Wealth, waste and the futile generation war

It’s pointless trying to blame another generation for the problems we face. The problems belong to us all. [15 April 2014 | Peter Boyer]

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Every now and again we’re reminded of the thing we call a generation, and it’s often a confronting experience.

We know a human generation to be the period of time that most people take to produce offspring, but this can vary depending on the situation. Generations tend to be longer in boom times with high numbers of women in jobs than during an economic depression, for instance.

In poorer countries, where people have a lower life expectancy and less access to birth control, the age gap between parents and their children can be 15 years, or less. In developed countries a generation averages around 25 years.

I said “people”; I should really have said “women” or “girls”, because it’s the age of mothers, those in our population who do the childbearing, which really defines the length of a generation. Fathers are sometimes a generation older than their partners.

But fathers and mothers alike tend to get very heated in defence of their younger days, in the kind of inter-generational disputes we see from time to time in the letters columns of the Mercury.

A few weeks ago a Kingston reader blamed baby boomers for pretty well everything bad in today’s world, attacking how they took holidays while younger people struggled with “the mess the boomers have left behind”.

It got an instant, heated response. “It’s the greed of more recent generations that have to have everything straight away and pay for it later (or never) that is part of the problem,” said one. “There was no buying on credit cards; we saved money to buy the necessities.”

Another suggested the younger generation should “give up gym membership and walk”. “You could cut out the lattes, make your own lunch or dine out on special occasions only. Try public transport. If you enjoy a night out, socialise at home.” Ah, the generation gap.

Things get a whole lot more complex when we look at generation as a cultural phenomenon, in terms of human behaviour and interaction, because we’re all in it up to our necks. Generation matters to us. It forms a huge part of who we are.

Which brings me to the musings of a Bellerive correspondent earlier this year. He recounted a discussion about shopping bags at a supermarket checkout, in which an older customer was berated by a young cashier for not caring enough “to save our environment for future generations”.

There followed a long catalogue of reasons why the older generation was no less “green” than later ones, which bears repeating at length.

In those times, said the writer, Brian Marshall, bottles were returned via the corner shop to a plant to be washed and re-used. Groceries were put in cartons or paper bags which were then re-used. People used stairs because there weren’t lifts, and walked or used buses for work or shopping.

The list went on: washing and re-using cloth nappies, drying clothes on a line instead of a dryer, blending food by hand instead of using electric mixers, packing breakables in newspapers instead of styrofoam or bubble wrap, mowing grass by hand.

“We exercised by working so we didn’t need to run on treadmills that operate on electricity. We drank from a tap or fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen.

“People took the bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning mum into a 24-hour taxi service in the family’s $50,000 people carrier. We didn’t need a computerised gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 23,000 miles out in space to find the nearest pub.”

“Here endeth the lesson,” was the wry conclusion.

Brian Marshall can be forgiven for being a bit tetchy. He was reacting to what he saw as an attack on his generation, and his defence is a good one with much to teach us all, young and old.

As a baby boomer myself I related to what he said. It was a nice reminder of how over this past half-century we’ve come to rely increasingly on powered machines and other technology while making a habit of discarding ever-growing amounts of superfluous stuff.

We’re entitled to a grouch now and again, but inter-generational warfare is a futile business. Our parents or our children aren’t better or worse than us simply because of that fact. There are no heroes or villains here, just people doing what they feel is necessary to get along.

The supermarket cashier wasn’t entirely wrong. The era of the baby boomers kick-started the steady climb in fossil fuel use culminating in today’s astronomical levels. We were the first generation to take unlimited energy use for granted, and to discard what we didn’t want.

By example and experience, we prepared our children well for increasingly extravagant times. The oil squeeze in the 1970s, the stock market collapse of 1987 and the 2008 “global financial crisis” were just hiccups in our march to prosperity.

Of course, that’s defining prosperity in the very narrow sense of material gain, taking no account of waste or unsustainable use of resources. Now, our children are getting the sense that underneath it all, things are not all that good. Because they’re human, they blame their parents.

But pointing a finger is actually pointless. We boomers could argue that our own parents should have been more wary of unfettered economic growth, but who could blame them for wanting to be unrestrained after their experience of the Great Depression and a world war or two?

The crisis that is confronting us is not the fault of one generation ahead of any other, but the responsibility of acting on it belongs to us all. We’re all in this together, young and old. Here endeth the lesson.

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