Don’t Blame It on the Baby Boomers

It is all too tempting to blame the young for not having enough ‘go’ in them, for their self-pity and endless moaning about the housing ladder and tuition fees. As if they really are the most put upon generation there ever was. I’m guilty of blaming them for that. They are hardly setting the world alight with their ambitions to change the world, something that Jennie Bristow alludes to in her book about a generation that really did change the world – but she also questions whether such ‘generational thinking’ is helpful.

According to Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict, far from thanking the Boomers for the Pill or The Beatles, for civil rights or sexual equality, Boomer-blaming is all the rage today. When they’re not overburdening the welfare state with their pensions, free TV licences and bus passes they are held responsible for creating an ‘ageing problem’ and a global economic crisis too. As Bristow’s own research shows, they are portrayed as the large, lucky, affluent, selfish, reckless generation.

They are resented for squandering their wealth when times were good; running up enormous debts (both economic and ecological) for generations to come, and crowding out the young in the competition for jobs now that times are that bit harder. Boomers are blamed for both the rise and the demise of the welfare state, for the fall of family and church, and pretty much everything else, too; as the freedoms they won are deemed to have brought with them an overwhelming sense of uncertainty and uprootedness. But this ‘moralising’ of the Boomers’ legacy is a recent development in keeping with today’s ‘downbeat cultural mood’ Bristow explains.

There was a pessimism at work in the seventies and an appetite for ‘crisis-thinking’. There was reaction against the ‘liberalism, relativism, postmodernism and permissiveness’ of the sixties generation in the Culture Wars of the 1980s. But today there is a much wider ambivalence, at best, about the values and the decades (the cultural and economic excesses of the sixties and nineties, respectively) associated with the Boomers. There are too many ageing Boomers – so goes the ‘responsibilising’ narrative – hospital bed blocking on account of their past excesses. The party is over and now their older selves are having regrets as the children (the ‘babybusters’) are forced to clear up the mess. The poor things.

While, as Bristow explains, the Boomer narrative confuses the post-war generation – itself hard to pin-down – with ‘a handful of educated, middle-class young people’, the influence of the latter is not to be underestimated. They dominated Western culture since their sixties heyday, and voted in Boomer-friendly Third Way governments like Blair’s New Labour and Clinton’s Democrats in the nineties. While their managerial magpie-like politics was (and is) uninspiring, the student protest movement and counterculture that followed the ‘silent’ generation, the Beats and the Angry Young Men, dejected by the materialism of their own society as much as the uninspiring Soviet alternative to it, just shows they had more ‘go’ in them than the generations between which they were sandwiched.

But they were pushing against the proverbial open door. Underlying the generational conflict of the sixties, says Bristow, was the ‘relatively weak character of traditional norms and institutions’ and a ‘wider crisis of meaning and authority’. Despite its genuinely radical and liberatory character, and its role in the ‘major social, cultural and political changes’ of the period, the new ‘politics of age’ was not all it was cracked up to be. Because it was also a retreat to the narcissistically personal and narrowly cultural spheres, she argues. Its self-regarding adherents abandoned mass class-based politics and the consumer society in favour of the intellectuals of the New Left as much as they opposed the stuffy elite.

Whoever the Boomers are or were, that they are criticised today not for their contribution to the emptying out of politics of its transformative character, but because they ‘recklessly pushed the boundaries of knowledge and experimentation’, says a lot about the low horizons and diminished expectations of the generations that have followed. Blaming the boomers for the housing crisis or the pensions time-bomb is also to evade the business of getting to grips with ‘wider structural problems’ and ‘ideological confusion’, as Bristow puts it. Which brings me back to today’s complaining youth. There is something very childish about blaming everything on your parents. Instead of a grown-up debate there is a rather nasty and intensely personal attack – with the young in particular feeling very sorry for themselves.

First published in Huffington Post

Eno, Gaza and the Politics of Long-Distance Emoting

I don’t usually write about international relations. Or about music for that matter. My thing is social policy, whether its welfare, health and social care, housing or education; the Big Society (wherever that went) or nudging (which is ever present). Another favourite, if that’s not too inappropriate a way of putting it, is vulnerable children. Or, rather, the way in which certain children’s charities – we all know who they are – seem to like nothing more than to exploit our anxieties about our children and our suspicions of our fellow adults. All done with a dubious use of research and statistics, and vile adverts featuring supposedly bruised and battered children, to create the impression of widespread child abuse. Which there isn’t. So outraged was I by one of my musical heroes – and another by association – for using that same approach for gaining sympathy and support, that I felt as compelled as he to make my feelings known on a subject about which I hope I know just a little more. Though that, apparently, wouldn’t be difficult.

