Baby boomers are very evil, at least if you are extremely gullible and believe the latest polemic from the Grattan Institute on a supposed generation gap. That said, I should declare at the outset that I am one of those maligned Baby Boomers.
Grattan is not averse to contentious arguments supported by aggressive claims which seek to undermine any opposing positions. They seem to like having someone or something to blame. But this one is too much of a stretch.
A more reasonable debate would be between Baby Boomers who would argue AFL “isn’t as good as it used to be” due to the ultra-defensive tactics of coaches. Millennials might argue that today’s game is better—than the version they have not witnessed first-hand—because the code now demands far greater fitness and skill.
Such a debate would make more sense than an attempt to blame Baby Boomers for anything or everything adverse that has happened or may happen to those currently aged under 40. Proponents of various policy changes are getting pretty desperate when they have to fall back on tired old arguments about intergenerational equity and rivalries.
What is life really like for Baby Boomers?
The reality is, over time community living standards improve. The younger you are, the more years you will experience higher living standards. In fact, one of the groups with the highest levels of entrenched relative poverty in Australia are those aged over 65. While they may mostly own their own homes, incomes are constrained, they are not able to “eat their house”. Superannuation is helping lift retirement incomes, but they are still not adequate for many retirees.
When you look at the data, older generations have experienced lower living standards in real terms at particular ages than younger generations. In Australia and elsewhere, standards of living have tended to increase generation over generation as development and technology have progressed. When taking this into account, younger generations arguably have inherent privileges over older generations.
Australians growing up in the post-World War II period had such luxuries as vacuum tube radios, landline phones in only a few households, and black and white televisions with just two channels. It often meant a trip to the “shed down the back” in the absence of a sewer connected to their home. Holidays often involved camping grounds or cheap motels not too far from their home-town or city. Camera definition, smartphone screen fragility or which overseas countries to visit were not on their list.
Baby Boomers are not really morally culpable for having accumulated housing and other wealth, or having escaped the evils of low real wages growth through having retired. Especially given many retirees are now facing low and falling interest rates impacting the interest they receive on a substantial proportion of their life savings. Low real wages growth is not as good as high real wages growth, but it still delivers improvements in living standards.
Many Millennials live with their Baby Boomer parents
I would need a very long monthly column to list all the problems with the Grattan analysis. One basic shortcoming is that it focuses on the economic position of households where the household head is aged under 35. This ignores the position of many Millennials who are still living with their parents.
In 2017, 56 per cent of men aged 18 to 29 lived with one or both parents, up from 47 per cent in 2001. More strikingly, over the same period, the proportion of women aged 18 to 29 living with their parents rose from 36 per cent to 54 per cent. One of the reasons that many Millennials can afford their lattes is that they are not paying much if any board for living in the family home.
The Grattan report also focuses on the old age dependency ratio. When you look at the total dependency ratio, which also takes into account as well the proportion of the population aged 0 to 14, movements in dependency ratios both past and projected are not so extreme. Even Millennials were children once and supported by Baby Boomer parents and by government expenditure on education and health.
Some of the Grattan aspirations, such as boosting economic growth, raising labour productivity and real wages, and improving housing affordability are quite reasonable. However, the policies they see as achieving that are at best debatable and at worst objectionable. Raising the pension age and superannuation preservation age even further will not help Millennials. Taxing the old more and making their health insurance more expensive will just decrease living standards in retirement rather than helping the young. Changing planning rules to allow higher density homes in inner and middle rings of capital cities, on top of the recent boom in apartment construction, is also unlikely to lead to any significant improvement in housing affordability.
Grabbing attention by making aggressive claims might assist in media coverage but it is not a recipe for good public policy.