Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Review of Ryan Heath, Please Just F* Off: It's Our Turn Now (Pluto Press, 2006)

First, as to the title – don’t be put off, all you boomer would-be readers, as it’s quite misleading as to the contents therein. Albeit by sleight of hand, this book is much more scathing of GenXers (b. ~1963 – 1978) than baby boomers (b. 1946 – ~1962).

In fairness to the author here, he doesn’t agree with such a date range for GenX, nor quite possibly even for GenX’s existence as a generation separate from boomers.

He achieves this feat firstly by front-ending his own, it-generation back to 1970, thus giving the born-1980 author a prime, two-thirds-of-the-way-in possie. Such is mathematical destiny because the end-date of any modern generational pigeon-holing is seemingly obligatorily set at 15 years after its start, thus giving the talking-'bout-his-generation Heath the born 1970-1985 age-spread.

A cheeky move, perhaps, but one not entirely out of order: any 15 year range, including the one I postulate for Xers above, will have enough internal heterogeneities as to potentially justify an alternative spread that cannibalises some (only) of the former. Also, Heath’s chosen 1970-1985 range possesses a definite, if indirect, prevalent characteristic – these 15 years are quite possibly the peak Children of Boomers being-born years. Apart from a briefly Oedipal acknowledgment vis a vis his own boomer parents, however, Heath studiously ignores dwelling on this tricky, common-heritage thread.

More problematic, in any case, is what happens to the resultant GenX rump (b. 1963 – 1969) in Heath’s arbitrary-or-otherwise 15-year schema. Rather presumptuously, I would have thought, the older almost-half of this rump is simply absorbed into boomers, or at least a subset thereof: “younger boomers”, aka “Generation Jones”, who are apparently those born 1955-1965. As someone born in 1964, I can at least see some sense in this – had I not gone to university – and double this if I had also not finished school – I would probably now be as well-off financially as the average boomer, instead of living in long-term poverty.

No matter this, though – it is what Heath does with the rest of the GenX rump (those born 1966 – 1969), that utterly deserts his credibility. AFAICT, anyone born in this half-decade simply doesn’t exist. Possibly, having long ago entered a collective depression according to Heath (writing in early 2004) they’ve since all topped themselves.

Which is a shame, because the strongest arguments in Heath’s book pivot, at bottom, rather exactly on the fate of those born 1963 – 1978 – and surely half this demographic can’t be lopped-off without at least some side-effects. He quotes approvingly from Mark Davis’s 1997 anti-boomer tome Gangland (which otherwise is only cited twice (while ubiquitous Gen Y-pert Peter Sheahan gets not even a single mention)):

“[T]he real pity is that [baby boomers] trashed the place and left us to clean up”

The quote comes from a letter to the editor written, apropos of Kurt Cobain’s death, in April 1994, by Ruth Gamble. Something makes me think that Ruth’s use of “us” might well not have extended to the 13 y.o Ryan Heath then, nor indeed to the 25 y.o. current expat high-flier. (Googling Ruth Gamble, who I’d guess was born well before 1975, comes up with just a single, tantalising badge of presumed Xer-ship, that of failed film-maker: she had a $6,100 AFC grant revoked in 1997-98.)

But Heath’s riding on the coat-tails of unfortunate Xers doesn’t stop with Ruth’n’Kurt. Home ownership is, of course, a major grievance of GenX towards boomers, yet Heath has the nerve to cite 2001 Census figures, as extrapolated by NATSEM, on the relatively dire home ownership position of 25-39 y.o’s (that’s those born 1962-1977) as a prime exhibit in his case for the 1970-1985 generation being short-changed. Apart from the age range of his data being seriously out of whack with that of his narrowly-plead subjects, Heath has the galling presumption (or just stupidity?) to be already concerned about the reduced home ownership prospects of a half-decade cohort born 1980-85 – persons over whom such hand-wringing is surely premature. And if it’s not, then all you early-20’s, anxious renters can take a number, and then line up in the affordable-housing queue way, way, way behind me.

