The baby-boomers pass on — jaunty but with a dark side

One sign of a government on its way out is that its knee-jerks turn into convulsions and folks notice. We have just witnessed such an event.

A personal tragedy became a national crisis — or so the Prime Minister played it. A whole industry was threatened with a new regulation because one firm slipped up, on her reading of the facts. Of course, that it happened in Phillip Field’s electorate and to a Samoan were incidental.

Presumably the police will assemble the facts and then tell us. Till then there are puzzling gaps.

But there is no puzzle over the Prime Minister turning the poor woman’s funeral into a state event. She needed to park the blame distant from the government and to side noisily with the victim. And — a fact she has bluntly faced her caucus up to — the polls are bad.

Polls don’t make an election. The main event is still a year and some months away. Firm forecasts are premature.

But, win or lose then, a broader breeze is beginning to rustle the political leaves: the approaching passing of a generation which challenged its elders in the 1960s, shaped an independent national mentality in the 1970s and wreaked a policy earthquake in the 1980s. The baby-boomers are about to become pension-boomers.

So either in 2008 or, for sure, in 2011 Labour’s baby-boomers will be pensioned off from the Beehive.

A couple of weeks back this extraordinary generation marked a nostalgic anniversary: 40 years since the Beatles’ stunningly innovative Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The Beatles were already a phenomenon of adulation and hysteria among the young and bemused despair among parents. Sergeant Pepper made the Lennon-McCartney composing duo a topic for serious musical analysis.

It came as the first baby-boomers were turning 21: drugs (for some), freer sex (for most), experimental spirituality (for many) — the age of communes, long hair, flower power, “teach-ins”, protests and “peace”.

It was a revolutionary generation — not with guns (except for a tiny few) but with values. The young of this generation did not just rebel against parental strictures as the young mostly do at all times. They tore up their parents’ values.

It was the Vietnam generation: it opposed the United States’ war against the north-based communists in that country and New Zealand’s contribution of fighting troops. Many carried the resultant anti-Americanism off to idealistic and/or dreamy support for movements challenging United States-backed authoritarian regimes in Latin America. The Prime Minister was in among them.

And it was the gimme generation: self-centred, highly individualistic, obsessed with freedoms of sexual, moral and civil choice. It bleached out Home as a folk-name for Britain, it made a new literature and music and dance and art, it reformulated our history, it tore up a 40-year-old economic and social policy rule-book.

This standout generation wrought two revolutions in this country: a values revolution and an independence revolution.

A new study by a post-baby-boomer social historian suggests that in Canada baby-boomers made a “more loving country”, measured by human rights reforms, feminism and gay rights. In this country we would add: Treaty of Waitangi rights. “In essence, the boomers were the catalysts of and the participants in a historically unique phenomenon,” says Dominique Cl�ment of the University of Victoria, British Columbia.

All sweetness and light? At first hearing Sergeant Pepper seems to be. As described by Californian singer-songwriter Aimee Mann (who was 8 at the time), it was fun, cheery, jaunty and, in retrospect, had a “purity or beauty or timelessness”. There were “marmalade skies” and many similar startling images and juxtapositions, underscored by brilliant instrumentation.

But there were also dark moments, Mann wrote in the New York Times. A track about “getting better all the time” jarringly sang: “I used to be cruel to my woman. I beat her�”. In another someone “blew his mind out in a car”.

In the end, Mann concluded, “there’s an emotional depth that is missing. The very jauntiness I used to love as a girl feels as if it is covering up a sadder subtext. And what’s bleaker than a brave face?”

Mann’s short article might serve as a requiem for this remarkable and now passing generation, about to be insufferably noisy in old age as it was in youth and has been in middle age. It will be celebrated for liberation. But will it also be deplored by future social historians for its dark side?

John Key and Bill English are post-baby-boomers, of a generation that has had to pick up the pieces from the values revolution, the independence revolution and the policy mayhem and make a post-revolutionary way of life.

David Cunliffe, David Parker and Clayton Cosgrove are post-boomers, too. But they are under baby-boomers’ thumbs. Key and English aren’t. They are birds on a stirring breeze, a breeze the Prime Minister can obviously sense, even if only through a glass darkly.