I was a young man

It started (as things so often do these days) with a tweet:

As Alex commented, there are some interesting contrasts in there – particularly between 35-44 and 45-54, and then between 65-74 and 75+. Three age cohorts, then. Let’s assume that those _5 dividing lines are partially smoothing out sharper divisions ending with 0 rather than 5; there’s no real reason for this assumption, admittedly, other than the tendency for people to think in terms of being in their thirties or forties rather than being in the 25-34 or 35-44 age range. If that is the case, our cohorts looks like this: under-40s mostly pro-Remain; 40-70 fairly evenly divided, but with Leave sympathy growing with age; and 70+ mostly pro-Leave.

Why, though?

Kicking this around on Twitter, I thought of Douglas Adams’s dictum (from The Salmon of Doubt, which presumably means from his journalism) about technology:

I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

I think the effective opposition between 1. and 3. is psychologically true and useful to think with. It’s a bit disquieting – as it suggests that we’ll be equally positive about LimitlessFreeEnergy plc and Unmitigated Charlatanry Inc. if we come across them at the right time in our lives, and equally cynical about both if it’s the wrong time – but that’s no bad thing. I also think that something similar is true of politics and political change, with a couple of qualifications. First, we need to do something about that blank between birth and 15 – and should it really be birth? How much of anything do we retain from before the age of five, say? Second, 35 doesn’t look right for stage 3; I think what we’re looking at there is the point in life at which you’ve got a job, you’ve got somewhere to live and you basically know your way around, whereupon some clever bastard pulls the rug out from under you by inventing some la-di-da ‘spinning jenny’ if you please. Thirty-five seems very old to reach that stage – or rather, thirty-four seems very old still to be finding your feet and keeping an eye out for the Next Big Thing. I wonder if Adams (who became a lifelong Mac user and advocate at 32) had his thumb on the scales at that point.

So here’s a modified set of rules, which I’ve modified some more by relating them to politics rather than technology.

  1. Any political development that happens before your fifth birthday is part of the landscape, for you; it’s how things have always been. This applies even if later changes appear to have reversed it – at a deeper level it’s still how the world is.
  2. Any developments that took place between your fifth and fifteenth birthday are done and dusted. Things did change, but those changes are over now and of no interest to anyone but historians; that’s how things are now.
  3. Any political development between your fifteenth and twenty-fifth birthday is a live issue – it’s important and, in your mind at least, it’s still up for grabs. Even if a particular controversy in this category seems firmly settled now, the position reached is still worth defending or attacking.
  4. Any new political development since your twenty-fifth birthday is less important, less relevant, and not final at all. If you’re in favour, it seems like a lucky break, a good result that couldn’t have been expected; if you’re against – or indifferent – it just seems weird and random. But that’s just what politics is like these days.

Now back to our age groups. Feast your eyes on this:

Not pretty, I know. (You should have seen the original version, with individual years on both axes.) You get the idea, though: each five-year cohort remembers each five-year period, and the events in it, differently. Like the sparrow flying across the mead-hall, our sense of historical events begins with a long retrospect of stuff that’s unproblematically part of the landscape (stage 1), passes through twenty busy years of political contention (2 and 3) and then enters the long decades (4) of disengagement and disorientation – longer the older we get.

Caveat: this isn’t about ‘for’ vs ‘against’, but about ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘new and different’ (or rather, ‘taken for granted’ vs ‘current and interesting’ vs ‘new and challenging’). I’m not saying all old people are bigots, in other words; I am saying that they’re predisposed to take seriously some attitudes which the verdict of time has classified as bigotry, but that’s a different proposition. My late mother, on this scale, would have been firmly in the “not entirely used to this” camp for most things that had happened since the War. She was also a lifelong opponent of racism, sexism and homophobia, and of the laws that (for much of her life) upheld them. But the legalisation of homosexuality, say, was for her always something that had happened, and been brought about by forces unknown to her; it was an achievement, but one that had come out of nowhere and could easily have gone the other way. She was generally in favour of gay people living normal, indistinguishable lives – ‘gay’ just being one more character trait – but she didn’t fundamentally think that that was how the world was; she always had one foot in the world of Julian and Sandy (or rather the world in which Julian and Sandy were new and shocking).

What does this mean in practice, though? I’ll pick out each decade cohort’s head-year and look at some events and changes in each category, to get a sense of how different their mental worlds are. To reduce the inevitable repetition and heighten contrasts, I’ll omit categories 2 and 4 – the “how things are now” developments we witnessed in childhood and the “what politics is like these days” changes that came along after we were 25, when the real issues had already been established.

I am 20.
How things always have been: Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; no British Empire, no Cold War, no Communism; peace in Ireland; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people; legal abortion; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; 9/11 and the War on Terror; privatised utilities; academy schools; all-day pub opening; the Tories as transformed by Thatcher; Labour as transformed by Blair
The real issues: Brexit; Corbyn; Trump
My first general election: 2017

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is: democratic, efficient, well-regulated, progressive, but not socialist and not particularly friendly to anyone who falls by the wayside. The live issues are, essentially, the way that everything’s been thrown up in the air inside the last five years. The problems that occupied my generation don’t really figure. Last year I gave my third-year students a lecture on the Troubles; I might as well have been talking about the Wars of the Spanish Succession.

I am 30.
How things always have been: no British Empire; no Cold War; Britain in the EU; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; health and safety at work; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; privatised utilities; all-day pub opening; Thatcherism
The real issues: gay marriage; the Gender Recognition Act; the smoking ban
My first general election: 2010

The way the world truly is, for this cohort, is pretty similar to the younger cohort, but with more of a sense that the programme of liberal modernisation is incomplete; the live issues are essentially continuations of that programme. I wonder how many #FBPE types are in their early 30s: the sense that a certain kind of regulated social liberalism is basically ‘in the bag’, that there are very few really big issues left to argue about, and that everything that’s happened in the last five years is irrelevant froth, all seems to fit the profile. (On the other hand, by this reckoning a fifty-year-old would see everything that’s happened in the last 25 years as irrelevant froth, which is surely overstating the case. But I think there is a particular mentality associated with having a recent time horizon on the ‘real issues’ category – the meaninglessness of current politics is accentuated and made poignant by the feeling that the ‘proper politics’ train has only just left the station, carrying our own sense of relevance and centrality inexorably into the past (along with David Miliband).)

I am 40.
How things always have been: no British Empire; the (second) Cold War; Britain in the European Community; decimal currency and (mostly) metric units; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women (including ‘work of equal value’); legal abortion; legal homosexuality; comprehensive schools; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; compulsory crash helmets and seatbelts; Thatcherism
The real issues: New Labour; 9/11 and the War on Terror; peace in Ireland; academy schools; legal duty on local authorities to combat racism; equal ages of consent for gay and straight people
My first general election: 1997

The world, for this cohort, is inherently a regulated and liberal world, but one that was built in some long shadows – sixties social democracy on one hand (the Cold War, comprehensive schools), the defeat of seventies radicalism on the other. The implicit limits of progress are pretty tight. Similarly, this cohort’s sense of the ‘real issues’ is an odd mixture of tendencies towards greater regulated liberalism and away from social justice and civil liberties. (Tendencies, in both cases, which they may either support or oppose; younger cohorts don’t really have that option.)

I am 50.
How things always have been: no British Empire; a bi-polar world, but no Cold War; Britain in the EEC; decimal currency; the Troubles; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets; Enoch Powell
The real issues: Maastricht; the end of Communism; privatised utilities; the Miners’ Strike and pit closures; no marital exemption for rape; no caning in schools; all-day pub opening
My first general election: 1987

The way the world is, for this cohort, is a country struggling to modernise after the loss of its imperial role. This group are likely to have mixed emotions both about the modernisation and about the imperial role, perhaps shifting with age. (Decimalisation is an interesting issue here; to have any memories of the old money you’d need to be over 55 in 2018.) Real issues, still at some level up for debate: more regulatory liberalism, plus (the defeat of) Communism, (the defeat of) the unions and (the advance of) the European project. This is the first generation for which major elements of the regulated liberalism project are up for debate, and the first in which ‘Europe’ in some sense isn’t a done deal (the next will be 70). This and the next are also the only age cohorts where recognisably ‘class’ issues are salient.

I am 60.
How things always have been: the British Empire in decline; the Cold War; Britain outside the EEC
The real issues: equal pay including ‘work of equal value’; health and safety at work; the Race Relations Act; metrication; compulsory seatbelts; the Three Day Week; Thatcherism and the Falklands
My first general election: 1979

The world, for this cohort, is an unfriendly place where a slightly reduced Britain goes it alone. The real issues are mostly about that push towards regulatory liberalism – for this generation the entire regulatory programme is a live issue, one on which it’s quite possible to argue both sides (note the appearance of metrication in this category). However, all this is taking place against the backdrop of 1970s radicalism and its eventual defeat by Thatcherism – something which this cohort shares to some extent with the previous one, although the key event here is the Three Day Week (effectively a defeat for the government) rather than the Miners’ Strike (a defeat of the union movement by the government).

I am 70.
How things always have been: the British Empire; the Cold War (and Korea); Britain outside the EEC; rationing
The real issues: colonial independence; Britain in the EEC; decimalisation; Enoch Powell and Powellism; equal pay for men and women in the same jobs; comprehensive schools; legal abortion; legal homosexuality; compulsory crash helmets
My first general election: 1970

The shape of the world, for this cohort, is an impoverished nation, making the best of the legacy of its imperial past. The first small moves towards modernisation and racial or sexual equality are very much up for grabs; other real issues are precisely about the legacy of Empire (colonial independence, relations with Europe, non-White British subjects). A 70-year-old in 2018 would have started earning money before pounds, shillings and pence went out (metrication came even later). Again, to say that these are live issues for this generation is not to say that this cohort supports them – or that it’s against them, for that matter; rather, this is the youngest generation for which these questions were generally treated as being unsettled, as still up for debate.

I am 80 (they can still vote, you know).
How things always have been: the British Empire, allied with the USSR and USA; no EEC; rationing
The real issues: the decline of the British Empire; the end of rationing; the Cold War (and Berlin)
My first general election: 1959

Perhaps the most disappointed cohort: the way the world truly is, for them, includes an imperial power that bestrides the world like a colossus. Significantly, the ‘real issues’ – the issues on which this generation first took (both) sides – include colonial independence and Suez. British power in the world – and the loss of British power – is a ‘hot’ issue for this generation like no other. Rationing is relevant here; an 80-year-old in 2018 would have reached the age of 15 before rationing of sweets ended, 16 before rationing ended entirely. Austerity? Been there, done that.

We carry the history of our lifetimes around with us, and the history of our world in our lifetimes – especially in our first 25 years. In particular, we’re carrying three big historical developments – or, perhaps, two really big developments and, in between them, a dog that barked for a while and then shut up. From 80 down to 50 we’re living in a world defined by the British Empire and its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, with the big questions being about the legacies of empire and Britain’s redefined place in the world. From 70 down to 30 the big context is the long march of regulated liberalism, the melting-away of all the old common-sense prejudices and institutional barriers, the smoothing-down and boxing-up of all the risks and harms we used to take for granted. (Twenty-year-olds for their part are living in a world where this project has succeeded – and witnessing the return of political polarisation in the aftermath. Well digged, old mole!) In the middle, from 60 down to 40 we find a world characterised by class struggle – verging on victory if you’re 60, a gruellingly even match if you’re 50, firmly defeated if you’re 40. Class struggle makes the loss of an imperial role all the more challenging (or frightening) for 60-year-olds, and gives rights-based liberalism a cutting edge for both them and the 50-year-old cohort; for the 40-year-olds its defeat frames the liberal project differently, as the only reforming project in town. (If you put it all together, clearly the people with the broadest political vocabulary and the richest sense of possibility are those 60-year-olds, give or take a couple of years. The fact that I myself am closer to 60 than 50 is merely a meaningless coincidence, however.)

To get a clearer sense of generational change, we can think of pairs of neighbouring age cohorts as disputatious friends or squabbling neighbours, firmly united on some things and divided on others.

30 and 20 agree that we live in a safe, peaceful, liberal, regulated society, albeit one that doesn’t owe anyone a living. 30 knows that politics, as older generations knew it, is dead and gone. 20 disagrees; 20 thinks it’s coming back.

40 and 30 agree that we live in a modern, liberal, regulated, European society. 40 knows that there’s plenty more to be done, and that the liberal project may be threatened by external forces such as terrorism. 30 doesn’t agree; 30 thinks there’s not much to worry about, as the job is pretty much done.

50 and 40 agree that a relatively liberal and modern Britain has some sort of role to play in Europe. 50 knows that our involvement in Europe has definite limits, and that our liberalisation is built on the defeat of class politics. 40 is less conflicted; 40 knows that this defeat has been successfully completed, and that it needs to be entrenched in order to push liberalisation further.

60 and 50 agree that equality and public health are important; that working people don’t like being pushed around (although that doesn’t stop it happening); and that there’s a limit to Britain’s involvement in Europe. 60 knows that Britain stands alone, with no close European partners and only the relics of Empire, in a world overshadowed by Communism. 50 lives in a different world, one in which the threat of Communism is dying, the Empire is dead and gone, and Britain has gone into Europe – but only thus far and no further.

70 and 60 agree that the Empire is becoming a thing of the past, and that Europe and liberalising reforms are in the future. 70 knows that there are things to be said for and against these reforms, and wonders if we could have kept the old ways going. 60 thinks reform is going to be necessary but knows that working people aren’t going to put up with being pushed around, and/or that if you are going to push them around you need to push hard.

