Mini cover

The old couple pictured on the road sign creep carefully along, seemingly doing the right thing so the world won’t catch them out. Their rigidity could hardly be more different from the relaxed -sometimes challenging – eye contact of people now between sixty and seventy.

Of all the ways in which ageing will change, refusing to be told what to think, or caring much what others think of what you think, is probably the most basic.  Yet as late as 1969 the fierce hold of state religion and traditional culture left no-one in any doubt about the venom of community judgement.

 In Akenfield,  a survey of a Suffolk village published that year, a fifty-five year-old woman confided to the interviewer that  “In a village it still matters absolutely, appallingly, if you are respectable”.

But a twenty-nine year-old forester who was also interviewed said he could see the beginnings of a change:

One of the things about a village is that you never give anyone anything to talk about if you can help it…. You don’t feel free … But the young aren’t a bit intimidated … The village boys hurry away on their motor-bikes. Ipswich is full of country boys … thinking things out.”

There have always been feisty older people who spoke out of line and were damned, cast out of a modern society which claimed free speech but stifled objections to establishment ways. 

In 1900, for example, when pacifist and feminist Georgiana Burne-Jones was sixty, news came from South Africa that the siege of Mafeking had been relieved after seven months. The British victory brought ecstatic cheering and flag-waving on the streets. However, Georgiana strongly disapproved of the incursion into Boer territory and the treatment of  the natives.   She draped a huge banner across her window proclaiming WE HAVE KILLED AND ALSO TAKEN POSSESSION.  A hostile crowd gathered, and her friends decided that she was now definitely “odd”, which in those days meant unstable, if not insane.  Most deserted her.  Her sister Louisa, on the other hand, who according to Burne-Jones’s biographer was “expensively ill her whole life”, surviving on champagne and foreign sunshine, never spoke out of turn and remained well-respected into her eighties.

Until well after World War II children were raised to respect the wisdom of their elders and betters.  Any difference of opinion was stamped down fast.  By 1961 Peter Benenson (born 1921) would launch the political lobbying movement Amnesty International, and in 1977 would win the Nobel Peace prize.  But as a boarding-school boy in the 1930s his head master wrote to his mother warning that his “revolutionary tendencies” would not be tolerated further.  He had dared to complain about the food.

Today, the wary outward conformity found from factory floor to society drawing-room barely exists.   Most people who started at school after World War II (1939-1945), are as noisily critical as former generations were outwardly compliant.  Even if they sign up to a sect or organisation with fixed rules and principles they tend to cherry-pick the terms and reject anything they find hard to swallow. As for echoing the platitudes of those who set the rules, the generation that questioned everything in the 1960s now feels as right to challenge the church, the law and the head master as its parents did to go along with them.

The old compulsion to be seen to conform now seems sad. But people who were elderly in the 1950s and 60s – so born in the 19th century – expected to receive after a lifetime of doing the acceptable thing, the same sort of deference as their own Victorian parents. They certainly didn’t expect the young to talk back.   Their own grown children didn’t do that, so what gave their 1940s-born grandchildren the right to think they could?

 Many post-war children didn’t risk the punishment that often followed arguing, but like the Suffolk bikers quietly rebelled.  Elton John (1947), for example, was an exceptional pianist at six, and gained a place after grammar school at the Royal Academy of Music.  His father, unimpressed, told him to try for a job as a British European Airways as a cabin steward.  Ex-Prime Minister John Major (1943) was also expected to  make objection when told to work at the family trade of making garden ornaments. But both he and Elton John, like so many of their age who knew their own minds, hovered near the doors they wanted to open; Elton John in the heart of Soho’s music industry, John Major around local conservative offices.

Before long school leavers would not only openly rebel, but noisily explain exactly why they were going to take another path in life.


 This had nothing to do with spoiling children in  a general post-war mood of euphoria and gratitude for peace.  It could instead be called an outcome of political manipulation.

During World War II, education advisers in several allied countries were united in agreeing that the conflict could have been  avoided if young members of Germany’s military-style Hitler youth had challenged their own government.  Political refugee Karl Mannheim, living in London, was a major spokesman in the international forum of the New Education Fellowship.  In his influential text ‘Education for Change’ he claimed that

the apathy of the average adult is not so much his own fault as a result of lack of stimulation, encouragement and guidance …..  School was considered a training ground for imitative adjustment to an established society.”

  Mannheim had a positive proposal. Just as Nazi and communist techniques had produced fast social change, he said, schools in the free world could “prepare a new kind of person”. Independent thought must be nurtured from the start. “Bookish doctrines”, including the religious-based teaching which he called “orthodox interpretations from on high” must make way for debate, providing “a running commentary on life”, especially on political affairs.

