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Millennials, Gen X, Gen Z, baby boomers: how generation labels cloud issues of inequality

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Generations can be defined by family structure, stage of life or historical events. But most often, they’re categorised as “cohorts” of people born during a particular period in time. Catchy labels such as baby boomers, millennials and Gen X and Gen Z tend to stick with each cohort, which are assumed to have shared experiences, behaviours and ideals. This is known as a “cohort effect”.

But common generalisations – for example, that baby boomers are hoarding housing, while millennials have no hope of buying a home – can distort or mask the inequalities that exist within and across generations. So rather than pitching the generations against one another, perhaps it’s time to unpack some common assumptions, and question how much one generation really benefits at another’s expense.

The name game

Popular labels are applied to the generations currently living. The “silent generation” are those born from 1925 to 1945 – so called because they were raised during a period of war and economic depression. The “baby boomers” came next from 1945 to 1964, the result of an increase in births following the end of World War II.

After the baby boomers came “Generation X”, from around 1965 to 1976. The term coined by Charles Hamlett and Jane Deverson (originally referring to the Baby Boomers in their teenage years), was made popular by Douglas Coupland’s eponymous 1991 novel. The label reflected the counterculture of a rebellious generation, distrustful of the establishment and keen to find their own voice.

The cohort known as millennials – originally Generation Y – were identified by American authors William Strauss and Neil Howe as those graduating high school in the year 2000. With the popular focus on the millennium at the time, the name stuck. Although the birth date of this cohort can start from as early as the late 1970s, by some accounts, it generally ranges from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s or early 2000s.

“Generation Z” is the current name for the cohort born from the mid-1990s, though iGen, centennials, post-millennials are further possible labels for a generation that has grown up in a hyper connected world. A “new silent generation” is emerging for those born during the early 2000s, since like their great grandparents in the silent generation, their childhood is also deemed to be marked by war and economic recession.

From needy to greedy

Social and political conflict between generations often boils down to the seemingly unfair consumption of resources by the old. During the 1940s, the “needy” older generation were seen as a burden on the tax-paying younger generation. From the 1950s, older people were blocking beds in hospitals, when they should be in their own homes. More recently, older people are being told that they should move out of their homes and stop hoarding family housing.

Today, it’s often said that baby boomers benefited most from the welfare state, during a period when healthcare and education were free, jobs plentiful and housing affordable. There is also a fear that this generation will be the last to have good pensions.

But all of these arguments conveniently ignore the inequalities within generations, which are greater than the inequalities between them. Not only is there considerable inequality within cohorts, even greater divides are created by gender, ethnicity, disability, housing tenure and class.

Take housing, for example. While baby boomers are often accused of hoarding housing, the accumulation of housing wealth is more often a reflection of income and regional variances, rather than age differences. Between 20% and 25% of the housing wealth in the UK is owned by those under the age of 65, who are in the top 20% of the population in terms of income.

Society’s limits

Another example is education. While baby boomers and Gen X may not have paid for their university education, very few were actually able to take advantage. In England and Wales, participation was at 8.4% in 1970 compared to 33% in 2000. Overall levels of education have actually improved over time.

The problems facing younger cohorts have more to do with the social limits to growth than the cost of education. In 1976, sociologist Fred Hirsch suggested that while the economy continues to grow, enabling ever greater consumption, society’s social structures will remain limited.

So, though more people are gaining degrees, only one person can get the job or the promotion. Standing out from the crowd requires ever increasing educational qualifications, work experience or skills training. In Hirsch’s words, “if everyone stands on tiptoe, no one gets a better view”.

With limited opportunities in society, rationing is achieved through higher entry requirements to both the labour and housing markets. The extent to which people can meet those requirements is still a matter of where they were born in the social hierarchy, rather than when they were born.

Indeed, wealth is generally transferred from older to younger generations via inheritance, rather than withheld: the problem is that this reinforces inequalities within cohorts, as richer people benefit morefrom transfers of family wealth. People’s access to health care, education and housing are determined by policy and the economy, not their date of birth, and the hype about generational conflict only serves to mask the real inequalities in society.

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A Tale Of Two Presidents And One Phone Call To Freedom

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A month before South Africa’s elections, one of the country’s leading political figures exposed a number of his former comrades for corruption with evidence to the Zondo Commission on State Capture. It was box office material, yet just another eventful period in the turbulent life of Robert McBride – guerrilla fighter, policeman and death row prisoner.


Robert McBride has one of those faces full of character that looks like it has endured life as much as lived it. A glance through his tough years of struggle yields a list of reasons why: five years on death row to screams and tears of the condemned; scores of beatings over decades; shooting his way out of hospital; years of the shadowy and violent life of an underground guerrilla fighter.

