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30 October 2006

Baby Boomers: and the illusion of perpetual youth

Greedy, trivial, venal, cosseted . . . The postwar generation of children grew up protected by cosy

By Michael Bywater

If we want an image to sum up the spirit of the age, it would be this: a middle-aged man playing air guitar. A mime; a simulacrum; a declaration of unearned, shared identity; a banner of fake democracy; a determined declaration of youthfulness indefinitely prolonged. The air guitar is the Baby Boomers’ swastika, their marching banner; the Boomers, now growing old, are running the show; and they are making big babies, not just of themselves, but of the lot of us.

Twenty-two years ago, we all had a fine old laugh when 1984 came round. It was snigger-at-Orwell year: all those predictions that had turned out to be duds. The jackboot was not stamping on the upturned face for ever; nobody was wielding the rubber truncheons; the Ministry of Truth remained steadfastly unborn, and Newspeak was mute. Above all, there was no Big Brother glowering down. The apparatus of the old repressive state (we crowed) had been all but dismantled, and no new order had arisen to take its place.

We thought we were safe. But we made two mistakes. Even as we railed against the suburban horror show of Thatcherite economics, we believed the intrusions of municipal statism were being rolled back; but we didn’t foresee what would take its place. And even as we delightedly played with our new PCs, we did not foresee the combination of networked computing, on the one hand, and the terrible, infantilising collusion between Baby Boomer politicians and global cor poratism, on the other. If hindsight now could have given us foresight then, it would have shown us that the image of Big Brother was indeed taking shape, blurrily, like an old-style photograph in a developing tray. However, this Big Brother would have the smirking, neotenous face of a giant baby. And it would be playing air guitar.

Incremental change passes unnoticed. Like the lobster in the saucepan, we spot that things are getting hotter only just before we get boiled to perdition. In my own case, the realisation that a common thread linked the trivial, and not-so-trivial, annoyances of life in the early 21st century took place at Heathrow Airport. Walking from the aeroplane to baggage reclaim, I idly started to notice the notices. There were, I soon realised, almost a hundred of the things (not counting advertisements) between jetway and carousel, all admonishing, warning, ticking me off for something I hadn’t done, had no intention of doing, hadn’t even thought of doing until I saw the notice. Voices shouted at me about the moving walkway; bleepers bleeped; lights flashed; strange obsessions took root. Having been forbidden to do so, I found myself yearning terribly to take photographs in the customs hall. I wanted to find a child, specifically so that I could allow it to ride on my baggage trolley. But most of all I realised that I was being treated like a big baby; and not just there, but everywhere. Watched, monitored, ticked off, coaxed, diver ted, not trusted, forestalled at every turn, I – and you, and all of us – was being systematically infantilised and, inexplicably, I was colluding in it.

What’s going on with all this infantilisation; who’s doing it and why? The “what” is easy. Look around you and you’ll see what I mean. Question yourself regularly throughout the day: “Am I, at this moment, being treated like a grown-up; and am I, at this moment, behaving like one?” Answer candidly, and you may well reach the same conclusion as I did. And “who” is not much harder. “Who” is “they”, and “they”, as always, are the ones in charge; and the ones in charge are the Baby Boomers. They’ve been in charge for a while now; soon it will be their turn to go. But they won’t go easily.

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But “why?” is an infinitely harder question. Why have the Baby Boomers colluded to infantilise and to be infantilised, according to their place in the pecking order? Why has this luckiest of all generations (mine – I am, demographically at least, bang in the middle of it) ended up so greedy, so self- indulgent, so trivial, so venal, so perpetually entertained and, simultaneously, so unable to cope with ambiguity and complexity, so suspicious and so authoritarian?

In Mediated the writer Thomas de Zengotita* makes a profoundly significant observation. He notes that, if you go to Yellowstone National Park, you no longer see wolves, but “wolves”, and it is in those scare-quotes that the Baby Boomers live, move and have their being. Within those scare-quotes, nothing is authentic and everything is a simulacrum; George W Bush is not president but “president”; online, the best we can hope for is not relationships but “relationships”. The government sets “targets” because we all know they are not only fudged, but inauthentic from the outset. Celebrity? No; “celebrity”. Initiatives? No; “initiatives”. Parliamentary democracy? Where do we put the scare-quotes in that phrase? Even entertainment has become “entertainment”: it looks entertaining, but it isn’t actually entertaining. It’s provisional, contingent, something to divert us while we are waiting for the real thing to begin.

