Do baby boomers just want to have fun?
Edited version of a talk given to the RIVERSIDE BOOK GROUP,
As someone who spent 14 formative years as a non-catholic in a catholic school, who supported CND in the 1960s, and, in the 1970s became a radical feminist , I am no stranger to feeling that I am out of step with the world - or indeed that it is out of step with me.
But in the past, this has always been because of something I have said or believed or chosen. Now in my 60s, I am feeling beleaguered for a completely different reason, one over which I have never had any control. I’m talking about the year I was born: 1948.
Along with a million other Brits, I was born that year into peace and, if not prosperity, at least a sense that it might be on the way. In the meantime we had the cradle-to-grave security of the new welfare state - family allowances, unemployment pay, free education, free health care, old age pensions.
I was one of the ones who came to maturity in - some would say created - the permissive society and a consumer paradise, and the early stages of a property boom that would bring huge unearned wealth to some people, whilst leaving others homeless.
My generation is going to live for ever - or at least it can sometimes feel that way to those of us who are fortunate enough to be fit and well. (And yes I know I am tempting fate by saying such a thing, so if you happen to be reading this following news of my demise, please don’t say “Spoke too soon, didn’t you?“ because I won’t be listening. )
Here, ladies and gentlemen, baby boomers and others, are examples of some of the anti-social behaviour of which my generation stands accused.
And that’s just what they’ve been saying in the Observer, the Guardian and the London Review of Books. The Daily Mail puts it all down to our supernatural powers. “The magic,” says screenwriter Deborah Moggach, “was that whenever us 1948ers got to a certain age the world delivered just what we were looking for. We wanted sex; suddenly there was the Pill. We wanted to rebel, take lots of drugs and do things our parents never did; blow me down, along came flower power. It's as if we had ordered such things from a celestial menu “
Elsewhere, and less flatteringly, we have been compared to a pig moving through a python - a reference to the way our wealth and greed have distorted the values of the society we have invaded. And have we given back anything in return? Have we heck. We’re much too busy - The Guardian again - “jetting off on four or five holidays a year and driving our gas-guzzling 4 x 4s”. That’s when we’re not invading Iraq or bringing about the credit crunch.
Yes indeed. Those things were our fault too. A book by Francis Beckett entitled What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? Why the Children of the Sixties Lived the Dream and Failed the Future puts forward the curious argument that since Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were born in 1953 and 1951 respectively, it follows that the entire baby boomer generation is responsible for everything they did. That’s irrespective of whether or not we voted for the governments that Blair and Brown headed, or supported their policies, or indeed actively campaigned against them.
We the baby boomer generation are apparently managing simultaneously to live a life of parasitic idleness whilst holding on to jobs which we don’t need and which ought to go to deserving young breadwinners. We are blocking beds in the NHS, destroying the welfare state from which we have benefited, and cluttering up public transport with our Freedom Passes. We have no sense of social responsibility at all, and never have had. We’re drinking too much and taking recreational drugs. Like the girls in the Cyndy Lauper song, baby boomers “just wanna have fun.”
Today I want to examine some of these stereotypes and accusations, and ask if they are true.
And because this is a book group, and because I know we are all readers and quite a few of us are writers, I’m going to illustrate some of my points with references to the fiction, poetry and non-fiction of the baby boomer decades.
But you can’t blame the babies for that.
ON A TIRED HOUSEWIFE
Here lies a poor woman who was always tired;
In this woman, I recognised my mother: she too was “always tired”, and fed up with housewifery, and I could see why. Her life seemed to me to be one long round of drudgery, and certainly not what I wanted for myself. I resolved to have a career instead.
And then I found another poem. It’s by John Betjeman, and it’s called Business Girls. You can read it here.
Between them, these two poems seemed to sum up the options that faced me as a girl growing up in the 50s and 60s: adult life spent either as an exhausted housewife whose idea of heaven is to be able “to do nothing now for ever and ever“, or else as “poor unbeloved“ career woman with little to look forward to but a “tiny breakfast, trolley bus and windy street.”
Were we baby boomer girls privileged? Perhaps, but it didn’t feel that way.
It probably didn’t feel very privileged either, to be one of the thousands of British children who, in the 1950s and beyond, after being taken into care following a family breakdown, were forcibly deported to Australia, and whose story has been told in the film Oranges and Sunshine
Many accounts of baby-boomerhood have been written by people who have indeed ridden a lifelong rollercoaster of privilege. They are entitled to their story, but they should not pretend it is everybody‘s story. By contrast, these abandoned children, whose intended role in Australia was to replenish the gene pool of the white race, were baby boomers too. Many of them were told that their parents were dead when they were not, or that their mothers were “British whores“. Many suffered sexual and emotional abuse. No-one could say that they “had the world at their feet”, just because they happened to be born at a particular time.
