08 January 2010
The baby boomers had everything free education, free health care
and remarkable personal liberties but they squandered it all. Now
their children are paying for it
The baby boomers were a golden generation. Rich people have always
had opportunities, but for the ordinary man and woman there had never
been a time of hope and opportunity like the one we baby boomers
inherited. We were the Beveridge generation. The 1942 Beveridge
report called for the abolition of the "five giants" - want,
ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness. Between 1945 and 1951,
despite a war-ruined economy, the Attlee government took Beveridge as
its agenda and set about the first systematic assault on each of the giants.
Baby boomers were born between the end of the war in 1945 and Winston
Churchill's resignation as prime minister in 1955, and the world they
grew up in was shaped by Beveridge. We baby boomers had everything.
First, and most important, we had education. Before the Second World
War, almost a third of Britons could not read or write. Many of those
who could write did so slowly and haltingly, as one performs a
complicated and unaccustomed task. My grandmother, born in the 1880s,
was a rather wise old lady, so I remember the sense of shock I felt
when, as a teenager, I received a letter from her and realised she
wrote like a five-year-old. We, Britain's baby boomers, are the first
generation in which pretty well everyone can read and write fairly fluently.
We were the first generation for which university education was not a
privilege of wealth. In the Sixties, for the first time, proletarian
and regional accents were heard throughout the British university
system, and (except in a few backward-looking institutions) their
owners were no longer made to feel out of place. We grew up at a time
when, as Neil Kinnock told the Labour party conference in 1987, he
was "the first Kinnock in a thousand generations" to have the chance
to better himself.
The idea that one might have to pay for education, at any level,
seemed to us primitive and backward-looking. In the Thirties, my
grandmother used to save pennies in a tin in her kitchen, fearfully
guarding against the day when one of her children might require
medical attention. In the week that the National Health Service was
inaugurated in 1948, GPs' surgeries were overwhelmed with patients
whose painful and often life-threatening conditions had never been
treated or even shown to a doctor. When we baby boomers were ill, we
expected, as a right, the best treatment available. Paying for it
never occurred to us.
There was full employment, and the slums were torn down and replaced
with council housing, built to Aneurin Bevan's high standard. And
what did we do with this extraordinary inheritance that had eluded
our ancestors, and that an earlier generation had worked and fought to give us?
We trashed it.
We trashed it because we did not value it. We trashed it because we
knew no history, so we thought our new freedoms were the natural
order of things. It was as though we decided that the freedom and
lack of worry that we had inherited was too good for our children,
and we pulled up the ladder we had climbed.
Coping with choice
What was wrong with us? Partly it was that our parents gave us our
freedom, but they did not educate us for freedom.
Our schooling may have been free and universal, and it may have given
us numeracy and literacy, but it did not give us the equipment to
cope with choice. The schools of the Fifties taught us to doff our
caps and do as we were told. Teachers, more commonly called masters
and mistresses, taught us respect for our "elders and betters".
It was not an education suited to a generation with aspiration, full
employment and freedom, and when we came out of our schools, these
things dazzled us. It was like imprisoning a man for 15 years in a
deep, dark dungeon, then letting him into the sunlight and telling
him he could go where he liked and do what he liked, and that any
luxury he demanded would be served up to him.
Schools in the Fifties were staffed, more often than not, by chalky
pedagogues in academic gowns, who worked in grim, looming old
buildings steeped in history - the sort of history that oppresses,
not the sort that enlightens. Our schools gave us the past, not as
something living from which we might learn, but as a dead weight: the
weight of lists of kings and queens and the dates between which they
reigned, which it was our miserable task to memorise.
Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That was a very popular parody of
the way history was taught, which is why, even though it was first
published before the war, it sold so well in the Fifties. The book
offered "all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5
Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates". It offered simplistic divisions: this
or that king was a Good Man but a Bad Thing, or the other way round.
It explained that there are two Dates (with an upper-case D) in
British history - 1066 and 1485. And it was true: history did not get
much beyond 1485 in Fifties schools, certainly not far enough to
include 1914, for example, or 1939; often not even far enough to
include 1815, for anything recent and real to us was not a proper
subject for the classroom.
Schools reflected Fifties society. The Fifties were the most
buttoned-down decade of the 20th century. It was a world in which
people knew their place and thought the higher-ups were always right.
It did so because Britons had not adapted to the freedoms of the
post-Beveridge world. For the first time, the young had choices, but
their elders acted as though there were still no choices. The baby
boomers grew up into a marvellous world, which disguised itself as a
Our parents' generation tried to give us a classless society to stop
us from being burdened by the oppressive English class system. But
our education reflected the class system. It was, paradoxically, the
Education Act of 1944 - a great, liberating piece of legislation that
made education universal - which also embedded the British class
system into the British education system. For its legacy was three
classes of school, precisely matching the three classes in society -
upper, middle and working.
In the Fifties there were fee-charging schools (public schools) for
future managing directors, grammar schools for middle managers and
professionals, and secondary modern schools for those who were
destined to spend their lives at the bottom of the class heap.
It's true that many middle-class people in the Fifties scrimped and
saved to send their children to fee-charging schools; they did so in
the hope that their children would mix with those who were a cut
above them and move up a class. They did it, not to end the class
system, but because they saw a chance of shifting their family's
place within it. Middle-class men who had been patronised all their
lives saw the chance to see their children doing the patronising.
