Tom Burton: is it time the baby boomers moved on?

By Tom Burton

February 21, 2017

With the Rudds, Gillards, Abbotts and Turnbulls all struggling to lead, let alone connect, with the tribes of contemporary Australia, is it time the once-mighty baby boomer demographic admitted we don’t have the answers?

And make way for our babies — the millennials — the approximately 5 million Australians, born in the last two decades of the 20th century, who are now surging into the workforce and leaderships roles.

“The formality of government and the old school deadening processes of approval and ridiculous rewriting are enough to conspire to scare away any intelligent postgrad.”

This may be the year these millennials officially become the largest population group in Australia, finally overtaking the baby boomers. Since the 60s the post-war boomers have dwarfed all other cohorts and through sheer political and economic weight have dominated public policy for several decades.

Voters count and over the decades the boomers have extracted much from the system: free milk, subsidised private school education, free universities, uncapped tax perks for investment properties. And in perhaps the last celebration of boomer political power, the extraordinary superannuation perks, boomers are now resisting giving up.

The boomer ruling elite can rightly point to over a quarter of a century of consistent economic growth. But the obvious struggle the current batch of corporate and governmental leaders are having coming to grips with the hyper connected, polyglot world of empowered citizens, suggests it is time to let go.

Mastery of the connected world

Take but one significant area where many boomer leaders are essentially clueless: the internet. If the future belongs to those who understand the cognitive era — powerful self-learning algorithms driving large-scale automation from the massive amounts of data generated by billions of internet connected devices — then I would rather bank on the digital natives of the millennial era than the lawyers and economists of the current ruling class.

A quick look at the parliament and its camp followers (eg the press gallery) reveals just how much grey hair still dominates and with it a patent lack of technical literacy required to transform government and restore its lost relevance.

In the public sector this gap is even more apparent. Millennials make up around a fifth of the population, but only about a tenth of the Australian Public Service that runs the federal government. Perhaps more pertinently, at a time where millennials are beginning to flex their economic and political muscle, the proportion of ongoing APS employees aged 50 years and over has actually grown significantly in recent years. In 2002 this group represented 21% of ongoing APS employees, increasing to 32% last year. This contrasts with the economy wide statistics, where millennials are predicted to be 75 % of the work force by 2025

Millennials are voting with their feet and resisting public sector employment in their droves. Just when the national government desperately needs the insights, innovation, energy and ambition of this dynamically connected, worldly and super educated group, millennials are avoiding government like the plague.

Some of this seems environmental. Government is famously locked down, formal and hierarchical.

For a generation that has grown up connected and willing to share like none other, the typical government desktop must seem like the old green screen DEC machines. With major collaboration platforms like say Google’s G suite still bizarrely locked out of central government because of security concerns, agencies offer nothing but a world of pain for any digital native wanting to make a public difference.

The formality of government and the old school deadening processes of multiple approvals and ridiculous rewriting are enough to conspire to scare away any intelligent postgrad. This is especially so when there are exciting and innovative opportunities to make a difference in the start-up world.

Throw in the inability of the ruling political and bureaucratic class to describe and organise around a compelling, contemporary and effective public policy narrative, then the reasons for millennials staying away from government are clear.

The impact of this eschewing of formal government is quite profound. The millennials were the group who wanted the UK to remain in Europe. If they had voted in the same proportion as their parents, Britain would not be closing its doors on Europe. Had only millennials voted in the recent US presidential election, the most powerful baby boomer of them all, Donald Trump (circa 1946) would have won 32 electoral votes — and Clinton 473.

And while some will moan about millennial indifference being another indicator of the “me” generation, the reality is the biggest, most diverse and soon to be the most important demographic of our era is effectively outside the government tent.

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Kirsten Windelov
Kirsten Windelov
5 years ago

Two thoughts:
1. Are millennials really voting with their feet or are they being offered (and walking away from) mainly fixed term employment?
2. Whatever happened to Generation X. Or are we just transitional?

5 years ago

Yes. Clearly I have been misled. I thought public service employment was (a) based on merit and (b) to serve the public interest.

Clearly it is an age-ist sheltered workshop so the kewl hip kidz who are the singularly most (self) important generation to grace us with their wisdom though their mere presence can get a leg up at taxpayers’ expense.

Alice Simpson-Young
Alice Simpson-Young
5 years ago

Hi Tom, thank you, I really enjoyed this article. I often think about why my cohort is resisting PS employment. I have been trying to piece it all together over the last few months.

I am wondering if any thoughts around solutions came up when you wrote this? Are there things the PS could do different, or systems that could be changed to attract younger people? I will also have a think about it…

Thank you!

5 years ago

The author makes some astute points about government and positive observations about Millennials, yet is totally illogical regarding solutions.

On government:
“It has old school deadening processes of approval and ridiculous rewriting” – yes, it is slow, bureaucratic, anachronistic and as a system of control needs stability more than innovation.

