Baby boomer Austin Powers in Swinging London before his later career as a Brexit campaigner

September 10, 2021   7 mins

“Never trust anyone over 30” was a sentiment first voiced by a Berkeley activist in 1964, sentiments echoed the following year with The Who hit “My Generation”, with its famous line “Hope I die before I get old”.

The modern world’s cultural divide dates to the Sixties, a sort of second Reformation that was to start with a generational conflict between a cohort raised in sacrifice and patriotism, and one that wanted to change the world with peace and love. And shagging, obviously.

As it transpired, only the Who’s drummer Keith Moon died before reaching middle age, while lead singer Roger Daltrey would go onto become a prominent supporter of Brexit, the biggest generation-dividing issue in British political history.

It’s fitting, for an age cohort which first popularised generational warfare has gone onto become its biggest punchbags. Today the “Boomers” are the subject of intense rage among their impoverished descendants; although just as Henry Kissinger famously said that the Battle of the Sexes can never be won because there is too much fraternisation, so too with generational jihad.

Still, Britain’s twenty-somethings have just spent a year under house arrest, losing money and, even worse, one of their best quality of life years (it doesn’t get better, I’m afraid). This was ostensibly in order to protect that most beloved of baby boomers, the NHS, but in reality the generation most vulnerable to Covid and who account for the majority of NHS spending — those born before 1960. Now they are being asked to put their hands in their pocket once again to help pay for the elderly care of the luckiest generation in history.

Britain might not have leaders as old as America’s but it’s arguably more of a gerontocracy. When in 2017 Theresa May suggested that people’s assets might be needed to fund their increasingly expensive care needs, the proposal, dubbed the “dementia tax”, helped destroy her electoral prospects. Her successor Boris Johnson will not make the same mistake, and so the money to pay for care will instead come from a new, additional form of National Insurance, paid by taxpayers across all age ranges — including the 89% of young people who have no housing assets.

The Tories seemingly have no choice. While British politics has gone through a great realignment since 2016, with political loyalties now based on values rather than economic views, it’s also about home ownership, car use, rural v urban — but most of all age. This latter divide is not only unprecedented in British political history, but is far more pronounced than the age divide among our neighbours; indeed, in France and Italy the young vote more for radical Right parties than the old.

It is most of all in Britain where there has grown a great divide between the Sixties generation and their descendants. It is here where the governing party serves the interest of older voters so devotedly, without any real consideration about what happens next. But then it’s fitting for a generation which never thought about posterity.

“Baby boomer” is an Americanism, first used to denote the enormous rise in fertility that took place in that country from 1945-1960, a result of the unprecedented prosperity of post-war America, and the sexual conservatism that followed the conflict. Britain had a slightly different experience, with a relatively small baby-boom in the late 40s and a later surge that peaked in 1965, five years later than the States (the latter cohort, sometimes referred to as Britpoppers, also have outsize generational weight).

Whatever we call them, those born in the late 1940s or 50s have been blessed with a freakish level of good fortune, something that my generation could never hope to enjoy. As for the group younger than me — doomed to perpetual exclusion from the London housing market, a Black Mirror-style dystopia where everything they do remains on record, and a brutally unequal dating market that resembles the world of Steppes warlords — the idea of paying more tax to ensure that the luckiest generation in history has a smoother exit must be infuriating.

The blessed generation didn’t have it easy to start with. Around 3 in 100 children born in 1950 died before their fifth birthday, compared to about 1 in 100 when I first appeared in 1978 and around 1 in 250 today. (But for the baby-boomers’ parents, 1 in 10 didn’t make it.) Absolute poverty would have been by today’s standards dreadful, with half of all household’s lacking even a bath. Today’s lucky “Zoomers” can of course expect to have a shower in their first flat-share, even if it might be en suite in the kitchen.

Growing up in the 1950s, things like flu and pneumonia would still have been a serious threat, and I imagine that a great deal of generational attitudes towards Covid risk were informed by this relative life experience; the Asian Flu of that decade was far more dangerous to teenagers than Covid, but no restrictions were ever really considered.

But if you survived those early years, you were officially part of the luckiest generation in history – especially since we tend to compare our lives with our parents, and their mums and dads had a terrible time.

Assuming you were born after May 1946 at the latest, you would have avoided losing a father in the war. You would have dodged National Service, abolished in 1960, and so unlike your American counterparts had no fear of being sent to Vietnam.

