A depletionist view of history and humanity

What a shame that David Willetts, one of the few intellectual parliamentarians, has written such a wrongheaded book on the baby boomers.

Frank Furedi

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This article is republished from the February 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

The poverty of contemporary political discourse is conspicuous in the run-up to the UK General Election. There are very few politicians today who have the intellectual presence of a Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, Churchill, Crosland, or even a Denis Healey. Increasingly the search for policies is outsourced to think thanks and public relations companies, who are assigned the task of spotting the next ‘Big Idea’.

In such an intellectual desert, the Tory shadow minister for universities and skills, David Willetts, stands out as one of the few parliamentarians who combine intellectual eloquence with an ability to communicate complex ideas clearly. It is unfortunate, then, that his latest offering, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, and Why They Should Give it Back, seems to show how difficult it is for any individual, even someone like Willetts, to transcend the intellectual wasteland that surrounds parliament these days.

Willetts’ book addresses a very important issue in British society: the erosion of meaningful contact between generations and the menacing crisis of adulthood. The roots of this crisis are moral and cultural, but sadly, in line with current think-tank wisdom, The Pinch relies on demographic, naturalistic and socio-biological explanations to account for the crisis.

Willetts uses the metaphor of the clash of generations to explain many of the cultural and socio-economic ills afflicting contemporary society. Apparently, the baby boomers – those born in the post-Second World War baby boom – have been far too selfish and self-centred to pay any heed to the needs of future generations. The sheer demographic weight of the boomers has led to, and exacerbated, Britain’s economic ills and threatens to compromise the welfare of generations to come, says Willetts. Here, classical environmentalist guilt-tripping of the elderly for threatening the wellbeing of the planet and of unborn generations is recast in the form of a socio-economic generational analysis. The book’s subtitle – ‘How the baby boomers took their children’s future’ – hints at the guilt-tripping to come.

In an age when neo-Malthusianism has an unprecedented influence over Western public life, it is not surprising to discover that the dismal Reverend Thomas Malthus himself (1766-1834) is the hero of Willetts’s drama. Willetts writes of the ‘ingenious application of the insights of Malthus’ to explain why we live so long, and criticises those who dismiss fears about the future with ‘the charge of neo-Malthusian pessimism’. His book is based on a depletionist theory of economic history. In line with the Malthusian model, The Pinch presents resources as being entirely fixed and all variables as more or less constant, except, of course, population growth. From this perspective, one generation utilises resources at the expense of the next generation. Willetts concedes that the boomers ‘continue to do some great things’, but ‘now the bills are coming in’ and ‘it is the younger generation who will pay them’. This outlook also underlies today’s view of the ageing population as a potential ‘social catastrophe’, where the costs of looking after elderly boomers are seen as an unfair burden on the income of younger and future generations.

Here and there, Willetts tries to modify his depletionist thesis. ‘We certainly recognise that the innovative power of the almost seven billion humans alive today is a resource which dwarfs all others’, he writes – yet he then goes on to dismiss such an optimistic perspective. Sadly, he is drawn towards a model that presents people as predominantly the consumers of resources rather than the creators of resources. Such an analysis overlooks the fact that the boomers were, and remain, highly innovative people who created far more wealth than was left to them by the previous generations. If today’s and future generations of young people make good use of the intellectual, scientific and cultural legacy that they inherit, they are likely to be even better off than their parents were. The only limit they face is their own imaginations.

In line with the advance of neo-Malthusianism, The Pinch seeks to extend its analysis to explain a variety of socio-economic and cultural trends. Numerous problems are recycled as essentially generational problems. Generational segregation – which is a very real problem, but not for the reasons Willetts puts forwards – is described in The Pinch as a consequence of the ‘economic gap’ between generations. The alleged failure of the baby boomers to act responsibly towards future generations has also given rise to the crisis of citizenship, apparently. It is also claimed that the demographic weight of the boomers was responsible for the rise of the 1960s counterculture, which in turn promoted individualism – divorce, abortion, and so on – and anti-family values. Even the failure of the market and of the financial system is blamed on the boomers, who have apparently ‘been pinching too big a share of the wealth’. So economic stagnation and low levels of investment are not so much failures of markets as the consequence of greedy boomers wanting to have it all.

