Ever since the baby boom generation first arrived on the world scene six decades ago, they have been the spoilt kids on the block. We (because I am one of them) were delivered in well-run maternity hospitals where our mothers could stay for a week if necessary, rather than being turned out after a day. Our families had subsidised housing if we needed it. Our early school years had perks like free apples and milk, and our free education extended right through university.
We entered a workforce where there was full employment and lots of secure state sector jobs. In my country we could capitalise on the child allowance to raise the deposit for our first home. We had free hospital care (and in school, free dental care) and still have it for all essentials. We still have a modest pension to look forward to — and God help the government that shifts the goalposts before we start to collect; it won’t survive the next election.
Now that we are on the brink of collecting, however, the rumbles of envy and discontent from generations X and Y are growing in volume. “Thanks a bunch, you baby boomers,” says Financial Times editor Frederick Studemann snarkily, after writing us down as a self-indulgent lot who refuse even to grow old and, finally, grow up:
“As they kite-surf their way through their self-indulgent later years, the boomers exude the smug self-assurance of those who feel entitled to have it all. Far from fading away gracefully, they are defiant in their refusal to grow old, almost delighting in proving to later generations that when it comes to being young, they got there first.”
What really gets up his nose, though, is the sense that boomers have left the world worse than they found it:
“This might all be just about bearable if they had not made such a mess of things. Yes, freedom of the individual and personal fulfilment are undoubtedly laudable. But my, did they come with a cost, as we now pick up the tab for decades of boomer debt-fuelled, take-now-pay-later consumerism that has blighted economies and ravaged the planet. Add to that the less measurable costs of an atomised, more self-obsessed “broken” society and it all makes for quite a clean-up job.
“So for us latecomers, not only did we just miss out on joining the party, we now get to clear up the mess. We are essentially little more than glorified pooper-scoopers.”
Well, it would be easy to catalogue the good things that boomers have done in the past 40 years. There’s jumbo jets, the Internet, fast food and umm… But let us face squarely the accusation of self-indulgence and letting the world go to hell in a handcart.
Here we should think carefully about something Mr Studemann merely hints at — with his reference to a “broken” society and, elsewhere in his piece, to “the once-forbidden fruits delivered by cultural and social liberation” — but which a British judge this week articulated with brutal clarity. Namely, the broken, desperate state of the family in large swaths of society.
A boomer himself, married for 36 years and with three children, Sir Paul Coleridge has been involved in family law throughout his career and has been a family court judge for eight years. He has spoken out more than once over the past year or so about family breakdown in his society, calling it “an epidemic”, a “never-ending carnival of human misery” and a “cancer” that is leaving countless children scarred for life. Speaking to family lawyers last year he said that the widespread collapse of the family unit “is a threat to the nation as bad as terrorism, crime, drugs or global warming.”
And who is responsible for that? Baby boomers, I’m afraid; and it is very much more to the shame of our generation that this is so, because we are the ones who, except for a small minority, grew up in intact families, with mothers and fathers committed to each other in marriage and separated only by death. We are the ones who had brothers and sisters, because our parents were not dominated by materialism and beguiled by the promises of “efficient” birth control.
But we are also the ones who awarded ourselves no-fault divorces, handed out no-strings-attached welfare benefits to single mothers, put our daughters on the contraceptive pill and smiled indulgently on our sons’ “relationships”. Who acquiesced in abortion on demand to tidy up some of the mess we created, but simply made it easier to use a woman and then dump her. Who invented, in the words of Justice Coleridge, the game of “musical relationships” and “pass the partner”.
We, and our well-schooled offspring, “especially among the chattering classes,” to quote the judge, “assume that we have attained a social utopia, in which we are entirely and happily free from taboos, stigmas and other constraints on behaviour.
“But surely the test of any social change is whether it enhances people's lives or makes them more miserable. And this is where I take issue with the modern view of the family. If it is so successful, why are the statistics for separation so large? More significantly, why are the family courts overwhelmed with cases involving damaged, miserable or disturbed children? How do other children, caught up in less serious separations, really feel? Do they relish the endless changes of partner, or adapting to a new step-parent and step-siblings?”
In short, boomers have presided over societies like “Breakdown Britain” in which one in three marriages end in divorce, one in ten children lives with cohabiting parents and one in four lives with a single parent; in which, to quote the judge again, “in some of the more heavily populated urban areas family life is in meltdown or completely unrecognisable”, affecting the mental health of countless parents and children.
So, fellow boomers, it would as well not to whinge if our pensions turn out to be not as generous as we had expected when they have been through the recession mill; after all, we produced half as many children as our parents to keep us in the style to which we are accustomed, while making it morally and financially difficult for them to settle into committed adult life.
Better than keeping quiet, however, would be to start making noises about the right things. Justice Coleridge has called for a social response to the catastrophe he describes: a national commission to examine all the issues surrounding family life, perhaps, but definitely the “reaffirmation of marriage as the gold standard” of family life, and “a new stigma” attaching to whatever or whoever would destroy “relationships”. (He felt obliged to recognise long-term cohabitation as well.)
It is time for boomers to make amends, to hang up their surfboards and earn their pensions by taking a discreet but purposeful interest in the “relationships” of the younger generations. Most still want to be married and have children, and we should be encouraging them to take the surest path to a happy and stable family life. We know what it is and it’s certainly not pass the partner; our parents did it right on the whole, and we could finally pay them the compliment of acknowledging that theirs was the better way.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.