Baby boomers. The luckiest generation ever to have lived. Bolstered by the postwar settlement, which favoured egalitarianism, we enjoyed the spoils of peace. Our ambitions were everyone’s ambitions. We saw that the daughter of a shopkeeper could go to Oxbridge, a wife and mother could enjoy a career, and a woman could rise to become prime minister, then set about dismantling the system that had brought her such benefit.
Margaret Thatcher didn’t much like baby boomers, even though she thrived in the atmosphere we created. Maybe she had a point. Baby boomers have proved to be not only lucky but also selfish. We have pulled up so many of the ladders we climbed.
A study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that people born in the early 1980s have half the wealth that people born in the 70s had accumulated by the same stage in their lives. No wonder. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, a process began that saw unemployment rise steeply, social housing stocks diminish rapidly, and schools and hospitals become deeply dysfunctional from lack of funds.
A term was coined for those at the sharp end of all this. They were “the underclass”, their problem being “social exclusion”. Which, in a capitalist society, is of course a politely victim-blaming way of describing economic exclusion. Economic exclusion hampers the ability to accumulate assets. Who would have thought it?
Surprisingly few people, it seems. Lessons have not been learned – not by the right people anyway. Austerity is the political process by which the most vulnerable suffer in order to protect the interests of the least vulnerable.
The least vulnerable are, of course, the economically included. Since the early 80s, their own ability to accumulate assets has only been enhanced. The repairing and rebuilding of the schools and hospitals that had been run down as a consequence of swingeing cuts in public service funding? The economically included were invited to invest in such ventures, for a highly advantageous and guaranteed return. They are largely baby boomers, of course. The sick, disabled people, the disadvantaged – they visit food banks so that the price of the 2008 intervention against the credit crunch can be paid. What chance do their children stand?
Young people today have so much to fear. They pay high rents on low pay, even if they have a degree and the commensurate debt such self-improvement now entails. If wages are to be low, then infrastructure has to be supportive. Yet it’s now almost impossible for a young person to snag an affordable home in a place where employment can also be had. Commuting isn’t too great an option, since the cost of travel, and sometimes its unreliability, is so prohibitive. Being sensible, and setting aside money for a pension? Not when you already owe a fortune at 21.
Many people now understand that Tony Blair blew his chance to put Britain on a better footing. He believed he could triangulate, giving the private sector its freedom, and using the cash that generated to tackle social exclusion. In my view Blair, having found the tackling of social exclusion to be more arduous and time-consuming than he imagined, decided that if he couldn’t fix Britain, then maybe he could fix the world instead. I worry that the left simply rejects his mistakes, rather than learning from them.
People forget how immovable the Thatcher/Major Conservative administration proved to be, even as the homeless teemed in the streets and young people left school to greet long-term unemployment. They believe that hating the establishment is all they need to do, failing to see that this only entrenches the psychopathic lack of empathy that is the hallmark of its worst and most ruthless denizens.
It’s easy to be despondent, to look at the grip big, international business has on the nation and how it’s configured, and despair. It’s even easier to point the finger at such businesses and hope that come the revolution they’ll get their comeuppance. What’s hard, however, is persuading those who benefit that their flashy international economy is destroying its own lifeblood – stable real economies in which people can live and thrive with some self-sufficiency, enjoying their life and work, feeling secure, nurturing their families.
Blair knew that those who benefited from the status quo had to be involved in change before it could start to happen. He may have been naive in giving them too much of what they wanted. But still, he was right in principle, and the next person to try for such a level of cooperation has the last crash to exhibit as evidence of what happens when a powerful group presses its advantage too greatly.
The Conservatives have proved unwilling to learn from their mistakes. At the moment, Labour is refusing to learn from its mistakes, the only difference being that its distance from them is too great, not too little. In the years it will take for Labour to realise this, another generation could be sacrificed. The baby boomer years are well and truly over.