I was born in 1951 so that just puts me into the era of the baby boomers. The generation that went before me had to cope with growing up in the Depression and then fighting a 6 year war before knuckling down to trying to create a better world. As a result of their efforts I started my adult life in a world where I received a grant to attend university cost and debt free and found plenty of good jobs available because there were only half a million unemployed. If I needed a home I had a choice of buying reasonably priced property via a mortgage of only 3 times my salary, renting a council home or entering into a regulated tenancy with a private landlord. If I got sick I could drop into a doctor's surgery or ring and ask for them to visit me. They came on their daily rounds. At the risk of wallowing even further in nostalgia I can report that I could walk the country lanes and see small fields, hedgerows and lot of birds. Huge numbers of insects would hit the windscreen of our car if we went for a drive.
It seems that we won't be leaving much of this to the next generation. The middle classes are now emerging onto the job market with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debts to find that there is no prospect of them borrowing enough to buy a home and almost all of the council homes have been sold off. The working classes are finding their lifestyle has been wrecked by the disappearance of factories and decades of neglect of their towns and cities. They are ruled by politicians and bureaucrats who have never experienced their lifestyle. If any of us get ill then we have to be proactive and determined to fight our way through to getting proper NHS treatment and if we need a care package then, if we are lucky enough to get one, the chances are the carer will make a 15 minute visit before rushing off to their next appointment organised to meet the terms of a zero hours contract awarded to them by some offshoot of a hedge fund. When it comes to the climate we are leaving behind seas full of plastic, tons of bottles full of nuclear waste without a disposal strategy, carbon dioxide levels at over 400 parts per million, only a third of the wildlife in the world that was there when I was born and great chunks of white bleached dead coral instead of the wonderfully intact Great Barrier Reef.
By rights the generation I was brought up with should have been pretty grateful for the small window of ease and security in which we lived our lives and been passionate about passing on those opportunities to others. Instead we have proved to be remarkably selfish. We have effectively scrapped the welfare state that we personally gained so much from and we have trashed much of the environment.
On both sides of the Atlantic, my generation started out with high ideals. Listen to the songs of the 60s or read the books and you are likely to excited by the degree of enthusiasm and creativity. Here it seems is the evidence of a group of people that was determined to build a better world and to reject any kind of control over how individuals lived their lives. Unfortunately people age. As they age quite a few of them forget their ideals. Instead of being optimistic about change too many have become afraid of it.
I think that at the heart of that growing fear lies a realisation that it was a great privilege to live a comfortable lifestyle in an advanced Western country at a time when much of the rest of the world was living in poverty. Too many people who enjoyed that privilege are now very scared of losing it in a world where many more nations have efficient industry, well educated people and the ability to compete in a global marketplace. Whether you were poor or rich there was an element of safety and security if you lived within the borders of the US or the UK in the 1960s. Much of that has gone. We now live in a time when a factory can be located anywhere in the world. To a child of a peasant farmer in South East Asia the incomes from those factory jobs look pretty good. To too many of the children of sixties America the existence of competition from those factory workers just looks like a threat.
In reality it ought to be a cause of great celebration that much of the world has been lifted out of the dire hopeless poverty that existed in my childhood. I grew up listening to news stories about famines in India and China and seeing images of people from two thirds of the world living from hand to mouth in terrible homes with no access to clean water, sanitation, or electricity. Huge swathes of the world's population had next to no education, very little income and very little choice about what happened to them.
In a rational world people in the First World ought to embrace this emergence of so many people in the Third World from poverty. Logically when others get richer there are plenty of opportunities there to sell things to people who are getting better off and to use our skill at science and technology and our educational advantages to continue to prosper. That is what happened within the rich nations when the poor downtrodden working class finally got skilled work, good money and decent homes in the early years of the 20th century. No damage was done then to the incomes of the rich. Rather the reverse. Many more people from all classes found themselves better off.
But logic and emotion are two different things. Too many of my generation are fearful of emergence of newly developing countries. Living in the richest and most powerful in the world is psychologically very comforting for its citizens. When your country starts to lose the automatic top spot and starts to encounter more competition then some of its citizens look across the world and find the world is a lot more threatening.
There are perfectly good strategies that could maintain high standards of living for the people of the former First World countries that depend on investment, skills and looking forward to the next phase of technology. Instead of following them too many of the elderly are listening to dangerous politicians who have seized the opportunity to win support by stoking fears.
People from my generation have to decide whether we wish to give in to those fears and join the embittered former idealists or whether we wish to embrace the reality that we now live in a world where many nations have the ability to be economically successful. There is something deeply worrying about watching a generation who grew up admiring the speeches of Martin Luther King elect a President who is establishing a register of Muslims. A generation that started out with the hope of youth is allowing itself to become the victim of the fears of old age and has spawned people who are prepared to shrug their shoulders when a middle class woman describes Michelle Obama as a monkey in high heels.
The Times They Are a Changing sounded quite exciting when we were in our teens and hoping it would mean a revolution in our personal life that would get us all out from beneath the stultifying controls of an older generation. It clearly looks a lot different to a lot of those self same people now that they become part of that old generation and have become the ones worrying about why the old certainties are passing away.
Fear is the dominant emotion at the moment. And the only way to challenge fear is to refuse to give into it or compromise with it. Hope is the only logical counterpoint. I would hate to think that the only way forward in the richer countries is to wait for the people from my selfish generation to die off before anyone can start work on providing a better legacy for their children and grandchildren. What the world needs now is to be inspired by the early optimism of the baby boomer generation and to ditch the sour pessimistic selfishness of their old age.