Thursday, 16 October 2008

Sixties generation heading for a conventional old age?

By Dr Rebecca Leach

Dr Rebecca Leach, who led the Baby Boomers' consumption patterns research project at Keele, was in demand last week as the press picked up on the idea that the Sixties generation might not be heading for a radically different old age compared to older cohorts. Rebecca and her colleague Professor Chris Phillipson, who also worked on the project, gave nearly 20 interviews to different local radio stations, interviews for the print media and had the research featured in the national and international press and on Radio 4's Today programme. (Listen again to the segment on R4)

The baby boomers - born during the explosion in the birth rate after the Second World War - are often lambasted in the media. They have been described as the 'selfish' generation, people who have 'had it all' and are pulling up the ladder behind them. Boomers themselves (now entering their late 50s and early 60s and facing retirement) certainly recognise their 'luck': born into post-war austerity, their lives ran alongside some of the most favourable economic conditions Western capitalism has ever seen. While the boomers' parents were categorically from a wartime, 'make-do-and-mend' culture, the children born post-war grew up out of rationing and poverty into full employment, the burgeoning consumer culture focused almost entirely on giving them their own consumer category, the 'teenager'. More importantly, it was the expansion of the Welfare State that provided the crucial safety net for boomers. Propped up by a free health service, social security provision and, crucially, the expansion of the universities in the 1960s, the boomers had opportunities for health, education and social mobility that simply were not available to previous generations. The grammar school and university opened up horizons previously closed to large numbers of those from ordinary backgrounds.

In terms of consumption, the pop record and the mini-skirt were important but probably less so than the things that gave teenagers in the 50s and 60s a new sense of freedom: the public transport system, the motorbike and perhaps the coffee shop. Not only were teenagers able to spend their money freely in the shops on clothes and music just for them, they were also able to escape from parental culture and define their own spaces. The importance of consumption and style to this cohort was documented extensively in the work of the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies (the CCCS or Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies) between 1964 and 1991. Found by Richard Hoggart and later managed by the sociologist Stuart Hall (and spawning Keele's own Tony Jefferson and Paul Willis...), the CCCS publications Resistance Through Rituals (Hall & Jefferson, 1976) and Subculture: the meaning of style (Hebdige, 1979) identified the class dislocations and cultural shifts that made this cohort the first teenage subcultures.

It is tempting to speculate that what happened in the past had a formative effect on the future. Mannheim's notion of generation suggests that there are shared histories that create particular worldviews which become generational identities. Having lived through the same kinds of radical social change, indeed having pushed through some of those social changes themselves, the boomer generation ought to be showing up some of the evidence of generational culture that the CCCS thought they'd identified 30 or 40 years ago.

Our data demonstrates some 'generationality'. Certainly boomers feel their horizons were widened - they often see themselves as the 'lucky' generation: benefiting from the expansion of the welfare state in the post-war period, they had a social safety net in the social security reforms, expansion of higher education and health service that their parents had never had. The opening up of global consciousness with the advent of television and mass air travel means that boomers see themselves as cosmopolitan compared to their parents' generation. And certainly, they think of themselves as 'young' in outlook: taking responsibility for health and their bodies, caring about how they look (but not as much as they used to) and feeling more like their children than their parents, they believe they are not ageing like people used to.

But let's not forget that less than 10% of boomers have ever been on a political demonstration and only very tiny numbers now engage in the sort of 'alternative' lifestyles or politics that one associates with that generation. This just reinforces the point that while we can see some hints of generational identity, these things are often just as much about class and education rather than cohort. The retirement plans of boomers are limited: few have considered what they will do in later life, other than to keep working a bit and to keep healthy. The extent of ambition is often to spend more time with the grandchildren and do more in the garden. For some, the lure of the big trip calls; but for many, multiple responsibilities - often for adult children, for younger children (especially after remarriage) and for ageing parents - limits their horizons.

And for all the media hysteria about boomers 'SKI-ing' (spending the kids' inheritance) the reality is most of them ARE spending it, but ON the kids... Boomers are slightly more likely than older and younger cohorts to agree with the statement 'money should be spent rather than saved for an inheritance', but they are also funding their childrens' consumption, their university places, paying off student loans, supporting children's housing choices or helping out their parents. And equally, while boomers are a relatively wealthy generation overall, this is not universal: gender differences are a key point - many women 'missed the sixties' since the Pill was not available to unmarried women until 1967. This meant many women were already married and pregnant and often dependent on men's salaries by the time contraception, legislation and cultural shifts allowed women more freedom. For those women subsequently divorced and bringing up kids on their own, large numbers of them were left on low-incomes and will little pension provision.

So, yes, let's talk about the boomers as a distinctive generation. But let's look at the facts, and not base our assumptions on the people we meet. It's easy to generalise from our own milieu, imagining all the world is like us (especially perhaps if we're working for a media outlet in London and living in comfortable Chattering Class-Land in Stoke Newington).

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