Young and wasted

The baby boomers had everything – free education, free health care and remarkable personal liberties

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.

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.

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.

Schools in the Fifties were staffed, more often than not, by chalky pedagogues in academic gowns, who worked in grim, looming old buildings steeped in history - the sort of history that oppresses, not the sort that enlightens. Our schools gave us the past, not as something living from which we might learn, but as a dead weight: the weight of lists of kings and queens and the dates between which they reigned, which it was our miserable task to memorise.

Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That was a very popular parody of the way history was taught, which is why, even though it was first published before the war, it sold so well in the Fifties. The book offered "all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates". It offered simplistic divisions: this or that king was a Good Man but a Bad Thing, or the other way round. It explained that there are two Dates (with an upper-case D) in British history - 1066 and 1485. And it was true: history did not get much beyond 1485 in Fifties schools, certainly not far enough to include 1914, for example, or 1939; often not even far enough to include 1815, for anything recent and real to us was not a proper subject for the classroom.

Schools reflected Fifties society. The Fifties were the most buttoned-down decade of the 20th century. It was a world in which people knew their place and thought the higher-ups were always right. It did so because Britons had not adapted to the freedoms of the post-Beveridge world. For the first time, the young had choices, but their elders acted as though there were still no choices. The baby boomers grew up into a marvellous world, which disguised itself as a miserable world.

Our parents' generation tried to give us a classless society to stop us from being burdened by the oppressive English class system. But our education reflected the class system. It was, paradoxically, the Education Act of 1944 - a great, liberating piece of legislation that made education universal - which also embedded the British class system into the British education system. For its legacy was three classes of school, precisely matching the three classes in society - upper, middle and working.

In the Fifties there were fee-charging schools (public schools) for future managing directors, grammar schools for middle managers and professionals, and secondary modern schools for those who were destined to spend their lives at the bottom of the class heap.

It's true that many middle-class people in the Fifties scrimped and saved to send their children to fee-charging schools; they did so in the hope that their children would mix with those who were a cut above them and move up a class. They did it, not to end the class system, but because they saw a chance of shifting their family's place within it. Middle-class men who had been patronised all their lives saw the chance to see their children doing the patronising.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the baby boomers emerged from this wretched school system into a world where, blessedly and unexpectedly, they were allowed to think for themselves and defer to no one. It was a world that was freer, fresher, fairer and infinitely more fun than the one they had been taught to expect. After being taught that everything was sacred, they found that nothing was sacred. Naturally, they assumed that their parents and teachers had been lying to them, that everything was a lot easier than they had been taught to expect. They did not understand that the world they had been taught to expect was the one in which their parents had lived out cramped, poverty-stricken lives.

That, perhaps, is why the guiding principle of the Sixties was contempt for the old and the middle-aged. "I hope I die before I get old," sang Pete Townshend. The Beatles made cruel mockery of the poverty and limited aspirations of their parents in "When I'm Sixty-Four". Bob Dylan told the old to get out of the way and let the young build a new society, "for the times, they are a-changing".

Caricature of a Blimp

Now, if everything done by earlier generations was rubbish, what were the baby boomers to make of the Attlee settlement, which made Sixties and Seventies lifestyles possible? The generation settled happily into two camps on the matter. One held that the post-Beveridge "nanny state" had stifled initiative and entrepreneurship and that the Attlee settlement was a disaster. The other held that Attlee had not gone far enough and had unforgivably blown the chance to create the socialist nirvana: the Attlee settlement was a disaster. Beveridge, they pointed out sniffily, was a Liberal.

What united the baby boomers was that almost none of them learned to value the extraordinary legacy they had. None of them fought to protect it, and today most of them sneer at it, either from the left or from the right. The right says that it was grossly irresponsible of our postwar leaders to put the nation to the expense of educating, housing, employing and feeding the poor, because the nation could not afford it. The left says that Attlee betrayed the working class by not going further. Neither side cares about what was achieved, and neither can be bothered to defend it.

None of which stopped them from using their new freedoms to make a good life for themselves. Most of the men and women who made New Labour and rose to high office with it are baby boomers; some of them, like Jack Straw and Charles Clarke, were student leaders in the Sixties and Seventies.

Just two baby boomers rose to be prime minister, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both authentic figures of the Sixties and Seventies. (Blair's immediate predecessor, John Major, is two years too old to be a baby boomer, and the next prime minister after Brown will certainly be too young.)

Others who stuck with the revolution they had proclaimed in the Sixties, and through the Seventies and Eighties, squeezed the life out of it with the dead weight of intolerance and sectarianism, so that today the far left is exclusive, inward-looking and unable to affect anything in the real world.

Yet others turned on the Sixties with a holy vengeance and became caricatures of the Blimpish folk their parents had once been, condemning the excesses of the Sixties, demanding less freedom for young people and more freedom for big corporations.

They have this in common: that in place of the great ideals of the Attlee government, they all, in their different ways, idealised newness, youth and modernity. The baby boomers created a society where the ultimate good lay in being new and young, and modern and new, especially new - which, ironically, is why there will be no other baby-boomer prime ministers after Brown.

The baby boomers are hoist by their own petard. They put an end, at least for the foreseeable future, to the days when Churchill could become prime minister and save the nation when he was nearly 70; when Attlee could form a great reforming government at the age of 62; when Harold Macmillan could start one of the most successful premierships Britain has ever experienced at the age of 62. They created a society in which a Liberal Democrat leader such as Menzies Campbell could be drummed out of office aged 66 for the crime of being as old as Macmillan and Attlee were when they formed their last governments, though considerably younger than Churchill or Gladstone.

That the baby boomers are now all too old ever again to be trusted with the nation's affairs is entirely our fault. It was we who created the cult of youth. In the Sixties, we thought that under our tutelage the world was going to get better. But we created a far worse world, a harsh­er world where our children have to be coldly, miserably realistic in a way that we did not, a world in which the self-indulgences that we took as of right are unavailable to them.

We, the baby boomers, used up the economic good times, when there was work for everyone. We used up the educational good times, when free education extended to universities and we, unlike our children, did not have to amass a mountain of debt in order to go to university. We used up the time when education was seen as a good in itself, rather than the acquisition of skills required to swell someone else's profits. In June 2009, the government's department for higher education was abolished, and its responsibilities placed under the department dealing with business and industry, a pretty good indication of what ministers now think education is for.

We used up the time when progressive educationalists were starting to question the idea of school as a machine for cramming facts into young minds. New Labour - the government of the baby boomers - has built a new straitjacket for our children's schools.

We used up the time when the Second World War was fresh enough in the memory for war to be seen as an evil, never to be entered into lightly. That is why Prime Minister Harold Wilson saved the baby boomers from having to fight beside young Americans in Vietnam, though they gave him little thanks for it. When the baby-boomer generation formed a government, its first prime minister, Tony Blair, told lies to the young so that he could send them to die alongside the Americans in Iraq.

Religion, royalty, government: nothing was sacrosanct in the Sixties, and everything could be questioned. But we used up the time when nothing was sacred. The age of deference seemed to be over, yet the baby boomers, who now run things, have seen how useful deference in for the governing class and are bringing it back as fast as they can.

The freedoms we fought for, we have rushed to deny to our children. We once thought our children would grow up into a far better world than the one in which we reached adulthood. They didn't.

Francis Beckett is most recently co-author of "Marching to the Fault Line: the 1984 Miners' Strike and the Death of Industrial Britain" (Constable, £18.99)

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This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously