As my grandchildren take their first faltering steps into the adult world, I wonder whether life will be as good for their generation as it was for us, the young graduates of the 1960s?

Or, did we, their grannies and grandpas – unwittingly of course – fuck it all up for them?

Think about it. We baby boomers were the first generation to enjoy free healthcare, warm homes and to take advantage of higher education, at least in significant numbers. Not only did university cost us nothing, we were actually paid to go, something Generation Z look at in awe and wonder. Yes, that’s right: the local council forked out for our beer and fags, whereas today’s young people graduate with a debt of around £45,000 round their necks, a sum that can take 30 years to pay off.

No wonder they see no possibility of ever being able to buy a home and because rents are also often unaffordable as well – around £1500 a month in London average – they may well end up living back with their parents, something our generation, firmly focused on independence, would never have dreamed of doing. My grandson Arthur, who has just graduated with £50,000 student debt and no job so far, has moved back home. He reckons he will live there for two more years, if his parents can stand him, until he has saved up enough or is earning enough, for his own place. He sees no possibility in the near future of being able to buy a London home at an average price of £514,000.

How different it was for us in those far-off balmy days. My husband and I married at age 21 on graduation. My grandchildren think this was totally crazy, but it worked for us. We went straight into professional jobs; me as a teacher in girls’ secondary schools and him as a trainee journalist on local papers. Before long I too was a local newspaper journalist, and within two years of marriage we were able to buy our own five-bedroom house in Newcastle for just under £3000. On a joint income of £1750 – around £35,000 today – our mortgage of about £5 a week was easily affordable.

In 1969, mortgages were worked out at around 3.8 times the average salary. For Generation Z, it is eight to nine times their average salary, so the chances of ever being mortgage-free are remote.

In our case, we lived mortgage-free as we rented out the top floor to students. And we ran a car. But something we did not do was to eat out or order takeaways.

My generation was the one where the working class, for the first time in history, came into its own and made great strides in theatre, photography, music, modelling, dress design, writing and film

We also, I make bold to say, had the best music. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Animals and other exciting rock and pop groups of the time provided the soundtrack to our gilded lives.

Icons of the baby boomer generation: The Beatles PHOTO: NATIONAAL ARCHIEF

Looking back, it seems our generation enjoyed a kind of golden age never seen before and perhaps never to be seen again. By my mid-twenties, I was the mother of two sons and my husband and I came to London where we both landed high-paying jobs on national newspapers. This meant we were able to live in lovely houses in Richmond and send the boys to private schools.

And I should say here that neither of us came from moneyed or educated backgrounds. My son Tom calls my background “posh working class” whereas my husband’s origins were more lower-middle. There was no family money, no financial leg-up to help us on our way. It was simply that we took advantage of all the largesse lavished on us by the governments at the time, including mortgage relief, to live the kind of lifestyle unimaginable to our own parents and grandparents. We left our little villages or boring hometowns to conquer big cities whereas they might not have travelled more than three miles in their entire lives.

Generation Z can expect none of this. They do not see getting married or becoming parents as even remotely on the horizon; as for the well-paid jobs we took for granted, they can forget about those too, at least if they are interested in the creative arts. My generation was the one where the working class, for the first time in history, came into its own and made great strides in theatre, photography, music, modelling, dress design, writing and film. Whereas fashion had once been led by Paris couturiers, now couture houses copied working-class street styles. In more or less every area of endeavour, gifted people from non-privileged backgrounds led the way. Mary Quant and Biba produced young fashion at low prices and mothers followed their daughters, rather than the other way round. This was the era of the Youthquake and our elders may well have quaked at the power and influence we wielded.

But nowadays as is often lamented, you have to have been to Eton or have influential parents to make it as an actor or a journalist and all the working-class dress designers seem to have vanished as well. High fashion comes at high prices again.

Icons of the baby boomer generation: fashion shoot for Biba

As for money, not only have the attractive salaries we used to enjoy on mass circulation newspapers gone, the newspapers themselves have pretty much disappeared too. If you want to get a foothold in journalism or publishing, you may well have to work as an unpaid intern. And salaries, when they are paid, are often pathetic, not providing enough to live on or to pay sky-high, ever-increasing energy bills. My starting salary on a national newspaper in 1973 was £5000, the equivalent of £80,000 today. Plus – I enjoyed tax-free expenses. Nowadays, salaries start around £21,000 and the expenses have long vanished.