McBride was born in Wentworth, just outside Durban, in 1963, and grew up amid racist insults and violence. It swiftly politicised him and he was taken into the military wing of the African National Congress where he carried out sabotage with explosives.

Even by the standards of the desperate days of the gun in South Africa, McBride’s political activity is remarkable. In 1986, McBride fought his way out of an intensive care ward in a bizarre rescue of his childhood friend and fellow fighter Gordon Webster. It happened at Edendale Hospital in Durban where Webster lay, with tubes in his body, under police guard.

McBride posed as a doctor, with an AK47 hidden in his white coat; his father, Derrick, was dressed as a priest with a Makarov pistol under his cassock. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard, in 1999, that hospital staff cheered them on and held back an armed policeman as the McBrides shot their way out, pushing the wounded Webster to freedom on a trolley.        

Thirty-three-years on, McBride went into battle again for his beliefs, this time with words and documents, against a more insidious and formidable foe than armed police – corruption. He gave evidence before the Zondo Commission, in Johannesburg, springing from his days as head of IPID, the independent police investigators.

He spent more than four days on the stand – longer than most cricket matches last these days. He told of missing police evidence, claims of sinister moves to remove corruption busters and the misappropriation of money, under a cloak of secrecy, by the crime intelligence agencies.    

“People don’t like me because of my anti-corruption stance, their dislike of me I wear as a badge of honour. Those who dislike me for other reasons, it is a free country and you are entitled to your likes and dislikes. I have no problem with you. But wherever I am, I will do my work and will always be against corruption. I understand how corruption affects the ordinary man and means there is so much less to go around,” he says.   

To give a little more context, McBride’s erstwhile job went with unpopularity. The head of IPID is a post that politicians, plus probably more than a few disgruntled policemen, wanted him out of. They ended his contract and he assures me he is going to court to get his job back. His stance may give clues as to why some wanted to see the back of him.

“I have spoken loudly every time I have seen something wrong and raised unpopular issues. Some of the issues we picked up early on was police involvement in cash-in-transit robberies… The looting of police funds, the corruption, the wastage and the leverage, we then began to understand it; the leverage that some policeman have over politicians… Any criminal syndicate that is operating requires police to help them otherwise they will be found out in the normal course of events,” says McBride, the month before the hearing.

“Rogue activity by certain elements in the prosecuting authority, the willingness to prosecute people for non-criminal acts and unwillingness to prosecute when there is a pile of evidence…We will also speak about the abuse of state funds, the abuse of power by the police by negating investigations. Most of our evidence is backed up by court papers, evidence and affidavits,” he says.

Many activists who saw the nasty, ugly, side of the struggle often are the first to come down, hard, when they feel freedoms they fought for are being abused. You could argue McBride, an intelligent thinker, is very much one of them.

You could also argue that McBride has been cut adrift by many former comrades and demonized as the Magoo’s Bar bomber – the 1986 car bomb on the Durban beachfront that killed three and wounded scores. Others, on both sides of the South African struggle, who issued orders, or did worse, are undisturbed and anonymous by their swimming pools. Any regrets? I ask.

“It’s like asking me ‘do I regret living in a free and democratic country’, the answer can’t be yes… We would have preferred that things went differently. If you are in an armed struggle, you are the cause of hurt to other people and as a political activist, as a revolutionary you can defend that and justify it.

“But as a human being, you know that when it concerns other people, it is not the right thing to do to cause the hurt of other people. I have expressed myself as a human being on this, not because I was trying to elicit any sympathy or anything; I have never asked for redemption, I have never asked for forgiveness. Those who know me know what I am about and those who understand the circumstances in the early 1980s when we became active; those who are old enough to remember that was what the circumstances were.”

Those circumstances recede further into the darkness of memory of democratic South Africa every year, yet, in the minds of those who suffered, it stays pin sharp. McBride spent five years on death row, in Pretoria, after being sentenced to the gallows for the Durban bombings.

He reckons the prison hanged more than 300 prisoners in this time. Through the cell door, he heard the condemned screaming and crying as warders dragged the condemned along the passages to their fate. The hanging warders used to bring back the bloody hoods from the gallows and force the next batch of condemned men to wash them.

In May 1990, the sun shone as hope visited death row in Pretoria. The prison management summoned McBride and a group of fellow condemned activists, to the main office at the maximum security prison. Each were given green prison jackets – the garb of special occasions. Warders drove them, in a van, to a distant part of the prison and all feared they were either going to be executed or allowed to escape and shot in the back.

