The Blame Game: Did the Baby Boomers really “steal” the next generation’s future?

May 07


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Helen Whitten

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The Blame Game: Did the Baby Boomers really “steal” the next generation’s future?

I have to admit to being fed up with being accused of “stealing” the younger generation’s future.  The word stealing implies intention to cause harm to another person, to deliberately deprive them of something that is theirs.  I don’t buy into the concept that my generation of Baby Boomers, who seem to be the target of any blame game that is going at the moment, intentionally stole anyone’s future.  Nor do I think we are necessarily any more selfish than any other generation – lucky, yes, that we have not had a war on our territory during our lifetime but we have had our own struggles nonetheless.

We are living in an era where it’s the norm to look for others to blame for anything that is causing pain or discomfort.  I don’t find this useful.  Identifying yourself as a victim is disempowering and ultimately unhelpful.  It makes others into persecutors – often a subjective labelling that also removes responsibility from those who consider themselves victims by ignoring the part they may themselves have played within a situation.

At the present time we Baby Boomers are being blamed for, in The Guardian’s words of 27.7.11, creating an “environmental mess”.  The Extinction Revolution protests accused us of “stealing their future” by treating the planet the way we have.  I really wonder how they can declare that they would have treated it better given the knowledge and circumstances we were born into?  It is easy to look back through the lens of today’s world and say people did things wrong.  They cannot honestly say they would have done any differently because they just don’t know how they would have acted had they been born, like I was, in 1950. 

We are a species who learns through invention, experimentation and review.  There was a time when if you fell into the River Thames you would have died from pollution.  Today fish swim in it because we learnt not to treat it as a sewer.  In 1974 F Sherwood Rowland discovered that CFS aerosol spray was causing the ozone layer to diminish. Action was taken to restrict the use of these aerosol cans.  Predictions are that the ozone layer should have healed by the 2030s due to this change.  We moved from petrol to unleaded and then to diesel because we were informed that it was better for the environment.  That was erroneous and so now we move back to unleaded or renewable/electric fuel for our vehicles.  We continually learn from science and change our behaviour.  We don’t yet know whether the changes we have been making on behalf of the planet will overturn the damage done but habits are changing.

As so much criticism is being thrown our way I want to remind Baby Boomer readers and perhaps enlighten younger readers that not everything we did in our lifetime caused things to get worse.  We were a generation whose teenage years were overshadowed by the fear of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis and we certainly protested and went on CND marches to protect the planet from nuclear holocaust.  We marched against Apartheid and refused to visit or buy produce from South Africa, as well as standing up against many other iniquities.

We didn’t, as the younger generation do, have stag parties in some far flung part of the world.  We went down to the local pub.  Hen parties didn’t exist.  We had no concept (and still don’t!) of single-wear clothing due to not being able to be seen in the same clothes twice on social media.  We frequently made our own clothes and often wore them until they fell apart.  The idea of buying an item of clothing only to wear once (other than perhaps a wedding dress) seems criminal to me and an appalling waste. 

In the main we didn’t fly as young people.  We went by ferry, train or car as aeroplane travel was hideously expensive, unreliable and with few routes.  It was only when Clarksons, Freddie Laker then Easyjet and Ryan Air came on the scene that it opened the skies to the masses.  And there has been some benefit from that in that more people have integrated with other cultures and broadened their minds through travel.  Did we have fun?  Yes of course we did and took advantage of new inventions and opportunities.  Any generation would.  We did not, at that time, understand the impact on the climate of air travel but today’s engines are far less polluting than the original jet engines were and so, again, we are learning.  There was no intentional “Let’s go ruin the planet for our children!”  We happen to love our children, grandchildren, great nieces and nephews and beyond.  Why would we have done this deliberately?

The property prices are another accusation thrown at us and again I would like to remind people that many of us lived in thoroughly damp, grotty flats (in my case with condensation that fell from the ceiling and snails that crawled up the walls) which we shared with 4-6 strangers, sometimes happily sometimes not.  But that was what we could afford.  We then bought wrecks that we did up.  Houses that needed rewiring, central heating and a complete overhaul and did much of this ourselves, living in a building site for one to two years with the long-term vision of having a decent house to live in.  Which we created.  As more people wanted to visit London and as more women worked, property prices went up and I am sorry that this has made it so difficult for the young to buy or live in central areas.  But let’s not forget that it impacted our ability to buy ‘up’ as our families grew and that interest rates were 17% at times, with no credit cards to fall back on.  So it wasn’t all plain sailing.

