Baby boomers didn’t cause all the world’s problems

Yesterday, on the Jeremy Vine news discussion programme on Radio 2, they were discussing the proposition that the “baby boomers” (the generation born within about 20 years after the end of World War II) are guilty of causing the present economic crisis and are somehow stealing from the young, because they all have lots of money and nice houses which they were able to buy because they had free university education which they now deny to today’s young. That’s a kind of parody of it but it’s that ridiculous. Jeremy Vine suggested to an interviewee that perhaps the older should apologise to the young, and she responded by saying there was nothing to apologise for, with which I agree.

To get the easy bit over with first: the claim that they all got free university education is a myth. The vast majority did not go to university at all; the school leaving age was only raised from 15 to 16 in 1972, and many more people left school at 16, with only what were then CSEs or O-levels, than do now. The majority of children at age 11 went to a secondary modern school (comprehensive schools only started to be introduced in the late 1960s); it was a minority of the minority that went to grammar school that went to university. This is why the state was able to provide maintenance grants, but even they were means-tested, and if a family’s income rose, the “parental contribution” was raised, even if it was because the wage-earner (or one of them) put in extra hours — this is exactly what happened to my grandad when my aunt was at teaching college in the late 1960s.

What there were, were plenty of jobs, and at that time, you did not need a degree to get the majority of clerical jobs, as you do now; this is precisely because the number of 18-year-olds going to university has risen during the 1980s and 1990s. I was actually the first person in my family to get a degree from what was, at the time, called a university, and that was in 1998 (my mother got one from a polytechnic in 1990, and the college became a university in 1992). I was also the last person not to be subject to tuition fees (they were introduced in 1998). Even so, many of those who found jobs easily in the 60s and 70s and found them in the manufacturing or mining sectors (or related industries) were as vulnerable as anyone else to the massive job losses that occurred when industry was run down in the 1980s, so there are surely a huge number of that generation who are living in poverty today, and are among the infamous long-term unemployed on incapacity benefit that the right-wing press likes to moan about.

The 70s were, in many ways, an easier time to live in than now — jobs were plentiful and the cost of living was lower, particularly the cost of housing, because mortgages were cheap and inflation often paid for the costs of their mortgages fairly quickly, and because the rise of the financial industry, the flow of money into London and resulting gentrification that began in the 1980s and intensified under Blair had yet to start. Those baby boomers who today appear to be sitting on lots of money are often looking after adult children who have been unable to find stable jobs or affordable housing even during the “boom years”, my parents among them. Those that aren’t may have got lucky during easier times, but they still earned what they have and did not steal it from anyone.

People are always trying to find someone to blame for the difficult situation we currently find ourselves in — one moment it’s the bankers, next it’s the entire baby boomer generation, and doubtless someone will come up with another before very long. The young rather like a lot of things the baby boomers achieved, or at least campaigned for (as they weren’t actually in charge in the 70s) such as racial and gender equality and disability rights legislation, the less repressive and racially divided culture we now live in, and the music they produced and other cultural products of that time. We also rather liked the easy credit and cheap technology and other luxury items from the Far East that came out of the Thatcher/Major and Blair eras, and few people complained or said the emperor had no clothes until the 2008 bust and we found that the jobs were gone because we’d destroyed our industries in the 1980s — instead, we elected a government of the super-rich who blamed the poor for their poverty.

While we argue over who is to blame for the state of Britain today, the state of it tomorrow is right now being decided by a bunch of obscenely wealthy men who are using the pretext of the debt “crisis” to tear apart the fabric of British society while using their press to demonise the victims. This is not the time for one generation to be fighting another; we should focus on what is being done to our society today, and unite to fight it.

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