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Baby boomers and the generation divide

Some younger people have been populating the blogosphere complaining that baby boomers have spent the world, had cushy 40 year job plans, retired and are now SKI-ers – spending kids’ inheritances.  So young folk are left with climate change, terrorism, sky-high house prices, massive university tuition fees and little prospect of a continuous job until they retire.

I have three responses to this:

  • Boo. Get a life and stop moaning.
  • Wouldn’t you have done the same?
  • Just what did the baby boomers do for us?

I want to concentrate on the last of these.

Each generation should leave the world a better place but it doesn’t always happen.  So is the world a better place now than it was, say, in 1950? 1960? Or even 1970?

It is important to recognise just how much the world has changed since WW2 and that this change has been brought about largely by baby boomers – those born between 1945 and say 1960.  I grew up in southern England with wartime scars still evident and with the terror of all-out nuclear war, the 4-minute warning which I remember being very worried about.   See ‘The War Game’ (1965) which catches the threat we all lived with at the time.

Life was vertically fragmented – parents were often traumatised by WW2, as were their parents by WW1 and the 1930s depression.  They did their best, we had a free health service and I had free education through to university, neither of which they had enjoyed.  But I didn’t know them as people.

At least there was a sort-of peace.

Food and clothing were rationed in Britain until well into the ‘50s.  So the table, wardrobe and toy cupboard was generally quite bare.  For people growing up in some other parts of Europe and wider, this must have been even worse.  Think Berlin, Hamburg, Tokyo.   People started with little or less but just got on with it.

Even afterwards, with the ‘60s revolution that sounds so romantic from afar, there was a distinct division which most parents could not understand.  Wonderful music, a sense of freedom but it was all an illusion.  Free love and going to San Francisco with flowers in your hair was one response to the nuclear threat, a way of coping.

The revolution never arrived however many marches you went on (and I did).  So by the time of the ‘70s, the bubble had burst. There was the disconnected feeling – news came via papers, TV and Life Magazine.  We saw the horrors of war in our living rooms each night but could do nothing about it other than get angry and protest.

Anasthetic arrived – credit cards and cheap travel.  Since the ‘80s we have been spending – literally – our lives in retail therapy and mass tourism.

But not all of us and not all the time.

One of the few benefits of war is that it accelerates the pace of technology.  While rockets were designed to drop megaton warheads, the space race also promoted the development of technology, micro-processors, computers.

This is truly the third industrial revolution but, unlike the first two in steam and electricity, computing has eventually become so democratised that we can carry smartphones, know where we are in the world to a metre or so, and have disposed of much dull and boring work.  Bill Gates’ dream (a baby boomer) of a computer on every desk and in every home has more than been realised.

But the major advance which is the engine of today is not just computer technology but the internet.  Now you can all realise Tim Berners-Lee’s dream  – another baby boomer – of a connected world and speak to the whole planet for the price of a beer or two a month.  You can promote yourself and your ideas across the planet.  You can find like-minded people, collaborate on projects, and get together virtually or actually.

The internet was developed by idealistic baby boomers with some help from some teenage Generation X.   Zuck and co. were still in their prams.  Theirs was the vision which we now enjoy, the collaboration for the benefit of all that enables some 8.3% of UK GDP to be earned online.

This also gives most people the chance to be silly together.   Facebook’s pages justify Flaubert’s objection to trains.   But it is also enormously empowering.  For not only was Barack Obama the beneficiary of mass power in his election campaign, so were the people of Egypt, Tunisia and many other places.  The internet enables collaboration in a way that has never occurred before.

As a baby boomer, I am lucky.  Undoubtedly the world I grew up in was better than that of my parents.  I haven’t had to go off and fight in the trenches nor have I worked in a mind-numbing job.  I have had a good education and the good fortune to be able to use it and pass my knowledge on.

There will always be a place for conventional work but the future is bright indeed.  There are problems but these can be solved with the power of collaborative work.

So, young people are, I think, even luckier than baby boomers were.  While I despair of the actions of governments and banks, at least there is the potential for everyone to take charge of their lives and build something. Despite all the issues that still need attention, the world is incomparably a better place than in the early post-war years.  I’d swap places anyway any day.

This is what the baby boomers have done for you.  Not since the printing press has such a gift been passed on to the children.  With this bequest, Generation Y and later can make the world a really bigger and better place.   Zuck already has.  Let the baby boomers spend their twilight years without guilt.  Let them help the next generation, pass on the true altruism of the time and avoid the costly mistake of ‘loads-a-money with no values’.

13 thoughts on “Baby boomers and the generation divide”

  1. Interesting thoughts – I’ll be 30 next month, and I’m not sure I think the world is better off today than it was 30 years ago. My parents’ generation – they’re both 60 – has given mine plenty of access, but also sapped us of many key resources.

    • @Elizabeth

      Having been working 30 years ago I can assure you that despite all the current issues with banks, climate and stuff, the world is a lot better now than it was. You only have to look at the problems of the ’60s from Biafra, the Congo, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam as wars that I can think of off the top of my head not to mention Cuba, Czechoslovakia and other East-West hostilities.

      We are in danger of putting on rose-tinted spectacles about the 60s – it was a fascinating and revolutionary time from a cultural perspective but that is because the young masses were economically empowered for the first time. Despite all the pronouncements, revolutionary parties etc nothing really happened because the West and East were locked into an ideological battle which sapped most resources. Check out The War Game from the link and although it is specifically talking about the UK, it is applicable everywhere.

      I know we have problems today – we have written about them over recent months. You may feel that the resources are being used up but the major issue is the denial that some governments have about it. This requires political pressure, mainly I am afraid in the US which is the biggest obstacle.

