The baby boomers and the price of personal freedomSubmitted by bobbyw24 on Sun, 08/22/2010 - 16:38
As the postwar baby boomer generation begins to enter comfortable retirement, their children face a future of massive debt and uncertainty
The baby boomers. Born between 1945 and 1955, they are busy ignoring the biblical calculus that a man's span is three score years and 10. Having enjoyed a life of free love, free school meals, free universities, defined benefit pensions, mainly full employment and a 40-year-long housing boom, they are bequeathing their children sky-high house prices, debts and shrivelled pensions. A 60-year-old in 2010 is a very privileged and lucky human being – an object of resentment as much as admiration.
I'm at the heart of all of it – guilty as charged. Born 21 May 1950, I'm the quintessential baby boomer. And for the last three months, while most of the rest of the world has been getting on with their lives, I've been wrestling with the implications of my new seniority. Sixty may or may not be the new 50, but it is a significant milestone; I've been on the planet for an awfully long time. What sense can I make of the decades I have lived through? To what extent am I and my generation unfairly lucky? What is the best way to live my life from now on?
To a degree I have some sympathy with the resentment, marshalled in a cluster of recent anti-boomer books. Individually, we may not have been the authors of today's flux, uncertainty and lack of social and cultural anchors, but we were at the scene of the crime. The cultural, economic and institutional cornerstones of British life have been shattered – and the way our love of fun was channelled is undoubtedly part of the story. The upside is that some of the old stifling prohibitions and prejudices have gone, hopefully for ever. But the downside is that we have become authors of our own lives without society offering us a compass to follow.
What, for example, should men and women expect of each other as they make the lifelong commitment to marriage? Have families become too child-centred to the detriment of our kids – mollycoddling and overprotecting them? Social landmarks such as our health service, education and police systems are the objects of near-permanent revolution, fired once again by the coalition government in the name of "radical reform" – as if radical reform is so important that it is worth the accompanying cost and disorientation.
Thus the paradox: more freedom but more angst and uncertainty.
There is no longer any discrimination in our embrace of cultural liberalism; it stretches into every nook and cranny of our lives – from the financial markets to sex – and sometimes with consequences none of us like. It was Howard Davies, when he ran the Financial Services Authority, who compared financiers to consenting adults; the inference was that he had no more business inquiring into their private business affairs than he would into what went on in their bedrooms. His liberalism has been proved wrong. The story of the past six decades is in many ways the story of how we threw off our shackles only to discover that we do need some constraints, even in the City. And in the bedroom? Our extreme liberal stance has seen us deluged under a tidal wave of pornography. The debate in the years ahead will not be about how to continue with our baby boomer liberalism, but over how and where we need restraint around some shared principles and rules.
So, the 1950s. My mother likes to say that these were the last years of the old order. They might have begun with the Korean war and ended with African decolonisation, but life in suburban Britain was not just stable and predictable, it was governed by enduring institutions whose friendly grip on our lives seemed unbreakable. Church meant something – as did Empire Day. My grandfather sang the national anthem lustily after the Queen's Christmas Day message, and insisted as a tenant farmer he was a true English yeoman. I could tell the days of the week by my mother's almost religious cooking rota – stew on Monday and liver on Thursday.
Companies had been around for decades and would be as much part of our future fabric as they had been of the past. Persil washed whitest. The pound was worth two dollars and 80 cents and 35 dollars bought an ounce of gold. The US ran the world with Britain as its chief lieutenant. Everybody would marry and have 2.2 children. It was a time of mottos: better be safe than sorry; carry an umbrella to work in case it rains. What I had to do was work hard and I would find myself on the conveyor belt that would convey me upwards. Chief executives of companies earned the same salaries as the permanent secretaries running Whitehall.
That world has gone. The anchors have dissolved or are dissolving