The baby boomers' scorched inheritance
Published in: Daily Mail
Rock star Suzi Quatro, who scandalised parents back in the seventies with her raunchy biker image, releases a new album at the distinctly un-raunchy age of 55. Recently the Rolling Stones, fronted by 62 year-old Sir Mick Jagger, packed a million people into their concert in Rio de Janeiro on their sell-out world tour.
Live rock concerts are experiencing a renaissance fuelled in large measure by middle-aged fans - the 'baby-boomer' generation born in the great surge of procreation and optimism that took place between the end of World War Two and the early sixties. This is the generation that, through its sheer numbers and awesome purchasing power, has forged the culture of the post-war western world in its own image.
It is also a generation, I would argue, that is gripped by the need perpetually to rebel. But now there is a backlash. In a new book, 'Boomergeddon', California-based academic Mike Males says that that the popular view of the boomers as the happy, prosperous product of the post-war economic boom is way off the mark.
Californian boomers, he says, suffer staggeringly high levels of drug abuse, imprisonment and family instability. They have the worst rate of violent death; fatal drug overdoses between the ages of 40 and 60 have increased by 200 per cent over the past 35 years; and more and more of them have AIDS.
The young, meanwhile, who are demonised by their parents' generation and subjected to overwhelming and unnecessary restrictions, are moderating their smoking, drinking and drug use, while school drop-out rates, youth crime and teenage pregnancies and suicides are all down. The generation blame game has flipped on its head.
So is he right? And is the same phenomenon occurring in Britain?
Well, yes and no. Among some young people, whose parents had been in revolt against the authority of their own parents, there are some signs of a similar responsibility backlash. The generation that grew up in the sixties in a haze of dope, speed and LSD never kicked the habit. But those fifty-something parents who now think a line of coke is as banal as a cup of coffee are increasingly, I suspect, derided as desperately uncool by today's young.
Many young people have also learned first-hand the bitter cost of irresponsibility from the bust-up of their parents' marriages. Young women fret over whether there's a difficult choice to be made between motherhood and career. A new study by psychologists at Sheffield university has found that nine out of ten women think one-night stands are immoral, with some of the harshest moral judgments being made by younger women.
Middle-aged university teachers, fondly recalling their own radical and dissolute youth, marvel at how cautious and conservative their students are by contrast and how unwilling they are to take risks.
But in general, it is not true that the young have turned the corner that Males identifies in the US. The vast majority of British crime is still committed by young people; teenage pregnancy and school truancy are still huge problems; and the proportion of teenagers with mental health problems has doubled since 1980, with dramatic rises also in eating disorders, binge drinking and other addictions.
What Males seems not to acknowledge is that the reason American youngsters are now behaving better is because their parents' generation finally decided to reassert notions of responsibility and social order. Policies of zero tolerance against crime, sexual abstinence education or welfare reform - not to mention the jailing of large numbers of young male offenders --all drew moral lines in the sand and helped encourage a new climate of personal and social responsibility. In other words, the limits America placed on its young Americans are surely the reason their behaviour has improved.
In the United Kingdom, by contrast, there has been no such rethink by the boomer generation. Young people here are thus still suffering the effects of a generation that grew from childhood into immaturity and which, having taken power, has remade Britain in the image of the counter-culture of social revolt.
It is a general source of bewilderment that so many socially destructive, even nihilistic attitudes -the onslaught on the family, the dismantling of national identity, the promotion of 'victim culture' and the way punishment has been turned into a dirty word-have been promoted by judges, police officers, civil servants and others at the heart of the establishment. The reason is simply that the baby-boomers are now in control.
Of course, huge and complex cultural trends such as family breakdown, sexual licence or drug-taking can't all be laid at the boomers' door. Nevertheless, the impact of that generation upon our culture has been vast.
It is a telling point, for example, that in the fierce debate that took place in the Labour government soon after it came to power in 1997 over whether or not to support and promote marriage, the decision not to do so was made not by younger ministers who were quite open-minded, but by those over the age of 45 - the generation who still marched behind the banners of the ultra-feminist, family-smashing, bourgeois-hating radical politics of the sixties in which they had grown up.
So why have the boomers had so much influence? And why have they used it to such socially destructive ends?
The key to their influence has been their affluence. Born into a long period of rare peace and security, they benefited from the economic prosperity and full employment of the post-war era. Along with the stupendous scientific advances that followed, such material comfort fostered the illusion that there were no limits to what could be achieved within the most enlightened society and in the most enlightened age ever known to mankind, and by the most enlightened people - themselves.
Such monumental and unchallenged self-regard created in turn the assumption that the road to utopia lay through the pursuit of personal fulfilment. Self-indulgence was thus a virtue, and all external constraints were a form of enslavement.
Their unprecedented prosperity therefore gave the boomers the means finally to flesh out trends going back to the nineteenth century, arising from the collapse of religious belief and the emergence of a doctrine of radical individualism. This had been held in check by the national emergencies of two world wars and a depression, but after 1945 there was no longer any impediment to letting rip with a cult of 'me', a licence to be irresponsibly self-indulgent and never grow up.
I am part of that golden cohort of baby-boomers. I watched as the people with whom I had grown up through the sixties and gone to university in the seventies worked their way into positions of power and authority. But the bizarre fact was that many never left their adolescent rebelliousness behind. Instead they brought the revolt against authority with them, so that the cult of the individual became entrenched as the establishment position.
In 1969, when I was 17, I encountered Germaine Greer who was yet to publish The Female Eunuch and become the high priestess of the sexual liberation of women. In a university admissions interview, she informed my then admiring self (yes, I was young too, once!) that the purpose of going to university was to smoke dope, sleep around and have a good time.
Dr Greer is now a national treasure and recently even curtsied to the Queen at a reception for Australian expatriates. But the smashing of taboos that she advocated shows no sign of abating. Cannabis has been reclassified - monstrously - as not very harmful, while advice on sleeping around is now handed out not to 17 year-olds but to seven year-olds.
In 1967, Jerry Garcia of the group the Grateful Dead said: 'We know what we're trying to do. We're trying to grow up.' Garcia died in a drug rehabilitation unit and his generation never managed to grow up. Instead, a whole society got stuck in a groove of permanent adolescence.
The desire to shock, a chief characteristic of adolescence, now defines high fashion. Think Gilbert and George, the middle-aged performance artists whose speciality is depicting bodily fluids and sexual acts; think the cult TV series Little Britain, which has won plaudits for its cruelty and crudity.
This is the generation of permanent youth. Thus the Prime Minister uses his attachment to his Fender Stratocaster electric guitar to suggest that he is still the same guy who played in the Ugly Rumours band at Oxford in the seventies. Mintel reports that one in four baby-boomers would rather attend rock concerts than the opera; the same people are also heavily into buying Harley Davidson motorbikes, Hornby train-sets and Arctic Monkeys albums. Sad, or what?
This is also the generation for which 'no sell out' was a mantra; they would be true to their youthful ideals for ever, as proof of their superior consistency and virtue. The passage of the years has bestowed upon such pieties an unmistakeable aura of humbug.
As the American writer Joe Queenan says in his book Balsamic Dreams which has just been published in Britain, the boomers were the first generation who sold out while insisting that they had not. 'They professed to go with the flow', he writes, ' but it was actually the cash flow'.
Thus they dress in jeans and a single earring and wear their hair in ponytails (and that's the men) but live in