Francis Beckett

My baby boomers book is out tomorrow (Monday) with a stark and unpopular message for my own generation.

It says that the baby boomers saw themselves as pioneers of a new world – freer, fresher, fairer and infinitely more fun. But the world they made for their children to live in is a far harsher one than the world they inherited.

Sixties radicalism decayed fast. It decayed, not because it was groundless, but because it was not grounded. What began as the most radical-sounding generation for half a century turned into a random collection of youthful style gurus who thought the revolution was about fashion; sharp-toothed entrepreneurs and management consultants who believed revolution meant new ways of selling things; and Thatcherites, who thought freedom meant free markets, not free people. At last it decayed into New Labour, which had no idea what either revolution or freedom meant, but rather liked the sound of the words.

The young in the wsixties thought New Jerusalem was round the corner, its arrival hindered only by the conservatism of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. They did not realise that they were living in New Jerusalem; that it would all be downhill from then on; and that their generation, which benefited from this dazzling array of freedoms, would, within twenty years, destroy them.

Nor did they realise – for they had never heard of Tony Blair – how lucky they were to have Wilson to hate. Without Wilson, the baby boomers might well have had to fight and die in Vietnam, for a lesser Prime Minister could have been cowed by President Lyndon Johnson and America’s power to cripple Britain’s economy. 

For the first time since the second world war, there was money, there was safe sex, there was freedom, and no one bothered to stop and think with what misery these things had been bought by earlier generations, for the baby boomers rather despised the past, a small faraway country of which they knew little. Most of the baby boomers hardly realised the privations of their parents, and the struggle that had taken place to ensure that they were not equally deprived.

Before the first world war, 163 of every 1,000 children died before their first birthday. The figure was twice as high for working class children. It is 15 per 1,000 today. Of those children that survived, a quarter did not live beyond the age of four. In the early weeks of the National Health Service in 1948, consultants reported shoals of women coming in with internal organs that had been prolapsed for years, and men with long undiagnosed hernias and lung diseases. 

In the thirties, my grandmother, widowed by the first world war, kept a tin on a shelf, into which she put every spare coin she could, against the day when one of her children might need the doctor.  She was a rather wise old lady, so I felt a sense of shock when, as a teenager, I received a letter from her, and realised she wrote like a five-year-old.  Like millions of her generation, she was never taught to write properly.

Working class children in the 1930s seldom had enough to eat and received just enough education to equip them for routine work.  A father out of work meant a family near starvation. My parents assumed that a working class child was smaller than a middle class child, for want of good food. Most of our parents came out of the second world war determined to change all that.

And that is why the Attlee settlement of 1945-51 gave working people leisure, healthcare, education and security for the first time. In the 1950s, older children, especially those at work, had disposable income. The word “teenager” arrived on these shores from the USA. Young people became, for the first time, serious consumers, able to make choices and support those choices with cash.

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 ancient institutions) their owners were no longer made to feel out of place.  We grew up at the time when – as he famously told the Labour Party conference – Neil Kinnock was “the first Kinnock in 1,000 generations” to have a university education. The idea that one might have to pay for education, at any level, seemed to us primitive.

How quickly these things get taken for granted!  All previous generations thought of free health care as nothing short of miraculous, but the baby boomers casually assumed that it was the ordained order of things.  It was not until the 1980s that they started to see how privileged they were, and the National Union of Public Employees produced a T-shirt for them, proudly bearing the slogan “Born in the NHS.”

Their parents and elder brothers and sisters had battled for health care, for education, for full employment and economic security. These battles having apparently been won, the baby boomers fought for, and won, the right to wear their hair long and to enjoy sex. Proud of having conquered our inherited inhibitions, in our foolishness we thought there was little else to conquer.