Were young children to hold their own opinions on everything, then? In America, yes.  In 1945 the wife of an American official wrote in Parents Magazine of the German

strange and tragic picture of childhood, with its consequent disastrous effects on adult life .. Submission, not self-reliance, has been the great virtue.”

Submission’ was a painful buzzword of the late 1940s in all war-involved countries.   It was associated – in a sense now forgotten –  with Nazi dehumanisation in concentration camps.

Outside America more traditional nations resisted the newly admired notion of dropping set syllabuses and rote-learning.  But America had always been receptive to ideas from many sources.  New York Professor of Education Carleton Washburne (also the President of the New Education Fellowship) went further than Mannheim when, in 1949, he asked teachers in 1949 to welcome controversy, and to accept that if school discussions resulted in “clashes at home over new beliefs” then the home was rightly shown up as prejudiced.

Here was the first childhood generation ever told to put right the mistakes older people had made; to make sure there would never be another such conflict or shameful political genocide. Proud of thinking independently, most of the new old will deny that they were socially manipulated. American student Michael Frish is quoted as saying in 1968, “My politics is not defined by the fact that I’m eighteen, but the fact that I have a view of the world, and have every right and responsibility to act on that.”

Yet being eighteen had everything to do with Frish’s attitude.  People that age had been educated,as social historian Lawrence Grossberg says,

as the result of a real commitment to produce a generation which would be better prepared to handle its place in history. It was a generation that was told, over and over again, in so many different ways, that it was “unique ..”

The concept of the ‘new kind of person’ was now part of American culture. In 1960, recognising that the term ‘teenager’, which had been in use in the United States since before the war, two academics wrote proudly in the Dictionary of American Slang that

The U.S. is the only country… considering this age group as a separate entity, whose influence, fads and fashions are worthy of discussion apart from the adult world.”

Meanwhile, parents in less libertarian cultures parents were gradually realising that their children  were talking back to them because they were being encouraged to do so in class or in their essays.  Few knew that this unwelcome change had been systematically incorporated into a new educational philosophy.   When confrontation became open at home they  were outraged and sometimes deeply hurt.

In London, journalist Anne Karpf, born in to Jewish parents who had so recently survived concentration camp, admits in her book The War After that she stopped empathising with her mother’s enduring pain.

I came to abominate what she’d been through no longer on her account, but on ours. Was everything she said and did beyond reproach because of her past? ….One of the only waysI felt able to assert my values against theirs was in political arguments …. at mealtimes I could be heard fiercely arguing socialism with my parents as if my life depended on it.”

In Australia in the late 1950s Richard Neville, born in 1941 and later the publisher of the youth-anarchy magazine Oz, led a walkout of his school cadet corps on the eve of the Anzac Day parade. His school naturally reacted by clamped down on those who acted on their anarchic opinions. But one can only imagine the feelings of his father, who had survived World War II as an Infantry battalion commander fighting the Japanese in New Guinea.

Only when a disturbing element developed in some of the new young and the ‘new kind of person’ switched from debate to physical confrontation with authority would America see how dangerous the generation gap might turn out to be. Other countries, notably Britain and South Africa, were already experiencing serious political youth challenges. (See Reasons 3 and 5.)

By the 1960s the habit of independent thinking was part of an acknowledged rich-world youth culture which would soon – and not only in America – throw up a political offshoot – youth counterculture, an active rebellion against the establishment forces controlling society. 

In Britain, between 1963 and 1964, two journalists, Charles Hamblett and Jane Deverson, interviewed hundreds of young people, also inviting others to send in their views. Among many chilling contributions, the like of which most adults had never heard from a minor, a nineteen year-old ended her rant at the older generation:-

Well, I shall remain an individual. I shall do what I like and go where I like. … I shall go my own way no matter how tempting it may be at times to take the easy way out. … You pseuds, you great warriors, you diplomats and politicians… You’ve lowered the curtain on yourselves and there’ll be no encore.”

By now the new cult of speaking out wasn’t just the scream against authority that would result in furious newsheets like Richard Neville’s Oz, and Screw.  Not that these underground bulletins spoke in any kind of unison; they often included fiercely aggressive debates.Independent thinking was, and still is, the voice of an individual confronting every other individual. This would become a generational attitude, but with very few universal generational opinions.

The following decades would bring surveys and studies which tried to get a fix on the post-war educateds’ attitudes to life.  All would end up identifying half a dozen stereotypes which some other young person would immediately reject.

