Generationally divided we fall
A new book rips apart the Baby Boomer-blaming script.
We all know the story of the Baby Boomers now, don’t we? We should do. We’ve been told it often enough over the past decade. They are Britain and America’s lucky generation, born after 1945, as the postwar boom kicked in, but before 1970, when the crises began to bite. They are affluent, then. But they have been selfish, too. And reckless. Very reckless. Thanks to the Boomers, those born later, especially the so-called millennials, are confronted by unaffordable housing, a plundered planet and the prospect of having to foot an enormous pensions and healthcare bill. But then that’s the Boomers for you – self-obsessed to the detriment of all our futures.
‘The cellar has been plundered and the family silver has mysteriously disappeared’, declared then Times columnist Sarah Vine in 2010. Indeed, 2010 proved to be an Olympic year for Boomer blaming. Signal interventions such as Ed Howker and Shiv Malik’s Jilted Generation: How Britain Bankrupted its Youth, David Willetts’ The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future and Francis Beckett’s What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? all appeared in 2010. And interminable commentary, largely confirming the Baby Boomers as the problem, spewed forth. It was as if this tale of how a single generation ruined the world, a tale that had been forming for a few years, had finally hardened into historical fact. It was no longer an argument, an assertion, as it was in 2005 when Tory minister-to-be David Willetts delivered his ‘Clash of generations’ speech at a London think-tank; it was now the truth.
To this accepted truth, this ‘cultural script’, spiked regular Jennie Bristow has issued a smart critique, rich in theory and no little passion. Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict doesn’t deny the demographic fact of the Boomers or indulge in ‘postmodern sociology’, as Willetts himself has contended in a recent review. Bristow writes explicitly, and in some detail, about the demographic data showing the vacillating rise in postwar birthrates between 1945 and 1955 and also during the 1960s. It’s just that the demographic fact of a baby boom or bulge doesn’t by itself support the claims now being made for the social and historical significance of this generation. Bristow counters that this significance – the meaning of the Baby Boomers – has been created and recreated over time by assorted influential claims-makers, of which Willetts is a prime example, in response to political, social and cultural anxieties. The fact of a baby boom, then, is very different to the fiction of the Baby Boomers. As Bristow writes:
‘By emphasising the social construction of the Baby Boomer problem, we acknowledge that the “Baby Boomers” exist biologically, as people, and demographically, as a cohort – and that without these aspects of their existence the Baby Boomers could not have been constructed as a problem in the way that they have been. But it is the Baby Boomers’ social existence that turns this generation from a natural fact into a social problem.’
It hasn’t always been this way. The very concept of ‘generation’, let alone the treatment of one as the agent of our doom, is a very modern development. In pre-industrial times, ‘generation’ was considered almost solely in terms of its biological aspect – as a synonym for, and the product of, ‘procreation’. And no wonder. Generational succession unfolded and acquired its meaning within kinship relations. But with industrialisation and the development of a mass labour market, the transition from childhood to adulthood, the succession of generations, became more problematic. The family no longer mediated this transition in the way it once did; instead the young adult was left to ‘stand alone’, as Bristow puts it, and forced to make sense of the extant adult world – and, sometimes, to challenge it.
Bristow deftly navigates such complicated terrain, bringing in Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons as an example of growing generational tension and anxiety, and looking at the significance of the First World War conceived as a rupture not just between old and new worlds, but between old and young generations – hence the idea of ‘the Men of 1914’. But it’s with her treatment of Karl Mannheim, and his sociology of knowledge, that we reach the theoretical heart of Baby Boomers. For Bristow, Mannheim’s essay The Problem of Generations (1923), alongside his later works such as Ideology and Utopia (1936), provides the most subtle, dialectical approach to generations.
Mannheim’s central concern was with the production and progress of knowledge – that is, how human knowledge and culture is not only preserved, but also made anew; how the objective human world is continually being transformed by new subjects. ‘For Mannheim’, writes Bristow, ‘the importance of “fresh contact” between new generations and the wealth of human history already in existence lay in the extent to which this necessitates the dynamic process of progress: knowledge is continually being transmitted and assimilated under different historical conditions to individuals who are differently constituted from their predecessors as a consequence of their generational location.’