In the seventies and eighties David Byrne and Brian Eno practically reinvented popular music with their avant-garde takes on the genre, playing critical roles in the development of everything from world music and ambient to sampling. That was after they had taken on tired rock clichés with their respective legendary bands: Byrne as the nervy WASPish lead singer of Talking Heads, and Eno as the professorial cross-dresser who so upstaged the other Bryan in Roxy Music. But more recently they have conspired to create something that could only disappoint this long-time fan of their work. I don’t refer to Eno’s collaboration with the unbearably awful Coldplay; or to the fact that Byrne is as likely to be found these days designing bicycle racks as making groundbreaking music. (They are actually rather lovely.)

No, it is their politics, or ‘beyond politics’ as Eno puts it, and their uncharacteristic eagerness to jump on the Israel-bashing bandwagon, that really grates. Even if, assuming the latest ceasefire holds, the bombardment of Gaza looks to be coming to an end. Thankfully. In a letter to his American friends – including and initiallly published by Byrne on his website under the title ‘Gaza and the loss of civilization’, and latterly in The Independent – Eno despairs at an America that he thinks should be doing more to save Palestinian children from Israeli bombs. The reference to horrific images of children where an argument should be is not only shamelessly emotive and dangerously simple-minded, but it is a cynical way of encouraging the mighty Western powers to throw their weight around too. All under the cover of a peacable intent with regards the Palestinians who also, as it happens, are portrayed as vulnerable and child-like in their helpless suffering. With government ministers resigning, and trade embargos against Israel being considered, one wonders if these one-time rock stars just miss the limelight a little too much to care about the consequences of their pontificating on things about which they know not much. While Byrne, at least, has the good sense to acknowledge that ‘no one has the moral high ground’ on Gaza, Eno has no such reservations only – astonishingly, given his very public statement on the matter – admitting his ignorance: ‘I really don’t get it and I wish I did.’

Not that his lack of understanding matters much. His outburst is not about Israelis or Palestinians, it’s about people like him. And the fact that he doesn’t recognise, as he puts it, this America in his no doubt duly flattered ‘compassionate, broadminded, creative, eclectic, tolerant and generous’ friends across the water. Eno is not only nauseatingly self-aggrandising on behalf of this once trailblazing set. The letter is the political equivalent of post-Punk Byrne renouncing his opposition to lengthy guitar solos; and legendary producer Eno working with the likes of Coldplay. (Okay, so he already did that.) It is that slavish in its adherence to the wrong-headedly commonplace. It is also, ironically enough, an example of the dangerous combination of emoting, cluelessness and self-important meddling that keeps their respective countries recklessly posturing about such far-away conflicts too.

First published in Huffington Post

There is more to welfare than a broken IT system


The implementation of the government’s Universal Credit, already proceeding ‘carefully’ according to welfare minister Lord Freud, is now slowing to a crawl with just one new area joining the scheme this month. By now it was supposed to be well on the way to a national roll-out. Instead, it continues to be dogged by the difficulties with the project mismanagement of an IT system subject to scathing criticisms from the National Audit Office and the parliamentary public accounts committee.

So far just a few thousand people are claiming the new benefit that merges six means-tested working-age benefits and tax credits. It will, once it is eventually rolled-out across the country (still scheduled for 2017), affect something like 8 million households. One might reasonably ask whether it makes much sense spending tens of millions of pounds on a gigantic and failing technical solution to what is a deeply ingrained cultural (as much as an economic) problem? In order to ‘make work pay’ (let alone save a projected £38 billion), the government are going to need more than a computer system no matter how big or clever it gets; if they are going to undo the damage done by a welfare state that maintains millions of people, including entire communities, in a state of miserable, unproductive passivity. But it seems the critics too are missing this most fundamental of points

Despite one controversy after another about how ministers are calling benefit claimants names (‘scroungers’, ‘shirkers’, etc); or how ‘the vulnerable’ are being victimised by the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, the work programme, and anything else to do with the reform of the welfare system; there is next to no debate about the underlying substantive issues. It is the implementation, not the rationale, of Universal Credit that comes in for most criticism. So not only have the critics delighted in anticipating the inevitable problems with the ‘over-ambitious’ IT system; they also like nothing more than to anticipate the inadequacies of the supposed beneficiaries of the shiny new benefit. It is outrageous to expect claimants to apply online because they just won’t understand it, or to expect them to get their money monthly (rather than weekly) because they are too feckless to manage it properly. Such are the arguments used by the supposed defenders of the welfare dependent.

Indeed what both sides seem to have in common is contempt for those entangled in the welfare net. While blaming welfare claimants for the mess won’t do, nor will the patronising words of commentators and lobbyists who worry over the inadequacies of those in need of little more than a job. For all the venom directed at benefit claimants on the one hand, and at incompetent political managerialists on the other; there is little prospect of an end to dependency and worklessness, or of the government’s failure to tackle it being properly exposed.  What is really outrageous is that rather than having an argument about the rights and wrongs of welfare, both sides are projecting the welfare problem onto the supposed deficiencies of individual claimants – whether they blame them or feel sorry for them.

First published in Institute of Opinion