“Generation has long formed a key theme of Africanist scholarship”, wrote G Thomas Burgess and Andrew Burton in their introduction to Generation Past: Youth in East African History, a volume edited by Burton and Helene Charton-Bigot. I distinctly remember slapping my forehead and thinking, ‘But naturally historians should think about categories of generation!’ when the subject came up in my first undergraduate African History course...but of course it had never crossed my mind until then, because it hadn’t featured in histories that I had read dealing with other parts of the world. Generation as a category is widespread in historians’ analysis of Africa’s past...one of my committee members is researching youth and childhood in Kenya; the subject features in Charles Van Onselen’s work on the mines of southern Africa; and it comes up in Lynn Thomas’ discussion of reproductive politics in eastern Africa.
Just as it has gained purchase in historical and anthropological writing, ‘generation’ as a category should be something that we think about when evaluating our politics. My dad is always saying how disappointed he is in his generation and in how they approach the world today, but I never thought about that much, and it wasn’t until word began going around in 2009 that the University of California would probably forced into a several-stage tuition/fee hike, that I thought about this at all.
Because one of the most basic tenets of our social and political system is that there has been a kind of tacit and logical pact between generations. It works something like this: those generations which are supposed to collectively arrive at some level of economic security are meant to pay back into the common treasury at the higher rate they can afford so that younger, generally less economically-secure and –established generations, can get the same leg-up they (the older generations) had when they were younger and more vulnerable.
The cycle repeats itself. And it didn’t have an identifiable beginning: our social welfare system—based on labour rights, public education, healthcare, pensions, environmental protections and regulations, public works, unemployment benefits, etc—has been built over enough years, piece-by-piece, such that no single generation could be credited with ‘starting’ it. It is a cycle which depends on a common commitment to our society, a stifling of selfishness, and a recognition that it is in everyone’s interests to have a well-educated, democratically-educated, informed and committed citizenry, and that the people who make up our society should have some assurance that when forces outside of their control intervene in their economic lives, there should be a collectively-maintained safety net to keep them from sinking out of sight.
But in 2009, when the University of California announced that undergraduate students would be likely to see steady fee hikes for the foreseeable future (graduate students are largely shielded from these fee hikes, so there’s no self-interest here other than profound disappointment that my UC undergraduate experience, which I treasure, will be increasingly unavailable to people of modest economic backgrounds), it occurred to me just what an earlier generation had done by passing and sustaining Prop 13 in the form that they did. They effectively tore up the social contract between generations, and called time, stopping the clock on the idea of an intergenerational support cycle. From the passage of Prop 13 onwards, Californians would have to scramble on a regular basis to reassess their commitment to supposedly universal values; values which, if you believe polling, still have wide support in our state. But too few people are willingly to back up those values. It has become structurally impossible to make good on the intergenerational contract due to Prop 13’s restrictions on tapping property tax (particularly that of business) and far more importantly, its enshrinement of minority rule through the supermajority rules. This means that as a community, we are having an entirely different conversation, far removed morally and substantively, from that which people were having before the 1970s.
I doubt that this voiding of the social contract was the intention of the electorate and the generations which voted in favour of Prop 13...it was the product of a more immediate frustration, in some cases by proximate economic need, and perhaps a measure of selfishness (although whether you could say the same for some of the interests that supported its passage is probably a different question). I suspect that they didn’t think that they were doing something so significant...not thinking seems to be a central characteristic of our ailing democracy in California, where people resent being asked to take responsibility for rights of the direct democracy they so jealously guard, and evince irritation that anyone might expect them to be informed about how the state works (or doesn’t, as the case may be).
We’ve all seen the statistics which show that Republicans win more votes of 55-and-overs than Democrats, and that the reverse is true amongst under-30s. But there’s more to it than the voting statistics. There are some simply stunning statistics out there about the gaps in wealth between the old and the young. Now as noted above, this gap is partly a product of how careers unfold, and the fact that individuals are going to be able to accumulate more money over their lifetimes. But when you see how quickly this gap is growing, consider the truly terrible rates of youth unemployment in particular in California (nationwide, depending on how you bracket ‘youth’, this ranges as high as 26%, and discounts those who have given up looking for work), think about how the institutions and social services designed to ameliorate that gap are being eroded, and reflect on the unacceptability of higher taxation to too many Californian voters, the scale of the problem comes into focus.
And then there’s the narrative. We’ve all heard the ‘Kids these days!’ or ‘When I was your age!’ rants. Sometimes they’re related jokingly, deliberately hyperbolic in character. But there’s a darker side to this kind of narrative, because it appears to be catching. Whenever I read the comments section below articles about higher education in California, I’m appalled at the view of students that many members of the public seem to have. I’ve had surreal conversations with people who think of university students as lazy, privileged, entitled, and undeserving. They say things like “Why don’t they get back to the classroom?” when students protest fees. They say, “If this is what UC is teaching people, it definitely doesn’t deserve public funding”. Or, “I don’t see why my tax dollars should support these students...I’ve paid my way!”
My first reaction is anger that people buy this misleading narrative. I wish that they could sit down with any of the students I teach at Berkeley, who tend to be extraordinarily smart, hard-working and dedicated. Or that they could talk to any of the kids I’ve worked with in Santa Ana and Berkeley school districts, many of who lack parental, institutional or community support, live very difficult lives, and work incredibly hard.
Not many of the people who I’ve heard say these kinds of things about students are from places where higher education is an almost unattainable abstract, and where physical labour is valued above all else. Most of them are people who went to UC or CSU or have had some higher education, but who are now in their fifties and above. They went to UC or its equivalents when it cost about twenty-times less than it does today. When it was realistic to finish a rigorous degree in four years. When these institutions were prized by the state and when their value was (even for those who were not attending them) recognised.
These people sometimes contrast the frustrated, sometimes disorderly-looking protesters with the law-abiding, “hard-working” tea partiers (a majority of whom are very likely retired). But it’s all too easy to be lawful and orderly and to have an influence when the Koch brothers and their ilk are foursquare behind you (whether you want them there or not).
The last thing I want to do is pin the blame for our dysfunctional society and politics on any single group. I wish that people (and I include myself here) across the economic, social, generational and political boards thought a little bit harder about how they fit into our civic project; about how they have benefited from the commitments of others; about what those benefits mean for their obligations towards younger generations; about what the form of democracy that we’re meant to be practising in California demands of us (and about whether it is working); and on a more prosaic level, about what they are voting for, and how what they are voting for fits into a bigger picture.
We need Californian voters to raise their games, to think about what it means to live in civil society and to have obligations to each other, and to renew the contract between generations and between those of different economic means. Otherwise, our downward spiral looks set to continue, and to divide our society and our state along more lines than ever, to the detriment of us all.