80 and 70 agree that Britain stands alone, as far as its European neighbours are concerned; that it’s in the nature of Britain to play an international role; and that Britain could yet play that role again. 80 knows just how imperial that international role was, and doesn’t entirely regret it. 70 knows that you’ve got to move with the times – including the possibility of engaging with Europe, as well as reform on issues like race and sex – but doesn’t entirely welcome it.

Perhaps there are three phases, corresponding roughly to the dividing lines I suggested initially. 70 and 80 grew up in an imperial or post-imperial world; 20 to 40 in a world of EU membership and liberal regulation; 50 and 60 in a more complex and contested world, where the first attempts to find a place in Europe and implement socially liberal reforms were cut across by class struggle politics (from the miners’ defeat of Heath in 1974 to Thatcher’s defeat of the miners eleven years later).

Or there’s a shorter answer, which hinges on the dates of British accession to the EEC (1973) and the Treaty of Maastricht (1993). The odd thing about these dates, though, is that the age cohorts they suggest are ten years out. (NB this paragraph has been updated: the first draft suggested that these dates did work. The first draft was wrong.) Before 1973 Britain wasn’t in the ‘Common Market’. In 1973, today’s 60-year-olds were 15, but 50-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that the European project as a whole is a live issue for over-60s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-70s.) Before 1993, on the other hand, Britain was in the European Community but not the European Union, meaning that the longer-term project of European integration – together with Britain’s weird patchwork of opt-outs and concessions – wasn’t an issue for anyone below 15 at the time. In 1993, today’s 40-year-olds were 15, but 30-year-olds only 5: this would suggest that European integration is a live issue for over-40s but nobody younger. (Survey says: over-50s.)

Guess it’s the big generational shifts after all.

Updated: forgot the obligatory musical accompaniment. Hey, you young people…!

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3 Comments

  1. Hugo Evans
    Posted 19 July 2018 at 15:22 | Permalink | Reply

    It was Napoleon who said that to understand a man you must understand the world he lived in when he was 20. You point out Europe should only be a live issue for the 60 year old cohort and above.
    What if this debacle is then not actually really about Europe, but more to do with the economic and cultural relationship between London and the English and Welsh hinterland.
    Is it possible to redo the analysis for how perceptions of London vis a vis the rest have changed?

  2. Guano
    Posted 23 July 2018 at 13:49 | Permalink | Reply

    Patrick Cockburn wrote something recently about “What Boris Johnson Doesn’t Know About British History”. (It is available at Counterpunch, and maybe elsewhere.)

    As Cockburn says “Supporters of Brexit [such as Johnson] …. say that they are inspired – and seek to emulate – a past in which Britain as a fully independent state won victories against the odds. ….. The problem is that Brexiteers ……. have never shown much understanding of the roots of Britain’s successes. …… At the heart of British strategy [when it was successful] was the drive to join or create alliances with other countries powerful enough to overcome any enemy.”

    People like Johnson are playing to this myth about Britain standing alone and fighting alone for its rights. The Conservative Party has been completely taken over by this myth, even though they are now using it to drag the UK out of the Conservative Party’s finest achievement, the Single Market. Thatcher played a very canny game, integrating the UK into an economic and political association of states while keeping up a rhetoric about fighting for the UK’s rights. Her heirs have carried on with the rhetoric, which is electorally useful, but they don’t have the social capital with the rest of Europe that Thatcher had so emulating Thatcher by appearing to be tough with the EU and its other members doesn’t achieve the same results. The EU has little patience with a country that was the main cheerleader for the countries of eastern and southern Europe to join but complain loudly about the cost of the EU and the concept of free movement.

    Johnson said before the referendum that by threatening to leave the EU it would reform the rules of the Single Market so the UK could trade with Europe without following the rules (so the UK wouldn’t need to leave); despite this being proved to be complete rubbish, he is now saying that we should just leave the SM and CU because ……. bulldog spirit.

    My guess is that certain classes and certain (older) age-groups are more susceptible to this sort of guff: younger people and certain classes of voter understand that the EU is an association of states with which the UK has integrated itself: the problems of staying are exaggerated and the problems of leaving are minimised. The EU is a rules-based organisation: Tories and older people appear to have a problem with that.

    Whe he resigned from the government in March 2003, John Denham said that invading Iraq would damage international law and that it was in the UK’s interest to support and defend international law. I was struck by how little attention this comment got, which perhaps indicates how little understanding there is of the UK’s real standing in the world.

  3. Posted 4 August 2018 at 09:31 | Permalink | Reply

    The table is scarily accurate in my case: I’ve just celebrated my 64th birthday, and I’ve publicly written and argued that 1979 was the year when the Left project finally came unstuck and humanity ceased to exist as a political animal. Everything political since then has been Weird Shit Happening that I try to navigate on the fly.

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