“We were told not to talk and then we were put in this big room with a steel of security around the room and after about 45 minutes the former president (Mandela) walked in and it was the most beautiful sight on earth; the greatest feeling ever and when he walks in, he says: ‘Ah, Robert! How are you!’ As if he knew me forever. It was the most important meeting I had in my life. It was like a God-like environment. He gave us a rundown of negotiations and what can be expected and that we must not worry, we must be patient and sit tight, he knows all of our backgrounds and will do his utmost to get us released and we will never be forgotten.”

It took more than two more years, in the shadow of the noose… until a fateful Friday. September 25, 1992. McBride will never forget the date.

“Round about half past four in the afternoon, I got a call to come to the office, I didn’t know what it was about, and when I came there, the head of the prison said: ‘You have a phone call’. It was my first phone call in prison. On the other end of the line was comrade Cyril Ramaphosa and he says: ‘Hi chief’. I keep quiet and then he says: ‘Monday’. I say: ‘What’s happening Monday chief?’ He keeps quiet, then he says: ‘You are going home!’ There was a bit of a smile you could feel in his voice,” says McBride with a huge smile on his face.

Long after Mandela had completed his long walk to freedom for his country, McBride was to yet again hear the click of a prison key and feel the pain from a warder’s boot.

It was the summer of 1998 and in Maputo, the sea was warm and the prawns were hot. The police in Mozambique picked up McBride, then a high-ranking official in foreign affairs, on alleged gun running charges that appeared to be trumped up to us journalists. We scoured the streets of the capital, for weeks, in search of witnesses.

McBride argued that he was on an undercover operation for the National Intelligence Agency trying to uncover gun runners who were flooding neighbouring South Africa with illegal weapons and fuelling crime; a counter that eventually set him free.

Despite this, McBride spent six months in the capital’s notorious, grim, Machava maximum security prison, where he told me violence was meted out.

I covered that story for many months and came within a split ace of interviewing McBride in his cell. We spent hours plying the Portuguese-speaking warders with beer and the story, through an interpreter, that we were friends visiting from South Africa and we just wanted to say hello. We told them our friend was a big man in South Africa.

“He is a small man now,” smiled back one of the warders icily.

We convinced the guards and as they moved towards the prison doors, keys in hand, our cover was blown. One of the not too bright colleagues from our TV station strolled into the prison waving his press card.

“Hello Chris!” says he. The none-too-pleased prison guards threw us out.

I had to wait more than 20 years for my interview with McBride.

A phrase I always remembered from those many hot, crazy, days in Maputo was a quote we got from the late presidential spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa when McBride went behind bars yet again.

“He is a tough guy who can look after himself,” said Mamoepa.

The Zondo Commission and scores of corrupt policemen last month found out how tough.  

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‘Difficult To Bring Wholesale Change’

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Ahead of the May elections in South Africa, the country’s Minister of Public Service & Administration, Ayanda Dlodlo, gives her take on simplifying government processes and ensuring public services are available for all on digital platforms.


What do you have on the cards for this year?

It’s a very short year because we are going to elections, but the major plan for me now is finalizing the Public Administration Management Act regulations; so that we can fully implement on that piece of legislation. The second one that is important for me is a fully functional government employee housing scheme. If I can do that by the time we go to elections, I will be very happy. It is not an election thing, it’s just that we all do not know where we are going to be after the elections, so I am pushing hard to ensure that even when I do leave, that is what I would have done and completed as a minister in my time.

What are some of the opportunities that lie within a digitized government?

We have many processes in government that if digitized could be much simpler. The dissemination of information, for instance. If we vigorously work towards fully implementing on our vision of a government portal where citizens can access any information on government that they need on a single portal — that is a digitized government that would have been able to provide people easy access to information. For instance, we launched the Z83 Application Form, the e-recruitment strategy and it’s much cheaper if they use the internet to apply for jobs online. There are quite a few things we are looking at as government to ensure services are brought to our people on digital platforms so that they can access them even easier.

What are some of the developments with the enrolment scheme and how is it affecting employment rates in South Africa?

We have a large youth contingent that is unemployed but, more so, those that have graduated return home to the rural areas with a university qualification but can’t access any employment opportunities… You could be the only one in your family who has ever gone to university… What does that say to people around you?… So we are doing away with the two years’ experience for certain categories of jobs. But also… we will put in place training programs, mentorship and clear programs to monitor and evaluate the growth of that individual and the job they will be occupying.

What are some of the developments regarding the public sector wage bill?

We are seeing an increase in the wage bill because of the agreement that is in place. But we are trying to ensure that we do not go beyond what we had agreed upon with labor. But, what we have done in the process is that we have introduced regulation six of the Public Service Act where we are allowing people, between the ages of 55 and 59, from April 1 to the end of September, to exit the system without incurring any penalties. The reason we are doing this is because we want to bring young people into government but, over and above that, we are trying to deal with the runaway wage bill.

