The British Baby Boomer Generation: Are They The Most Fortunate of all Generations?

Photo credit: x-ray delta one via / CC BY-NC-SA

Whilst writing a previous article on the pros and cons of aging it occurred to me that those of us born post world war II may be able to consider ourselves one of the most fortunate generations of all. I was born in the early fifties and it was in 1957 when Harold McMillan coined his famous phrase “We’ve never had it so good”. The sixties were definitely ‘swinging’ as the younger generation began to shrug off the social mores’ of their parent’s and previous generations. It was certainly an ‘anything goes’ time. The generation gap was a huge gulf as our parents were shocked in a way that subsequent parents never have been, largely because anything our children got up to had already been done by us.

When I left school there was a choice between studying at university for which you could apply for a grant that didn’t have to be repaid. There was a plethora of jobs to choose from that didn’t require much in the way of qualifications and, if you chose to, could work your way up the ladder via the accrued acquisition of experience. There were apprenticeships aplenty where the majority of learning took place in the work arena and one day a week at a local Technical College was sufficient to learn the theoretical side of a subject. That’s probably a slightly over simplified version of events but it provides a general overview.

Job security was much more prevalent, zero contract hours just didn’t exist. That allowed us to plan our future finances, but in truth many didn’t feel the need to as work was generally always available and as long as you were contributing to the system there was a state pension awaiting for you at the end of your working life. It may not be large but it was still a safety net, previous generations were brought up to save as much as possible but of course if the living wage was very low that wasn’t possible. Previous generations also had to go cap in hand to the banks when a loan was required, my generation could borrow freely and never really worried too much about the future as there were so many opportunities available. Of course it was still important not to overstep our borrowing ability but the mortgage companies and banks were constantly bombarding us with leaflets and adverts encouraging us to borrow more money. All we had to do was talk to the loan manager, fill in a form and the money was instantly available, they didn’t really care too much about the ability to repay. Then 100% per cent mortgages became available, previously unthinkable, but it allowed the twenty plus generation of the 1990’s to buy their own homes. Of course that very large bubble burst with the crash of the financial sector in the late first decade of the 2000’s and we went back to the begging bowl when it came to borrowing.

Job security was much more prevalent, zero contract hours just didn’t exist. That allowed us to plan our future finances, but in truth many didn’t feel the need to as work was generally always available and as long as you were contributing to the system there was a state pension awaiting for you at the end of your working life

Renting a property was so much cheaper, even relatively speaking, compared to the astronomical prices of today’s rental sector and although I can’t speak for those renting in London, I bet it was still cheaper in relative terms than today’s market. I also remember that while renting in the private sector in the 1970’s I would receive, on an annual basis, a letter informing me I could appeal to have my rent reduced if I believed it to be too high. I can’t remember what body those letters came from but I never needed to use it as I considered my rent to be very reasonable. Councils houses were also much more in abundance, again, I don’t know what that was like for Londoners, or any other large city, but I do remember my in-laws being on an extremely long waiting list in the 1970’s for ground floor accommodation that they never did receive.

The selling of Council houses in the 1980’s was a two edged sword. On the one hand it allowed many people, who previously didn’t have a hope of getting onto the buyer’s market, a chance to own their own home (including my in-laws); on the other it greatly reduced the stock of available housing to those who couldn’t afford any mortgage whatsoever.  That, coupled with the lack of investment in new council housing stock, is having huge repercussions today as homelessness continues to rise at an alarming rate. Even those able to rent are often very much short changed in terms of the size and quality of the property.  As for getting a mortgage today, well unless you earn a small fortune or you and your partner’s combined earnings make it affordable, forget it. According to the Office of National Statistics (Feb 2016) the number of home owning 26-29 year olds decreased from 55% in 1996 to 30% in 2015; it also fell from 68% to 46% for 30-34 year olds. Absolutely shocking, with each generation it should, by rights, increase.

Every generation of parents always want their children to have more than they did and up until the last ten years or so that was more or less the case but it seems a whole generation appears to be making retrograde steps through no fault of their own. Of course one could blame those who choose to vote for a certain party, or those who don’t bother to vote at all, but that’s another argument I don’t wish to venture into and anyway, it’s not as straightforward as that is it?

On the subject of retirement my own generation have been short changed by the raising of the age of entitlement to the state pension but I fear that is nothing compared to what future generations may have to face. The age of retirement will undoubtedly increase again and who knows whether there will be a state pension available at all, the government think tanks are already looking at alternative solutions.

