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Talking about their generation: Britain’s golden youth

Interviewing applicants for a research job, Boris Johnson was astonished by their accomplishments, pleasantness and lack of anger. Life is very good for these beneficiaries of Thatcher’s Britain, the memories of its conflicts long forgotten

25 October 2006

4:24 PM

25 October 2006

4:24 PM

By the time we had been interviewing for three solid hours I was like a limp dishrag. I was wrung out with the hopefulness of it all. It was the talent, the energy, the sheer brilliance of these young people, all of them beaming ‘Pick me, pick me’ into my befuddled skull. We were only trying to hire a new researcher, and it was as though we were auditioning the next prime minister. They could write. They could talk. They could do anything. They had Grade 8 piccolo/flute and Grade 8 viola and awards for the top GCSE marks in the entire country.

Their A-level results cascaded down the page like a suicidal scream. They were magazine editors, union presidents, champion mooters, and they had blues for everything from rugby to lacrosse. They had prestigious New York awards for their film-making; they had been semi-finalists in University Challenge 2004–05. They had already published important articles in the Guardian and served internships throughout the FTSE-100. They had fluent French and confident German and unblemished driving licences and they had managed to secure the top firsts in disciplines from English to Engineering to History while playing squash to county standard.

As they prattled happily away, I sank lower in my armchair; and I reflected, not for the first time, on the amazing thing about the younger generation. It is not just that they are gifted. They just seem so balanced, so well-adjusted, so full of emotional tranquillity, when by rights they should be full of the opposite. These are Maggie’s children. They were born in the 1980s, and according to the think-tanks they should be seething with neuroses and resentment. Think of the burdens they face: student debts averaging £13,000; risible pensions; a housing market as forbidding as the north face of the Eiger; the prospect of coughing up till kingdom come for Gordon Brown’s PFI schemes; and the appalling task of paying for us 1960s baby boomers in our senility. According to a fascinating new pamphlet from Policy Exchange, ‘2056: What Future for Maggie’s Children?’, they are the most put-upon generation since the war; and yet they somehow radiate — how can I describe it? — a deep inner pleasantness. Does anyone know what I mean?

Even allowing for the exaggerations of the CV-packer, they seem to do good works on a scale unimaginable by my generation. They have manned suicide helplines and been out on cancer pilgrimages and fought against rabies in South Africa. They have been Oxfam festival stewards and worked with underprivileged and vulnerable children aged 11–16 in Streatham and Brixton, and almost every one of them has done something unheard-of in my day: they have gone to the poorer parts of our cities and evangelised about the benefits of a university education. They just seem so much nicer than we were, so much more feng shui.

In a desperate effort to sort them out, I asked them to do a 500-word essay on the Taj Mahal. We had some tidy pieces, but with none of the arsiness you’d expect from my generation, nothing sarky or me-me-me. No one pointed out, for instance, what a depressing comment it was on Hindu civilisation that its leading monument should be a Muslim tomb, and no one mentioned the unpalatable fact that the emblem of India had been designed by an Italian. Was it perhaps that they didn’t want to be needlessly offensive?


Now we must be honest about the scope of this article; when we talk about ‘young people’ I mean here middle-class university graduates, though there are obviously far more of them than there were; and when I talk about my generation I mean the bunch who graduated about 20 years ago, and what a sharp-elbowed, thrusting and basically repellent lot we were. We were always bragging or shafting each other, and in a way we still are, with our pompous memoirs and calculated indiscretions. When Toby Young began an article in Cherwell with the words, ‘I work harder and achieve more than anyone else I know’, we all chortled in approval of this ghastly ethic. But would any 20-year-old be quite so brazen today? On one side of the political divide we had Thatcherites, voluble or silent. When Gordon Gekko said ‘Greed is good’, we did not exactly cheer, but we smirked. When Tebbo said ‘On your bike’, we thought, yah, he had a bloody good point. When Ronald Reagan said the Soviet Union was an ‘Evil Empire’ we thought the language a bit strong but the analysis broadly sound; and though we were a bit sad for the miners, we thought they were cruelly abused and deluded by their leadership.

On the other side of the argument there was a symmetrical sense of engagement. Some of our girlfriends even went to Greenham Common or held hands outside South Africa House, and two decades later I know a prosperous barrister who still goes ‘oink, oink, oink’ and hisses ‘piggies’ whenever she sees the police. When poor Keith Joseph made his doomed attempt to reform university finance in 1984, he was so pelted with eggs that he backed off. What’s happened to today’s student body? Why don’t they pelt Labour ministers with eggs? They introduced top-up fees, for heaven’s sake. Just imagine the reaction if the scenes from today’s Iraq had been beamed into the JCRs of Thatcher’s Britain. How would 1980s students have behaved if Margaret Thatcher had been co-responsible for a war in which anything between 58,000 and 655,000 innocent Iraqis have been killed? It is true that large numbers initially turned out to protest against the war; but those protesters were not noticeably in the first flush of youth, and more people turned out to object to the closure of rural post offices.