“boomers have extracted much from the system” – extraction is the key word. The system is parasitical. “Teach a man to fish & he will live forever – give a man a fish and he will vote for you”. The system has become a way of means in which one can politely rob ones neighbour.

“patent lack of technical literacy” – government is not an innovator. It does not create or produce. (All it can do is take something off someone -without permission- and give it to another. In the process it churns some for itself, wastes a lot, give some to cronies and the 20c out the dollar left is returned to the citizen.) It is not tech literate as it requires a rigid status quo in order to maintain control and ‘govern’.

On Millennials:

“surging into the workforce and leaderships roles.” – Indeed, they are fulfilling leadership roles. Leadership roles that are derived through need – which is why the free market compensates them for the value they add. The is leadership created through voluntary human action. Leadership in politics however, is developed through democracy – and democracy is simply mob rule in a suit and tie. It is the application of coercion because of greater numbers.

“I would rather bank on the digital natives of the millennial era than the lawyers and economists of the current ruling class.” – again, indeed so! Digital solutions meet wanted needs. Lawyers argue the law – the law today – statutes and acts – is mostly a violation of real law which defends Negative rights. It has gone so far as to create victimless crime – making self-ownership illegal. ie. It makes slaves of citizens. e.g banning raw milk & alternative medicines, the war on drugs, bike helmet laws, seatbelt law, lock-out laws, etc.

Economists today are Keynesians – which is to say is that they are manipulators. All they can do is blow bubbles and create distortions.

“hyper connected, polyglot world of empowered citizens” – connected not through artificial government community programs, but through peer to peer solutions. Empowered as their solutions come from individual agency – not the coercive power of government that must force adoption through compulsion.

“enough to conspire to scare away any intelligent postgrad.” – so given the nature of government as an abstracted, bureaucratic, inflexible institution of compulsion, is it any wonder free thinking Millenials are “resisting public sector employment” by “voting with their feet” -rather than voting at the ballot. When voting at the ballot you are for the most part not voting for what you want, but to force what you want upon others through the will/violence of government.

“there are exciting and innovative opportunities to make a
difference in the start-up world.” This is where the real difference does occur. In politics it is mostly argument followed by little and mostly ineffective, if not counter productive action.

“millennial indifference being another indicator of the “me”
generation” – perhaps so, yet it is the “free” welfare solutions of government which encourages mindless selfishness and entitlement. Selfishness is natural but in the free market can only exist though mutual self-interest.

“transform government and restore its lost relevance.” No! It is has no relevance today and most likely never did beyond a local level. Do not attempt to ‘transform’ government. It’s very nature and modus operendi hold society back.

Buckminster Fuller
— ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change
something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete’

Susan Whitbread
5 years ago

What an incredibly one-sided story. And talk about conforming to ageist stereotypes-if you’re over 60 you can’t understand big data and new analytical techniques. What rubbish. I’m 64, a permanent public servant, have just started work on a PhD which will involve analysis of a huge amount of online and social data (text and multimedia, just to make it even more challenging) – and I reckon the amount of technical advice I’ve given to people half my age is at least double what they’ve been able to give me. Yes, it’s a two-way street of course, but don’t write all of us off, just because of a number that happens to be our birth year.

5 years ago

The much hyped connectedness of millenials is mostly the ability to share emoticons, photos of their meals and pornography from what I’ve seen. Spouting ignorant opinions to each other in cyberspace (there are no boring facts or objective truths in rainbow world) is not really a preparation for real problems in the real world.

Long distance flyer
Long distance flyer
5 years ago

Interesting i share many of the opinions expressed by mr burton..but from an inverse view
Point. Being a digital native, you are free to check my website, at 75 i am increasingly impatient with the hierarchical, ageist, technophobic and largely ex yuppy (code for unethical) boomer generation. I find similar global world views and technical adaptation perspectives easily with the great millennial generation than the generally over ageist attitudes (in both directions) of the boomers.. we designed created and coded the very computers the boomers seem to have such trouble managing public sector IT projects in, so please get out of the way boomers and let us energetic experienced and uptodate Elders and the gifted millennials back in. Perhaps the fact we two generations share a real respect for social and personal ethical values is the boomers problem?

Long distance flyer
Long distance flyer
5 years ago

Although you are still a bit young susan, you might still find my work on big data and virtue ethics a useful perspective. Big data has unexpected side effects(and so i published in a very popular ieee computer paper a couple of years ago in my early 70s) but the central civil service problem is in the virtue ethics aspects of professional s doing exactly what you seem to be about to do

barney langford
barney langford
5 years ago

Are Millennials not joining pub service because they feel constricted by the formality or is it that the opportunities to join aren’t there? Lot of stereotyping going on here. Just because numbers don’t match size of population doesn’t mean it’s by choice. Know several 20 year olds who have recently joined public service. I seem to remember exactly the same arguments being made about those “long-haired boomers” who felt constricted by the formality of the PS and were so difficult to work with.

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