Your childhood would have coincided with the least violent years in British history, and crime would not reach its catastrophic modern levels until you were out of adolescence (and so most at risk of street violence). Muggings, a ubiquitous misery for the next generation raised in London, would have been unknown to you; indeed, this Americanism was not even popularised until you were already grown-up.

You would have been the last free-range children, able to walk a huge amount on your own, partly because there was far less fear of crime, although much of our urban fabric had already been surrendered to cars and your chance of being killed by one was high.

You might have gone on an extended hippy trail, visiting Iran, Afghanistan and a wider Islamic world that has become increasingly dangerous for subsequent generations (although eastern Europe was largely out of bounds). You would have enjoyed the great satire boom, and the decline of cultural restrictions, before the arrival of their newer — and in many ways more intolerant — replacements.

You would have come of age at the most perfect time in history to be young; although the sexual revolution in reality started a fair bit earlier than the 1960s, it certainly accelerated with the use of birth control and more permissive attitudes. This coincided with a uniquely creative period in music, led by the greatest band of all time.

Penicillin had become widely available during the Second World War, and the first cases of HIV would not be noticed until the late 1970s, so you would have enjoyed a unique period with no real fear of sexually transmitted disease. When I was growing up in the 1980s the Government was busy bombarding us with terrifying adverts featuring tombstones, warning us that if we so much as unzipped our trousers we’d end up with an incurable wasting disease. As it turned out, the risk to heterosexuals from HIV was low, but the same was not true of chlamydia, and today one in 20 young people in some parts of London have the illness.

But then, inevitably, the downsides of the sexual revolution weren’t going to affect those directly involved in it, but rather their children and grandchildren. It was a Ponzi scheme as much as the welfare system serving the baby boomers is a Ponzi scheme, with later generations being left with the bill; already Generation X and Millennials have worse health than their parents, partly due to far greater drug and alcohol use that came about following the Sixties. Similarly, the decline of marriage and the nuclear family only hit Britain in the 1980s, the actual 1960s generation largely unaffected.

As a young baby boomer you probably didn’t go to university, but then you would have lived in cheap, central accommodation surrounded by lots of other young people with opportunities for fun, and complete independence; effectively the sort of setting universities try to recreate today, because it is otherwise unavailable.

A modern-day time traveller visiting Austin Power’s Swinging Sixties, as seen in the 2017 documentary My Generation, would have been startled by how young it felt. Not only was London youthful, but so were its desirable areas. Today the most noticeable thing about high-end London districts like Chelsea or Highgate is the ancientness; few young families can live there, let alone people in their 20s. This is, of course, relates to the real issue at the heart of the generational divide: the catastrophe of housing costs, which means even far less salubrious parts of London are unaffordable.

It was long assumed that rising house prices were a healthy sign, the tabloid obsession with the subject being a running joke. Not enough people cared that it was a bubble, and that with all bubbles it would eventually become too expensive for new players to join. Few pointed out that we should have been saving instead. No one observed that during that remarkable period of growth, late 19thcentury Britain, house prices actually declined. Victorians wouldn’t have tolerated runaway housing costs because they cared about posterity.

Housing inflation is one reason that the percentage of millionaire-pensioners has risen from from 7% in 2008 to 25% in 2018. It’s why, when the baby boomers were young, the average pensioner was much, much poorer than the population while today there are more pensioners in the top fifth than bottom. They have enjoyed immense asset wealth, never to be repeated.

It is not their fault as individuals that the housing bubble coincided with the lifetime of the generation that had everything. But it’s unfortunate for those that follow, and unfortunate for the Tory Party which, being dependent on the support of homeowners, has therefore increasingly come to rely on older voters as a voting block.

I wouldn’t say those born around the millennium are the unluckiest of people – 1895 would have been a bummer. But, growing up after the financial crisis and austerity, and with house prices still increasing 10% per year, it must seem hopeless at times. It is especially frustrating for younger voters who align with the Tories on cultural or economic issues and dread a Labour government, yet see a party entirely devoted towards serving the luckiest generation.

Boomers, the group that got to enjoy the Beatles and the Stones, Hair, the Isle of Wight Festival and the hippy trail, have grown old to become synonymous with an aimless and short-term vision of conservatism, locked in a deathly embrace with the Tory Party, the last chapter in the incredible story of a truly lucky group of people.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable