Wednesday 14 July 2010

Deference and defeatism vs. youth revolution.

When I closed the final pages of Francis Beckett's new book, ‘What Did The Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us?’, I found myself shaking with indignation. The book, which lays out an incisive case for how my parents generation “squandered the good times” and betrayed the courage of the Attlee settlement, is flawed and uneven in many ways, but it makes at least one important observation. “The sixties generation,” says Beckett, “reinstalled the deference it rejected.” In other words, our mums and dads were free to get angry with adults, dabble in revolutionary politics and demand respect and attention, but heaven help Generation Y if we fail to comply with the grown-ups’ view of the world.

When I look at the defeated deference with which my generation treats its elders, I want to take young people by their collective shoulders and shake them. The young are in the process of being screwed over in a variety of cold and creative ways by an age group who are richer, freer and more powerful than any generation this country has seen or is likely to see again, and yet we have so far failed to come up with any sort of collective response to indignities that the baby boomers simply would not have stood for when they were young.

It’s conceivable that our parents love us, in their own special way, but that hasn't stopped them from mortgaging our futures and selling off all the privileges that they took for granted - the jobs, the safe places to live, the affordable housing, the free education and the security of a generous and supportive welfare state. The fact that our parents had all of these things allowed them to produce a sustained cultural rebellion that was, in many ways, genuinely socially transformative. The fact that we have none of them makes us timid, compliant and tragically quick to accept compromise.

I find myself dying a little inside, for example, whenever I hear a bright young liberal telling me that they're supporting Ed Miliband for Labour leader. I have nothing against Ed Miliband, but that's just the problem: the most decisive thing I've heard said about Ed Miliband by the next generation of the British left is that they've nothing against him. When I ask them why, they generally look awkward, mumble something about progressive ideas, and then say: he's a nice guy, and he’s quite good on the environment, he’s a good compromise for Labour supporters from across the spectrum, and hey, he wasn’t around to vote in favour of the Iraq war.

And then they do that awful little smile, that hard, tight little smile forced up at the corners with those wide, willing eyes, the smile of submission and desperation, the expression I've seen on young people's faces so many times since the credit crisis crunched down on our futures, the expression I've worn myself at countless job interviews, and they say: 'and at least he's not as bad as any of the others.'

When our parents were young, Beckett reminds us, some of them not only dared to imagine alternatives to militarism but demonstrated to demand a politics that reflected their ideals rather than those of the overculture. By contrast, I was there when this video, which features prominently on Miliband junior’s campaign website, was being shot. Wait for the final three seconds: the young volunteer does the smile, and then delivers the line ‘go, Ed’ as mournfully as if he were speaking at a memorial service for a spirit of generational rebellion that crumpled at some point in the mid 1990s and inoffensively, quietly died.

Why does my generation seem so spineless? Fear is the reason, rather than lack of fervor. We all know what’s going on, but we blanch at asking for the rights and respect our parents enjoyed because we’ve all seen what happened to those of our classmates and university friends who didn’t play the game, smile on cue, pass the exams every year and give the grown-ups what they wanted. For the baby boomers, as Beckett astutely observes, the risks of rebellion were far lower than they are for us: rejecting your parents’ rules is far easier when you can rely on full employment, a supportive welfare state, free higher education and a culture that respects and nurtures young talent to catch you when you fall through the net.

Both of my parents are working-class kids who quit school during their A-levels, and both are now wealthy, property-owning professionals, as are many of their friends who spent the 1970s doing drugs, playing music and rearranging the world to suit their ideals. How many of today’s impoverished drop-outs will be able to say the same in forty years?

“We were young in a kinder society,” Beckett pronounces of his generation. “If we really meant any of the things we said in the sixties, about peace, about education, about freedom, we would have created a better world for our children to grow up in.” Today’s young people decline to openly reject our parents, because most of us have no other option, but we know perfectly well that we’ve been had. Whether or not we continue to bite off our resentment behind forced smiles is up to us.


  1. Lordy. A penny piece with some truth in it !

    But I think you're being a tad unfair on Mom and Pop. At least they bothered to have kids. The salient feature of my generation is the number who didn't.

    The root cause of all the distressing social symptoms you accurately describe is the glorious Cultural Revolution that was indeed 'genuinely socially transformative'. The results of that transformation, both good and bad, are before our eyes.

    Alas I have to go to work. Here's

    Why UK capitalism could live with the Cultural Revolution.

    And two CiF debates on the post-60s disaster with am interesting lefty academic sociologist.



  2. Re your Grauniad piece, where you point out, "A recent British Social Attitudes survey found that people's perception of benefit claimants as a drain on the state lessened considerably when they were told how low out-of-work benefits really are (£51.62 per week for a single person under 25)."

    What can we expect the public to think when newspapers (I think it was the "Express" this time) claim they have spoken to a 17 year old lad who is getting £90 per week JSA with no questions asked? They were clearly lying about the amount he was getting (unless there was something they hadn't told us) and about the "no questions asked" bit of it. But I read it and then went on to think about something else.

    Agree re France and veil.

  3. "Today’s young people decline to openly reject our parents, because most of us have no other option, but we know perfectly well that we’ve been had."

    Reject our parents how exactly? Personally, I agree with my parents on most things. I enjoy their company. I know there are many who might not, but sometimes you just have to rub along with people you might not like/agree with.

    "The fact that our parents had all of these things allowed them to produce a sustained cultural rebellion that was, in many ways, genuinely socially transformative."

    Who did what exactly and how was it transformative? I'm sincerely curious, because as far as I gather a lot of what da yoot did in the sixties consisted of taking drugs, protesting against things, and loafing about. Nothing wrong with any of that of course, but then consider that a lot of the genuinely major things that happened in the sixties (i.e. things that cause the Sun/Daily Heil to identify the decade with everything they despise about society today) were not actually accomplished by baby boomers at all but by politicians like Roy Jenkins.

    Also I'd like some data on numbers and proportion (again, this is a genuinely sincere request). How many and what proportion of young people were how much better off back in (e.g.) the sixties compared with today? In which specific ways were they better off?

    Because didn't a much smaller proportion go to university? And didn't a much larger proportion go into unpleasant, manual labour in factories compared with today? How big/small a minority were the counter-culturalists?

    If the answers lie in Beckett's book I will certainly have a read of it. In fact, I'll probably have a look anyway.

    So yeah. What exactly am I supposed to be rejecting? And how exactly am I being screwed (in terms of pounds [shillings] and pence yifyouplease).

    And more generally what exactly did the counterculture accomplish that wasn't, at root, allowed by Jenkin's 'more civilized society'.


  4. your parents probably worked and saved for forty years to get 'wealthy'. And in the same way my parents got rich they profited by their labour and a lovely dose of housing inflation. My parents bought their house in the early 70s for about 3,00 quid and now its worth about 300,00. They both worked full-time. Are you going to deny them their pennies for all that effort they made?

    So many people want that money now .. without the effort. You can't get it doing nothing... or maybe not... inheritance. There's loads of opportunity. As the Chinese say, "If you think you're so clever then why aren't you rich?" No excuses, get your arse into gear.

  5. Seens as you're reviewing all posts, I'd like to take the chance to have a real chat with you. E-mail me at and check my awful blog at Obviously I don't you to make this post public. So, get back to me if you have a chance. Take it easy.

  6. "the most decisive thing I've heard said about Ed Miliband by the next generation of the British left is that they've nothing against him."

    Maybe you should listen to his policies, instead of opinion. Formulate your own position. This dismissive attitude toward your own generation, is the exact attitude they face from older generations that has led to

    Are you questioning whether EM is passionate about politics? Are you suggesting that EM supporters are misguided, scared, harmless, disinterested voters with no ability to formulate their own opinions based upon policy, while simply picking a harmless candidate looking for an easy ride? If EM is the candidate for the scared because we are all motivated by fear Who are you suggesting as the catalyst to this great mobilisation plan you have? I'd rather have a candidate based around substance rather than simply motivated by passion, Galloway anyone? What do you want EM supporters to flip DM's car? Smash EB's windows?You criticise but don't seem to offer another solution.

  7. Can anyone actually get passionate about any of the Labour leadership candidates? The situation you suggest for EM could be projected onto any candidate.

  8. I would suggest that instead of criticising those who actually support a candidate, you direct your criticism at the vast amount of my generation who are either disinterested/uninterested and then formulate your argument. You're blog is given great support from this perspective.

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