Kevin the Teenager takes over Britain
Today’s incessant intellectual attacks on the baby boomers are really just a pubescent cry of ‘I HATE YOU!’.
Towards the end of British comedian Harry Enfield’s mid-1990s Kevin the Teenager sketch, Kevin would almost always exclaim in true catchphrase-style: ‘I hate you, I wish I’d never been born!’ The objects of the perma-huffing Kevin’s scorn were of course his parents. And like most parents, they were utterly undeserving of their teenage son’s bile.
But not any more it seems. Whinging about one’s parents, especially if they’re of that post-1945, baby-boomer generation, is not only perfectly acceptable – it is considered the right thing to do. Apparently they deserve it: they have enriched themselves at the expense of their world’s economy; they have gobbled up the world’s natural resources to the detriment of environment; and, just to rub future generations’ noses in the scorched earth, they expect their children and grandchildren to support them in their dotage.
Neil Boorman, author of It’s All Their Fault writes of the so-called pensions crisis: ‘They knew this problem was around the corner, and they had plenty of time and money to sort it out. But they chose not to. In fact, they chose to spend more money and use up greater resources than they had, knowing full well that the problem would be left for us – their own children – to sort out.’ Equally whiney is 24-year-old Greenpeace campaigner Joss Garman, who recently dummy-spat: ‘The same generation which let the economic system collapse is now knowingly setting us on another disastrous course towards ecological collapse.’
Kevin the Teenager’s worldview is becoming increasingly prevalent. And not just among actual teenagers. In fact, plenty of the ageing and the aged have joined in the bonfire of the boomers, too. Earlier this year, for instance, The Times’ editor-at-large, 58-year-old Anatole Kaletsky, identified the true source of Britain’s debt crisis: ‘The selfish demographic politics of retiring baby boomers, far more than the greed of bankers, is the true fiscal nightmare now facing Britain.’ Elsewhere, David Willetts, the 54-year-old Lib-Con universities minister, admonished his peer group in Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future. ‘[N]ow the bills are coming in’, he warned, portentously, ‘it is the younger generation who will pay them’. Sixty-five-year-old Francis Beckett was content with the complaining What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? Quite a bit, he argues, and most of it bad.
The latest to join in with this pubescent chorus is Lib-Con deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. In a speech delivered last week, he drew upon this sins-of-the-fathers sentiment to argue that both his generation and that preceding it have led us to the precipice – financial, environmental and political. ‘We have run up debts, despoiled the planet and allowed too many of our institutions to wither’, he confessed. ‘For us, the longer-term view we are adopting in government will help to wipe the slate clean, and ensure that future generations can thrive, without being burdened with the dead weight of our debt, and our failings.’
Clegg’s guilt-tripping certainly had a tactical purpose. It allowed him to dress up the Lib-Con coalition’s public spending cuts as some sort of atonement: ‘We are absolutely determined that we will be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and say we did the best we could for them, even if this means taking some difficult, unpopular decisions today.’ So in place of an economic vision, Clegg rustled up some stoic posturing.
But Clegg’s speech also sheds some light on the coercive nature of this boomer-baiting. While in other critics’ hands the target seems to be the specific post-1945 generation, Clegg is less interested in the baby boomers themselves than what they represent: self-interested individualism. Hence he attacks what he considers to be the boomers’ cultural legacy, a general malaise he defines as ‘short termism’. So whether it’s a businessman chasing a quick profit or someone simply choosing a sugar-heavy fizzy drink, ‘short-term temptation’, he argues, is proving too much for us. Immediate satisfaction of needs and desires is always trumping what is supposedly in our long-term interests. Or, to put it another way, the present seems more important to us than the future.
The suggestion, in generational terms, is that we never think of the children because we are too busy thinking of ourselves. To correct ourselves, to right our historical course, we need to think almost solely of ‘the children’, of ‘future generations’. It’s a strange reversal. Generational debts usually work the other way round. On specific days we might commemorate the achievements and the sacrifices of national or social predecessors. We remember what they did because their achievements have helped shape our lives in the present. Of course, previous generations were also fighting for their own interests, too. When they stormed the Bastille in 1789, the revolutionaries weren’t just thinking of the interests of ‘future generations’; they also believed that their own lives would be better.
The revolutionary struggles against monarchical absolutism, for instance, weren’t blind to the future. Indeed, any radical politics worth the name seeks to change the future. But it does so through the present. That is, people act now to change what is to come; they seize the present to affect the future, their future. But the fetish of future generations spouted by anyone from Boorman to Clegg is different. It’s a phony futurism that makes a weapon of the future; people aren’t grasping their present situation to control the future; rootless politicians and self-appointed campaigners are using the spectre of the future to control people’s present. This is not a matter of making history, it is a case of history being allowed to make us.
This is why, with the elevation of the fetishised future over the history-making present, of the interests of The Children over those of living and breathing adults, the generational relationships between past, present and future are reversed. Never was so much owed by so many to, er, so many yet to be born. Those living are expected to prostrate themselves not before the sacrifices of past generations but before the non-achievements of future generations. To rephrase Marx, the future weighs upon the brains of the living like a nightmare.
Given that this assault on adult short-termism, on baby boomerism, demands that people living now sacrifice their own needs for the needs of those yet to exist, it is little wonder that it goes hand in hand with behaviour-altering policy. ‘In the pure, ideal universe of economic theory’, said Clegg, ‘each of us is supposed to be able to rationally calculate the utility value of any action both now and in the future. In real life, people eat donuts, decide not to go for a run, and put off making payments into their pension fund. The economists say this means we are engaged in an “irrational discounting of time”. The rest of us describe it as being human.’ Luckily help is at hand for being human: ‘The government’s new behavioural economics team, based in Downing Street, will be looking at ways in which, in a range of areas, the better choice can be made the easier choice.’
Clegg likens all this to Odysseus resisting the sirens (which is probably not how many of us will experience the government’s austerity measures). What he omits to mention is that Odysseus chose to have himself tied to his ship’s mast and his crew’s ears stuffed with wax so he (and they) could resist their song. This was his will, his choice. The thought of some Downing Street behavioural economics team bunging our ears so as to resist the recession-hit joys of the present is a truly depressing one. It’s a surreptitiously authoritarian legacy for which generations to come are unlikely to thank us.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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