It’s hard to marry the concept of boomer selfishness with the activism of these ‘grey-haired’ protesters fighting on behalf of their grandchildren
Julie Burr, 59, mobilised fellow locals into a chapter of ‘Knitting Nannas’, a direct action protest movement of senior Australian women.’ Photograph: Supplied
If there was ever a generation cursed by those that came after it, it’s the generation known as the baby boomers. The “boomers”, were those born roughly between 1946 and 1964.
Scapegoated for everything from environmental destruction to social welfare spending, their crime was to be born in an economic period where wages kept pace with productivity – itself at a rate that was higher than ever before.
As governments repaired economies from the damage of the second world war, not only were the jobs the boomers grew into plentiful, but so was state support. Many Australian boomers benefitted from free university education and universal Medicare and threw themselves into social activism.
Generation X, which followed the boomers, did not inherit the same levels of state investment – free tertiary education was gone by 1989. Crucially, they did inherit a rising economic inequality that was started not by the boomers but occurred not long after the oldest boomers entered the workforce. By 1973, the global trend was for wage growth to remain stagnant or low even as productivity increased. Australian figures released by the ABS on Thursday revealed that while labour productivity has increased 33% in the last 17 years, real average wages have increased less than 12%.
Alas, Generation X – and now Generation Y as well – took the economic tension of rising inequality out on the boomers in general, rather than the ruling class specifically. In 1997, Mark Davis compared the boomers’ grip on culture to marauding street thugs in a book named Ganglands. By 2006, Ryan Heath requested of that generation, less politely, “Please Just Fuck Off, It’s Our Turn Now”.
But for a generation that’s taken the blame for decreasing prosperity and a degraded planet, boomers have taken a leadership role in the environmental fight even as their living standards are exposed as surprisingly uneven as they enter retirement.
While two-thirds of single women aged 55-69 are retiring on incomes below “comfortable” standards, that same demographic is on the frontline of some of Australia’s most dogged direct action environmental campaigns.
Western Australian Julie Burr, now 59, only became an activist in October of last year. A widow, she and her divorced sister relocated to the town of Irwin, a few hours north of Perth, 20 years ago. Burr is still working as a teacher, but her activist commitment has increased since a local gasfield, thought to be defunct since the 1970s, was rediscovered by companies as a site to tap for shale gas.
What if I get arrested? So what?
With the “paradise” of Burr’s five acres by a river under threat, she attended a local meeting and then “hit the internet” to learn how to organise. She coordinated a “declaration” opposed to fracking supported by 97.7% of their community, and in a group called “Fracking Awareness Irwin Region”, she mobilised fellow locals into a chapter of “Knitting Nannas” – a direct action protest movement of senior Australian women who stake out MPs’ offices with street and market stalls, petitions, meetings, film nights, and stage sit-in knitting actions.
It certainly doesn’t sound like generational selfishness to hear Burr say: “My youngest grandchild is two now, and I want him to get to an age where he’ll be enjoying life, not wondering whether he can drink the water or not.”
Burr’s story is similar to that of Brisbane-based activist June Norman, who at 74 is just outside of the official “boomer” cohort, but whose activist influence has inspired many within it.
“This is my grandchildren’s future,” says Norman, “and I can’t live with myself if I don’t do all within my power to protect it.”
After five children and a divorce, the former welfare worker struck out on her own in the mid 2000s when she travelled to East Timor as a volunteer. What she saw there as the aftermath of war and civil conflict was transformative. Returning to Australia three years later, she learned of the 2005 Talisman Sabre war games between the Australian and US military staged near the Great Barrier Reef and joined Friends of the Earth to protest.
Norman was one of a group of protesters who infiltrated the live fire site, camping out for four days at considerable personal risk. Her activism spread to peace walks across Australia and Europe, and she began a walk movement against uranium mining that this month has her walking from Kalgoorlie to Perth, supporting the Indigenous Leonora people, who are trying to stop the Western Australian government uranium mining on their land.
I met Norman last year when she was dressed as a “climate angel”, getting arrested at the Brisbane G20 meeting, and she’s planning a trip to Paris to demonstrate at the climate talks there in November. She was also the first Australian to be arrested for protesting coal seam gas fracking when blockades began in Queensland.
“To inspire people, you have to get out and do something,” she says, “because that gives them a way to engage.”
Press link for more Van Badham | theguardian.com