      But the human race is not finished yet and the internet which enables us to communicate at zero cost is an enabling tool that has only just begun to show the power of the crowds. When I compared it to the printing press, I was probably underplaying the benefits. Imagine the internet connected to everyone on the planet who could hold their governments and big business to account. When the printing press was invented and for hundreds of years afterwards, most people could neither read nor afford to buy books. At least in the West, this is not true of the internet. And with ever cheaper computers <<$100 the rest of the world can become empowered too. Of course it will be perverted - big business already controls a lot of it - but the technology and knowledge is there and that cannot be put back in the bottle. As has been seen in recent years, it can do a lot of good. Of course it can also be part of evil, of criminality and so on but it is ultimately democratising so we have to take the bad with the good but as Churchill quipped, democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others. So there are challenges ahead for generation Y and later, sure there are things wrong but you now have the tool that the baby boomers and generation X didn't have.

  2. Throughout history, there’s been a grass is greener on the other side mentality. Ultimately, I’ve been surprised at the rivalry between boomer and echo boomers. About a decade ago, I remember being dressed down by someone who’d attended Woodstock. I was told that the echo boomers didn’t stand for anything. I recall Hillary Clinton making comments to the effect that echo boomers need to get out of their parent’s house and get a job many years ago.

    I think that the complaints of echo boomers are more a symptom of a complicated relationship with their parents than anything else.

    • @Shaun – too true. It is seeing the parent and their generation as being to blame that is at fault when in fact if it weren’t for that generation Gen Y++ would not be so aware of the herbiage on the other side and certainly could not be able comment with ease and freedom.

      But even if BB’s and Gen X don’t agree, we should follow Voltaire in welcoming the questioning. That way we can have a sensible debate.

  3. Is my life different to my parents -Yes! Will my kids lives be different to mine – I sure hope so.Very different, but better? Thats pretty subjective for every generation.

    Jobs for life -no longer exist, we all have to step up and look at how we can carve our own future career paths.

    But trying to live now, with the rules of the past – that must surely be the very definition of insanity.

    Each generation must craft it’s own set of parameters to work with -so that the next can rail against them.

    And I have great faith in the human spirit – I believe that is only when we are under pressure that true innovation happens.

    • @Elaine – well certainly pressure begets progress although the extreme pressure of war is not of course really a good thing! 😛

      But we are where we are and every generation needs to move forwards from their starting positions. And the future’s very bright I believe but not necessarily in the way that big business thinks! The economy has changed and this will continue as we adapt to new ways of doing things.

      As you say, living with an incoherent set of rules is insane. We just need to work out what are the rules for now. But then they will go and change again…..

      • And yet wars – despite the great harm they did, do and continue to accelerate technological advances. Wouldn’t it be better that our scientists and business leaders could innovate into the future without such a cudgel prompting change?

        We can but hope.

        Rules will continue to change – what is different about “now” rather than “then” is the rapid cycle of innovation, implementation, obsolescence that we now have.

        I just keep on repeating “change is good, change is good” and hope I can keep up LOL

  4. Being one of the latter boomers, I didn’t protest or March, the Vietnam war ended when I finished High School.

    It is true each generation seems to think they have it worse than the one before. I’m not as concerned as you regarding “resources” as I’m confident with technology and bright minds we will have a solution before any real shortages occur. The air is actually cleaner and water is cleaner now than it was in the 70’s by a large factor.

    I agree that college costs are unsustainable. But as the costs and success of online learning comes down, that competition should cause University prices to come back to earth if they want to compete for bodies in seats.

    The era of governments being able to take care of us completely when we turn 60 is over. There is not enough tax money available to feed, clothe, provide health care, and shelter to all the worlds seniors.

    We personal finance bloggers have to keep beating the drum helping others manage their money better, so we can all learn to sustain ourselves.

    Great discussion.

    • @Dr Dean – as you say the water is cleaner and the air better.

      One may also say that society is more harmonious. You only need to look at President Obama as an example of something inconceivable in the ’60s, nor over this side of the pond at the acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships even in law.

      Some may disagree with these sentiments of course.

  5. I make Boomer grade only by the slimmest of margins. Easy enough to ascribe all kinds of ills to a generation that’s had an outsize impact due to sheer numbers. I like the balanced approach of this post.

    • @101 – balance is what it is all about.

      We need to recognise the problems that face GenY and help where we can. But they need to recognise the incredible inheritance they have.

      Together we can do things but if there is inter-generation dysfunctionality, we will all go our sweet ways. Not a good prospect I think.

  6. Baby boomers have definitely revolutionized the world. On the other side of the spectrum, I think Gen Y is a little bit apathetic. Good at serving their localities, but not confident that they can change the world. (This confidence was what led baby boomers to do just that.)

    That being said global climate change/warming/whatever scares the bejeezus out of me. Especially for the next generation. I’m not sure how to change it, but we need to start something massive and immediately.

    • @ff – the climate issue also concerns me, as does terrorism of whatever breed (call it blackmail), nuclear weapons and the corrupting influence of those few big businesses and banks. These hold us all as hostages.

      Along with the ‘free’ dissemination of knowledge always comes power and as we know, all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But the democratisation of information also has a massive benefit.

      I believe – well it is a hope really – that GenY will pick up the tools they have been given and move forwards on these and other issues of the day as they arise.

      My worry is that GenY will just concentrate on solving the financial threat to their well-being. This they will do very well as there is already much greater entrepreneurialism around. But this personal agrandisement may be at the cost of making the world at large a better place.

      I don’t mind people becoming wealthy as long as, like Gates and some others, they pour their wealth back in to solving global issues.

      It may be that in 50 years time national governments elected by the people will have become so ineffective due to short electoral cycles and corruption that it will be left to social entrepreneurs to do the right thing.


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