This is not to say that Heath’s case that affordable housing becomes a major policy priority lacks merit or sense. On the contrary, I agree entirely, and moreover, I have a better idea than Heath – who simply suggests abolishing negative gearing, and spending much more on public housing – on how to fix the current mess. My idea is to implement a modified version of NSW’s short-lived vendor tax – this time on all property sales. That is, if you make a profit (after CPI indexing and expenses) on selling any property (including one’s own home) then you pay tax (at a minimum 50% rate, I’d suggest) on the real profit. Unlike capital gains tax, this tax (which would have to be state-based, for constitutional reasons) could be “retrospective”, in the sense that date of acquisition would be irrelevant. Would the Greedy Boomer lobby scream like stuck pigs over such a tax? You betcha – so if they want to avoid its iniquities, it’s all really quite simple – just sell at cost+CPI, so making everyone a winner (= cutting out the taxman, together with giving Xer first-home buyers a break).

Of course, such a plan is sheer dreamin’. Even Heath’s so-modest-it’s-waste-of-paper-(IMO) suggestion to abolish negative gearing has raised the hackles of 29 y.o. Age reviewer Cameron Woodhead, who says that such a plan “would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the property market”*. As in – that’s a bad thing. Wazza matter, Cameron: the two-thirds downwards price adjustment/“collapse” (call it what you will) that is necessary to bring house prices back to long-term equilibrium (= 3 times average incomes) is going to whip your over-geared butt, perhaps? Or do you simply believe that home-ownership for Xers should be as rare, and entail as much cock-sucking, as it takes for an Xer to get a regular newspaper reviewing gig?

The other main plank of Heath’s book that had me generally nodding in agreement is the undesirability of non-free tertiary education. HECS is – and always has been – a rotten, slimy boomer conspiracy against the young, especially the most talented thereof. However, I don’t agree that re-imposing free, plenary tertiary education is necessarily desirable (assuming that it is affordable).

Instead, I’d suggest that free places generally be reserved for the “elite” (am I allowed to use that word in a non-sporting context?), which in ball-park terms would be a % figure somewhere between a top 1% (which I’m guessing is about where taxpayer rolled-gold kicks-in for elite 18-21 y.o. sportspeople) and the top 15% (= the % (again, I’m guessing) of born-1955-to-61 boomers who got free university (Note: not CAE, etc) education between 1973 and c.1985, all without the taxpayers of the time, AFAICT, ever kicking-up any fuss). Personally, I’d prefer the “elite” benchmark to be set as generously as possible, but the funding-elite-intellectuals-as-much-as-elite-sportspeople (and of course, the current HECS system doesn’t even do that) has to be considered as an absolute worst-case scenario. And in case you’re wondering, yes, non-elite students could get tertiary education as well, either in:

- private universities (which should get zero taxpayer assistance, and therefore be allowed to serve small (~5% of domestic 18-21 y.o’s, plus as many overseas students as they want), but apparently necessary, niche roles as finishing schools for the rich-but-dumb),


- public, part-subsidised (i.e. fee/HECS-charging) teaching-only colleges, for ~30% of 18-21 y.o’s.

Needless to say, these tri-sectors should be kept utterly separate, rather than co-existing within the legal aegis of a single institution, as is the case with all (?) Australian public universities/“universities” at present – which happily service rich-but-dumb (local and overseas) and college-course students, all while maintaining an empty pretence, but not the actuality, of being a real (= an institution with a core, 100%-subsidised, elite student base) public university.

In conclusion, Heath’s book also covers in depth the Gen eXpat (Ypat?) diaspora. Yawn. If I were Heath’s age, no doubt I would have also done what he, and many of his also-bright age-peers, have done – got an okay HECS-paid (soft-loan) tertiary education in Australia, and then got out, forever. It ain’t rocket science. The only mysteries are (i) why Heath cares enough to bother writing a whole book about the lost cause that is his birth-land, and (ii) why the GenX “rump” – whose most talented non-expats, if I’m any guide, are miserably wasted in their birth-lands – didn’t/don’t join him and the hordes of other bright young Aussie emigrants.