We came into a country that desperately needed rebuilding after the war.  My memories are of bomb sites, very basic housing and economic challenge.  Through the 60s, as we became teenage and young adults, we railed against the Establishment on behalf of those who wanted a more class-less and equal society.  The music industry opened up wealth to a large number of people who would never have had it, as did sport.  In business, people from all spheres came into white collar jobs. Many of our generation built businesses from scratch and employed thousands of people.  Some of this built on Victorian industrialisation but much of it was new innovation, resulting in many of the technical and medical advances that current generations enjoy today.  People worked hard.  They didn’t expect that wealth or success would come unless they made it for themselves.  Doctors worked around 120 hours a week.  Many professionals worked well over 60.  We jut got on with it.

As many statistics have proven, global poverty has reduced over these decades as office jobs have provided incomes for many people worldwide.  People trying to overthrow capitalism do so at the peril of many people whose livelihoods depend on it and whose living standards have improved because of it.  Of course there are excesses that need to be tempered, as there have been in any generation and in any area of the world (look at the wealth and selfishness of dictators of poor countries through the ages).  Strong, greedy and selfish leaders have existed throughout history and well before industrialisation or capitalism. 

Our generation have fought for gay rights, women’s rights, racial equality, flexible working, equal pay, disabled access.  We haven’t got it all right – of course not – but many people have tried to create a fairer world.  The hippies of the 60s and 70s were for love not war, for the organic ‘Good Life’ of growing your own vegetables and setting up organic farms.  Friends of the Earth was established in 1969.  The Clean Air Act was first passed in 1956.   The first “Earth Day” was 1970. Amnesty was founded in 1961, Greenpeace in 1971.  We haven’t been deaf or blind to environmental or humanitarian issues.

Much of what has gone wrong in terms of pollution is through individual thoughtless behaviour such as chucking litter along a road or into the sea or river.  The world’s oceans and beaches have been littered with plastic bottles and cans for decades.  Some of it from individual action and some of it dumped by business or governments.  There needs to be far more focus on teaching children individual responsibility at school so that they don’t drop litter and they do become active participants in the global community.  Then when they do get into responsible positions they will hopefully make decisions that maintain a healthy world.

There has certainly been a failure of global leadership on the environment during the past decades.  I don’t understand why it hasn’t been obligatory for all new homes to have solar panels.  Nor do I understand why supposedly ecologically-friendly products are still offered in plastic bottles.  We have a long way to go and hopefully all generations can work together to take care of our planet.

But I don’t appreciate having one generation telling ours that we have stolen a future that is also my children’s and grandchildren’s future. Those school strikers who speak in this way haven’t entered the adult world yet and they will find it’s a more complex business than they might imagine, where many well-intentioned supposedly environmentally-friendly policies actually prove to have negative unintended consequences.  So it’s easier to point fingers than it is to get it right.   We didn’t get it all right but I would be surprised if any of us went out there with the deliberate intention of “Let’s ruin the planet” for future generations! 

Inter-generational division is counter-productive.  Let’s stop this blame game and work together to support action that will protect our natural world.


4 Responses

  1. Helen – I couldn’t agree more with everything you have written. I felt very cross and hurt some weeks ago when students demonstrating in Winchester had, in my view, very aggressive banners accusing our generation of spoiling their future. As someone who has tried to do my bit for the environment, this hurts. If I had been braver, I would have challenged them.

    I am always picking up other people’s rubbish and putting in rubbish bins. There is a beautiful location near my house where there is a bench to sit on. Young people (mostly but not exclusively) sit there and chatter after school or when they walk from the train station. The litter was very bad at one point (largely sweet papers or cigarette stubs) so the council put a rubbish bin right beside the bench – literally! There is still litter there and sadly I have come to think it is either deliberate or a complete lack of awareness. The same can be said for litter thrown out of cars. I notice Hampshire council is introducing cameras and fines for this in some places now.

    As you say, we do not want to get into the blame game between generations. However, I do despair sometimes and empathise entirely with your thinking.

  2. I love your posts, and this one really struck home to this Baby Boomer! I was beginning to sink into victim status, and now I have been reminded of how it was for us in the sixties and seventies and eighties and into the nineties, when we were growing up and raising our children. The home made clothes really resonated!
    Without computers and social media, the information on climate change, and what we should be doing or not doing, was so much harder to disseminate in those years,

  3. Helen, as you know, I’m not quite a ‘Baby Boomer’ (b. 1968) but this resonates with me too. In so many areas of public and private life these days, it seems to me, the default is to play the victim and dismiss every view and everyone not in agreement with you! This is divisive and potentially dangerous, leading to extreme polemics and intransigent attitudes, threatening civilized debate and even free speech itself.

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