The selfish generation

Finally, baby boomers are being forced to worry about the future. About time, thinks Nick Cohen
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YOU can always find people who draw comfort from the illusion that their generation is special. Membership of an exclusive group compensates for individual mediocrity in much the same way that nationalism makes the meanest Serb feel mighty and Eton makes the silliest boy feel superior. But there is no generation so self-absorbed and self-satisfied as the children of the 1960s who now dominate public life.

Take the past month's media coverage of events either meaningless or tedious to anyone under 45 or over 65. There have been huge features on the 25th anniversary of a pop festival on the Isle of Wight ("The bitter death-cry of the pure hippie dream", the Guardian), elegies to an obscure musician called Jerry Garcia ("He's dead but his fans will always be grateful", the Times) and reports about the debris of a band which has not made a record since 1970 ("Beatles magic is on offer at pounds 1m rock sale", the Independent).

The baby boomers' obsession with the past is now being replaced by fear for the future. Last week, the market research company Mintel reported that the 45- to 64-year-olds, most of whom were young in the 1960s, are plagued by job insecurity and demands for money. They cannot live well - become "self-contained, comfortably off, empty-nester couples", as Mintel puts it - because, as soon as they stop supporting their penurious children, who remain dependent well into their twenties, they are having to pay for the care of their elderly parents.

The insecurity of the middle-aged is the subject of the moment. Nervous backbench Conservatives tell their ministers that something must be done about the housing market and paying for care for the elderly if the party is to have a faint chance of winning the next election.

Yet there is nothing new about insecurity. What used to be called the working class has faced it since the collapse of manufacturing industry in the early 1980s. The young have been dealing with it since the mid- 1980s, as they know all too well and economists are just starting to recognise. But it is only when the baby boomers finally suffer the consequences of Thatcherism that fear is put on the agenda and the cries of pain grow shrill.

It is strange to think of the 1960s generation as a complacent and smug bourgeoisie. After all, they have always presented themselves as caring, compassionate, tolerant and idealistic; the few who once went to the barricades for the sake of the poor and oppressed talk of their revolutionary past with pride.

This heroic image has been perversely bolstered by the Conservatives who like to blame everything that has gone wrong in British society on the liberal 1960s rather than on their party which has been in power for 16 years. Thus Michael Portillo, in a speech last year, blamed the lack of public respect for the monarchy, Parliament and religion on people bred in 1960s universities where "to be cynical was fashionable and anti- Establishment de rigueur". John Major blames resistance to sending yet more people to overcrowded prisons on "the orthodoxies of the 1960s, which still hold sway in social work". Lack of discipline and poor standards in schools are invariably blamed by such people as John Redwood on sloppy, sentimental ideas about children from - where else? - the 1960s.

Yet there is little evidence that the baby boomers are specially radical, let alone dangerously subversive. They enjoyed the benefits of a social democratic welfare state, then, by the million, voted to allow Margaret Thatcher to get her claws into it. The graduates and school leavers of the 1960s and 1970s went to a world of full employment, jobs for life and cheap housing. Those in well-paid work after 1979 then went on to enjoy tax cuts as the Conservatives redistributed wealth from poor to rich.

There are many well-known examples of 1960s renegades who celebrate this shift in attitudes. Mary Kenny, whose love life led to the poet James Fenton minting the euphemism "Ugandan discussions" for Private Eye, now condemns feminism and sexual freedom in the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. Janet Daley supported socialism in her youth and condemns it in her middle age in the Times. Paul Johnson (who was not actually so young even in the 1960s) turned from greeting the 1968 Paris student revolt with Wordsworth's "bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" to heaping praise on Margaret Thatcher for her "strength" and "determination".

But more telling evidence comes from a Gallup study of how different generations behave at the polls. In the 1979 general election campaign, the generation that was 18 when the students in Paris, Prague and Chicago (and, more modestly, in London and Colchester) rose up, was in its late twenties. According to voter surveys, 45 per cent of the class of 1968 voted Tory compared to 40 per cent of first-time voters. Roughly the same pattern could be seen in the 1987 election. By the time of the 1992 election the gap had widened: 45 per cent of the 1960s generation backed the Tories while just 37 per cent of young voters supported John Major.

In other words, the materialistic children of Thatcherism have been less inclined to support the Conservatives than the supposed radicals from the 1960s. Andrew Brown, from Gallup, said: "There's just no evidence at all that the counter culture of the 1960s had any long-lasting effect on how the people who went through it voted in later life." It may, he conceded, have given them more tolerant attitudes to the sexuality of others. But then recognising that gays have the right to live their lives in peace costs nothing; putting the needs of the poor before the desire for tax cuts is expensive.

And the poor are more often young than middle-aged. In sharp contrast to their elders, the children who came of age in the 1980s had to confront mass unemployment, casual work, declining state support and an absurdly expensive housing market. I am 34 and I can still remember the shock of many of my contemporaries at university in the early 1980s who, after paying attention in lectures and jumping through all the exam hoops, discovered that the only options open to them were unemployment or brain-numbing jobs well below their abilities. "What happened to the middle-class dream?" we wailed.

Since then, the position of the young has worsened. The Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics recently examined levels of insecurity in the British job market and found that the young, not the middle-aged, were bearing the brunt of the move to "down-sizing" and "flexibility". New entrants to the job market were very likely to start work in firms that would grant only short-term contracts or part-time work. Job turnover among the young was high and money was tight. Although the pay of those already in work increased substantially during the 1980s, the real wages of people entering employment for the first time did not rise between 1979 and 1989.

There are, said Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth from the LSE centre, two labour markets in Britain. The first is for those who still have stable, full-time jobs - and it is a nice place if you are a member. The second is for marginal workers - "the young, the unskilled and the old" - who face reduced wages and the ever-present threat of dismissal. Much the same conclusion has been reached by the liberal think-tank Demos. A study of 18- to 34-year-olds, which will be published next month, describes their careers as inherently unstable.

"Working on short-term contracts is the norm," said Helen Wilkinson, director of the research project. "The young are in a very different position from the 1960s generation. Even if there are some 1960s types in their late forties facing job insecurity now, they have enjoyed decades of secure, stable work which many people in their twenties today have never and will never have."

Ms Wilkinson, a 30-year-old who is kept on short-term contracts by Demos, predicts that there will be conflict between the generations - particularly when today's working young are asked to pay taxes for the pensions and health care of the baby boomers.

There is something to be said for her incendiary forecast. Now I come to think about it, I realise I don't want to subsidise Ms Kenny and Ms Daley and Messrs Redwood and Portillo as they descend into dotage, and would take to the streets in support of any movement which promised to release me from the burden.

But perhaps there is a better way. The insecurity that for at least a decade has been afflicting the young and the working class has now spread to the middle-aged and middle class. Is there any chance that a meeting of minds will follow? Might the baby boomers rediscover the virtues of employment protection laws, minimum wages, trade unions and all the other means ordinary people have devised to protect themselves against the market? I doubt it, but live in hope.