‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’. Almost forty years after the deeply conservative poet Philip Larkin wrote these words about what parents do to your character, another conservative has come along with the idea that that’s not the only thing which mum and dad have screwed-up - there’s social and economic life too. Baby Boomers have fashioned the world around them to serve their needs at the expense of their children. Is he right? Why has this happened? Does it matter? What can be done?
David Willetts, the paymaster-general in the last Conservative government, has served in the present Shadow Cabinet for over a decade with responsibility for education, work and pensions. On this basis we might expect that his book would have much to contribute to this debate. Sadly, this isn’t quite the case.
First, is Willetts right? Are the Baby Boomers - that is, children born between 1945 and 1965 - to blame for the fact that the present generation of young people are saddled with debt, do badly in the employment market and have a poor chance of getting on the property ladder? This seems doubtful, to say the least. It was the generations immediately preceding the Baby Boomers who - quite understandably - after two back-breaking world wars and the Depression wanted a socio-economic blow-out and got it. The 1950s were the years of ‘never had it so good’, full employment, jobs for life, cradle-to-grave welfare and go-for-it spending captured by the 1959 film I’m All Right, Jack, a satire on greed-fuelled industrial disputes, and ridiculed in Jack Trevor Story’s 1963 novel Live Now, Pay Later.
Hire purchase and the consumer society it symbolised opened-up a whole new world where - aided by the appliance of science - people could have white goods on the ‘never-never’. Roads started to fillwith cars, televisions and fridges began to appear in houses. This spending bonanza intermittently wobbled between the mid 1960s and late 1970s, the era of set-piece labour disputes and the 1973 oil crisis following the Yom Kippur War. But memory of it never dimmed, and it resumed at full strength with the Reagan-Thatcher years. The economic model represented by Mrs Thatcher’s thrifty housewife image was soon eclipsed by that of Madonna, the Material Girl.
The Baby Boomers simply continued what their parents had started - although jettisoning the full-employment culture in order to help maximize profits - whilst the recessions which occurred in this period were regarded as blips on the way to a continually brighter future until the present credit crunch made people question capitalism, at least in its present form. And - having grown up in a culture where unending growth was taken for granted - that was hardly surprising. If Baby Boomers are to blame it is, arguably, for not thinking about the consequences of the previous generations’ economic and social policies and allowing a culture to develop where the British economy became almost wholly dependent on financial services, shopping and property as sources of income.
But does it really matter if Baby Boomers’ kids are having it rough? Willets only gets to grips with this question about midway thorough the book after having given a generally glowing account of Anglo-Saxon economic development with its emphasis on rugged individualism and people making their own way in the world. He acknowledges - and seems to lament - the rise of what Tom Wolfe has called the ‘Me Generation’ (although the white-suited sage doesn’t get the name-check from Willetts that he deserves) along with the break-up of the traditional family. He doesn’t examine why those social changes came around or question whether they were, to any degree, a good thing. You feel that Willetts is trying to ride two horses going in opposite directions here: he wants to defend individualism without lamenting when it seems to go too far, and he regrets the passing of the old (unquestioned) order of monarchy, church, state, parents and other authority figures (which acted as a sort of check on unbridled individualism and provided a secure social framework) whilst desperately wishing to avoid being seen as a backwoodsman Tory rather than a
progressive Notting Hill Cameroon.
So, although Willets doubtless has genuine concern for the problems faced by the children of Baby Boomers, he also doubtless has equally strong concerns about the current widespread disillusion with political and financial institutions which is all the more pressing with an election due at any moment. He wants to restore faith in these institutions without acknowledging that they were, on the whole, quite happy to go along with the general socio-economic status quo - where everyone assumed that money would breed money indefinitely - that obtained until the credit-crunch started to bite. Indeed, there is no hint in his account of the uncomfortable fact that anyone questioning that status quo would have been regarded as at best a puritanical party-pooper or, at worst, as seriously subverting the immutably established economic order.
What does Willetts suggest as a way out of the current situation? If generations care for each other, then future generations will copy them, and pass on good, caring behaviour to generations yet unborn. He reminds us that ‘If people have to make sacrifices, they are most willing to do so if it is for future generations’. Well, yes. All good theoretical stuff that’s OK as far as it goes. But what does this mean in practical terms other than contributions from the bank of mum and dad? Little is said here. He picks up a few ideas, such as feminism having trumped egalitarianism or that British teenagers are left to be unusually dependent on their friends and peers, and briefly examines them like a gold prospector quickly perusing stones then tossing them away rather than subjecting them to close and, perhaps, disquieting examination.
This reticence for analysis is unsurprising. If things are to improve for future generations, some harsh decisions will need to be made about economic restructuring, the revival of competitive industries, the nature and content of education at all levels and raising adult involvement in the supervision of children and teenagers rather than condoning peer-group dumbing-down. With an election in the offing, Willetts understandably wants to avoid the risk of scaring-off potential voters or - if things go wrong for the Conservatives - being blamed for having advocated policies which have contributed to electoral defeat.
But can Willetts afford himself the luxury of reticence? This book is not just about a supposed inter-generational conflict. It’s really about the state of the nation. This topic should not invite despair, but nor should it simply breed good - but insubstantial – intentions. Seventy years ago, when the nation faced far greater dangers than it does today, another Conservative politician did not hesitate to spell out a necessary future of blood, toil, tears and sweat: the outcome of this risky frankness was victory. Willetts may, one day be haunted by the unintended message of this book. And that is that opaqueness, however understandable, is no match for spelling-out hard truths.