by Dani Garavelli
Published Date: 12 October 2008
WHAT did they expect, those researchers who were paid public money to
investigate what former hippies are up to in retirement? A die-hard
band of sagging baby-boomers, still smoking dope and playing guitar
in the nude? A commune of Pete Seeger-loving pensioners, who wear
flowers in their comb-overs and head straight from their hip ops to
roll in the mud at Glastonbury?
Perhaps they hoped the third-agers they interviewed would reveal
their weekly tea dance was a hotbed of free love and sedition; or
that their plans for their old age included touring Vietnam in a
motor-home with only a mattress to sleep on (an orthopaedic mattress,
obviously – some of them have bad backs).
What the team, led by Dr Rebecca Leach at Keele University, found
was, unsurprisingly, a lot more prosaic. Old hippies, apparently,
spend a lot of time thinking about home improvements. They like
saving for holidays and even – wait for it – going for long walks.
And as for alternative medicine, they have abandoned it in favour of
conventional treatments, presumably on the grounds that when your
health is failing you prefer something that actually works.
The researchers were shocked by the results, although not, I suspect,
as shocked as they will be when their next study reveals that former
punk rockers no longer have Mohicans and belt out "I am the
Antichrist..." round the office watercooler. Or that Sex Pistols
frontman John Lydon is now singing the praises of butter in a TV
advert (actually, that is quite shocking).
Implicit in the report's findings, or at least in the reaction of
others to them, is the notion that in opting for a quiet,
conventional old age, former hippies have turned into their parents;
that by embracing the conformity they once spurned, they have sold out.
It's true most of us know some-time drop-outs who now buy their
Grateful Dead albums in presentation CD box sets, get their highs
from fine claret and moan about how much the Government takes off
them in taxes.
And if we don't actually know them, then we see their more famous
counterparts on the television or newspapers, using forums they once
held in contempt as platforms for their enormous egos, or getting
into bed with global brands. Germaine Greer enters the Big Brother
house; Bob Dylan strikes a deal with Starbucks; and the story of Oz
magazine is turned into a Hollywood movie.
It's easy to be cynical, too, about the legacy of the spaced-out
generation which set out to change the world, particularly just now
as the ills of capitalism are laid bare by the economic downturn.
There's nothing very counter-culture about worrying about the rise
and fall in share prices.
And yet the society we find ourselves in today is radically different
to the one in which our hippy forebears grew up – and many of the
changes were wrought by them. At the time they were first divesting
themselves of their clothes and their preconceptions, women did all
the housework, everyone at the BBC had an RP accent and people still
talked about "living in sin".
Today, those principles at the core of the hippy revolution – freedom
of speech, sexual equality and cultural and religious tolerance – are
enshrined in legislation: sexual and racial discrimination have been
outlawed, and abortion, quickie divorces and civil partnerships are
taken for granted. Far from being jettisoned, hippy values have been
incorporated into the mainstream.
Loud music, casual relationships, even drugs are no longer the
hallmarks of the rebel, but part of the fabric of everyday life.
Unmarried couples have children without stigma, gay people hold high
office, and in the US, where society has been divided on racial
rather than class lines, we may soon have the first black president.
Admittedly, not too many old hippies still live in remote
collectives, but virtual communities are thriving. And as for the
"ruling class" – its borders have been opened to all-comers, so that
when Paul McCartney accepts a knighthood, it's not so much a sign
that he is embracing the establishment, than that the establishment
has expanded to include the likes of him.
There are those who have managed to stay true to their youthful
ideals. The journalist Duncan Campbell, for example, still rails
against injustice; alternative director Ken Loach has gone on making
his edgy, counter-culture films.
But isn't it a bit harsh to brand the others – the ones who espoused
the "property is theft" credo but are now sitting pretty in detached
houses with their mortgages paid off; or who eschewed marriage as a
form of legalised slavery, but recently celebrated their ruby wedding
anniversaries – as hypocrites?
Unless you are creative, it's almost impossible to extract yourself
from the strictures of society and still make a contribution. But in
my experience, those hippies who settled down to an ordinary family
life are still possessed of a social and political conscience: they
go on anti-war rallies; help out at soup kitchens; become prison visitors.
The study, published by the Economic and Social Research Council last
week, may claim to have found that "most (first-wave baby-boomers]
have fairly modest aspirations, hoping, at best, to maintain current
lifestyles and activities", but what does this tell us except that we
all grow old in the end?
The beatniks and the hippies didn't sell out, they moulded society
unto themselves. Is it really so bad if, having done so, all they
want now is to sit back and let other generations and sub-cultures do
their bit to change the world?