keep up with. Job security is a thing of the past, and if we believe the most aggressive predictions most manual jobs will be carried out by robots within a decade.
It is unfair – although tempting – to blame our politicians. It is also glib to say that my generation have had it too easy, although there is some truth in that. We were fortunate to have parents that knew hardship and were determined that their kids should not have to.
Many of my contemporaries stop the analysis there and complain about the lack of resilience of generation Y and Z and beyond. That, too, is a cop-out, ignoring how we have enabled them.
We also ignored the effects of climate change for far too long. Some still do.
In the euphoria of growth we refused to see what was happening right before our eyes. The Silent Generation showed us what could be done: fixing water pollution from sewerage and the London smog along the way. Nice achievements that were never seen in a global context. Us Baby Boomers were mollycoddled to believe that anything man-made can be fixed by men. Women may disagree with that, but we were all mesmerised by collecting the glittering artefacts of consumerism.
Some say it is already too late, Global Warming has the human species (and most others) on a trajectory of annihilation in less than a few hundred years at best; unless we take drastic action now – or preferably yesterday.
Reality is that we have to leave it to our children to fix. Just as they need to change our focus on the economy as the only arbiter of happiness, change how we work and get paid, eradicate poverty, deal with Indigenous reconciliation, end warfare and change what we eat and how we produce it. And pay off the debt.
We’ve left our children and our children’s children with some pretty big tasks.
Are they up for it?
One of my grandchildren told me before her thirteenth birthday a few weeks ago that she didn’t want presents this year. Instead she wanted me to help her contribute clothing and sleeping bags to the homeless in Melbourne.
As my mother used to say, it’s the little things that matter. Maybe the next generation will be the compassionate and clever one.
Kim Wingerei is a former businessman turned commentator, writer and blogger, author of Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change. Follow @ kimwingerei.com.