Francis Beckett

There have only been two baby boomer Prime Ministers, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.  With the election of David Miliband or Ed Miliband as Labour’s new leader today, we know that there will never be another. All three Party leaders are now far too young to be baby boomers.

 

 

Yet the baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1955, are still only between 55 and 65 years old.  Back in the twentieth century, that would have been a perfectly good age for a Prime Minister.  But it isn’t any more – and that’s because of the cult of youth which the baby boomers themselves fostered in the sixties.

 

We – for I am a fully paid up baby boomer - put an end to the days when Winston Churchill could become Prime Minister and save the nation when he was nearly 70, and both Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan could form their first governments at 62. 

 

The children of the sixties believed when they were young that youth is always right, and the old and the middle-aged are always wrong.  They

created a society in which a Liberal Party leader – Menzies Campbell - could be drummed out of office for the crime of being as old as Macmillan and Attlee were when they first formed governments, though considerably younger than Churchill.

 

When Gordon Brown stood down as Labour Party leader, all possible baby boomer candidates thought they were too old to be elected, and the job must go to someone younger. Spring chickens like Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson, who both had their sixtieth birthdays this summer, accepted that they were past it.

Yet just thirteen years ago, baby boomer politicians were benefitting from the cult of youth.  Tony Blair in 1997, aged 44, was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812.  Blair carried the cult of youth into government.  The nearest he had come to spelling out what he believed was in a book published the previous year called, naturally, New Britain – My Vision of a Young Country. There was no vision at all in it. But it was new.  Nothing else mattered. The cult of youth was one of the reasons he renamed the Labour Party 'New Labour'.

 

The music of the sixties instilled contempt for the old and the middle aged. 'I hope I die before I get old,' shouted Roger Daltrey of The Who.  (He didn’t. He is with us still, a comfortable, well-off man in his sixties, who was recently the voice of Argon the Dragon Bus Driver in a children’s video and sang “The wheels on the bus go round and round.”) 

 

The Beatles made cruel mockery of the poverty and limited aspirations of their parents in 'When I’m 64', sneering at their pathetic aspiration to be able to afford to rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight.  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.' ‘What a drag it is getting old’ bemoaned Tony Blair’s musical hero Mick Jagger, who, like Roger Daltrey, proceeded to get old. After taking his knighthood from Tony Blair, he opined that there was nothing to rebel against any more: the Establishment had ceased to exist.

 

It is no surprise that Britain’s first baby boomer Prime Minister should be a man who once modelled himself on Mick Jagger.  The musicians of the sixties were hugely influential, and what they told the baby boomers was: all good lies in being young, and fresh, and new. 

 

But as the baby boomers got older, their cult of youth intensified and left them behind. David Cameron was a year younger than Blair when he entered Number Ten.  If you think Prime Ministers are getting younger, it’s not because you’re getting older. They are getting younger. 

 

And we baby boomers have forgotten that we once led the cult of youth.  We have grown to resent the young.  We look at our smooth-faced Prime Minister and call him “Dave” – it’s meant as an insult.  What we mean is: shouldn’t the job be being done by a grownup?

 

The freedoms we fought for in the sixties, we deny to our children.  We once demanded to be allowed to dress and wear our hair as sixties fashion dictates, but we corral our children into neat clothes and conventionally cut hair.  'Hoodie' was just a name for a garment in fashion with children and teenagers, until it was demonised by people who were young and fashionable in the sixties.

 

We demanded education as a right, and we paid no fees at all when we were students in the free and carefree sixties. When I went to university at the end of the sixties, my widowed mother being demonstrably penniless, I received not only free education, but a student grant that I could live on in termtime. For the first time, proletarian and regional accents were heard throughout the British university system, and their owners were no longer made to feel out of place.  The baby boomer governments brought in student fees, and now higher education minister David Willetts has made it clear that they are going to go up.  A lot.

 

We demanded to be allowed to learn what we wished.  Universities in the sixties were freewheeling places where we had fun, in class and out of it.  But for our children, education is seen as the acquisition of the skills required to earn a living, and universities have become gradgrind places where these skills are imparted. New Labour abolished the higher education department, and placed its responsibilities under the department dealing with business and industry, a pretty good indication of what its overwhelmingly baby-boomer ministers thought education is for.

 

We demanded peace – one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s sillier songs, written at the height of the Vietnam war, was the 1969 “All we are saying is, Give peace a chance.”  The then Prime Minister Harold Wilson made sure we did not have to fight alongside young Americans in Vietnam, though we gave him little thanks for it.  When the baby boomer generation formed a government, its Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told lies to the young so that he could send them to fight alongside the Americans in Iraq.

 

We have had the best of everything all our lives, and our children are reaping the whirlwind.

 

You might have thought we would now be willing to take a step back, to put our children first. But not a bit of it.  Today, baby boomers may have ruled ourselves out as top politicians, but collectively we are a much more powerful political force than 55-65-year-olds have ever been before, because we are all living longer. And we are exercising our political muscle for our own benefit. Any government which fails to give the baby boomers what we want, even at the expense of younger generations, is in for severe punishment at the ballot box, according to research from the thinktank Demos. 'Future governments will have to do a deal with the baby boomer generation,' say the report’s authors. 

 

Opinion polls show that the now elderly baby boomers will use their increasing voting power to ensure a comfortable old age for themselves.  When the baby boomers were young, they believed society could afford student grants; now they are old, they think it can afford pensions. 

 

We saw that in the budget. A Chancellor of the Exchequer who was  not even born until the sixties were over delivered misery for everyone except the baby boomers.  The one piece of good news in the budget was the restoration of the link between state pensions and earnings, which Margaret Thatcher broke in 1980.  Osborne’s decision comes just in time for the baby boomers to benefit. If the baby boomers can no longer exercise power themselves, they can still use their voting strength to ensure that when the bad times come, the young are hit first.

 

Most capital expenditure for education and health no longer comes from the present-day taxpayer, but from the next generation, because the baby boomers have been too stingy to pay for it.  This trick is done by means of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), a way of getting the cost of public buildings like schools and hospitals off the present government’s books, and placing them on the books of governments ten or 20 years hence.

 

Wealth is being sucked up the age ladder.  You can now only get mortgages up to two-thirds of your salary (us baby boomers used up the 100% mortgages) so that first time buyers have to save hard for a deposit. Today almost a third of young men between the ages of 20 and 34 – nearly two million of them – live with their parents, mainly because of the lack of homes they can afford.  The baby boomers grabbed the houses for investment, and use their homes as ATM machines.

 

 We had the freedom that comes from not having to fear starvation if your employer fires you: there were other jobs to go to, and a welfare state to fall back on.  These things made possible the freedom of the 1960s. Today, new research from Totaljobs.com shows that a third of graduates believe they will still be out of work in six months time. A third of new graduates are drawing jobseekers allowance, and two fifths of these graduates have been claiming benefits for at least six months.

 

We created a far harsher world for our children to grow up in.  It was as though we decided that the freedom and lack of worry which we had inherited was too good for our children, and we pulled up the ladder we had climbed.