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Baby Boomers: Exploding the generation blame game

Of all the images folk memory records of the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the most potent is surely that of the bankrupted investor, leaping from the top of a Manhattan skyscraper. Undoubtedly, a few poor souls did meet their end in this grisly way, but thankfully far fewer than is often supposed today. Eighty years later, in the wake of another financial crisis, we should be grateful too that the huge losses on the stock markets have not triggered similar acts of desperation (however we might feel about bankers). Self-flagellation, on the other hand, is very much in vogue; not amongst the financial community, but another group, defined by age rather than occupation. These are the so-called 'baby boomers', the post-war generation born in the west between 1945 and 1965. In recent years, many of the best and brightest of their number, on both left and right of the political divide, have been queuing up to trash the record of their cohort. The charges vary, but can be distilled into the accusation that a generation that was so blessed ultimately achieved so little, leaving the world in a worse state than it found it. The baby boomers were, we are told, singularly fortunate; growing up protected by a strong state, untroubled by war and enjoying unprecedented personal freedoms. Upon receiving their free university degrees, the boomers moved into a buoyant jobs market, signing up to gilt-edged pensions and buying up cheap property that was later to soar in value. But what did they do with these unparalleled benefits? If the prosecution are to be believed, they blew it. Or rather, they took the loot, climbed up to a safe height and then kicked the ladder away. Raised on the rich milk of post-war social democracy, the baby boomers matured and entered the commanding heights of society, only to gorge themselves on the excesses of free market capitalism from the 1980s, right up until the big crash made everyone look up, guiltily, from the trough. Now, it is argued, it's not the baby boomers who'll foot the bill for this mother-of-all-parties, but their children and grandchildren, debt-laden and with uncertain job prospects, decades away from home ownership and unable to turn to the state for support in the way their parents might have done. Thanks a lot, Mum and Dad. This is quite a neat little narrative, but one which needs to be challenged. Firstly, it is perverse to criticise the baby boomers for having taken advantage of the fruits of post-war prosperity and state provision because, quite simply, what generation wouldn't have? Instead, we should set the public goods of the 1960s and 70s, notably free higher education, as a benchmark for policy today. Anything less is a derogation of ambition. In a recent Guardian article, Geoffrey Wheatcroft argued that his generation were essentially too "soft", having grown up in a time of "no hard choices". But we must be very careful about wishing for greater hardship, or seeing hardship as a necessary precondition of virtue. We all know not to spoil children, but neither should we starve them. Meanwhile, economist and writer Will Hutton berates the boomers for allowing the social liberalism of the 1960s to morph into the economic liberalism of the 80s, unleashing a reckless form of capitalism that was to lead to the crisis of 2008. But who was it that inaugurated this sickening greed-fest? Not baby-boomers, but leaders of an earlier generation; Margaret Thatcher (b.1925) and Ronald Regan (b.1911). Boomers like Bush and Brown may have been at the scene of the crime, but they were not its progenitors. At the heart of this issue lies the old problem of Structure vs. Agency; are outcomes shaped more by impersonal social and economic forces, or by the deliberate choices of groups and individuals? Were the baby boomers essentially little more than bystanders in their own history, or did their unique fecklessness lead us all to ruin? In his recent book on the subject, Conservative minister David Willetts at times seems to lean towards the former explanation, arguing that the problems apparently bequeathed by the boomers are really the product of "sheer demographic", not "deliberate selfishness". But if he really believed that, why did he subtitle his book, 'How the baby boomers stole their children's future - and how they can give it back'? Ultimately, it's unclear what purpose boomer-bashing really serves. Is it to assuage a misplaced sense of guilt, or does it simply provide a convenient scapegoat at a time of no easy answers? Whatever the reasons may be, it's counter-productive, because finding solutions to the problems society faces today, from economic instability to climate change, will require the wisdom and co-operation of all generations. )

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Collated and edited by Joe Kriss.

9th February @ Café Euro. Write Down Your Street is an Off The Shelf Festival project in which arts organisation Art In The Park have pro…

 9th February @ Café Euro.

Write Down Your Street is an Off The Shelf Festival project in which arts organisation Art In The Park have pro

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