In the Sixties and Seventies, the baby boomers emerged from this
wretched school system into a world where, blessedly and
unexpectedly, they were allowed to think for themselves and defer to
no one. It was a world that was freer, fresher, fairer and infinitely
more fun than the one they had been taught to expect. After being
taught that everything was sacred, they found that nothing was
sacred. Naturally, they assumed that their parents and teachers had
been lying to them, that everything was a lot easier than they had
been taught to expect. They did not understand that the world they
had been taught to expect was the one in which their parents had
lived out cramped, poverty-stricken lives.
That, perhaps, is why the guiding principle of the Sixties was
contempt for the old and the middle-aged. "I hope I die before I get
old," sang Pete Townshend. The Beatles made cruel mockery of the
poverty and limited aspirations of their parents in "When I'm
Sixty-Four". Bob Dylan told the old to get out of the way and let the
young build a new society, "for the times, they are a-changing".
Caricature of a Blimp
Now, if everything done by earlier generations was rubbish, what were
the baby boomers to make of the Attlee settlement, which made Sixties
and Seventies lifestyles possible? The generation settled happily
into two camps on the matter. One held that the post-Beveridge "nanny
state" had stifled initiative and entrepreneurship and that the
Attlee settlement was a disaster. The other held that Attlee had not
gone far enough and had unforgivably blown the chance to create the
socialist nirvana: the Attlee settlement was a disaster. Beveridge,
they pointed out sniffily, was a Liberal.
What united the baby boomers was that almost none of them learned to
value the extraordinary legacy they had. None of them fought to
protect it, and today most of them sneer at it, either from the left
or from the right. The right says that it was grossly irresponsible
of our postwar leaders to put the nation to the expense of educating,
housing, employing and feeding the poor, because the nation could not
afford it. The left says that Attlee betrayed the working class by
not going further. Neither side cares about what was achieved, and
neither can be bothered to defend it.
None of which stopped them from using their new freedoms to make a
good life for themselves. Most of the men and women who made New
Labour and rose to high office with it are baby boomers; some of
them, like Jack Straw and Charles Clarke, were student leaders in the
Sixties and Seventies.
Just two baby boomers rose to be prime minister, Tony Blair and
Gordon Brown, both authentic figures of the Sixties and Seventies.
(Blair's immediate predecessor, John Major, is two years too old to
be a baby boomer, and the next prime minister after Brown will
certainly be too young.)
Others who stuck with the revolution they had proclaimed in the
Sixties, and through the Seventies and Eighties, squeezed the life
out of it with the dead weight of intolerance and sectarianism, so
that today the far left is exclusive, inward-looking and unable to
affect anything in the real world.
Yet others turned on the Sixties with a holy vengeance and became
caricatures of the Blimpish folk their parents had once been,
condemning the excesses of the Sixties, demanding less freedom for
young people and more freedom for big corporations.
They have this in common: that in place of the great ideals of the
Attlee government, they all, in their different ways, idealised
newness, youth and modernity. The baby boomers created a society
where the ultimate good lay in being new and young, and modern and
new, especially new - which, ironically, is why there will be no
other baby-boomer prime ministers after Brown.
The baby boomers are hoist by their own petard. They put an end, at
least for the foreseeable future, to the days when Churchill could
become prime minister and save the nation when he was nearly 70; when
Attlee could form a great reforming government at the age of 62; when
Harold Macmillan could start one of the most successful premierships
Britain has ever experienced at the age of 62. They created a society
in which a Liberal Democrat leader such as Menzies Campbell could be
drummed out of office aged 66 for the crime of being as old as
Macmillan and Attlee were when they formed their last governments,
though considerably younger than Churchill or Gladstone.
That the baby boomers are now all too old ever again to be trusted
with the nation's affairs is entirely our fault. It was we who
created the cult of youth. In the Sixties, we thought that under our
tutelage the world was going to get better. But we created a far
worse world, a harsher world where our children have to be coldly,
miserably realistic in a way that we did not, a world in which the
self-indulgences that we took as of right are unavailable to them.
We, the baby boomers, used up the economic good times, when there was
work for everyone. We used up the educational good times, when free
education extended to universities and we, unlike our children, did
not have to amass a mountain of debt in order to go to university. We
used up the time when education was seen as a good in itself, rather
than the acquisition of skills required to swell someone else's
profits. In June 2009, the government's department for higher
education was abolished, and its responsibilities placed under the
department dealing with business and industry, a pretty good
indication of what ministers now think education is for.
We used up the time when progressive educationalists were starting to
question the idea of school as a machine for cramming facts into
young minds. New Labour - the government of the baby boomers - has
built a new straitjacket for our children's schools.
We used up the time when the Second World War was fresh enough in the
memory for war to be seen as an evil, never to be entered into
lightly. That is why Prime Minister Harold Wilson saved the baby
boomers from having to fight beside young Americans in Vietnam,
though they gave him little thanks for it. When the baby-boomer
generation formed a government, its first prime minister, Tony Blair,
told lies to the young so that he could send them to die alongside
the Americans in Iraq.
Religion, royalty, government: nothing was sacrosanct in the Sixties,
and everything could be questioned. But we used up the time when
nothing was sacred. The age of deference seemed to be over, yet the
baby boomers, who now run things, have seen how useful deference in
for the governing class and are bringing it back as fast as they can.
The freedoms we fought for, we have rushed to deny to our children.
We once thought our children would grow up into a far better world
than the one in which we reached adulthood. They didn't.