Our generation is also the healthiest and longest-living ever known and many of us are sitting very pretty in our old age in big mortgage-free houses and living off index-linked pensions. At the moment, 94 per cent of pensioners retire with outright home ownership, and this means we will not have to depend on state benefits. Now, some authorities have worked out that, in twenty years’ time, around 20 per cent of retirees will still be paying off mortgages, which may not be easy on a pension. They may also still be paying off student debt.

As a result, the concept of 100-year mortgages, inherited by the next generation, are being considered. I have not had a mortgage for over 30 years; something unthinkable for my grandchildren. But then – I have not had any debt of any kind for that time. And I am not unusual; many of us in our 70s are in the same financially happy position.

We prospered so greatly from ever-rising house prices that even if we sit in our homes and do nothing, we become richer by the day. We have priced young people out of home ownership, at least until they are in their 30s. Most social housing has long disappeared into private hands, often having been bought up by beady-eyed property developers. The result is that you have to pay about ten times more rent for an ex-council flat than when it belonged to the council.

I have to admit that I am guilty here, as I own an ex-council flat that is let to private tenants at a rent many would consider exorbitant. But… it is the market.

And whereas the horizons of our generation were hugely widened, those of Gen Z have narrowed. They just don’t have the opportunities that we had. So how much is it our fault that they cannot hope to live the kind of largely debt-free existence that we have enjoyed and still are doing?

Quite a lot, I’m sad to say. The main reason journalists like me were paid high salaries was not because of our wonderful, unique talent but thanks to the power of the trade unions. That all disappeared in 1986, when Rupert Murdoch sacked thousands of printers, broke the power of the unions and the result was that salaries were halved or even quartered.

In many other jobs, the presence of strong, militant unions had ensured high wages and although old-style trade unions became an anachronism, the lack of collective bargaining meant that low, minimum or even no wages could now be paid without murmur or protest. Why should bosses pay workers any more than they have to? Zero-hours contracts, where workers can be laid off at a minute’s notice, have become widespread, meaning there is no job security anymore. And my generation has allowed this to happen and even flourish.

It is difficult to plan for the future when you don’t know where your next week’s wages are coming from.

Icons of the baby boomer generation: Dusty Springfield
Icons of the baby boomer generation: Mary Quant PHOTO: JACK DE NIJS FOR ANEFO

Looking at the wider picture, our generation was also largely responsible for plundering the planet. We introduced factory farming, which produced cheap food, yes, but at the expense of good nutrition. We developed junk foods which now take up about three-quarters of supermarket shelf space and which have contributed to today’s obesity epidemic. We also sprayed the globe with cheap pesticides, which ensured big crops but denuded the earth and killed wildlife, bees and butterflies. My age group is perhaps the most travelled of all time, but future generations will have to pay the price of our carbon-happy profligacy.

And was the idea that as many young people as possible should go to university such a good one? Was it really a clever notion to turn every polytechnic and further education college into a little university? Not, in my view, if it means 21-year-olds being landed with a five-figure debt which may impoverish them for decades. Plus, because first degrees are now so common, they mean very little. Many firms will only take a master’s or PhD seriously, which in turn means stacking up more debt.

In the early 1960s, only four per cent of young people in the UK went to university; now it is over 40 per cent and rising.

Given all this, I am not sure how we can make amends. Possibly the best we can do is to leave our grandchildren as much inheritance as we can in the hope that they will spend it wisely and carefully guard and nurture the planet when we have gone. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that baby boomers had the best time ever known, but that the result of our hedonism is a sad legacy for those coming after us.

Liz Hodgkinson is a journalist and author, who writes for the Daily Mail, The Lady and The Oldie. Her most recent book is “From a Girl to a Man: The Story of Dr Michael Dillon, Born Laura” (Quartet Books)

More Like This

One of us

I was about eight years old when the stark realities of social class imposed themselves…

Get a free copy of our print edition

August 2022, Main Features

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.