Should Boomers Feel Guilty?

I was born in 1943, just ahead of the Baby Boomers, but sharing much of the good fortune of that golden generation. Britain was ineffably grim in the 1940s but as the 1950s wore on a wave of optimism flooded through the land and every year seemed to be better.

During these years working class youngsters were pouring out of the housing schemes, or like me out of the coalfields, and into universities and technical colleges. The spirit of the age was pragmatism not the ghastly political correctness, the risk aversion, and above all the over–arching piety of environmentalism we have to endure today.

By the middle of the decade it was clear we were in an epoch of astonishing prosperity. Consumption was proceeding at such a pace that the siren voice of economist JK Galbraith was heard to complain that our “affluent society” was over-providing for material wants.

Yet looking back across half a century it is plain that those benefits were spread around the world. Fifty years later, average global incomes had gone up by one third, in real terms. Infant mortality is down by two thirds; life expectancy is up by one third as advances in medicine have helped to reduce cancer, heart disease, stroke and virtually every other affliction of humanity.

The average IQ of the poor is steadily rising and the world’s population is now expected to stabilise by 2050 rather than maintain a Malthusian progression. The average Mexican is now living longer than the average Briton did in 1955, and the average Briton is living longer still.

Of course we still have our siren voices even though that of Galbraith has at last fallen silent. At least since the days of Isaiah, the Judaic-Christian world has loved to listen to prophets of doom. They seem to need to believe that their’s is a uniquely fallen and selfish generation. And the Boomers have long been encouraged to believe they were the most fallen and selfish generation – ever!

Well, there is no question that those born in the great bulge of fecundity in the Fifties and Sixties have had it easy. They were the ones who hung out at university entirely at the taxpayers’ expense becoming the last generation of eternal students. They now luxuriate in housing equity their children cannot afford and have built up pensions the like of which will not be seen again.

Yet I do not feel they should be excessively bowed down by guilt because I think there is no doubt they will leave a world considerably improved on the world they found. Certainly society is much richer and even an unemployed man on benefit now receives more in real terms than the average working wage in Macmillan’s Britain. London’s air is far cleaner, and so is the Thames; and a car travelling at top speed emits less pollution than a parked car in the 1970s, mainly because cars no longer leak.

Of course every advance is accompanied by prophecies of doom from the usual suspects. For example, when British pioneers helped the birth of the first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978, the Vatican warned that it was “an event that can have very grave consequences for humanity”. As things turned out, it was an event that had very wonderful and joyous consequences for millions of people.

Whatever the economic difficulties of today, it is Boomer technology that is delivering and will deliver incredible improvements in the standard of life of the next generation. They have also been responsible for the tolerance and openness that has helped to break down sexism, racism and homophobia.

Of course there are severe economic problems at present by these are most likely to be cured by the Boomer doctrines of liberal market economics than a return to the Big Government of Socialist Britain, Nazi Germany, or Communist Russia.

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