Just call me a “true believer”, Ryan. As in someone who believes that the Western world turned to shit about 1980 (yes, I know it’s the year you were born, but don’t take offence; it’s only a coincidence) – but maybe, just maybe, we can someday return to a world of full employment, led by smartest-first precedence. Finally Ryan, since you nail Labor/Labour colours to your own mast of optimism, let me tell you that the most pro-boomer, Xer-fucking government that this country has so far been (mis)ruled by existed between 1983 and 1996. These years may have been bounteous if you were (i) a boomer, (ii) still at school, or (iii) escaped overseas. For the rest of us, though, I’d suggest that our story during those blighted years would make a great subject for a future book. But really – no “please” or “just” in the title, this time.

* Cameron Woodhead, “Dude, you so blew it” (Review of Ryan Heath, Please Just F* Off: It's Our Turn Now) Sunday Age 26 February 2006

Firstly, I want to thank Paul for what is definitely the most comprehensive and possibly the most insightful review of my book yet. (A lot more thoughtful than Cameron Woodhead in the Sunday Age.)

I thought I might offer some feedback and further explanation as to why I chose certain date ranges and approaches in the book. It's meant as explanation rather than defence against criticism.


My dating of the generation I analyse as 1970-85 is absolutely arbitrary as Paul suggests. But it covers the age range of my social network and I can't credibly write about anyone else.

I do feel sorry for the 1960-70 lot, but their invisibility in the book is for someone else to take up and write about. In a way it appropriately represents how many of them are going to continue suffer being squeezed between two very optimistic generations (Boomers and Ys to resort to the labels). I think people my age will actaully sweep up a lot of inheritance and jobs from the Boomers and many of the 1960-70 group will just miss their chance at power entirely. I really hope not, but it looks a strong possibility.

I think its so brilliant that Paul knows the provenance of my 'trash the place' quote from Ruth Gamble -what a researcher!

My quoting of the NATSEM research is rightly acknoweldged as being from a report called 'Generation Xcluded' - so I don't think its really disingenous to talk about it as the best piece of evidence of young people in general being locked out of home ownership. It's a nod to a trend thats getting worse. When more up to date research comes out I will happily replace the NATSEM stuff in later editions.

I wish I could have gone into more length about my proposed solutions to Property Apartheid, but to be honest i am not a housing economist and the book had to end at a reasonable length. I wanted Chapter Six to be a statement of principles and rage rather than full-blown alternative policy.

As for the 'mystery' of why I bothered to 'write a whole book' about the 'lost cause' of Oz: it's cos I love the place. Maybe naive, disengenuous or soppy, but its true. I love the bits I love more now that I have had to think about it for 18 months writing the book, and I am much clearer about what I hate and reject as well.

I hope the book doesn't come across as Labor, Labor, Labor: I reckon I am actually harsher on Beazley and the ALP factions that any other element of Aus politics. My spread on the Greens is needed because they are such a bunch of martyrs; its much more a quibble with their tactics and image than their core beliefs. I just think you need more than beliefs.

Ryan, thanks for your feedback.

As far as GenX being the “Prince Charles” generation goes – i.e. the reins of power/home-ownership etc should and will necessarily skip those born ~1963-1969 – you are probably right (although it ain’t ever going to shut me up, needless to say).

Now let you and I pretend, for the sake of the exercise, to be plenary agents for our respective generations.

I’m quite prepared to role over and play Poland, i.e. to formally cede all possible spoils and trappings that GenX might in any way have or expect, to your lot. Just on one condition, though – YOUR GENERATION GETS ITS OWN MUSIC.

I was reminded of your generation’s deficiency in this regard last night, when I was at a gay club popular with under-25s. The only music which really got the dance-floor going was what I’d call Bad 80s. Admittedly, boomers were the creators of most Bad 80s music, but I believe that GenX has the moral “ownership” of all this music, by virtue of the 80s being our prime clubbing days.

