Stop the boomer-bashing

The bommers won social skirmishes - from feminism to gay rights - for which their children owe them

My mother seemed distracted on the phone. Not hard to work out why: the gleeful banging and crashing of two grandchildren in the background, staying for a few days while my sister moved house. It was lovely having them, my mother said, but she sounded slightly tired. I felt a guilty gratitude for all the times she had bailed me out of similar childcare crises.

And then, a few days later, I heard the Today programme debating calls to scrap the mandatory retirement age, so that more people can work into their pensionable years. A listener, via email, protested that nobody wants a "70-year-old wrinkly" driving school buses, or an 80-year-old surgeon operating. There are some jobs requiring the swift and steady reflexes of youth. But how odd to sneer at pensioners driving kids around, when one in three families now relies on grandparents for at least some childcare at home. Many working parents' lives are sustainable only with a wrinkly helping hand.

The relationship between the old and the not-quite-young-any-more is rife with such contradictions. We moan about baby boomers - those 17 million Britons born in a postwar surge - bankrupting us with their need for pensions or long-term care. Yet suggest letting them work longer to support themselves, and we complain about oldies clinging on and blocking everyone else's promotion prospects.

Focus groups suggest we are reluctant to pay higher taxes so the state can support our ageing relatives. We are so reluctant that politicians are largely ducking an overdue rethink of long-term care. But how many of us really want to stop work and nurse them ourselves?

Bank of Granny

This battle of the generations is explored in a document published on 27 January by the charity Carers UK, urging a new social contract that treats care of the elderly with the same priority as childcare. It argues that caring is a broad social challenge, not just a health-care issue.

The Conservative spokesman on family policy, David Willetts, agrees that the old contract is broken, but he accuses the boomers of wrecking it by failing to save for retirement. In his new book, The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Stole Their Children's Future and How They Can Give It Back, he argues that the boomers took too much during the good times and organised society selfishly around themselves: they got the final-salary pensions and free university education, but shuffled the public debt on to their children.

It's a compelling argument, fitting the boom­er image of selfish hedonism. This, after all, is the generation which thinks that it invented sex and drugs and rock'n'roll, and remains promiscuous about everything from politics to consumer brands.

Their higher divorce rates and laissez-faire parenting styles are blamed by right-wingers for social breakdown, with consequences cascading through the decades. Yet still boomers won't grow old gracefully. They demand IVF at the age of 60, blow cash on exotic holidays, drink so much that researchers in Edinburgh recently warned of "significant alcohol-related demands on future health and social services". From bed-hoppers to bed-blockers: no wonder their children are revolting.

But boomer-bashing overlooks some inconvenient facts. This supposedly pleasure-seeking generation's free domestic labour (or full-time motherhood) saved the state billions in its child-rearing years and is now doing so all over again.

Thousands of elderly carers nurse their spouses free of charge, while grandparents provide nearly £4bn worth of free childcare - to say nothing of the 200,000 grandparents raising their grandchildren full-time, where the birth parents can't or won't.

Willetts is right to argue that some boomers made fortunes from property at the expense of their own children, who can't afford the crazy prices their parents helped inflate. But that wealth is at least partly recycled through the Bank of Granny - the third of older people planning to help grandchildren with a deposit - or the £470m stashed annually by grandparents in child trust funds.

The bolshie generation

It is worth remembering, too, that when the postwar hordes started work, they created a lengthy boom in tax revenues. If they didn't save enough, arguably governments - eager to let the good times roll - also failed to plan for leaner times ahead.

There is something inevitable about fear-ing the old, with all their associations of de-cline and mortality. But that doesn't explain the anger underpinning the current debate, an impatience that dismisses the over-sixties as a threat to prosperity and a drain on our meagre resources.

Unlike their parents, the boomers lack the moral authority of having fought a world war. But they did win some social skirmishes - from feminism to gay rights - for which their children owe them. They are an admirably bolshie generation, emboldened by sheer numbers, that challenged outmoded structures of authority in fields from medicine to politics. For good and ill, they made those of us who came after them what we are.

Within many families, the traditional bonds of love and duty endure. As Carers UK argues, "giving and receiving care, willingly and within interdependent relationships, is a fundamental part of the human condition". Anyone who has ever rocked a baby, vowed to love "in sickness and in health", or held the hand of someone who is dying, knows that. We need to ensure that a new state settlement between the generations reflects it.

This article first appeared in the 01 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Unforgiven