Now I love my parents but other day I had to tell them, “Should the time come when the irate youth of the world finally snap and start chopping of the heads of baby boomers’ en masse, I’ll have to kill you first, just to show the rest of the guys that I am truly down for the cause!”
Whilst global matricide may be still be some way off, an ugly by-product of this never-ending recession has been the distortion of the conventional relationship between the generations. Aren’t old people are meant to envy the young? That was the standard practice in the West during the 20th Century. Each generation would look upon the next one with emerald-eyed resentment, enraged at those whippersnappers wasting opportunities they would have killed for in their day. Nowadays the older you get, the more you look at the young with a mix of pity and perverse glee. Not just because today’s young have no good music to dance to, (that’s their own fault), it’s mainly because in the U.K. and U.S., old and young alike recognise that the relative material security and general community spirit of the post-war era are now a relic of the past.
Film director Ken Loach’s new film, The Spirit of 1945 examines this change with his usual poise and gravitas. Now, of course not every aspect of life for the baby boomers was Utopian. No one seeks a return to post-war standards of racism, homophobia or household furniture. But what the film does highlight is that Britain at the time, like its war-time ally America, chose to engage in a holistic social project aimed at improving the lives of regular citizens. In Britain, this atmosphere propelled the creation of the National Health Service, an explosion of free universities and an overhaul of unemployment and retirement benefits so as to improve the life of the working person. Described as the Attlee agreement in honour of Prime Minister Clement Attlee, it mirrored much of what had been implemented in the U.S with the Second New Deal (though the NHS was obviously an addition to the template). In the words of the late, great historian Eric Hobsbawm, “the Attlee government of 1945-51 represented the high point of working-class pressure for change.”b
Similarly in the U.S. the spirit of the New Deal was continued with Truman’s attempt to implement a ‘Fair Deal’, a set of proposals that helped shaped the ‘Happy Days’ of 1950’s, at least for the country’s mainstream. The G.I. Bill of Rights allowed millions of returning service men to gain free university education and the 1949 Housing Act led to an increase in affordable public housing. Could similar measures be proposed on either side of the Atlantic today? It always confuses me how conservatives of both the British and American variety can go all misty-eyed when talking of the 1950’s, oblivious to the fact that high standards of living and patriotism owed a lot to same ‘socialist’ programmes they are currently committed to dismantling.
Today a bleak landscape faces the formerly over-privileged Western youngster. In London, he average age for buying a house is now 43. Youth unemployment in Spain has risen to an incredible 55%. In the U.S. student loans have now become the largest type of consumer debt, totalling over $1 trillion dollars in 2012. Whilst young people today are responsible for One Direction and Planking, this level of punishment seems a little heavy-handed.
The statistics mentioned above have led to some vicious anti-baby boomer rhetoric in the press, blaming our elders for using all the resources and taking all the money. In some ways this is not surprising; intergenerational conflict has been a mainstay ever since Zeus overthrew Cronus. However, it is a myopic position to take in light of the current crisis. As Loach’s film shows, today’s youth should be learning from the older generation, not attacking them. People once leveraged their politicians into valuing public interest above those of financial backers and lobby groups, a skill younger generations would do well to mimic. They could learn more about the social vision that arose for a brief moment in aftermath of VE Day, because it could save them from the self-interested, materialistic ideology that they have been indoctrinated with from birth.
The reasons why Western governments made such unprecedented concessions to the labour market post-1945 requires more investigation than I can provide here, but simple explanations range from a sense of gratitude for war-time sacrifice, to a desperate attempt to hold of the advance of Communism. Come the late 1980’s, neither of these reasons were a pressing concern, and economists from Friedman to Nash successfully convinced us that we were inherently greedy and that the framework of our society should be constructed to mirror that. The genuine community spirit of the post-war era was derided as a fallacy, only useful if it could be quantified, commodified and employed as an occasional marketing tool. But its now the philosophy of the Friedrich Hayeks that is being shown to be the true fallacy, as unrestrained markets deliver only ever increasing inequality and disconnect from each other.
Hopefully the coming generations will not just mirror the ideas of 1945. They will look to that time as an example of action and achievement – when progressive ideas found real currency with the mainstream. That can infuse their attempts to create a world where the young are envied once again, because that envy is a manifestation of our belief that the future will be brighter than the past.