At times, The Pinch uses a shockingly crude form of generational determinism to explain events. Willetts argues that ‘being a big generation gives you a lot of power’. And accordingly, the boomers rule the world: ‘Your large cohort will dominate marketplaces. You will be kings and queens among consumers. Elections will be pitched at you – you will be able to spend your life in a generational bubble, always outvoting and outspending the generation before and after you.’

But do generational consciousness and behaviour have the power and influence that Willetts believes they do? And is there anything unique about generational relations in the early part of the twenty-first century?

Generational analysis

According to Willetts, ‘generational analysis’ begins with the nineteenth-century sociologist August Comte and was first systematically set out by Karl Mannheim in his 1928 essay ‘The Problem of Generations’. Actually, anxiety about generational tensions goes back to the beginning of human history. Since early human civilisation, young people were reminded, through proverbs and myths, of their obligation to obey authority.

In ancient Mesopotamia, instructions on obedience were communicated through cuneiform script. According to a study of Sumerian proverbs, one of the aims of these proverbs was to promote the ideal of respecting parents and elders. So in a typical proverb a son is instructed to pay heed to his father’s commands as if they were the words of God. There were similar proverbs and myths in Ancient Egypt and Greece. In 2450 BCE, in one of the earliest attempts to codify personal conduct, Ptah-hotep, a vizier of the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, proclaimed the necessity for the young to heed ‘the thoughts of those who have gone before’.

Of course, sometimes the assertion of authority invariably invited the contestation of authority. It was in ancient Greece that the generation gap emerged as a topic for political debate and philosophical reflection. The defeats suffered by Athens during the Peloponnesian War unleashed a tirade of criticism by the younger generation of the mismanagement of the campaign by their elders. This denunciation of the wisdom and influence of the elders provoked a furious backlash. In subsequent years the older generation sought to restrain the pretensions of the young through associating such pretensions with immaturity and destructive behaviour. The charge of ‘corrupting the youth’, levelled at Socrates, indicated how serious the potential for generational conflict was taken. As far as Plato was concerned, generational conflict undermined the authority of the elders and led directly to anarchy. Those who misled the young were denounced for threatening the future of Athens.

Throughout history, the authority of the older generation over the young was taken for granted in all cultures. All traditional societies can be characterised as gerontocracies. That is why the rebellions against traditional authority that did occur were not only directed against the old way of doings things but against the old themselves. Frequently, such revolts were driven by the animus that sons felt towards their fathers and their way of life. By the nineteenth century, the young often expressed their aspirations through a distinct form of generational consciousness and a rejection of the old. The emerging cult of the young communicated the idea that the elders were not to be trusted.

Until the twentieth century, any questioning of the power of elders focused on the manner in which authority was exercised. Youthful critics pointed to the failures, betrayals and cowardice of older generations, but they did not question the right of elders to possess authority. Over the past century, by contrast, the criticism of adult authority has acquired a more ideological streak, leading to what has been labelled as the ‘de-authorisation of elders’. Never mind the question of whether they exercise authority in a good way or bad way – today elders are no longer seen as possessing any real moral or cultural authority. Indeed, in recent times it is not only the authority of the old that has been called into question, but also the authority of all adults.

Yet there is something very distinctive in the way that generational tension and conflict are understood and discussed today. Until recently, criticism of the elders expressed the frustrations of young people, who were determined to acquire some of that authority and status associated with being a grown-up. By contrast, today such criticisms are promoted by members of the older generations themselves, who are uncomfortable with exercising adult authority.

