If I have learnt anything from the feedback to my tales, it is that many of things that I remember having done, have been experienced by others. I know that young people, and I include myself when I was young, wanted to be different. This was firstly different from our parents and secondly different from our peers. The sad truth is that I believe we are tribal animals and being different often involves dressing and behaving the same as other people. Loon pants, budgie jacket, long hair, Kicker shoes, tie-dye t-shirts all marked me as part of a certain crowd in the 1970s. Others wore Doc Martin boots, shortened jeans, white t-shirts, braces and had shaved heads, whilst others wore brothel-creeper shoes, drainpipe trousers, shoelace ties, teddy boy jackets and quaffed hair with a DA. Despite these clans, our social behaviour within them was fairly similar. We wanted to be liked and admired by our peers; we wanted to be seen as grown up; we wanted to be noticed; we wanted to stand out from the crowd, and in some cases such as skinheads and punks, we wanted to be feared. I feel I must add that there was a group of teenagers who saw things very differently.
They were serious, studious, focused and hardworking. I must add that my wife falls into this group, and I don’t think that the groupings I have referred to meant anything to her. She and her ilk worked hard at school. They may have had goals, other than just getting away from home for three or four years and partying, but I have no idea, as that was my ambition at the time. As a result, she became highly qualified and skilled, and has only made one serious error in her life, and that was settling for me. Guess I was just the lucky one!
In my teenage years, during the late 1960s and 1970s, we felt we were very different from our parents. The term generation gap was used to describe this divide. We believed we were bringing an enlightened view to the world. Our parents’ generation was the cause of all our ills, but our generation knew better. We would make the world a better place, through social change and through science and technology. We totally ignored the changes and improvements in society and living standards that the previous generation had overseen and the sacrifices that they had made with two world wars. To be honest, we knew nothing but the world we saw around us. How we got there didn’t enter my thoughts, but how we wanted the world to be, did.
Just a few of the improvements from the previous generation that I can now list were: electricity in all homes, sanitation and bathrooms installed in my grandmother’s house and most others, the National Health Service, State Pensions for all, and secondary education for all. There was a feeling from returning soldiers from both the world wars, that they would never return to being the servants of their masters. They would see a change in the way that society operated, and they achieved this.
We just knew what we wanted. We wanted to be able to go to university, get good jobs and careers with good pay, buy our own homes, not have to fight wars, improve the environment, own cars, experience free love and enjoy ourselves. At the time, it didn’t seem too much to ask.
My mother had to start work at thirteen, and when she married, she had to give up work at the railways. The logic was that she would soon have children and there was no maternity leave.
Being what is termed a baby boomer, we just expected everyone to get a decent rate of pay. We took our eleven plus exam at the end of primary schooling and it was supposed to send us onto the path that best suited our abilities. I know that this was a far from accurate guide to academic, or any, future success or achievements, but it was an attempt to create a meritocracy, rather than places at university only going to those with money and position. As one who benefitted from this, it provided me with opportunities I otherwise may not have had, and I am grateful for that, but how many missed out? It is interesting how current politicians seem, once again, to all come from certain public schools.
I went on to have a career in education and having only a teaching certificate, I started the process of studying part time to get a degree. I eventually joined the Open University and did an arts degree, over several years, and even completed it here in Australia.The Open University was a significant innovation and provided opportunities for those who could not afford to study in the usual manner to gain a degree. I thought the courses were fabulous. The arts foundation course was particularly enlightening. I studied areas I knew little about: art, music, history, theology and philosophy, and it opened my eyes. I can truly say that the expected standard was very high, as it was desperate not to be seen as a second-rate qualification, and many gained degrees and new careers as a result. I know that the summer schools were for many an opportunity to experience the free love that I mentioned earlier. Many students would arrange to meet up each year to have a few days of study and secret trysts. The university newspaper was notorious for cryptic notices arranging the next annual get-together. I must say that I only went once and never felt any urge to indulge in such going-ons. I was too busy preparing to play Bottom in an extract of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for the end of summer school show.
One of the major changes that came in during my youth was the readily available contraceptive pill. Previous generations had the attitude that sex was part of marriage and extra-marital relations were a major stigma. There was tremendous injustice here as pregnant girls were treated as deviants, but the boys viewed as just being ‘lads’.
In the 1960s there was a period of major closures of mental asylums, and with this came some shocking revelations. Many elderly ladies were discovered who had spent their entire adult lives in institutions and should never have been in such places. Their only crimes were to have had illegitimate babies. In the past, more often than not, illegitimate children were sent for adoption and tremendous suffering resulted.
Our generation saw the summer of love from the US and we wanted it. The availability of reliable contraception for anyone over the age of sixteen changed everything. There was a societal shift and what had been taboo now became much more acceptable, aided and abetted by pop stars, celebrities and TV personalities of the time. There were changes in the status of women and a movement for female liberation, equal opportunities, pay, pensions, and more readily available no-blame divorce. Abortions were legalised in 1968, as was homosexuality in 1967, and inter-racial relationships became acceptable.
There were also many employment introductions from the 1960s onwards. Trade Unions had a period of power and they wielded it to get what they wanted. Prime ministers were toppled by industrial actions, and eventually improvements in working conditions were enjoyed by all. Sick pay, works pensions, equal pay regulations, unfair dismissal laws, health and safety regulations and practices, saw workers better renumerated and enjoying better working conditions. Of course, there were periods of major societal discontent and I remember the three-day working week, the winter of discontent with rubbish piling up in the streets of London, the miners’ strike, shipyard and steel work strikes and to add to it all, the petrol crisis. I even attended my only demonstration whilst a student in London. I think it was 1974 and we were marching for bigger grants. It was a massive march in London and the college students’ union organised a coach to take us into the city. The younger generation have missed out on free higher education and they are now saddled with large debts after they finish studying, whereas we were paid to go.
Many of the improvements were taken for granted, but there was a move to weaken the unions and attempts to soften employment laws and conditions. The way this has been done is through the casualisation of work. People are often now self-employed contractors and therefore have few benefits; others are casually employed and have no holidays, tenure or sick pay.
The current younger generation wants to blame the previous generation. They see that we have enjoyed all the benefits that they are missing out on, and have somehow taken from them. This is fully understandable and in some ways justified. We certainly enjoyed hard fought for benefits, that have been gradually eroded away over many years. Nevertheless, I wonder if this change is more to do with the growing imbalance of wealth. Until more recent times the working population saw major improvements in disposable incomes and wealth, and this hid the major shift in wealth. The gap between the rich and poor has grown and there is a group of billionaires with obscene amounts of money and power.
I guess we were fortunate, but I hope that the younger generations fight to regain some benefits that we enjoyed. I want my children and grandchildren to have at least as good a life as I have had. They seem to be as shocking to us as we were to our parents. I can’t help but respond in horror at the tattoos that men and women have, the music they listen to is dreadful, their idea of fun is torture to me, and some of the changes in society clash with my views of right and wrong. I am sure they will grow up with regrets and embarrassment, just as we have. Did I ever wear platform shoes? We enjoyed a life without a world war, and I can only hope that they are so lucky. We have been hit by a pandemic, which we thought would never happen. The world has major climate issues to solve, but we live in a world of technological and medical miracles. I have hope for the young, and the world, but unfortunately they have missed the greatest period of music. The 1960s and 1970s will never be surpassed.