In 1966, Honey, a magazine for teenage girls, published an abridged version of a novel called Enough Rope, by a then-new writer, Andrea Newman. It was later published as a book called The Cage.
It tells the story of a teenager named Val who is apparently living the baby boomer dream: intelligent, ambitious, grammar-school educated, she is preparing to go to university. But she finds she is pregnant.
For Val, the dream ends right there. Safe abortion is not available. Unmarried motherhood is too scandalous to contemplate. Instead she faces a shotgun wedding to a man she does not love, and “the cage” of domestic entrapment.
Val’s predicament is an indictment of the sexual double standard so common in the 60s, when girls’ sex education was typically about their “responsibility” to control men’s sexual urges, and hardly ever about understanding their own desire or protecting themselves from its unwanted consequences.
You couldn’t write a book like that today in the context of mainstream British society. It just wouldn’t be convincing that a woman like Val wouldn’t at least have the option of effective contraception or, if it failed, abortion. It wouldn’t be convincing that pregnancy meant the end of all other ambition.
But it was all too convincing at the time.
Apart from the publication of The Cage, what else happened in 1966?
Jeremy Sandford’s drama about homelessness Cathy Come Home (watch it here ) was shown on BBC television. The pressure group Shelter, set up in response, found that in addition to the 19,000 families officially recognised as homeless, a further 3 million people in Britain were living in damp, overcrowded slum conditions.
Many of them were baby boomers too, as were the children of employed women whose average wage was £12 per week, while for men it was £23. One family in five lived on less than half the average wage.
It is, of course, in the nature of averages that many people fall below them. But the point is that the baby boomers were not, as some of our detractors seem to think, all living off the fat of the land.
Some of us may well have been gearing up for a life of professional salaries and homes that earned more than we did. But not all. Cathy Come Home may well have led to the rediscovery, for some people, of poverty. Others had known about it all along.
But at least we had peace - as in no immediate threat of invasion, no bombs dropping. But the dangers of the Cold War were ever-present. I’ve written about the terror of the Cuba crisis in my novel Daddy's Girls . Here’s a short extract.
I kept thinking about all the things I wanted to do, and all the things people around me wanted to do, and how, if the world ended, we might never be able to do them. I wouldn’t be able to go out with Adam, my mother wouldn’t be able give the house a jolly good clean, my sister Janet wouldn’t pass the eleven-plus. She wouldn’t even take it. She would have learned her tables and practised her verbal reasoning with Sister Dolours, and it would all have been wasted. Even this thought failed to cheer me up.
I didn’t know where Cuba was. Alone in the classroom after school, I took the cold metal globe down from its shelf and had a look. I twirled it on its axis. Beyond the classroom window, the autumn sun was flaming red. I remembered something I had heard about the Hiroshima bomb - ten thousand times hotter than the sun. I remembered my father saying, not hot enough. He had served with the navy in the Far East, and he thought the Japanese had deserved everything they got.
I twirled the world. I slapped my hand down to stop it. The oceans were pale blue and dry. The north pole and the south pole were white and still. England and the sunny countries of the commonwealth were as pink as a poisoned finger. I couldn’t find Cuba. I set off for home, cycling across the common in the bloodstained sunset.”
But she survived, and so did you and so did I. And in the mid-to-late 60s, some of the baby boomers started going to university. And did we worry about tuition fees? No we didn’t. Some of us didn’t even know there were tuition fees. They were paid direct to the university by our local authorities, who also sent us a cheque every term to cover rent, food, books and fun.
Privileged? Of course we were - unimaginably so, compared with the expense and hardship faced by today’s students. But that was what the governments of the day decided in their wisdom would be a good idea. We can’t be accused of demanding this bounty: it was there, waiting for us. And we’re not talking about an entire generation here. In the 60s, just 3% of those of student age, went to university. To put it another way, 97% didn’t. They were baby boomers too.
This is a normal sort of thing to do in your 20s. Equally normal is the tendency to choose as a marriage partner, someone with whom you will be (among other things) intellectually compatible.
To one commentator, however - David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science - the tendency of highly educated baby boomers to marry each other, is another sign of baby boomer greed, particularly among women.
