Talkin’ ‘bout my generation. The luckiest one that ever lived but the most derided and despised…
‘Ok boomer’ is the go-to putdown of today’s kids who aren’t alright and blame us for it. Why don’t we all just faaade away as Pete Townshend of The Who once sang, teasing his audience with a very long ffffff which they knew was intended to be a very different word.
Yes my generation was an incredibly lucky one. Who among us would deny being born into the new welfare state was an amazing stroke of luck. Things taken for granted now which were revolutionary at the time. Imagine before the NHS getting sick and not daring to call the doctor or an ambulance because you couldn’t afford it. Or having to leave school at 14 and start work; even younger if you lived in a rural area and were needed on the farm.
In 1938, around 80 per cent of children left school at 14, most having only received a very basic education. Fewer than one in every 100 made it to university. By the early 1960s not only were university tuition fees paid but most students got non-repayable maintenance grants. That said, very few actually made it to university or any form of higher education – about seven per cent in the 1960s. However there were plenty jobs and teens were eager to get out and earn money. So yes, we had it so good as then newly-appointed prime minister Harold MacMillan said in 1957. But is that our fault? Can you blame a person for where and when they were born?
The ‘ok boomer’ retort dismisses us not for our views nor our experiences but purely because we’re old. It’s nasty ageism cloaked in woke. Supremely ironic coming from a generation that preaches about inclusiveness. And it’s nothing new. We too dismissed our parents’ generation because we knew it all. Such is the nature of being young.
Were our lives really so great? Yes there were plenty of jobs which meant good wages. You could walk out of a job on a Friday afternoon and walk into another on a Monday. No HR departments, no CVs, no long, protracted and often humiliating recruitment process just, “Can you start straightway?” And this wasn’t confined to the middle class office worker. My partner worked in mills in the 1960s. When he walked out of one job the owner came round to his house and begged him to return. But once the novelty of earning a wage wore off for most babyboomers a life of dead-end work and drudgery is all they could look forward to. A good wage at 15 wasn’t so great at 25 or 30.
Our spending power drove youth culture in the 1950s and 60s. But we often faced loathing from our elders. They’d been through a great depression then a long war which saw much deprivation, dislocation and huge loss of life. Whereas we emerged into a bright new world that needed our labour and wanted our money. Some felt angry as they watched our freedoms and remembered the severe curtailments of theirs when they were young.
Corporal punishment wasn’t just acceptable throughout schools it was positively encouraged. Tell your parents you’d been hit by a teacher and chances were they’d hit you too because “you must’ve done something to deserve it.” The friendly bobby on the beat was also free to hit you with no comeback. Kids who committed minor crimes could be removed from their families and sent away to approved schools serving a far longer sentence for the same offence than a convicted adult. There were also borstals, bullying at which is too terrifying to contemplate. And from 1950, the reported crime rate rose quite significantly – in an age of supposed plenty.
A generation of teachers who’d been through the war never stopped telling us how lucky we were. If you fell over you were told to stop sniffing and get up. “We lived through the war” they bellowed at us as we rubbed bloody knees and grazed elbows. Praise was anathema. It would make you “too big for your boots!” However well you did, you could’ve done better and why hadn’t you?
Most kids went to secondary modern schools of often poor quality. There were no league tables, no national curriculum and only religious instruction was compulsory. No parental choice either; you just went to the school down the road. It was pot luck if you got a decent education. Class sizes frequently topped 40, teachers were free to belt you, throw hard objects at you and humiliate you. They were feared as a result but rarely respected. Child-centred learning? Child-centred bullying more like. We’ve all got horrendous tales to tell. No safe spaces for us!
Many of those teachers came back from the war carrying deep scars. So did our families. Some, like my partner’s uncle, had been at the liberation of a concentration camp or like a schoolfriend of mine, had a father who’d been a prisoner of war in Singapore. After living through that, it’s understandable some of the generation above us felt bitter watching our carefree lives unhindered by war.
But we had The Cold War and the attendant threat of nuclear annihilation. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam and the Biafran War all came into our living rooms nightly via our TVs. Our lives weren’t without major concerns. And National Service didn’t end till 1962.
We had it so good? What, all of us? We’re a massive demographic. The very term babyboomer derives from the huge birth rate in the immediate post-war years. We didn’t all buy a house in Islington in 1966 for a few hundred quid then see its value rise to several million a few decades later. Many babyboomers never even owned their own home because while wages were good they weren’t that good taken across a whole lifetime.
That said today’s younger generations have much to complain about. Forced into uni if they want any kind of decent job, forced into huge debt to pay for it. And now an inevitable depression following the Covid pandemic and lockdown. Yes we boomers had many things today’s young people don’t. But we also had many things I wouldn’t wish on any generation.
So can we stop carping at each other across the age divide? Aren’t there enough divides already? You envy us the easy lives you think we had? We envy your youth, your lives ahead of you while the best years of ours are nearly over or we face long years ahead caring for or being cared for, or both. A chilling prospect. You think you’re getting a rotten deal? You’re right. You are. But ageist prejudice won’t change anything. Whereas working together just might. And least we’re not forever telling you we fought a war for your lot and you should be endlessly grateful.
Photo credit: Paul Fanlund