Young and Wasted: The Baby Boomers Had Everything-Free Education, Free Health Care and Remarkable Personal Liberties-But They Squandered It All. Now Their Children Are Paying for It Young and Wasted

By Beckett, Francis | New Statesman (1996), January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

Young and Wasted: The Baby Boomers Had Everything-Free Education, Free Health Care and Remarkable Personal Liberties-But They Squandered It All. Now Their Children Are Paying for It Young and Wasted


Beckett, Francis, New Statesman (1996)


The baby boomers were a golden generation. Rich people have always had opportunities, but for the ordinary man and woman there had never been a time of hope and opportunity like the one we baby boomers inherited. We were the Beveridge generation. The 1942 Beveridge report called for the abolition of the "five giants"--want, ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness. Between 1945 and 1951, despite a war-ruined economy, the Attlee government took Beveridge as its agenda and set about the first systematic assault on each of the giants.

Baby boomers were born between the end of the war in 1945 and Winston Churchill's resignation as prime minister in 1955, and the world they grew up in was shaped by Beveridge. We baby boomers had everything.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

First, and most important, we had education. Before the Second World War, almost a third of Britons could not read or write. Many of those who could write did so slowly and haltingly, as one performs a complicated and unaccustomed task. My grandmother, born in the 1880s, was a rather wise old lady, so I remember the sense of shock I felt when, as a teenager, I received a letter from her and realised she wrote like a five-year-old. We, Britain's baby boomers, are the first generation in which pretty well everyone can read and write fairly fluently.

We were the first generation for which university education was not a privilege of wealth. In the Sixties, for the first time, proletarian and regional accents were heard throughout the British university system, and (except in a few backward-looking institutions) their owners were no longer made to feel out of place. We grew up at a time when, as Neil Kinnock told the Labour party conference in 1987, he was "the first Kinnock in a thousand generations" to have the chance to better himself.

The idea that one might have to pay for education, at any level, seemed to us primitive and backward-looking. In the Thirties, my grandmother used to save pennies in a tin in her kitchen, fearfully guarding against the day when one of her children might require medical attention. In the week that the National Health Service was inaugurated in 1948, GPs' surgeries were overwhelmed with patients whose painful and often life-threatening conditions had never been treated or even shown to a doctor. When we baby boomers were ill, we expected, as a right, the best treatment available. Paying for it never occurred to us.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

There was full employment, and the slums were torn down and replaced with council housing, built to Aneurin Bevan's high standard. And what did we do with this extraordinary inheritance that had eluded our ancestors, and that an earlier generation had worked and fought to give us?

We trashed it.

We trashed it because we did not value it. We trashed it because we knew no history, so we thought our new freedoms were the natural order of things. It was as though we decided that the freedom and lack of worry that we had inherited was too good for our children, and we pulled up the ladder we had climbed.

Coping with choice

What was wrong with us? Partly it was that our parents gave us our freedom, but they did not educate us for freedom.

Our schooling may have been free and universal, and it may have given us numeracy and literacy, but it did not give us the equipment to cope with choice. The schools of the Fifties taught us to doff our caps and do as we were told. Teachers, more commonly called masters and mistresses, taught us respect for our "elders and betters".

It was not an education suited to a generation with aspiration, full employment and freedom, and when we came out of our schools, these things dazzled us. It was like imprisoning a man for 15 years in a deep, dark dungeon, then letting him into the sunlight and telling him he could go where he liked and do what he liked, and that any luxury he demanded would be served up to him. …

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