Friday 20 October 2017

The baby boomers

Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

They were the generation who were supposed to have it all -- and as the '60s babes enter the winter of their lives, Mary Kenny looks back The obituaries of the dazzling Hollywood screenwriter -- and unorthodox feminist icon -- Nora Ephron placed her broadly among the gilded baby-boom generation which is supposed to have ruled the world since the 1960s.

The baby boomers were those born from the period of the 1940s to the 1960s, when a rush of fertility occurred all over the western world.

Without recourse to reliable contraception, you might think that the 1930s produced lots of babies, but nature -- and sometimes human self-control -- has ways of linking fertility with prosperity.

Birth rates were low in the 1930s -- there was a depression, in every sense of the word. The Second World War changed all that, and births boomed, in and out of wedlock, as it happened.

Thus the catchphrase 'baby boomer', which has come to symbolise the 'having it all' generation which came into existence after the war.

Oldsters who remembered previous times, and how hard life had been, cluck-clucked at the permissiveness and easy living of the baby-boom generation.

One of the dominant influences on the baby boomers was Dr Benjamin Spock, the baby and child-care expert, who first appeared on the scene in 1947.

Spock was a true radical. He believed children should be raised with gentle and positive encouragement, rather than harshness and penalty.

Don't scold, be kind. He believed it was bad to say no to a child, because this sent out a negative vibe.

He believed that babies should be fed when they were hungry, on demand, rather than according to a rigid timetable.

Twenty years later, when the 1960s came to full fruition, the kids raised by Dr Spock -- or by his influence, which followed through magazines and popular culture -- were the embodiment of the permissive society.

Their slogans were 'If it feels good, do it' and 'I want it now' -- typical, said the oldsters, of the Spock generation who had been fed on demand and raised on liberal indulgence rather than respect for authority.

There was some evidence that this was so. Before Spock, the influential baby guru had been Frederic Truby King, a New Zealander who believed in tough regimes: babies should be outside in all weathers and not picked up when they cried.

They should be fed according to an exact schedule, and not when they bawled for nourishment.

My mother-in-law told me about her experience with Truby King in the 1930s: her breasts would be swollen to bursting point, and the infant would be howling its lungs out, but the maternity nurse would be standing by, watch in hand, forbidding her to feed the baby until the appointed hour.

Truby King claimed that this taught the child from an early age that they should not expect instant gratification. School experiences then went on to reinforce these values: no instant rewards or praise, discipline when you transgressed, and hardship (cold showers, no heating until deep winter) to toughen up your character.

But Spock and the baby-boom generation changed all that. The babies who were easily gratified grew up to say 'I want it now' and 'I want it all'.

These social changes should be qualified in the Irish experience, where the baby-boom effect came a little later than in America, Britain and some of the other western countries.

Fertility remained low in Ireland during the 1940s and 1950s. Marriage rates were low for economic reasons -- the classic story of the ageing bachelors waiting to inherit the farm.

Irish neutrality during the Second World War also had the effect of holding back social changes which were occurring elsewhere.

The war had brought married women in droves into the workplace in Britain, for example, but in Ireland that didn't really develop until the 1960s.

But cultural change is porous, and spills over into societies however well-defended they are. And those of us who came of age in the 1960s already had been infected with the mentality of the baby-boom generation.

Our mothers might not have read Spock, and our teachers might not yet have been apprised of child-centred education, but we had heard Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly and we knew perfectly well why Radio Eireann, as it then was, had banned Elvis singing 'It's Now or Never'.

However tenderly orchestrated, it was a blatant ballad to the urgency of sexual expression.

(We didn't understand, though, why Maurice Chevalier's 'Thank Heaven for Little Girls' was also banned by the national broadcaster in the 1950s: the authorities picked up the paedophile undertone, even if most of us were then unaware.)

The social changes all around were being beamed through. BBC television debated the introduction of the contraceptive Pill from 1960, and even though British TV reception was limited to a fuzzy picture on a black-and-white screen, it was enough for us to hone in on the message that this signalled a huge change.

Why, the entire canon of sexual protocols, since the dawn of civilisation, had been based on the inescapable fact that sexual intercourse usually led to pregnancy.

All over the Mediterranean world, young girls were still chaperoned and virginity prized beyond rubies because a virgin was undefiled.

In almost all societies, the unmarried mother was stigmatised, and often cruelly so, for the same reason -- even if some had ways and means of pressing the erring bounder into 'making an honest woman' of his pregnant sweetheart.

Elizabeth Roberts' studies at the University of Lancaster have shown how, well into the 1960s, Lancashire neighbours would carefully count the months between a wedding day and an infant birth, to ensure that 'the honeymoon had not been anticipated'.

If a woman had a less than shining reputation, there would be bitchy remarks if she dared to marry in white, which was then reserved for virgins.

