Few would argue that channelling hard work and talent into building a good career and securing home ownership isn’t commendable. Yet something deep down tugs at the conscience for many for whom hard work and talent weren’t all there was. There was that time when, fired from that temp job or struggling under that artist internship, Mum shouted you lunch before slipping you a brown envelope containing two week’s rent, whispering ‘let’s not tell Dad about this.’ That next week Dad took you shopping for an interview outfit, assuaging your guilt with the words ‘keep this from Mum.’ Then, during the interview, the boss and yourself learnt you both went to the same school and made snide jokes about your ancient, socks-with-sandals-wearing Latin teacher – which probably helped you get the job. Last year, when you participated in that newspaper article celebrating young homeowner ‘good news’ stories, you failed to mention how Mum and Dad helped pay the loan deposit and acted as guarantors, which buffered you during the hit and miss first six months with the new baby and enabled you to make the monthly mortgage payments.
These rarely acknowledged middle class experiences are key to understanding the political dynamics of New Zealand in the run-up to September’s general election, dynamics which are increasingly generational in nature. The emerging generational divide was clear when the unthreatening yet threatening Jeremy Corbyn brought both the British establishment and established conventional wisdom to their knees by successfully appealing to younger voters earlier this year. Now, the ascendency of Jacinda Ardern to the NZ Labour Party’s top leadership position, alongside Green leader James Shaw, confirms that a similar takeover might be afoot in Aotearoa.
“These rarely acknowledged middle class experiences are key to understanding the political dynamics of New Zealand, which are increasingly generational in nature.”
Given the challenge of National still polling in the high-40s, Ardern’s charisma, youth and virality aren’t enough to change the Opposition’s fortunes. Equally important is a much more difficult challenge: turning out young-to-middle-aged voters in large numbers where Rock Enrol and other turnout campaigns have failed to in the past. This requires a conscious effort to understand how younger generations experience the world.
What unites younger generations is that they’ve come of age under a political system shaped by their parents’ values. The consensus on the role of government, especially in housing, tertiary education and welfare, is underpinned by meritocracy: the basic notion that success comes about entirely as a result of hard work and talent.
Initially coined by British sociologist Michael Young in 1958 as a satirical prediction of a future controlled by cold, out-of-touch technocrats, the concept of meritocracy has, ironically, been embraced by free market political thinking since the 1980s. Too much welfare and regulations, proponents argue, hold people back – while cutting red tape and restricting welfare encourages people to work harder. This means higher levels of unemployment, a housing market to encourage competition, and a carrot-and-stick approach to welfare. Meritocratic language is now universal, dividing us into the ‘middle’ classes and scroungers. Political and economic opportunities are often navigated in a way akin to Black Friday mobs throwing punches over discounted toasters.
Scratch beneath the surface, where politicians and pundits engage in Pythonesque bragging about how hard they worked to accomplish all they have, and there lies an uncomfortable, rarely-discussed truth of the middle class: financial security and social connections provide a leg-up for its children, who often advance beyond many hard-working, talented kids from less advantaged backgrounds as a result.
Basically, professional parents who bought a house in a good suburb can socialise their children along the ‘right’ path. School zoning and high incomes allow parents to send their kids to a high-achieving local Grammar, college or private schools and pay for textbooks, uniforms, school donations/fees and after-school tutoring. This environment teaches children the ‘right’ music, movies and art to like, and how to study. Friendships with classmates from similar backgrounds continue through university halls, med and law schools, and professional networks with access to lucrative contacts and unadvertised jobs.
Then there’s the lifetime support from the Bank of Mum and Dad. This aids adult children through initial struggles with rent and credit card payments – and flights and accommodation for that needed holiday, or the Latin American political internship you got through your uncle’s connections. Once parents sell that valuable centrally-located bungalow, there’s a loan deposit for your mortgage, or to open that dream Japanese cold-drip coffee shop.
In stark contrast, those born into the ‘wrong’ suburb or family line must work harder to succeed without the aid of wealth and connections. Their parents will more likely struggle to pay rent or mortgages, school donations and private tuition. Classmates are not likely to be wealthy, or provide lucrative connections. Achieving creative ambitions in the realms of art, acting, writing and music is a more remote hope without being able to rely on parental support to offset internships and initially low-paid work. For them, creative pursuits are for fitting into spare time around mundane admin or hospo jobs, worked to make ends meet.