Thus, if you want the world and you want it now (without so much as a peep of resistance from GenX), all you have to do is renounce Bad 80s music, and hand such back to its rightful owners (who will then, of course, promptly purge it from the face of the earth for all time). Good luck convincing your constituency of this being a good deal.
I'm a Yankee who has just come across this after hearing Ryan talk on Triple J.

The review and Ryan's response were illuminating, and I wish the JJJ dustup had been as thoughtful. Alas it got bogged down in the two main presumptions:

*1* The Boomer guest refusing to recognize the difference between the usual "youth" experience and economic good fortune.

Every generation has a post-school phase of litle money and power, but not every generation experiences this in a time of post-war prosperity. The rise of crony captialism, skyrocketing health care, evaporating safety net, massive wage gaps, growing debt, etc. all occured with Boomers in positions of power.

*2* A bit of oedipal/elektra blindness on behalf of youth which ignores how some of their complaints are cyclical and others are being suffered by people of multiple generations.

The description of Boomers - arrogant, priveleged, overstaying their welcome in pop culture - actually applies to YUPPIES, a specific type of power group which crosses generations.

For example, I'm equally sick of hearing Coldplay and Dave Matthews as I am the Doors, but all three are worship by the same type of wealthy prick thus ensuring their ubiquity on commercial radio. President Bush may not say "hey brah" but in so many ways he seems like the 22 year old frat boys who are just graduating.

The current debt treadmill and economic inequities began during Reagan's time. Grover Norquist, an American anti-tax, pro-business type, has managed to spread his concept of selfishness around the globe is most definitely a boomer yuppie, but he wouldn't have so much power if Alan Greenspan, Dick Cheney and other geezers hadn't been involved. And these guys had help from bunch of priveleged youth. Especially the internet wealthy who decided they were libertarians in the late 90s. The average age of an Enron worker was 36, which meant there were a whole lotta 20 year olds pulling those scams.

The consequences of these policies is falling on many genrations. And the guy in his 40s or 50s who finds himself in workplace turmoil also faces age based disrespect and discrimination. For the ancient blokes who are getting shafted as companies renege on pension obligations, some Gen Y type telling them to fuck off seems like the height of arrogance. And there's more of them than there are the Yuppified Boomers.

In my neck of Chicago, the single biggest force of gentrification are white 20-somethings. Their youth enables them to get higher debt ceilings which finance half million dollar two bedroom condos which are displacing renters, working class families of all ages and elderly,who can't get close to qualifying for such loans.

Who decides the economic policies which create this inequity? Boomer yuppies helped along by their Gen X and Y vice presidents. To someone on the outside, intergenerational sniping might like conspirators bickering while they loot the till. I mean, does the native population feel their oppression is specifically caused Boomers?

Yet I get where the author is coming from, because I feel the same way and I'm at the end of my 30s. It kinda sucks to identify with the young this way. And to sound off like a geezer, if you think the boomers are annoying now, try spending your whole aduthood having those arrogant types keep the Eagles in heavy rotation and those younger than them in a state of economic immaturity.

What irritates me is getting caught between two waves of social responsibility. The older large generations are arrogantly dismantling the social safety net for all but themselves. The younger large generations will probably reassemble it by the time they get old. We in the middle will end up being the cautionary example. We had height of our youth occur during the Regan-Bush recession and now our last gasp of youth is hosed by Bush II.

I don't think Gen X deserves to be in this position, but at some point you've got to suck it up, mutter Cobain had a point and get on with it. We're sort of like the folk who turned 40 during the dust bowl - nothing for it but to help the next lot and hope they pay something back when we're in our dotage.

Which is to say, all the authors venting youthful complaints should realize they've got a lot of older types who feel solidarity. They probably wish they didn't, but more and more the issues of Generation Debt / Generation Y affect us all. I think it would help both sides of the Generation Gap to acknowledge this.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?