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