Clem Sunter

Bye bye baby boomers

2009-08-19 12:18

Watching Scorsese's recent movie Shine a Light on the Rolling Stones, I couldn't help feeling that I was witnessing the final act of the "baby boomers" - the generation born between the end of the Second World War and 1960. I remember playing in a band at the same gig as the Rolling Stones in the summer of 1964. It was a college ball at Oxford. Mick pouted at the audience.

London was swinging, Carnaby Street sold Mary Quant mini-dresses, Lady Chatterley's Lover was unbanned, Harold Wilson said "a week in politics is a long time" after he contradicted himself in two interviews in the same week and Mandy Rice Davies responded "he would, wouldn't he!" when told by a reporter that some peer had sworn under oath that he had not had an affair with her.

England won the Soccer World Cup. Can you believe that? Across the Atlantic, the hippie movement was growing. The coolest thing was to go to San Francisco with flowers in your hair. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were singing anti-war protest songs while the Beach Boys were urging teenagers to go on a surfing safari. Underlying everything was the theme of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were the icons who lived life to the limit and died young. Woodstock was a step on the way, a festival of stardust and golden performances by legendary musicians.

The baby boomers were the antithesis of their parents' generation who had gone through the Great Depression, the war and the period of austerity after the war. They just picked up where the Roaring Twenties left off. Life was about having a party and communing with one another, not worrying about where the next bowl of soup was coming from or fretting about getting pregnant. The "pill" had been invented and no serious diseases were around to cramp one's lifestyle.

Elsewhere in the world, the Cold War still dominated Europe, Mao ruled China with a rod of iron and Che Guevara was the fashionable rebel with a cause. The space race occasionally hit the headlines culminating in Neil Armstrong's famous first step on the moon. Less heroically, a photograph of the last American helicopter to evacuate personnel from Saigon signalled the end of the Vietnam War.

Eventually, the baby boomers grew out of their adolescent phase and made some significant contributions to humankind. Although the information revolution was already in motion, they put Silicon Valley on the map, converted the internet from a scientific to a general network, cut down the size of computers so that every household could have one and invented the mobile phone. They pulled down the Berlin Wall and played an important role in the end of apartheid. They wrote epic books like A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and made epic movies like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy.

Culturally, they reinforced the notions of democracy, doing your own thing and supporting causes like Greenpeace and Oxfam. On the other hand, they initiated the slide in authority in schools and undermined the values of hard work and thrift by substituting the idea of immediate self-gratification. Queen's "I want it all and I want it now" became the catchphrase of latter-day baby boomers. The worst example of the entire generation were all those leading lights in the financial world who until recently thought they were the masters of the universe. Instead they have been exposed as greedy, incompetent demons who nearly bankrupted the planet. Even the hippies would have shunned them.

Anyway, as the Rolling Stones sang in one of their earlier hits It's All Over Now. Well, almost. Generation X (those born between 1961 and 1981) and Generation Y (those born from 1982 onwards) are already making waves - including Barack Obama. They'll have to sort out the problems left by the baby boomers but they should take comfort in the best three words to come out of their predecessors' era: "We shall overcome." Amen to that. May the Strolling Bones, as they are now known, continue to entertain for many years to come.

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