A change of political generations

In July 1984 a bustling bunch of 30-40-somethings took over the Beehive and turned policy upside down. They are all out of politics now and a new lot of 30-40-somethings is itching to get its hands on the levers.

The 1984 crew were born in or not long after the second world war. As young adults in the 1960s they challenged their parents’ desire for order, security and prosperity and pursued personal and social freedom. In power in the 1980s they extended that push for freedom into economic and foreign policy.

Now, as they come within sight of or pass into “senior” status, their values and customs are being challenged in turn by a younger lot. That challenge is in politics as well as in the arts and business.

We are amidst a political generational change. Will this changeover also overturn policy settings?

John Key has just turned 47. Bill English will be 47 in December. They are around the halfway age for voters: half the electorate is 45 or younger. Front benchers Simon Power (39 in December), Nick Smith (43 in December) and Tony Ryall (44 in November), key figures in the shadow cabinet, are squarely in the younger half. More 40-somethings and younger are to be found among the up-and-comers farther down the caucus rankings, including some who are cabinet material if the government changes.

By contrast, Helen Clark will turn 59 in February and Michael Cullen is 64. Those around them who have commanded the upper reaches of the cabinet, the Phil Goffs, Pete Hodgsons and Annette Kings, are well into their 50s.

There is still plenty of life in them — Clark will campaign with the vigour of someone half her age in the campaign. But they are squarely in the upper half of the electorate.

And there is a world of different formative experiences between a 60-ish and a 40-ish politician.

Clark’s and Cullen’s parents (and Chris Finlayson’s, Tim Groser’s, Murray McCully’s, Lockwood Smith’s and Maurice Williamson’s parents on the National side) were seared by 1930s Depression and 1940s war, then the 1950s Cold War and fear of communism and, running from 1938, reassured by the redemptive power of the state to protect them.

These matters did not determine their political leanings (they united more than divided) but they shaped the way that the older generation applied those leanings. Security first was their motto.

By contrast — and it was a sharp contrast — Clark and Cullen (and their age-peers in National) firmed their political ideas as young adults amidst a very different set of circumstances, all of them contentious and divisive. Among them were the Vietnam war, the rise of environmentalism and feminism, anti-nuclearism, opposition to apartheid and the rise of indigenous rights.

Again those influences did not determine their political leanings but shaped their responses to issues of the day differently from older people of similar political leaning. This was starkly evident in battles between restless younger delegates and the platform at Labour party conferences through the late 1960s and 1970s and the less impolitely expressed but nevertheless real differences at National party conferences at that time.

For those who are in their low-to-mid-40s now all those framing events were either already history or soon to be history when their political ideas were firming. English made this point to me 10 years ago when he noted that for his age group the tensest economic policy battles had essentially been decided.

This is in part Clark’s problem re-priming the nuclear debate this campaign. It has been a core issue for her since she was a tender Labour conference delegate in the early 1970s and later a backbencher and minister in the 1980s. For Key and English and younger National MPs it is a non-issue. They have signed up to Clark’s line. Game over.

Springbok tours — what are they? Treaty of Waitangi settlements — what’s the fuss? Promote women — why would you not? Blue-green is the coming fad on the right. Vietnam is now one of our faster-growing export markets.

The world in which English and younger MPs firmed their political ideas was one of the ubiquity of computers, globalisation and open markets, mass migration and, later, the internet, the collapse of communism, the rise of China, rising social inequality — and far more broken homes, courtesy the postwar generation’s self-indulgent “freedom”. They were in their mid-20s or younger when the economy was deregulated and the Treaty issues were opened up.

Power was 12 when the battles of the Springbok tour of 1981 were fought. He was not yet 20 when Sir Roger Douglas, the architect of the 1980s economic reforms, was removed as Finance Minister.

When Power’s generation gets a firm grip on the levers of government, what will drive it?

A great deal has been written by social analysts of this generation, which is variously described as starting with a birth date of 1961 (today’s 47-year-olds) through to a birth date of 1966 (today’s 42-year-olds) and going through to birth dates ranging from 1976 to 1980 (today’s 28-to-32-year-olds).

Among many analyses descriptions, cliches and broad generalisations, they are said to have less trust and confidence in institutions (including employing organisations and governments), partly as a result of living through the upheavals of the 1980s economic reforms, to be matter-of-fact about social diversity (though not necessarily more tolerant or less racist), to be more concerned about the environment, to be godless but also seeking spiritual homes, to be non-ideological and therefore pragmatic — and, as a consequence more politically footloose.

Marketing-speak and politics must be mixed with care. Voters’ buying decisions are made differently from the way the same people make decisions as consumers of goods and services.

But generally we can expect the Power generation to insist that government services are customised, just as they insist their music and cars and even to some extent their jobs are customised.

That implies more policy and service ideas coming from outside the government machine, more choice of service providers and more flexibility in regulation and funding mechanisms.