“These newly liberated women,” he has written, “emerge from higher education and expect to marry men with a similar level of education or at least similar job prospects… The change in the balance of participation in higher education is why it is hard for Bridget Jones to find a suitable man.” 1
Willetts seems to have missed the point about Bridget Jones, whose problem was not that she couldn’t find a man with a degree, but that she couldn’t find one who would make a commitment to her. But Willetts is right about one thing: if more and more women go to university, and insist on marrying university-educated men, there will be fewer university-educated men left over for non-university-educated women to marry.
It’s not clear how much this worries non-graduate women. Perhaps, rather than marry a degree, they would prefer to get one for themselves, if only they could afford the tuition fees. But it worries Mr Willetts who, by a strange twist of logic, sees gender equality as a bar to social mobility. “A well-off household may now have two people in well paid jobs,” he warns. “The expansion of women’s educational opportunities and women’s earnings has opened up an even greater gap between well-off households and poor households…. No-one could possibly wish to reverse these new opportunities for women.” (Gee, thanks, Dave.) “But it looks as if increasing equality between the sexes has meant increasing inequality between social classes. Feminism has trumped egalitarianism.” 2
This is one of the most preposterous of all the attacks on baby boomers, and on baby boomer women in particular. Feminism is about women having opportunities which equivalent women in the past would not have had. It doesn’t “trump” egalitarianism. It IS egalitarianism. Only someone who thinks that women’s gains don’t count, would see it otherwise.
David Willetts writes: “a modern middle class marriage increasingly takes the form of two young people, each of whom already has a stake in the property market, combining their assets. But meanwhile poorer couples with less access to parental support and with less prospect of combining two small flats into one family house get squeezed out.”
He worries that this may reduce social mobility. But if single baby-boomer women in the 80s were acquiring, in our own right, what in previous eras we might only have been able to acquire through our husbands - i.e. a home - then that IS a form of social mobility, that is a form of egalitarianism.
And if there aren’t enough homes around to be rented by people who can’t afford to buy, might that not have something to do with the Thatcher government’s policy of selling council houses?
Another thing that was going on in the 70s and 80s was - tragically and terrifyingly - the Yorkshire ripper murders.
At least 13 women, some of whom worked as prostitutes, were murdered or savagely attacked by this man. Several of these, including Wilma McCann, Irene Richardson, Patricia Atkinson and Barbara Leach, were born in the years immediately after World War Two.
Pat Barker wrote a novel called Blow Your House Down, set in a northern town at the time of the murders. It describes the working lives of women who gut chickens for a living in the daytime, and who, because this does not generate enough income to feed their families, go out on the streets at night.
Many of them were baby boomers too. But they weren’t living the dream or buying houses or going to university or looking for a graduate man to marry. They were working and getting murdered.
At last a minimum wage was introduced. There were improvements in childcare, and paternity leave. There was some cancellation of third world debt, and there were advances in equal rights for women and gay people. The Working Time Directive reduced the number of hours people could be required to work, and some peace and resolution was brought to Northern Ireland.
This message didn’t come from an enemy, or someone who was trying to expose me as a fool. It was from someone who was trying to impress me. Someone who needed my approval for their project. Someone for whom this was their idea of clear communication.
A response was needed, and “I haven’t the faintest idea what you are talking about” would not do. So I did what I assume all baby boomers do in these circumstances: I forwarded the message to a younger relative and asked what it meant and whether it was good or bad.
The huge gulf in understanding between those of us who came to new technology as adults (I was 30 before I touched a computer, and 40 before I owned one), and those who appear to have been born knowing all about it, has never been wider than in the noughties, and is one of the biggest disadvantages, one might say disabilities, from which the baby boomer generation is suffering.
I’m not a technophobe. I believe new technology has been a huge boon to humankind, and I accept that anyone who wants to be a useful employee has to keep up to date with those aspects of it that affect their work. To some extent I have done so: people have paid me to use computers, and being paid for something is usually a sign that you are getting at least some of it right.
But what worries me is the blink-and-you’ll miss it effect. Just when you’re getting used to one thing, it turns into something else.
As long as you are at work, you keep up because you have to, and because there are people around who will help you because they have to. But when you finally retire there is the fear that it will all sweep on without you.
That is scary.
BABY BOOMERS: THE VERDICT
When I hear talk about how fortunate the baby boomer generation has been, I am reminded of people who say things like, “It must have been marvellous to live in Victorian times: everyone had servants.”
Actually, “everyone” didn’t have servants. A lot of people WERE servants. Otherwise, the others wouldn’t have been able to HAVE servants.