Catastrophic accounts of the pensions crisis or the idea that grown-ups are responsible for the destruction of the environment speak to an alarming loss of faith in adult authority itself. A process that I have described elsewhere as ‘socialisation-in-reverse’ teaches young people the idea that they are morally superior to their polluting parents. An example of this project of de-authorising grown-ups can be seen in ‘A letter to your father’ written by the Australian climate alarmist Clive Hamilton. ‘There is something you need to know about your father’, wrote Hamilton in his public letter to Australia’s youth, telling children that their dad is ‘helping’ companies pollute the environment, which will mean that ‘lots of people, mostly poor people, are likely to die’.

There are many problems with relying on a generational analysis to interpret broad socio-economic trends. The concept of the generation is an abstraction. Most people do not identify themselves as members of a particular generation. Indeed, identities based on ethnicity, class, religion and lifestyle almost always override the identity of generation. Sociological research suggests that generational consciousness was, and remains, extremely feeble. As the American critic Harold Rosenberg noted, ‘belonging to a generation is one of the lowest forms of solidarity’ (1).

So why is there so much discussion about generational conflict today? What distinguishes today’s problematisation of the authority of the elders is that it is principally promoted from above rather than below – it is the elders themselves who are questioning their own authority. This indicates that the issue at stake is not so much the greed of the boomers as their confusion about how they should relate to the younger generations.

Naturalising human behaviour

Contemporary neo-Malthusianism continually draws on the intellectual resources of sociobiology and naturalistic models of human behaviour. In recent years, the British political class has invested heavily in ideas about sociobiological behaviour, borrowing liberally from brain research to explain socio-economic and moral issues.

The Pinch wholeheartedly embraces this naturalisation of human moral and social behaviour. Thus, readers are informed that the phenomenon of vampire bats sharing blood with one another shows that even a competitive environment can encourage cooperation, indicating the potential for reciprocal altruism. Experiments involving rhesus monkeys apparently demonstrate that these animals have a capacity for empathy. It seems that capuchin monkeys can also exhibit reciprocal altruism, thereby creating hope for us humans, too.

From this naturalistic worldview, any idea of moral reasoning, of engaging people in a serious debate about society and morality, becomes severely denigrated. Instead, policymakers are encouraged to influence citizens’ behaviour by appealing to their narrow self-interests and to instrumental reasoning. ‘I believe [that a] naturalistic account of morality is increasingly going to contribute to public discourse about the many ethical issues in public policy’, writes Willetts. From this perspective, even the Ten Commandments can be subjected to a cost-benefit analysis. So the call to honour thy father and mother is here justified instrumentally – apparently you will benefit if you honour your parents because you are more likely to be honoured, too. There is little room for moral autonomy and decision-making in a world where our choices are apparently programmed by our brains and our short-term self-interests. It seems that ‘neuroscientists have indeed established that the same bit of the brain which makes decisions on inter-temporal choices is used for altruism and fairness’, says Willetts. So it is a bit of your brain rather than moral reasoning that accounts for your altruism or lack of it.

In the world of The Pinch, when human behaviour is not determined by biology it is dominated by some pre-existing force. So even those Germans who acted bravely by sheltering Jews during the Nazi era were not really acting as morally autonomous agents. Willetts cites a researcher who apparently found that all these Germans ‘had one thing in common – they all came from strong families’! Does that mean that Germans born into ‘weak families’ lack the moral capacity for heroism and sacrifice? When even people’s sense of duty and sacrifice is apparently pre-programmed, it is not easy to have any real confidence and belief in the human potential.

And that is what The Pinch is really about. Do we believe that future generations can carry on and develop human civilisation by developing science, technology, the arts and culture? Or do we simply see the future as an era of limits, where we will gradually exhaust the planet and fail to create and construct a better world? Our children’s futures have not been stolen by the baby boomers. The future is there for the taking if the world of adults takes its moral responsibilities more seriously, and properly prepares young people for their freedom and authority.

Frank Furedi’s latest book, Wasted: Why Education Isn’t Educating, is published by Continuum Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give it Back, by David Willetts, is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the February 2010 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

(1) Harold Rosenberg (1959) The Tradition of the New, (New York; Horizon Press) p.244

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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