British society is seriously divided by many different issues; Left v Right, Leave v Remain, North v South, Urban v Rural, to name but a few. During my 70 years, I’ve seen nothing like it. People holding different views and taking different political positions are features of a working democracy. But today, the lack of tolerance and mutual respect between people of opposing views and the venom and aggression that now goes with it, has become a cancer within our society.
Perhaps one of the saddest divisions is between the generations and, in particular, between the Millennials and the Baby Boomers.
Every generation, as it comes of age, thinks the generations before it are out of touch, risk averse and against change. That has probably been true since mankind first appeared on this planet; and it’s likely to have been a key driver of social progression. But it’s usually been accompanied by mutual understanding that enables the younger generations to build on the achievements of the older ones. Unfortunately, this is, increasingly, no longer the case. The Millennials often resent the wealth, which the Baby Boomers have built up, during their lifetimes, and the Baby Boomers tend to be frustrated because they believe that the Millennials want everything on a plate.
If we’re going to resolve this schism, we need to understand not just what has driven the Baby Boomer generation but what has driven both their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. The Millennials then have to develop their own ways to build on the achievements of the past.
As a baby boomer, I grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War. My parents grew up in the aftermath of the First World War and my grandparents were born into a society with a rigid class structure, governed by strict Victorian values and protocols.
The end of WW1 was accompanied by an irresistible momentum for change and there began a massive social upheaval, as the Victorian social structure started to break down. My grandparents’ generation, sickened by the futile slaughter of millions of people, in the war, drove that change. Their generation had a cause; and it was to make life better for their children and for the generations to come.
Unfortunately, the onset of WW2 brought their hopes and aspirations to a halt; and by the end of that war, they had begun handing over the baton to my parent’s generation, which probably masterminded the biggest social change, this country has ever seen. And I believe that not only does my generation owe them a huge debt but so too does the Millennial Generation.
My grandparents’ generation was responsible for the breakdown of the old Victorian social structure, but my parent’s generation oversaw the introduction of the welfare state and the NHS, as well as the dismantling of the Empire and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Their achievements were awesome and have had a huge positive impact on every man, woman and child, alive in this country today.
So what about the Baby Boomers? Well, we were born into a society that had been ravaged by war. Communities had been ripped apart by the slaughter of so many people and the destruction of so much housing and infrastructure. Food was rationed; wages were low; poverty was rife; very few households had central heating, double glazing, fridges, freezers, telephones, cars or television. Few people had foreign holidays and life was challenging to say the least.
By the time we Baby Boomers were reaching our teens, the welfare state was up and running, the comprehensive education system was being developed and university education was, in effect, free. But as only 5% of school leavers went on to university, comparatively few baby boomers benefited from it.
So what has been our contribution? Well, we’ve probably done two things. The first is that we continued our parent’s and grandparent’s drive to bring about a more caring and tolerant society with a more liberal culture. The second is that after a fairly disastrous economic period after the war, we rebuilt this country’s wealth; and herein lies the source of conflict with the Millennial generation.
We talk glibly today about austerity, poverty, deprivation, homelessness, the housing crisis etc. and I don’t want to imply that these are not real issues. They are real problems for some people. But they are not comparable with the severity of the austerity, poverty, deprivation, homelessness and lack of decent housing that existed when the Baby Boomer generation was born. The Millennials have been born into a wealthy society, where the standard of living for most people is amongst the highest in the world and most Millennials have no real concept of the conditions, into which the baby boomers were born. That is, of course, a good thing because it means that they are benefiting from the things that my grandparent’s, my parent’s and my own generations have strived for.
However, the Baby Boomers are now handing the baton over and the Millennials have a choice. They can either continue to look for ways of redistributing wealth from the Baby Boomers to themselves, in which case their collective wealth will decline because they will be living off depreciating assets rather than creating new ones, or they can pick up the baton, handed down from past generations, and build on what has gone before.
Sadly, we currently have a cohort of politicians, bent on telling people how bad things are in this country; and we have a media that laps up as much bad news as it can. The impression gained by the Millennial generation tends, therefore, to be quite negative. And yet in the lifetime of the Baby Boomers life for the vast majority of us has been fundamentally and dramatically transformed for the better. That is not to say there aren’t still significant problems left to resolve; there most certainly are. But it is now for the Millennial generation to tackle those problems; and they must ignore the sirens of doom and gloom and remember that they pick up the baton, starting from a stronger position than any generation before them.