The same applies to the privileges enjoyed by some - but not all - baby boomers.
Free grammar school education, free university education, were only for the minority. Many from this minority are now in a position to write books and newspaper columns about baby boomers - but they should not make the mistake of universalising their own privileged-minority experiences.
A generation is just that: a group of people who happened to born at the same time. It is not a social class.
A similar principle applies to well-paid careers. We’re told that baby boomers coming to maturity in the late 60s and early 70s faced brilliant prospects. No - some did. But in order for that to be possible, others could not. Vivid and unflinching accounts of the lives of the working poor during the baby boomer years, can be found in Polly Toynbee’s books A Working Life and Hard Work
But let’s admit it: we baby boomers do enjoy some privileges: free public transport, winter fuel payments, free prescriptions, and exemption from paying National Insurance. And for many of us, our state-funded pensions are larger, and available to us earlier, than will be the case for the next generation.
(The same is true of many private pensions, but that is a separate issue. Private companies who offer good pensions to their staff or policyholders aren’t doing so because they are soft-hearted or victims of bullying; they do so because it makes good business sense to do so. When it ceases to make sense, they stop doing it.)
If we feel publicly-funded perks are unearned, unnecessary or inappropriate for us personally, we can give them away.
But this should be a private gesture, not a public one. If you feel you have too much, cut out the middle man and give direct to good causes or needy individuals. In public, be an activist. Let your political representatives know your views on student finance, on local authority pensions, on Sure Start, or child benefit.
As a pilloried generation, we baby boomers have fallen victim to journalists who possess themselves of a theory, then seek to lure the facts towards it; and to patriarchally-minded men who don’t see the huge gains achieved by baby-boomer feminists for the benefit of all women, as a social advance.
But we don’t need to apologise for being born when we were born. We had no choice in the matter, and anyway wasn’t it part of the point of our parents fighting World War Two, and building the welfare state? To create a world in which people could settle down in safety and peace and - if they wanted to - have babies who would survive into old age?
We don’t need to apologise for the many senior-citizen concessions and discounts that are offered to us by private companies for anything from cinema tickets to home insurance. That’s just good business practice: if it didn’t win them extra customers, they wouldn’t do it.
We don’t need to apologise for being part of a large cohort, or a boom, or a “distortion“. We’re not a distortion, or a pig moving through a python: we are part of the population of the country. We’re just the people who happened to be born at a particular time, like everybody else.
Above all, there is no need for us to apologise for voting. The reason why governments often deal more generously with the old than with the young, is that the older you are, the more likely you are to vote. A lot of my talk has been about privilege, but voting isn’t a privilege, it is a right. My message to anyone who has the right to vote but doesn‘t use it, and then complains that the government pays more attention to the needs and demands of people who do vote, is, MORE FOOL YOU.
I end on a more solemn and note. Jane Miller, author of Crazy Age: Thoughts On Being Old points out that most of us can look forward to living for about 10 years longer than our parents, but adds that “we can also expect to spend the equivalent of eight of those years in hospital or doctors' waiting-rooms.”
I have made a start, and I expect many of you have too. Sometimes, looking round those waiting rooms, I find myself thinking, why are we wasting public money keeping all these old codgers alive when most of them are going to die of old age soon anyway? And then I realise one of the old codgers is me.
Like most people, I am less scared of death itself than of the processes of decline and suffering. How can we deal with this? Click here for comments from Jane Miller in which she describes a form of conscious and deliberate letting go of life, practised by some Jain nuns whose time has come.
Is this route - of gentle self-starvation, accompanied by mental and emotional preparedness - open to secular westerners? Perhaps - or perhaps we can only draw inspiration from it, while we think of something else. Perhaps, as baby boomers, that is our job.
We’ve been accused of all sorts of things by all sorts of people. Perhaps we should call their bluff. Say, yes, we just wanna have fun. And that means less suffering, please.
Suppose we have “had it all“. And we want to go on having it all. And that includes a comfortable death at a time of our own choosing. Not just for us, but for the generations that come after us.
Is there a middle way, between, on the one hand, self-destruction, and, on the other, abandoning ourselves to the cruelties of nature?
If there is a middle way, I think we, the fun-loving, pleasure-seeking, free-loving, didn’t-die-before-we-got-old baby boomers, are the ones to find it. I started by quoting the defiant words of Cyndi Lauper’s girls who “just wanna have fun”
I finish on the wistful words of the Beach Boys: wouldn’t it be nice?
© Zoë Fairbairns
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