Unlike previous generations mine has enjoyed the benefits of free healthcare but if the rate at which sections of the NHS is being farmed out to the private sector I really fear for future generations. Having worked in the NHS for many years I know just how expensive everything is; I’m not sure how aware those who are not involved in the healthcare sector are about how much they will have to pay just to have a blood test.  I read recently that a blood test in the USA costs $100, (£80 at present), though I can’t say whether that is a standard price or not. I’m willing to bet that insurance premiums will not be low and if you have a chronic disorder it may not be possible to find a company willing to insure you at all. Legal aid was also freely available, it’s almost impossible to acquire now which leaves all low earners at the mercy of the unscrupulous.

Food banks just didn’t exist throughout my childhood and most of my adulthood, and I grew up in a time when the country was still recovering from the war!

I must make it clear that life hasn’t been a complete bowl of cherries for my generation. Jobs might have been in abundance but the choice of careers for women was pretty limited; shop assistant, hairdressing, teaching, nursing, was the order of the day. While other professions were not completely barred to women they were very difficult to get into and to progress in, much more so than today. Working mothers were rather frowned on and often blamed for child delinquency even though there was no proven connection. Divorce was a long drawn out nightmare until the ‘quickie’ divorce law was introduced and if the amount of maintenance awarded to the woman and children was not honoured it was impossible to retrieve as there was no Child Support Agency. I was also recently surprised to read that it was only in 1967 that criminalisation of homosexuality was repealed.  It is difficult enough now for people in both these categories but can you imagine just how much more difficult it was for them in previous decades? As for openly living with a gay partner and marrying them; believe me that would have caused a far, far bigger outcry than it most recently has.

Making jokes about Christianity caused a huge furore; I remember John Lennon of the Beatles saying they were as famous as Jesus Christ. Well you’d have thought he’d said he was a devil worshiper to hear the outrage and scorn poured on him by the general public and the media.

Swearing on the TV and radio was unheard of until a celebrity was heard saying ‘fuck’ (sometime in the 1970’s as I recall), he was sacked. In fact during my childhood the word ‘damn’ was considered a swearword. If my granny was to hear me now she’d turn in her grave several times over.

Paedophilia was barely heard of making it impossible (as we now know) for victims to be believed.

Oh how horribly racist we’ve been and even though it still exists in our country it was so much worse for previous generations. I mean slavery for Pete’s sake, it just beggars belief. I also remember the way in which black people were treated in the USA and in South Africa. In fact the reporting of the events of those years left a huge and lifelong impression on me.  I remember, young as I was at the time, wondering why on earth the colour of your skin could mark you out for such appalling treatment. Even as a young child I knew that I would have children and I vowed then that I would actively teach them to be non-racist. In fact it was intolerance and prejudice in all its forms that made me angry and still does. I talked to my children about religion versus evolution and allowed them to make their own choice in what to believe in. I also explained homosexuality to them when I deemed them old enough and to see it as a perfectly normal development for some members of the population, not as some sort of deviant behaviour.

I could go on to list many other downsides but all in all I do believe my generation has experienced the best of what our country has, and has had, to offer over centuries of generations especially the working class. One of our biggest fortunes, to my mind anyway, is never having had to be drafted in to fight a war. However with the present climate of divisiveness and resentment that seems to be coursing across the globe and, the inauguration of a certain man-child, I’m not sure how much longer that will last. I really do worry about what’s in store for future generations but I can only hope my fears are unfounded. What is that saying? Hope for the best, prepare for the worst; do younger generations feel that way I wonder?

Sorry to sound so pessimistic but when you’ve lived through the best times it’s much easier to make comparisons to the present and know exactly what has, and is being lost. Food banks just didn’t exist throughout my childhood and most of my adulthood, and I grew up in a time when the country was still recovering from the war! Rightly or wrongly it appears to me that, as a society, we are going backwards where the poor are regarded as architects of their own downfall and therefore do not deserve our help or pity. Or is it because we’re becoming more and more americanised where the poor are labelled ‘losers’ and it’s every man jack for himself (well certainly where the more fortunate members of that society are concerned). Whichever way you view it, it is important that we can look back and reflect honestly, asking ourselves the very important questions; what future do we want? and how can we learn from our past?


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Alexis is a keen gardener and Radio 4 enthusiast, currently enjoying her recent retirement from the healthcare profession and higher education.