In fact, the Clark government has been moving in this direction with its notion of “partnership”. It has worked with a widening range of non-government service providers and has drawn on ideas from outside the public service, though to varying degrees depending on the portfolio area. Clark has, for example, been protective of the state teaching near-monopoly.

And Clark herself has been promoting next-generation ministers and, more recently, candidates. One result is a relaxation of the Building Act, an overreaction to the leaky homes affair (though this comes from 49-year-old Shane Jones who nevertheless claims fellowship with the under-45s — which underlines that hard age boundaries should not be drawn around political generations).

David Cunliffe (45) is on Clark’s front bench. Clayton Cosgrove (39 in November) and Nanaia Mahuta (38) are significant figures in her cabinet and Darren Hughes (30) squeezed in in last year’s reshuffle. Charles Chauvel (38) still outside the ministry, is earmarked for rapid promotion.

Labour’s candidate lineup features a raft of highly-educated 28-45-year-olds, most notably Jacinda Ardern (28) and Grant Robertson (36). Its conference simmers with younger delegates. Labour’s regeneration is well under way.

National has done the same in its candidate selections: its lineup includes an impressive swag of well or exceptionally degreed 28-45-year-olds, notably Simon Bridges (31), Amy Adams (37) and Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga (38), who will provide raw material for future cabinet reshuffles as the Williamsons and Co are shuffled into retirement.

Which poses the question: if we are in the midst of a changeover of political generations, when exactly will it be over? Is this the pivotal election, as 1984 was.

In 1984, while the Labour cabinet included a fair number of older MPs, the tight six who drove the show were aged from 35 (David Caygill and Mike Moore) to 46 (Douglas). Prime Minister David Lange was 41, Deputy Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer 42 and Richard Prebble 36. Five more were under 45. The average age of the cabinet was 42.

Moreover, most key advisers in the critical departments, particularly the Treasury, were of similar ages.

Thus, with the possible exception of Douglas, the policy drivers were of the rising, baby-boom, generation.

If Labour returns to office next month, more under-45s could be expected in the cabinet. And both Clark and Cullen would likely move on during the term, opening up the leadership, possibly to Cunliffe but more likely to Clark-Cullen-generation Goff (55), who was politically active 15.

If National takes office and Key and English take over the top jobs, is that evidence of a generational changeover, especially given that a raft of older MPs, hangovers from the 1990s, would be in the cabinet and under-45s would be in the minority?

Political scientist Jon Johansson — declaring himself, at 47, a “baby-boomer”, that is, of the tail-end of the Clark-Cullen generation — says not. That matches definitions of the next generation as starting from 1965-66.

Moreover, Key and English developed their political interests early. At 18 or 19 Key was said by a former girlfriend in the Herald profile to have had Parliament on on his car radio. That’s 1979 or 1980. It is therefore unlikely that he did not take a keen interest in the politics of the 1981 Springbok tour, despite his original statement that he had forgotten what position he took.

Thus the frame of reference against which Key firmed his political views in his early 20s would have included some of the later ingredients of Clark’s and Cullen’s. That same must go for English, who hails from a highly political family.

And among possible support partners for the next government, the picture is mixed.

A New Zealand First conference has few under-60s. ACT not only pushes policies popular among radicals 15 and 20 years ago but has resurrected Douglas. The Greens have a next generation co-leader, Russel Norman (41), a sharper, more people-focused campaign and a reasonable sprinkling of young enthusiasts — but often sounds more like a 1980s vanguard party than a 2000s one. United Future’s conference fits in a small room.

The Maori party operates in a different paradigm so can’t readily be generationally typecast. But its MPs and most of its winnable candidates are of the older generation and, while it does push development (the future focus for indigenous politics) it also spends much of its energy fighting rights battles which were the essence of indigenous politics in the 1980s.

All of that suggests 2008 is not the pivotal year 1984 was.

Nevertheless, Johansson acknowledges that it is on “safer ground” to suggest that a generational transition is in train. In that sense Key might be seen as part of that transition, if not necessarily the focal point.

But whether there is a Key or Clark government after 2008, the next generation will by 2011 be in either already ascendant and potentially dominant in the cabinet or set to dominate. If 2008 is not the pivotal election, 2011 will be.

But a pivot to what?

Key and English have promised no big change of direction, no frightening of horses, just tendencies which would change things incrementally over time — plus the “freshness” of 47 versus 59/64. By contrast with the Douglas lot, they are blandness personified. The change would be more like those of 1957 and 1960 than that of 1984.

That fits one description of the rising generation as a “bridge” generation to the next generation, aged up to 28 (at most 32). This generation is a different prospect, social analysts say.

But few are candidates and fewer still are possible winners. Even Labour’s Ardern, 20th on the list, and National’s Nikki Kaye (Auckland Central) are 28. The next revolution, if that is what the next-but-one generation is plotting, is some way off.