Laurie Penny reviews Francis Beckett: What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us?

Laurie Penny gives her verdict on Francis Beckett's latest book.

What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us?

Francis Beckett

Biteback, 256pp, £12.99

If there is one thing that sets the baby boomers apart, it is their dogged rejection of history.

For those born between 1945 and 1955, the past was peopled with timid, elderly, authoritarian figures whose ideology had no place in the new world order. This reckless refusal to locate themselves in the long march of human social development is perhaps what led Francis Fukuyama, one of the baby boomers (he was born in 1952), to mistake the end of the cold war for the "end of history".

Fukuyama was wrong: history never ends, and in refusing to remember the hard lessons of the early 20th century, the members of the postwar generation may, in Francis Beckett's assessment, be "fated to force [their] children to relive it". The book adds a welcome dose of perspective to the popular mythology of this unusual generation, setting the baby boomers in context and dissecting their shortcomings.

“The world they made for their children to live in," the author writes, "is a far harsher one than the world they inherited." He argues that the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s was made possible by the Attlee settlement, which blessed the baby boomers with affordable health care, decent housing, free higher edu­cation and a generous welfare state that liberated them from immediate cares - all blessings that they declined to pass on to the next generation. "It is as though the Sixties generation decided that the freedom from worry which they had enjoyed was too good for their children," Beckett says.

There is no mercy in the book for this generation - the generation of my parents - which "squandered the good times" on childish pseudo-radicalism that "was all done by smoke and mirrors", and which demanded respect while it was young before obliging its overextended offspring to foot the bill for its unthinking excesses.

Beckett acknowledges that his book does not offer an "objective history of the Sixties". Instead, he selects events and quotations that bear out his unflinching thesis. At times, the selection can feel uneven: for example, he returns repeatedly to the addictions, aphorisms and assorted other personal failings of the young Marianne Faithfull, but devotes less than a paragraph to the defeat of the striking miners in 1984-85. His argument is most powerful when he ties the lives of big-name individuals such as Gordon Brown and Tony Blair to the social psychology of 17 million Britons.

Peppered with vignettes from the lives of Blair and Brown, as well as extended interviews with other influential boomers such as Greg Dyke and Peter Hitchens, the book is, in effect, a lyrical biography of the Sixties generation. It patiently explains how each successive decade formed its collective personality, with parti­cular focus on the vicissitudes of the British left. There are several moments of dizzying cultural and historical vertigo as Beckett charts the transformation of Brown, Jack Straw and Charles Clarke, among others, from edgy, arrogant student defenders of the grants system into the "grey, pompous, reactionary" senior politicians who presided over the dismantling of free higher education.

What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? offers no easy solutions, and is less a call to arms than a self-flagellation manual for middle-aged sell-outs. This is entirely appropriate; as Beckett rightly observes, the country is owned and run by those same middle-aged sell-outs, and many of them could do with a little flagellation. After all, they've had it their own way for rather more than six decades.

It could be argued that Beckett is excessively unforgiving in portraying the hypocrisies of the boomer generation. And it should certainly be remembered that while it seems all of Beckett's friends have sold out, there are many boomers who did not. Many retained their idealism, refused to throw their lot in with neoliberalism, and still see the social and cultural transfor­mations of the 1960s as current. Consider, for instance, the partial victory of the women's movement and the huge gains made for homosexuals and people from ethnic minorities, none of which gets more than a cursory mention in Beckett's proudly unbalanced survey. We could, in short, be generous.

But why would we want to do a thing like that? Why do the baby boomers deserve a generous and forgiving assessment, having failed to show a shred of comparable generosity to the generations that followed them? What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? returns Sixties mythology to history. And if the picture is warped, it is so for good reason: the mirror Beckett holds up to the recent past is smeared with the suffering of young people today.


Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party