And so it is with the Baby Boomers. For them – for us – there is something profoundly inauthentic about our lives. We can sense it, but we can’t put our finger on it. We know that our parents’ lives were in some way more authentic than ours, and that our grandparents’ lives were even more so, and perhaps this is something to do with surface. Our grandparents had little time for surface, because so little surface was demanded of them. Social historians will of course cite the many rules of manners, decorum and status display; but these were group markers. The idea, now almost universal, that the individual human being was to be a self-invented and self-perpetuating work of “social art” was unheard of. Walking through any large town now, they would be astonished at the heaped-high adjuncts to self-creation offered for sale. Today, nothing can be sold without a carefully engineered “lifestyle” connotation, nor can a “lifestyle” be had without buying. Everything has become a transaction; and everything is for sale. And if everything, including our personalities, is for sale, how can anything be authentic?

The cosseted generation

But it is not just life inside the scare-quotes that characterises the Baby Boomers. There is also the illusion of perpetual youth, which brings with it the strange cult of Safety Authoritarianism. Brought into the world on the back of two world wars, the Baby Boomers were not only nurtured by parents borne aloft on the postwar economic boom (less so in Britain than in the United States, but none the less significantly) but cosseted by those same parents, who had seen enough upheaval never to want anything unexpected in their lives ever again. How many Baby Boomers, reminiscing about their childhoods, speak of the same warm, cosy imprisonment of routine? Yet, at the same time, the shadow of nuclear anni hilation hung over an entire generation in a way that would be unimaginable to those born after the Berlin Wall fell. A dangerous combination: total safety and absolute peril, igniting in the Baby Boomers not only a rebellious antipathy to the humdrum, but an awful fear of mortality. Rebels without a hope, so that all the drugs smoked, tooted or shot up were somehow part of a different equation from the sense that death and its precursor, ageing, were simultaneously all too likely and all too unfair.

Born absolutely in the centre of the Baby Boom (if you take it as running from 1945 to 1960), I remember above all the sense of great change running in stride with great, and per sistent, temporal certainty. Prosperity seemed endless, even in the very centre of the middle class. My father was a GP in Nottingham. I never recall him having any concerns about money. There were, it’s true, rough boys; but they were never that rough. There was a growing social mobility, but the institutions remained untouched while new people moved into them. Progress seemed endless and benign. Like all young people then, I had my dreams of the four-minute warning, the sudden obliterating flare of white light at the end of a street which would be followed by annihilation, but life seemed to be polarised: catastrophe or benign pro gress, with little in between. Teen agers had been invented; youth culture was heading for triumph; we – even I caught the end of it – inhabited the glorious window between the Pill and the emergence of Aids.

And much remained unchanged. Before networked computing, before credit reference bureaux and closed-circuit television and call-centres and centralised corporate bureaucracies, self-invention and reinvention were all too possible. There may have been less stuff but, paradoxically, there seemed to be more of it. There were . . . possibilities. Endless possibilities.

But. Ignatius of Loyola reputedly said: “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Up to a point, St Ignatius. What happens afterwards – between seven and manhood – is also important.

I was seven years old in 1960, a child of the NHS, of the frantic security of the postwar boom, of the restricted satisfying choices of the time (we all had the same toys, the same clothes, the same sandals, the same seaside landladies, the same dull safe food, rissoles on Tuesday). Churchill was prime minister, then Sir Anthony Eden, then Harold Macmillan; all was safe. Until I was seven. The first hint of something wrong was in January 1960. The Mumbles Railway – the world’s oldest continuously running train service – suddenly closed. Bankrupt, the proprietors lied. I remember watching it on the little Ecko TV. I had never been to Swansea, but I cried. It was, in some odd way, the end of innocence.

