The selfish giant generation?

I don’t know who exactly introduced me to the concept of ‘inter-generational transfers,’ probably our universities minister whom I once nicknamed David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts in a Guardian article. He matters to your life more than you may realise.

At the time it wasn’t strictly true that the cerebral Tory MP for Havant was ‘known to his colleagues as “Two Brains”,’ as I suggested in a mischievous moment. But six months later, when the Sun’s splash headline proclaimed ‘Two Brains Gets The Sack’ (over some misdemeanour in the whips office), it officially became an established fact. Who says the broadsheet press has no influence?

I digress. Willetts is that rare creature, a public intellectual who is active in politics, a clever grammar school boy from Birmingham. He went from Oxford, to the Treasury, then into think tank land and Westminster under Margaret Thatcher. Alas, Two Brains was squeezed out of David Cameron’s cabinet to make space for some Lib Dems. Also for having one brain too many.

Earlier this year Willetts wrote a book called The Pinch, in which he argued that the post-war baby boomer generation, born in the 20 years after World War II grabbed more than its fair share of society’s fast-expanding goods, jobs and services. It has also managed to hang on to them at the expense of the generations coming up behind them. This Selfish Giant of a generation has taken precisely 118% of what it put it in, claimed Two Brains.

Many generations long dead did the same. As Chinese consumers, held down by Maoist austerity and oppression, are now proving, when the brakes are taken off we can all behave quite badly.

Unless the rise of China/ India triggers a complete collapse of western economies – unlikely – the next generation’s chance will come. Even today I am amazed how much the young think globally while leaving the lights on locally, not to mention wasting food, drink, clothing, DVDs etc on an heroic scale. As for walking round clutching little bottles of over-priced tap water, don’t get me started! War babies don’t do that. We hoard everything on the grounds that it might be useful.

Myself, I was born in October 1945, a good time to arrive near the front of what turned out to be a big queue. As Malcolm Gladwell memorably explained, it’s a bit like being a potential sports star born at the start of the season – not in August when last September’s rivals, older and bigger, are way, way ahead.

I arrived at the History Department on Gordon Square in September ‘63, a few weeks short of my 18th birthday. Within eight weeks prime minister, Harold Macmillan, rocked by the Profumo scandal, had resigned and been replaced by the 14th Earl of Home (he was chosen not elected by MPs). Nikita Khruschev had also been overthrown in Moscow and Mao Tse Tung had exploded China’s first atomic bomb. Oh yes, and President John F Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas.

Lively times, and in South Africa Nelson Mandela was waiting trial and possible execution. When he went to jail for what turned out to be the larger part of my working life – 27 years – I predicted in the UCL bar that one day Pretoria would be renamed Mandela. I expect to be vindicated quite soon now. Tutu just sounds wrong.

Did we feel privileged? Yes, sort of.

As few as 6% of young people went to university in 1963, and most of us were our families’ first graduates. Coming from a small town in Cornwall it was a big jump for me and I was often miserable as well as shy in that first year.

But Alfred Cobban, head of the department and author of a 3-volume history of modern France, said a kind thing. He told the freshers first meeting: ‘Over the next three years, one of you may have a breakdown and one of you may get pregnant, but you will all get degrees. That was still daring in 1963 because the Sixties had only really started that summer. But it was true.

Money-wise, there were no fees, of course. The 1962 Education Act had entrenched local authority responsibility, alongside means-tested grants of up, so I recall, £360 a year in London, a little less elsewhere. My father, on a decent £1,000 a year or so, was expected to contribute about £60.

Those from better-off families, eligible for only the minimum £50 grant, were often worst off – and had to work in term. But then, they seemed so much more sophisticated to us country bumkins. To augment my grant I delivered Christmas mail and sold summer ice creams and pasties on Polzeath beach, a David Cameron haunt though he wasn’t quite born then. ‘What 2/6d (12.5p) an hour plus tips? We wouldn’t get out of bed for that,’ scornful lads from Liverpool told us. Bumpkins again! I wonder how many of those Scousers are still in bed.

When I got my first job on the Reading Evening Post, my gross pay was £15.7s.0d (35p), £12.0s.3d net of tax and stamp. Rent was £3 to £4, beer in the university bar must have been pushing 20p by then, a bottle of wine cost a quid, but few drank the stuff. Drugs? There weren’t many around yet. Sex? All right for some, though it took some of us bumpkins until 1965 to get across Tottenham Court Road to the pioneering Brooke Advisory Clinic in Whitfield Street.

When I got my first mortgage it was 1973, I was on £3,000 by then – and the mortgage a hefty £13,500. Do the sums: we took in lodgers. I still live there.

All of which is to say that, with hindsight, a lot of things were better during Britain’s sluggish post- war recovery.

But a lot of things were worse. The country was a great deal poorer, shabbier, dirtier than we realised at the time. ‘Poms stink on the Tube,’ as my Kiwi wife used to explain. It also took several months in the queue to get a telephone and not just because Anthony Wedgwood Benn – as Tony B still called himself then – had been in charge of the nationalised phone system either. It’s just the way it was. There seemed to be more jobs around, white collar and blue, though they were mostly for men. Trade unions were rarely out of the news, the prevailing mood resigned and pinched even before flared trousers.

Where is this leading me? To saying that things are indeed both better and worse, but mostly different. The Right won the market arguments, the Left won most of the cultural ones, though no victory is ever forever and the world’s axis is tilting east. But in 2010 we are where we are, let’s get on with it.

Me, I’ve paid back the cost of my education many times, through a lifetime of work and higher rate taxes. I will also make sure UCL gets something in my will if there’s anything left. But co-payments or user fees, the idea that citizens must contribute more in direct payments for the social services they consume rather than burden the (shrinking) taxpayer base, won’t just apply to students. They will also apply to care of the elderly infirm.

So there may not be anything left for UCL. I’d let you know, but I won’t be here. You’ll be in my shoes by then.

Series Navigation<< In defence of our noble humanities‘We have not been in a prison, just a library . . .’ >>