With the upcoming elections, where do you see the public sentiment laying?

I see the African National Congress (ANC) at the very least getting 62%. Because if you go by what your polling says, it changes from week to week and that is dependent on what is topical in that week or on that day.

How important will these elections be in shaping the country’s future?

To me, they will be very important because it is the 25th year of democracy… With all its (the ANC) flaws, with all its inadequacies, we have to change the face of our country.

It is difficult to bring wholesale change, in a 25-year period, to a system that has been in existence for more than 400 years. It will take much longer than that. And as society progresses and goal posts change, it will become difficult. But for any government that is going to come, they will never be able to do what we have done in the last 25 years. 

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Southern African Countries Won’t Manage Disasters Unless They Work Together

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Cyclone Idai, which recently devastated Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the southern African region. It killed at least a thousand people and caused damages estimated at US$2 billion.

The response from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states, civil society, the private sector and individuals in the region points to the need for a collective, regional approach to addressing natural disasters – rather than individual countries working alone.

Idai also showed, once again, just how unprepared SADC is to respond to major natural disasters. It doesn’t seem to have learnt much from earlier ones.

In 2015, floods and torrential rains associated with the tropical storm Chedza, and Cyclone Bansai left about 260 people dead and 360,000 homeless in Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

About a year earlier, flash floods killed, displaced and left thousands homeless in Zimbabwe. However, the storm that remains most vivid in many people’s minds is the one that hit Mozambique 19 years ago in 2000, killing 700 people and leaving two million homeless.

Disasters of this kind know no boundaries. That’s why they require thinking beyond the narrow view that individual governments should respond to crises alone.

Responses to Idai

The first regional response to Idai came from the South African National Defence Force and South African disaster relief NGO, Gift of the Givers. These responses followed a request by the Mozambican government.

The United Nations responded with aid operations in the affected countries a few days later. Other SADC countries, NGOs, the private sector and ordinary citizens also donated to the relief efforts.

For its part, however, SADC’s voice was conspicuously absent for at least a week after the devastation. Ordinarily, it should have led relief operations.

It was disconcerting to see UN Secretary General António Guterres appeal for help and outline a plan to respond to the disaster at a Security Council stakeout, while SADC remained missing in action.

SADC has a dedicated Disaster Risk Reduction Unit. It coordinates regional preparedness and responses to trans-boundary disasters and hazards. But, as South Africa’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said, the regional body was completely unprepared for the disaster.

Pooling resources

Of SADC’s 16-member states only Angola, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia and South Africa contributed to the relief efforts. This reflects the prevailing preference for a bilateral approach to regional challenges within the SADC.

At the heart of this are narrow nationalistic interests and a preoccupation with sovereignty. The member states are unwilling to surrender control over policies to be administered by the regional body for the collective good.

But, natural disasters like Idai doesn’t respect national boundaries. Their very regional scope requires solutions that integrate domestic actions into a regional governance framework to address them effectively.

When SADC eventually responded, it pledged US$500,000 for relief efforts towards a disaster that cost over US$2 billion in damages to infrastructure alone.

Instead of acting individually, SADC countries need to work together to pool resources and mobilise disaster relief efforts and resources to be more effective. This could be done through the SADC Secretariat.

Funds for immediate humanitarian assistance and the rebuilding of infrastructure should be held in a preexisting, dedicated facility, like a regional disaster risk fund.

This would provide southern Africa with risk financing for climate-related and other disasters. Funds that are often donated by SADC member states, private sector, NGOs, and ordinary citizens for relief efforts can also be pooled and placed in the permanent regional mechanism.

But, there are challenges.

The major challenge to establishing a sub-regional disaster fund probably lies outside SADC, and even Africa. The idea might not sit well with some governments. For example, an attempt to create an Asian Monetary Fund after the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis failed because the US strongly opposed it, and China didn’t support it.

But, SADC could work with global financial institutions to surmount this challenge. The World Bank, for example, already runs disaster risk programmes. SADC could approach it for support and partnership in making the facility a reality.

Cushion against harm

Cyclone Idai has once again shown that natural disasters are capable of wreaking havoc across southern Africa. It’s also shown that affected countries are too poor to respond to the devastation of their infrastructure and the accompanying humanitarian disaster.

It is thus necessary for countries in the region to work together to devise sound contingency plans, including a permanent regional disaster fund, to help cushion them against the effects of natural disasters.

-Chris Changwe Nshimbi; Director & Research Fellow, University of Pretoria

-The Conversation

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