Generational Politics

Ortega y Gasset, the journalist, politician and philosopher of the Spanish Civil War, discovered a provocative method of predicting coming events.

Man’s life can be divided into a number of 15-year segments. The first fifteen years of our lives we spend learning to understand the world in which we live. Between 15 and 30, we work out how to handle such a world. Between 30 and 45, we express our views, but do not yet have the power to be able to bring our ideas into effect. Between 45 and 60, we are of the age and position where we have a genuine ability to influence events. From 60 to 75, we are the elder statesmen, who can criticize, without the power to change.

At any given period of time, therefore, people who have the power to change things are generally trying to solve the problems of 45 years ago with solutions at least 30 years old.

My generation was born in the 1930-44 period—a time of insecurity, depression and war. Its views of what was to be done about the situation were absorbed in the 1945-59 period—a time of expanding population and economic power, when conventional wisdom said that Government’s wise economic and political policies would be able to achieve a stable, expanding economy, and abolish poverty from the world, and with poverty, one of the major causes of war.

Political policymakers during the 1975-89 period, therefore, who come from my generation, have in general been fighting World War II and the Great Depression (even when these are long gone!) with paternalistic policies dating from the days of post-War reconstruction. They seem surprised when they experience something like a taxpayer revolt instead of the gratitude they were expecting.

The reason for this is that political power is now beginning to be taken over by the generation born between 1945 and 1959, which sees the world in an entirely different way. Born in a world of post-war expansion, plenty was something that, if they did not have it today, would be attainable tomorrow. The problems of this generation’s early years were the restrictive Victorian fears and social attitudes of their parents. What was to be done about them was picked up from the conventional wisdom of the ‘me generation’ of 1960-75: individual choice of lifestyle, disregard for tradition, ambition for individual satisfaction and success.

This suggests that, as 1990 dawns, we are entering into a most interesting time of political turmoil. Those who are not prepared to foot the bill for cradle to grave social services are going to have the political clout to refuse to do so. Politics may well become an even more cynical buying and selling of power than it is at present. The rich will be happy to get richer, and leave the poor and the environment to struggle as best they can. Governments and political parties will find it harder than ever before to maintain the loyalty of their citizens. Concepts of religion, duty and public service will take a back seat—except that religion may well transform itself from blindly following the wisdom of tradition, to an experimental “if it works, I’ll try it” approach, with many new movements, not all of them valid or ethical, on the fringes of orthodoxy.

Politically, as seems to be happening in Iron Curtain countries, things may well get quite out of hand. The generation born 1960-74, affected by the breakdown of family values during their early years, and hopefully schooled between 1975 and 1990 in greater concern for poverty, the environment and global issues, will be voicing their protests, but only by 2005 will they have the political power to do something about it. We could then expect a new Victorianism of quite remarkable power.

World War II is finally over. Now let’s solve the problems of the ‘fifties! It’s going to be an interesting time!

– Gemini, December 1989