'Old people' are not the problem

February 16, 2019 (854 words) :: Generational war is a poor substitute for class war, because it misdiagnoses the cause of the problem.
Tags: class-struggle

This post is day 47 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Short post today, in response to a bizarrely confrontational “question” that was asked during my panel at SFMOMA today, in which some YIMBY suggested that the housing problem could be ameliorated by taking away old people’s right to vote ??

The panel discussion had included what I thought were very reasonable comments about the SF housing crisis, but when it came time for audience questions, one member of the audience seemed like he had been actively angered by my fellow panelists’ comments on housing. He insinuated that because they (Richard Walker, Marxist geographer at Berkeley, and Gary Kamiya, writer for SF Chronicle) were old, they were part of the problem, and started asking them questions about their own property values, etc. (Both of them said that they don’t own property, for the record.) He said that he ran a startup in San Francisco, and that for him, the housing crisis was a matter of old people wrecking things for young people, because they owned expensive housing which they wouldn’t let be taxed, and because they wouldn’t allow others to build more housing.

I did sympathise with some of his points, but I also thought the target of his ire was a little off, though the distinction is admittedly subtle. In any case, Richard Walker was having exactly none of it, and it was getting pretty heated when Richard Walker suggested that he sounded exactly like a YIMBY (a weird housing subgroup in SF politics; the closest equivalent in UK politics would be, people who supported the Haringey Development Vehicle). The questioner, who spoke with the self-righteousness of someone divinely appointed to ascertain the guilt of my fellow panelists, then affirmed he thought the YIMBYs were right.

At that point I tried to interject, because the back-and-forth was getting a little out of control. I said that as a fellow young person (lol) I used to also believe that old people were the enemy, but that I’ve since realised that this sort of generational blame game is too reductive an analysis, because it lacks a materialist dimension. If you think old people are the problem, then you need to identify the causes and mechanisms - i.e., structural factors - not merely treat age as some sort of mysterious proxy for evil. Otherwise, how would you solve the problem, short of just killing all old people?

To which he responded, I don’t want to kill old people; I just want to take away their voting rights. At this point I suggested we stop the discussion there.

It’s a tempting argument to some extent, and I was definitely guilty of falling for it myself before I discovered, well, socialism. I remember reading about the Greek debt crisis in 2016 and concluding that the problem was old people, whose unreasonable expectations of high pensions were bankrupting the Greek state. Similarly, when it came to housing in London, I thought of it as a fairly straightforward generational affair: my generation was getting screwed over by my parents’ generation, and that was the end of it.

And then I learned about neoliberalism, and austerity, and the extent to which rich Greeks evaded tax, and poverty rates among the elderly. That’s around the time I realised that my reductive understanding of the world was not only empirically misguided, it made for bad politics, because it implied attacking the powerless while overlooking the culpability of the powerful.

Imagine if you decided old people were the enemy and punished them by disenfranchising them, cancelling their pensions, kicking them out of their houses, etc. Would that fix anything? No, it wouldn’t, because it wouldn’t do a thing to change the structures that give rise to inequality and economic crisis. It would just cause a lot of people to suffer.

That’s not to say that there are no generational discrepancies buried within the economic inequality statistics. Of course age plays a role, but there are also racial, gender, and geographic disparities, among others. The point is that age is not the cause of them, and it’s a bad heuristic in any case. Demonising the elderly elides the real structural causes that led to some (though not all) elderly people owning expensive property while some (though again, not all) younger people are unable to afford property. And the solution is not to scapegoat “old people” as if they formed a concrete class with distinct economic interests. The solution is to look at inequality within the generations, through the lens of class, in order to ascertain the economic structures that gave rise to our current predicament and formulate a theory of change.

Further suggested reading on the topic of why generational war is a distraction from class war:

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