What’s fascinating about Mannheim’s contribution is not only what is new – the consciousness of generational factors – but also how this new insight combines and interacts with what is, relatively speaking, old – the consciousness of class. Mannheim didn’t see generation as a form of agency like class consciousness. Rather, he saw it as a factor, an aspect of an individual subject’s outlook – an added lens affecting his perspective on the already existing world.
But by the Sixties, when the image, and self-image, of the Baby Boomers was forming, generational location was increasingly seen as the sole, most important aspect of an individual’s relationship to the world. This was the era of the radical student, the fruition of Fifties-style rebellion but with an added cause. It was also an era in which the class politics of yore, in the shadow of Communism’s travails – the God that failed – was being rejected. Everyone was talking about my generation – they weren’t talking about class. ‘For Mannheim’, Bristow writes, ‘the social forces that shaped generations centrally included class, which in turn existed in a dynamic relationship with social change. By the Sixties, a widespread sensibility of the exhaustion of class politics laid the ground for the rise of status politics and, related to that, a self-conscious “politics of the age”, alongside what the British historian Christopher Booker (1969) has described as a cult of “classlessness”.’
It was during the Sixties, then, that the idea of generation as a social agent, a force of societal transformation, crystallised, largely as a response to the disenchantment of the old politics of class, of left and right. At this point, with older non-Baby Boomer cultural figures to the fore, from Bob Dylan (born 1941) to Herbert Marcuse (born 1898), the self-image of the Sixties generation was generally positive. They – or at least a small coterie, a ‘generation unit’ – presented themselves as not only a force for change, but also a force for good. But, as Bristow documents in fascinating detail, during the crisis years of the Seventies, the culture wars of the Eighties and the coming-to-power moment of the Clinton/Blair years, the meaning of the Sixties generation – which had been conflated with the Baby Boomers – was being constantly reinterpreted as the historical moment demanded. Their liberalism could be viewed as permissiveness, their pleasure-seeking as indulgence, their optimism as folly. By the early ‘jaded years’ of the 21st century, the Baby Boomers were largely conceived as the bringers of our doom, the generation that changed the world… for worse.
Given the hardening of the cultural script around the Baby Boomers today, it is worthwhile recalling, as Bristow does, the response to Bill Clinton’s election as US president in 1992. Yes, among right-leaning commentators, Bill Clinton, the sax-playing, ‘non-inhaling’ dopehead with a liberal attitude to sex, was greeted with consternation. But for others it was an occasion to celebrate. The Times, in a 1992 editorial, said Clinton and Al Gore’s election showed the Baby Boomers were finally ‘coming of age’. A Guardian editorial in the same year praised the ‘remarkably radical and innovative’ generation of the Sixties: ‘in every way and dimension, Bill Clinton’s election marks the political legitimation of the cultural advances ushered in by the Sixties.’ So impressed was New Labour strategist Philip Gould, who spent a month on the Clinton campaign trail, that he called for the Labour Party to try something similar in the UK – which eventually came to pass with the election of Tony Blair, the archetypal Baby Boomer, as leader following John Smith’s death in 1994.
That we are now in the midst of a carnival of Boomer-bashing is testament to the dubious triumph of generational thinking, the prevailing tendency, that is, to view social and political problems almost solely in terms of generations – itself, ironically, an intellectual legacy of the Sixties. But, as Bristow notes, the construction of Baby Boomers as a problem is also testament to a deeper anxiety, and a more profound pessimism, about the future, about our societal ability to make the world anew, to progress as a society. After all, the attack on the Sixties, as the time of the Baby Boomers’ youth, is implicitly an attack on youthful optimism and confidence in general. They had the party, runs the common metaphor brilliantly dissected by Bristow, and now it’s our job to clean up.
Perhaps the nastiest part of this generational buck-passing is the extent to which it turns children against parents. Problems of the public world, problems of housing, pensions and the economy in general, are ‘rhetorically [brought] into the “home”, imbuing them with a level of emotional intensity properly reserved for private family dramas’. It turns out that the easy answers generated by the Baby Boomer cultural script are not really answers at all. They’re dead ends, distractions, scapegoats. And what’s more, they militate against the very thing we need a lot more of: social solidarity. United we stand, generationally divided we fall.
Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.
Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict, by Jennie Bristow, is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)
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