Baby boomers and enlightenment

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The combined occasion of the first tranche of post war baby boomers reaching retirement and fifty years since the beginning of the sixties is leading to much debate. Today’s Observer features a long essay by Will Hutton with additional comment from a range of distinguished 60somethings.

 Writing an essay on the sixties for Radio 4 and reading David Willetts' excellent book ‘The Pinch:  How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and how they can give it back’, I spent some of my holiday sitting round the pool with fellow middle aged guests debating the thesis that the generation born after the second world war has exploited its demographic power to the detriment of future generations.  

The general consensus seems to be this: in the sixties the baby boomers won important freedoms – from oppression and prejudice based on gender, race and sexuality - but in making the case for individual rights, the era also laid the basis for an aggressive individualism which tore up social norms and tore down social institutions without thinking responsibly about how and with what they might be replaced.  

This is a huge generalisation and pretty damning of a whole generation and historical period. It misses out, for example, that as well as sex, drugs and rock and roll, the sixties was a period of huge creativity in the third sector with many of today’s major charities being established, along with whole new movements such as housing associations (today’s bureaucracies seem far removed from the grassroots self help idealism which often drove their formation).  

I don’t want to annoy the Radio 4 people by revealing my thesis ahead of broadcast, but anyone who attended or has watched my 2010 annual lecture won’t be surprised to hear that I focus on the kind of freedom the baby boomers seemed to want and the problems with it as a concept. Indeed there is an interesting resonance between the questioning of ideas of freedom, justice and progress which we have put at the heart of the RSA’s 21st century enlightenment idea and the themes of much of the baby boomer debate.

All of which is largely an excuse to plug the RSA Animate of my lecture which is now online. The Cognitive Media people have done another great job and although - like any author - I find it hard to see my great words edited down by nearly two thirds I am assured by several people that 11 minutes is ‘even more powerful’ (‘well, if you put it that way’) than the original thirty.

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