As that generation came of age (in Britain at twenty-one) there was a visible difference between the traditional ‘squares’ who either truly took on their parents’ values or parent-pleased in outward display while enjoying the kind of liberties their parents would disapprove.  Some created a lifestyle based on their own proudly held and to them unique opinions and principles.  Many married young (see Reason 6), and would bring up their families in a kaleidoscope of living patterns rarely seen or accepted in the traditional cultures of their parents and grandparents.

The legacy of the post-war education reformers who inculcated independent thinking in school children is evident in each successive post-war generation.  But today’s oncoming oldest generation will for the first time transform the mind-set, and thereby the public  image, of the last stage of life.   Psychologists agree that ways of thinking and aspirational hopes are set early in life.

Accountability only to Me and My Opinions means that all decisions, actions and relationships in later life will be riven by personal  choice.  As will be seen in following chapters, organised religion, fixed gender roles, trust in the doctor, sustaining a relationship only because it’s ‘right’, expecting duty from children, or to aged parents, old peoples’ clubs, ritualised funerals, group-led ‘grey power ‘and all other aspects of huddling together as a conformist ‘victim group’ will fade out.  Grandchildren or gardening will still come first for some, but the hunt for fulfilment beyond home will be common.  Wealth may be passed elsewhere than down the family line, perhaps into obscure causes, econd homes abroad or  cosmetic surgery. Taking up paid work or volunteering will not be motivated by a nagging sense of duty.

There has never been an older generation who will so firmly, in such decisive numbers, force society to accept what they say and do. Previously limited to rich eccentrics with nothing to lose, truly free speech is now the privilege of people in the lowest of income brackets among the world’s better-off, better fed and more confident elderly populations.

Independent thinking is inherently self-ish and divisive. It’s been blamed for workplaces riven by lack of team spirit, soaring divorce rates – it leads more easily to partings than partners – and for a pick-and-mix morality which has stopped the young learning ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

But is it therefore a social ill?  Modern life throws up ethical dilemmas to which authorities previously provided set answers. As more and more reforms have rubbished old values, mental individualism has become even more important. In a world where every judgement is up for grabs a thought-out response is expected, and respected.

By 1970 psychologists were already claiming that thinking for yourself was good for your health, and the best coping mechanism when life started to get tough. Soon gerontologists would warn that trying to live by someone else’s idea of what is right makes you ill, and that this is as true in old age as at any other time.

Perhaps human beings sense this in some deep primeval way when they admire and envy those maverick older people who in the past – without the benefit of post-war permission to speak their minds  – anyway dared to hold their heads high, have their say and live out their beliefs on their own terms.

 Quotes and references

 Blythe, Ronald. Akenfield . [Allen Lane 1969], The Penguin Press, 1978, pp.290, 109 and 111

Taylor, Ina. Victorian Sisters, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987, pp.169-70

Peter Benenson: Obituary, The Times 28 February, 2005

Norman, Philip, Elton. London, Hutchinson, 1991, pp.47-8

Junor, Penny. John Major: From Brixton to Downing Street. [1993] London, Penguin, 1996, pp.36, 38

Mannheim, Karl, ‘Education for Change’ in Freedom, Power & Democratic Planning. Edited posthumously by

Hans Gerth and Ernst K. Bramstedt. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1951, pp.248, 249 and 251

Davis, Harriet Eager. ‘How Not to Raise Our Children’. Parents Magazine, August 1945

Washburne, Carleton. ‘Modern Concepts of Education and their Significance in the Post-War World’, New

Education Fellowship, London, 1949, p.42

Michael Frish: Fraser, Ronald et al. 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt. London , Chatto & Windus, 1988, p.3

Grossberg, Lawrence. We Gotta Get Out of This Place: Popular Conservatism and Postmodern Culture.

Routledge, New York and London, 1992, p.174.

Two academics: Wentworth, Harold & Flexner, Stuart B. Dictionary of American Slang. Thomas Crowell, NY, 1960

Neville, Richard. Hippie Hippie Shake :the dreams, the trips, the trials, the love-ins, the screw ups, the sixties.

London, Bloomsbury, 1995 p.7

Karpf, Anne. The War After. Minerva Paperbacks, 1996, p.38

Hamblett, Charles and Deverson, Jane. Generation X: Today’s generation talking about itself. London, Gibbs

& Phillips 1964. Letter from Sheila Cooper, via The Observer, p.183

Schwartz, A.N. ‘An observation on self-esteem as the linchpin of quality of life for the aged.’ The Gerontologist

15, 1975 : 470-472

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