The Pill

And then . . . and then the Beatles; then the contraceptive pill (end of the world! Girls doing it! I didn’t know what it was, but they were doing it) and then, in 1962, the Sunday Times Colour Supplement – colour! – and the Cuban missile crisis; and a year later JFK’s assassination and the following year the brief skeletal reign of Sir Alec Douglas-Home was over and it was Harold Wilson, then Vietnam exploding and Harold Evans and Nova, and it seemed that everyone in London was shooting gritty documentaries with battered Nikons and going to Vietnam and coming back to Chelsea mews houses to drive up and down the King’s Road with Twiggy in an E-Type . . . Give me a child until he is seven and then completely hurl his world into turmoil.

No wonder the Baby Boomers wanted it to keep going. No wonder they wanted to keep Twiggy in the E-Type for ever, to keep dancing for ever, to keep skinning up for ever . . . to stop change, keep it right, make it good. The Boomers were formed in one world, then ejected from the kiln of childhood half-baked into a world altogether different. The iconic comment of later years was: “If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there.” And although the generation now in power – in politics, in culture, in industry, in corporate life, in edu cation – wasn’t actually there, these people can remember it clearly. Not memories, but “memories”. And they want it to continue. And they don’t want anyone else to have it.

In other words, the defining experience of the Baby Boomers was that they – we – were formed with a sort of inbuilt, ineluctable cognitive dissonance; and the consequence was what the Portuguese, who know a thing or two about losing power, call saudade: a lament for the loss of something you never actually had.

Rejecting the stability of our early years, unable to precipitate, to crystallise, the perpetual change of what came next, the Baby Boomers had to make it up as we went along. And there are none so scared, so minatory, so authoritarian and yet so rejecting of authority as the self-invented who briefly glimpsed a golden age against a backdrop of danger and turmoil. Our lives are played on air guitar.

And into the space left by the Baby Boomers’ missing authenticity flood chimeras, visions, turnip ghosts; life shrunk to images on a screen, identity-conferring products, the hope of branding on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other. Into the liberal relativistic gap come rules, invented with all the earnestness of children making up games as they go along. Into the inevitable vacuum of time’s slipstream rush fears and prohibitions, of dangers real and imaginary – of wicked conkers that council workers must pluck from trees in case our children hurt themselves; of sea tides cutting off spectators so that we must move the hundred iron men of Antony Gormley’s Another Place from the Mersey coast; of people not doing what they should, so we must monitor them all the time; of a crippling longing for what preceded all this change, so that we want to be children again: inauthentic, untrustworthy, easily diverted, easily offended, our feelings hurt, outraged if anything goes wrong, so that we look for someone to blame.

Bigger toys

The Baby Boomers once thought that they – we – could have it all. Realising they could not have it all made them want it even more. Like greedy children, they learned to manipulate, to infantilise (“Daddy, bad Daddy”) and to be infantilised in turn (“Only ickle!”). As age came on, as the Stones became more Tottering than Rolling, nothing changed; lacking any model of adulthood, the Baby Boomers, instead of really growing up, simply became bigger. And now we are gather-ing the harvest. Their – our – toys have become bigger; our wheedling more skilfully insistent; our tantrums more excessive. The McCartney divorce. The Blunkett diaries. The news from Iraq. David “Dave” Cameron. Intel. Bill Gates. Cirque du Céébrité. Male grooming. Warnings on wine bottles. Jamie Oliver. Mockney bling. Men dressed in baby clothes. Conrad Black. Stubble. Starbucks. Air guitar. All of it: air guitar.

Or maybe not even air guitar, but “air guitar”. Just like so much of our lives exists in scare-quotes, not quite real.

Michael Bywater’s “Big Babies: or: why can’t we just grow up?” is published on 2 November by Granta Books (£14.99)

Dates in the life of a big baby
Research by Sam Alexandroni

1945 Second World War ends. Soldiers come home and start having families

1959 Vietnam war begins

1961 contraceptive pill goes on sale in the UK

1962 the Beatles have their first hit with “Love Me Do” in the year of the Cuban missile crisis

1963 JFK assassinated

1967 Summer of Love

1975 Vietnam war ends with victory for the communist North

1983 the first cases of Aids are identified

1989 fall of the Berlin Wall

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