In France, the memoirist Annie Ernaux has described Normandy neighbours in the 1950s observing the washable menstrual towels hung out on the washing line each month. Should they fail to appear, a pregnancy would be noted and passed round as village gossip.

Somehow, at the back of our minds, we baby boomers knew that this would all disappear with the Pill, which was surely the greatest agency of change since the invention of the wheel.

The Pill cut the link, forever, between the necessary consequence of sexual intercourse. The poet Philip Larkin famously wrote that "sexual intercourse began in 1963" (which, he added, "was too late for me").

But it didn't: it began in 1961 with the Pill, and, as it happened, the opening up of Irish society with RTE television, which would soon take up all these themes.

The Vatican's long deliberations over the acceptability of the Pill gave it infinitely more publicity. Pope Paul VI's advisors urged him to endorse it, on the grounds that it did not create a barrier between husband and wife, which was the theological objection to earlier methods of birth control.

When Pope Paul, privately anguished, finally came out with 'Humanae Vitae', in 1968, rejecting the contraceptive Pill and all "artificial contraception", many, if not most, of our baby-boom generation laughed the decision to scorn.

Although in fairness, it must be reported that in Ireland especially there were many sincere married couples who, themselves, anguished over the matter, and earnestly strove to practise natural fertility control, mockingly described as 'Vatican roulette'.

Ironically, I can think of many charming and gifted fortysomethings alive and well today who are the result of Vatican roulette, but that's another story.

The world of the 1960s seemed to abound with change, revolution, student protest, demonstrations, long hair, rock music, Black Power, sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, and even if you weren't directly part of it, it affected you.

The late American academic Allan Bloom ascribed much of the attitudinal changes to the Rolling Stones, whose insistent beat, he believed, was demonically deconstructive of traditional values.

His students couldn't, or wouldn't, grasp 'Madame Bovary' or 'Anna Karenina' because they had listened too much to the Stones. They would say things like, 'Why can't she just get laid and chill out?'

He felt that the loosening of the old restraints had also undermined the understanding of the struggles with conscience described by great literature.

Did we want to 'have it all', as Helen Gurley Brown urged in her 1962 book 'Sex and the Single Girl', and her stewardship of 'Cosmopolitan' magazine?

I think maybe every generation wants to have it all, and I think our generation believed that we could indeed have it all.

We could have a freely expressed sex life, babies when we chose them, marriage if we wanted it -- not because society expected it -- the right to work in any career we chose, and the right to smash down barriers which had stood in the way of women's advancement.

We could also have, we thought, jobs and easy acquisitions: didn't the credit card which promised to 'take the waiting out of wanting' appear in 1967 -- the middle of our time?

Critics of the baby boomers are now saying that we were, and are, an exceptionally selfish group. The British politician David Willetts -- currently Minister of State for University and Science -- wrote a devastating attack on the baby boomers a couple of years ago, in a book called 'The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future', which was considered influential. He claimed that the baby-boom generation had greatly benefited from the welfare state created for them.

He said they had enjoyed access to easy borrowing and accessible mortgages, had come to dominate cultural values with their 1960s-ish 'me, me, me' narcissistic attitudes, and were now making demands on the state in their senior years which would be punitive on the generations that followed.

The baby boomers were the lucky generation, wrote Willetts. But they should bear in mind what they owe to their children and grandchildren, who are faced with so much austerity, university fees, problems with unemployment, and the likelihood that many will never own their own homes.

Are we the lucky generation?

I think Nora Ephron would have said that we were, but she was also gifted with funky, liberal parents (although they both paid the price of their funkiness and died of alcoholism), an outlook which saw the comic opportunities in life's messiness, and a terrific network of peers in New York and Hollywood.

In the Irish context, I see it as more complex.

In contrast to America and Britain, we didn't grow up in either a welfare state or a Dr Spock-ish permissive society.

We picked up the values of the 1960s when they occurred, but in our hinterland most of the old values still lingered.

We didn't have free education or a free health service in the 1950s, and there were almost Victorian attitudes to self-denial and moral hazard.

'If you can't afford it, go without' and 'As you make your bed, so you shall lie on it' rang in our ears.

We didn't have that sense of entitlement that is now complained of -- we were taught to be humble and grateful, and, despite our 1960s confidence, that was still deep in our formation.

Yet where I think we were the lucky generation was that we did retain some of the most useful of the old values that our parents transmitted to us, while also benefiting from the opening up of a more liberal and modernising world.

When hardship and suffering occur, as they must, we can reach back to the stoicism of an older order and draw on it.

What worries us about the rising generations is that they have often been so tenderly and liberally raised that they may not stand up to the knocks of life, which will come.

Yet there is always a cycle which returns again, and it is bemusing to note that the newly fashionable child gurus, such as Gina Ford, are going right back to discipline and regular routines, and avoiding instant gratification.

So maybe it's back to the future once again.

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