Generation Breakdown

My nine-year-old daughter has started taking me to task for using "wicked" as a form of praise. At 47, she explains, I'm too old to use words and phrases which are the preserve of the young. She also says the punk music I've finally worked out how to load onto the iPod is too loud. For a moment I think she's going to complain you can't hear the words.

My nine-year-old daughter has started taking me to task for using "wicked" as a form of praise. At 47, she explains, I'm too old to use words and phrases which are the preserve of the young. She also says the punk music I've finally worked out how to load onto the iPod is too loud. For a moment I think she's going to complain you can't hear the words.

I used to listen to a lot of punk, back in 1983. I was sixteen, had left school to the dole queue, and despised older people for messing up my future. Yet now I read that my generation had it easy: "free" university (unless, like me, you left school at 16); cheap housing (unless you couldn't get a job to pay the mortgage); and living in a booming economy (unless you lived in the north, or in south London).

Today's generation - presumably those aged 15-25 - will, I keep reading, by columnists who receive much of their wisdom from press releases, be the first in history to be worse off than their parents. Yet that depends on the age of your parents - or more precisely, the age your parents were when you were born.

(Incidentally, to compare the lives of young people now with the "baby-boomers" is to create a false dichotomy; there is another generation in the middle, yet somehow now invisible to social commentators and politicians).

If your parents came of age in the fifties or sixties there was no birth control; divorce almost impossible; homosexuality illegal and most people had no car, phone or foreign holiday. Of course there were no student loans either - but only because such a tiny proportion of the population went to university (whose demented idea was it that 50% of school leavers should go to college?), and working class students seen as freaks. In the seventies there was the three-day week (which on reflection probably was a good idea), streets piled with rubbish, horrifically flared trousers and football violence to make today's worst hooligan encounters seem like luncheon at the Ritz.

All these concerned comment pieces and leaders I keep reading about today's "lost generation" provoke a sense of déjà vu: 30 years ago the same things were being said about "my" generation - those of us who came of age in the 1980s, when unemployment was rife, the inner cities blazed and we watched government warnings about AIDS-icebergs and how to protect ourselves from nuclear Armageddon - before the national anthem and the TV went blank. I do realise this is starting to sound like the Monty Python sketch - I AM from Yorkshire, after all - but I feel it's time we put the supposed troubles of "today's generation" into perspective before we all begin to believe the hype.

Reflecting on his life shortly before passing away, my 98-year-old grandfather told me he felt sorry for young people today. I was staggered: he was born in World War I; came of age in the Depression; served for six years in World War II; why did he believe that being young today is harder? He considered a moment then shrugged:

"They have no freedom."

Freedom to travel? Grandad never went abroad. Freedom to work? He spent his working life in a factory. Freedom to study? Despite his intellect (he was the only boy from his town to reach grammar school) the idea of someone from my grandfather's background going to university was unthinkable.

Perhaps young people now have too much freedom, too much choice - about what to do, where to go and who to be - and so they end up doing nothing. Several members of my family are in their late teens and early twenties and I worry about their future: mainly because they seem so unable to motivate themselves, to travel, to take a risk, to discover what's in the next street or valley rather than simply idling away endless hours on Youtube and Twitter. Most young people I meet are so lazy their generation should be called Generation Zzz. Has the X Factor and BGT removed all notions of succeeding through study or risk, of taking pride in one's work for its own sake? Why has Russell Brand's call to do - well, nothing - resonated with yoof? Where has this naive cynicism come from? How do young people know the world is so awful and the future so grim without exploring it and trying to make it better?

If you're young and British you live in the safest, most affluent society the world has ever known. The possibility of you experiencing genuine hunger, homelessness, cold, disease or conflict is vanishingly small. You may lose sleep over the brand of Smartphone your friends possess or your student loan payments but on the bright side you won't ever hose blood from a Spitfire, or be electrocuted for being gay, or go to bed wondering if you'll be obliterated by nuclear war "when the wind blows".

Worried about "job security"? Try living in 1983. Concerned about binge-drinking? We used to drink a pint of wine in one before heading to the pub. Drugs? For "my" generation speed was the drug of choice - at least until 1986 when we discovered "acid rock" and "wicked" ecstasy; for my parents it was the Purple Heart, LSD and dope so strong some unwisely turned to politics.

As for violence, as Stephen Pinker notes in "The Better Angels of Our Nature", violent crime has reduced throughout history; in the Eighties we had hoodies (like me), and "steaming", and gang wars - though not a patch on the razor gangs of Glasgow, Finsbury Park's "bunker" in the thirties or Victorian London.

Perhaps the very concept of a generation-gap is a media construct which has ceased to have meaning. The generations are blurring: "the war" has gone lower-case, melting into the long history of combat and geo-politics and programmes on cable. And with no war to scythe at the legs of each generation's finest we have centenarian Teds, hippies on drips, bus-pass mods, rapping grannies, teens who wear Laura Ashley and make pension plans. Yet still we hear all hope is lost: that young people have never had it so bad and the human race in irreversible decline. If this is how you feel put down your iPad and pick up a history book. If you don't know what a book looks like, google it.

There's nothing new about young and old people moaning that the other lot don't understand them, and for older people in particular to disparage young folk for their laziness, bad manners and fecklessness. Socrates and Plato wrote about the young folk of Greece having contempt for authority.

The big difference, it seems, is that the anger which torched Brixton, and rioted in Grosvenor Square, has been replaced by a searing apathy. Witness the music: in the 60s there was Dylan, in the 70s the Pistols, and even in the 80s, when according to history's rewrite everyone wore RaRa skirts and screamed into mobiles the size of phone boxes (ask your parents what they were), we had hardcore punk and hardcore rave music. What do you have today? One Direction. As John Lydon said, as he exhorted his own generation to stop moaning, go out and do something: "Get off your arse!"

Inspired by this message from across the generations I put the Sex Pistols on the iPod and turn up the volume. My daughter pops her head round the door.


Meekly I turn it down.


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