Where is the anger? It’s all iPods and jeans around yer hips and chill, man. We had rock stars called Sid Vicious and people who bit the heads off pigeons and electrocuted their girlfriends in the bath. Nowadays we’ve got the beany-hatted James Blunt, pouring his genius treacle into our ears. He’s brilliant, but he’s not exactly a rebel, is he? My generation spawned loads of tub-thumping right-wing journalists, and we are all still at it, fizzing and puttering away. But where are their equivalents today? Where is the new Charles Moore, Noel Malcolm, Simon Heffer, Matthew d’Ancona, Andrew Roberts, Niall Ferguson, et al? That tree has stopped fruiting, which may or may not be deemed a mercy. But it is certainly a change.

The ethic of young people has changed, and in one sense the reason is obvious. The big divide has gone from politics. When I was growing up there were two opposing world views, colliding like mastodons. It was free market capitalism versus state socialism, and the threat from Russian nukes seemed real, and the danger of Labour’s 98 per cent taxes seemed real. A lot of that interest and drama has gone, clearly; and yet I can’t persuade myself that this wholly accounts for the zen-like passivity of the young.

One friend who agrees with my observation says that the boys in particular have become less angular, while the girls are more pushy. ‘It’s all about “What can you do for me?” and storing my number in their mobiles,’ he says, and that prompts the thought that it may be connected with the general feminisation of society, which starts with the overwhelming feminine influence in schools. The number of male teachers in secondary schools fell by 50 per cent between 1981 and 2001 and the ratio of female to male teachers in primary schools is now about seven to one. Could that have anything to do with it? Children are more mollycoddled, airbagged, booster-seated, risk-averse and deprived of male role models than they were, and that is a bad thing. But they also tend to respond to others in a way that is more intuitive and emotionally intelligent. Might that not be a good thing?

When I was at Oxford, there were 36.7 per cent women, whereas they now make up more than half the undergraduates; and women comprise a sensational 59.2 per cent of the national student body. That is a huge social revolution, and one can imagine the consequences for male psychology. The greatest competition of life has become appreciably easier for the modern male undergraduate: no wonder he sometimes has a languid air. Maybe the ubiquity of women accounts not just for the men’s greater tact and sensitivity, but also for all those funny string bracelets they seem to wear.

Or maybe, frankly, there is a much simpler explanation for the kindness and goodness of the twentysomethings. Maybe things aren’t really so bad for Maggie’s children, and maybe the reason for this temperamental difference between the generations is that we had more of a fight on our hands. Never forget that 1964, the year of my birth, was the year British motherhood punched out a record 875,972 babies, a feat of fecundity never equalled before or since, compared with a feeble 636,818 in 1984. There were far more of us thrashing and boiling around in pursuit of far fewer jobs — and no wonder our elbows were that little bit sharper. OK, so we had student grants, and free tuition, but then these guys and girls in their twenties have so much that is wonderful in their lives. They have gizmos that enable them to lead a fantastically rich social life. With a few little taps they can communicate with all their friends in a way that is instant and personal and witty and above all emotionally literate. Wherever they go they are cocooned in a little electronic womb of comfort and support. They just have to send out a few texts, wait, and sure enough, back they come, the little pipette drops of external affirmation, xxx, landing on their parched tongues and helping them get through the day.

They can travel so much more easily and cheaply; the food is so much better. There are coffee bars everywhere. The cars are faster and safer. No wonder they feel able to ‘lead with their values’, as it says on the tubs of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, when the ice cream is so delicious and so relatively cheap and there is so much good TV to watch it with. And even if, in spite of all these advantages, they are plagued by some hang-up or perversion, they can always gratify it quietly on the internet.

Most important of all, they have no trouble getting a job. Of course, it was painful not being able to hire all the candidates for the researcher post. But then we have almost full employment in this country, and they will all go on to do fantastic things in this vibrant, low-inflation economy. And whom do they have to thank for that? Well, whatever the problems of Maggie’s children, and whatever the unpleasant stereotypes they may have seen in Billy Elliot, the truth is that they are very largely the beneficiaries of reforms that were put in place 20 years ago by Margaret Thatcher, and which promoted high technology, entrepreneurship and sound money.

Of course the 1980s were in many ways a nasty experience, but if it hadn’t been so nasty, Maggie’s children wouldn’t have turned out so nice. If these really are Maggie’s children, then she can’t have been such a bad little mother after all.


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