Tuesday, 7 September 2010


There has been another exchange in the press recently about baby boomers.  On the one hand, young people wishing to start out in life on their own believe that the older generation had it easy and still have it easy today, luxuriating in their retirement, whilst jobs, homes and benefits are in short supply; on the other hand, older folks think they have only the champagne and foreign travel that they deserve and that youngsters should stop whingeing and get their fingers out.

It is the (relatively) new Government and the severe cuts they are having to make in spending that has prompted this new exchange of recriminations.  But the debate has in fact been going on for years.  To be honest, I, one of those selfish baby boomers, was quite taken aback at the ferocity of one article I read recently by some 20-something.  I have never felt I was luxuriating.  I still have to scrimp to do what I do and I only benefit from anything easy to the extent that I don’t have to leap out of bed in the morning (nor go to bed yet) and can only spend what little I receive from pension and lifelong investment (pretty pathetic income at present) because I have scrimped for a very long time and managed in the process to pay off my mortgage.  As usual in these things, the truth is somewhere in between the two extreme views.

I accept that university degrees are not a guarantee of a job these days and that probably they were in my youth.  But, in my youth, gaining a university place was pretty tough.  One change that happened during my younger years was that the number of universities was near enough doubled.  This meant that many more students had the opportunity of further education.  I didn’t succeed in gaining entry to a university and so the benefit of a degree was irrelevant in my case.  What was important though was that instead I worked all hours under the sun and managed to save some money for my future.

Many more university places means many more graduates, but not necessarily many more jobs.  I accept that there are not so many ‘good’ jobs around at the moment.  But one unfortunate outcome of widely available tertiary education is that expectations are higher.  Britain is still the same as it was 30 years ago in the sense that there are jobs and workers which more or less match up (actually there may be fewer dirty manufacturing jobs and more cleaner desk jobs around now), but having achieved academically, it is an apparent disappointment or lessening of standards to undertake work that involves physical, rather than intellectual, effort.  I really feel for those who might have had higher expectations, but in fact the same competition for much the same jobs exists now as it always did.

The main area which might arguably have been different in my youth is the general entrepreneurial one in the creative industries.  It seemed that there were young people everywhere starting up businesses or performing.  This phenomenon was hardly unexpected, as post-war hardship and gloom gave way to freedom and relative prosperity.  But none of this came on a plate and for every Mary Quant and Beatle there were at least as many failures.  But I can understand how today’s graduates may have come to expect that the job they want should just be there when they want it.

I have resisted talking about my youth in detail before because I know I sound like a grumpy old man, but never the less it genuinely wasn’t easy.  OK, we had new found freedoms, but that mostly manifested itself amongst my friends in partying.  Parties in those days consisted of gathering in each other’s homes, playing a few records which we all brought with us, dancing and, for those that could afford it, beer.  I usually managed to buy myself a couple of bottles of beer on a Saturday night and maybe once during the week met up with friends in a pub for a pint.  It’s not that I object to binge drinking, but it seems to me that the habit comes from lack of direction and responsibility rather than anything else.  Of course it signals that a jolly good time has been had, but it contrasts so markedly with my youth.  My friends couldn’t afford spirits, we didn’t have wine anyway in those days, and a pint down the pub was often mild and bitter, a cheap form of beer I don’t think you can still get today.  I would probably have enjoyed the odd binge too, but my Mum couldn’t really afford to keep me in beer and food.  The loss-leading supermarkets of today didn’t exist and takeaway food for us was a bag of chips on Friday evening.  I think this practice came from a sort of celebration of the man of the house bringing home a pay packet on Friday.  A restaurant meal was a very rare pleasure indeed for us.

And I knew that, saving money by not going out, I was putting something away which would help me in due course set up a home of my own.  When the time came to move away from home, I had saved the equivalent of a half year’s salary.  The only house I could afford then was a sort of shed in the middle of Essex, 4 hours away from my parental home and 2 hours train and underground journey from where I worked in London.  For the next few years I lived on home-made sandwiches and only went home to sleep.  I didn’t much like it, but in that way I got my foot (well, toe anyway) on the property ladder.  I know, I know, you lived in a cardboard box in the middle of the motorway.

But the main difference in modern times is simply the way in which convenience is now built-in.  Supermarkets, prepared foods, takeaway meals, inexpensive fashion, inexpensive booze, affordable technology – none of this, normal today, existed in my youth.  One of my jobs at home used to be to cut buttons off old shirts.  My Mum reused the buttons and the shirts became cleaning cloths.  We don’t do that now of course.  And I still think the ultimate decadence is buying plastic bags each week simply to throw away filled with my rubbish.  And making one’s own sandwiches and a flask of tea to consume at the desk is no doubt seen as laughable these days.

The point is not that I had it tough, but that these modern advances make it very hard for today’s young to economise or to endure inconvenience and very easy for the elderly to luxuriate in having come to the end of their hardship.

It’s not that I feel I have earned the right to be selfish, nor that I think the young should stop moaning.  But I have earned the wherewithal to help my own family get a start in life.  I have also earned the free time to spend most of my daylights hours giving back to the community in a variety of voluntary ways.  And occasionally I can afford to buy a newspaper and sit in a café and drink a cappuccino too.  But I can’t afford that every day even now.  But, equally, I don’t find it easy to hear people say they don’t want certain jobs or can’t live in certain areas.  There may be some good reason why the young person who complained about baby boomers has no help from her family or from the voluntary sector in her community, but I am happy to say that it’s not the case round here and certainly not my fault.

I do sympathise, I really do, with young people who can’t get the job they want or can’t afford the house they want, but I can’t really see the essential difference with what I and my friends had to endure.  I see how hard it is to forego pleasure and leisure, especially when so many footballers and pop and reality TV performers are able to wear the latest fashions and drink in the trendiest clubs and jet off to the most desirable destinations (and maybe also with the sight of their grandparents seemingly sitting in the garden forever).  But these choices are the sorts one has to make in this thing called life.

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent blog, Nomad!

    My parents worked themselves to the very bone to make ends meet. I watched them do it every day (never mind that I resented them for it because I wanted to go to the beach and whatnot), and, sadly, I did not seem to inherit their hard work ethic.

    I'm from the microwave era: press a button and you've got what you want, and I'm not just referring to reheats. My kids are worse than I. They don't even know where the microwave is. They expect things to be produced for them before they even ask for them, for I am the mother and, therefore, I should know these things, right?

    Easier, faster, better, nicer. But not always the best, is it?