Quite simply, parental wealth and security opens a world of opportunity where those without such connections must work harder to succeed.
Yet despite such extremes, the strains felt by younger demographics have recently begun to converge. Soaring housing prices, student debt and wage stagnation require increasingly greater levels of parental and social wealth to be overcome. Such inequality speaks volumes about the generational domination which keeps meritocracy intact in New Zealand. Notions of the Kiwi Battler and the scrounger have become generational choices – home ownership vs avocado brunches. Whether it be John Key’s ‘aspirational for NZ’ 2008 campaign slogan, Andrew Little’s ‘Backing the Kiwi Dream’, or ‘Putting NZ First Again’, established politics has appealed to merit while often subtly implying that dole bludgers, immigrants and millennials don’t pull their weight.
Younger people must live up to impossible standards, with no greater symbols than Todd Barclay and Metiria Turei. Three years ago hailed as Bill English’s successor in Clutha Southland, it would be hard to deny that family connections in Dipton didn’t help an unqualified 23 year-old Barclay to get selected then reselected when his local and ethical actions better reflected someone who would have starved to death long ago anywhere else. Despite working hard while raising a child as a solo mother, to become a high-powered lawyer and politician, Turei was denied the benefit of the doubt for trying to do the best for her child under tough circumstances – and essentially dismissed as a dishonest slut for not surviving in a shack on gruel, by critics who have never faced the choices she has had to make.
Barclay was the aspirational boomer role-model for young people while Turei is the face of meritocracy’s children. These generations are not convinced by aspirational standards akin to a fairground hall of mirrors tent: a series of distorted images that don’t resemble reality. Millennials notice how the well-connected colleague or flatmate with the right parents, schooling and social connections tends to have an easier climb into middle management. Generation X have seen those high flyers become their bosses, landlords, political commentators and MPs – those who scream meritocracy the loudest.
“Millennials notice how the well-connected colleague or flatmate with the right parents, schooling and social connections tends to have an easier climb.”
Bringing age into the new divide, Corbyn provides a powerful lesson on successful generational politics. The UK’s Labour Party not only dramatically increased turnout and secured an overwhelming vote share of stereotypical 18-30 year-old millennial Corbyn fans but also those in the 31-45 bracket. Elections are no longer about ‘winning the centre’ but convincing 47 year-olds where their interests lie. The blindspot of youth turnout campaigns worldwide appears to be that policy matters. Running a slick campaign, Labour channelled generational frustration with housing prices, student debt and deep welfare cuts into a popular policy platform of mass house-building, free university education and an end to welfare cuts.
The lesson from Corbyn is the appeal of policy platforms that captures common, multi-generational experiences. There’s no shortage of such policies in NZ: Labour’s three years of free university, Green benefits increases and ending welfare restrictions, or TOP’s property tax and tenants rights reforms to name a few. If parties can redefine student debt, welfare and housing as unequal generational experiences, they’ll provide an honest interpretation of equal opportunity, where policies target financial security and access based on individual circumstances. If policies can ensure hard work and talent thrive regardless of background, parties can harness multi-generational audiences of potential voters. However, this is a two-way street. While modern politics yearns for charismatic saviours, the reality too often relies on smoke and mirrors, or flashing photos of Justin Trudeau’s ass in chinos around the internet. Equally, younger people are reshaping public notions of fairness, which depends less on parties and more on policy priorities and holding meme-driven saviours to account outside elections.
“If policies can ensure hard work and talent thrive regardless of background, parties can harness multi-generational audiences of potential voters.”
Confronting meritocracy can transform modern politics but starts with accepting the uncomfortable truth that hard work and talent aren’t everything. Even the most boisterous human bullhorn politicians and pundits dread getting caught out. Like us, they also cringe about that time 20 years ago that Mum slipped them that brown envelope of cash, but readily dismiss the memory in a pitch-perfect echo of their parents’ voices: ‘let’s not tell anyone about this.’
Oliver Chan is a London-based social and political researcher and writer, and Politics and Economics Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Oliver.