From a young age, we’re taught that progress is always best; that change is good and youth and energy are the keys to the future. In one way, this is right. After all, it was youth that gave us Stephenson’s Rocket, Rebel without a Cause and the theory of relativity. But to ignore the experience and wisdom that can come with age is to shut ourselves off to brilliant ideas and lived experience that may well be beyond the scope of youth. This is especially true when the older generation of modern Britain, Europe and the US lived through an Earth-shaking war, profound technological change and a social revolution. So what can we young ones learn off our grandparents, and did they really do things better in the 50s?
Ever since the 1980s, the Western world has been about individualism and personal liberties – two very noble concepts most of us are grateful for. But has this really led to a better world? In the UK, modern life is marked by sharp economic divisions, atomized communities and zero hours, no-security contract work.
On the other hand, the Post-War world was one with a firm emphasis on community: the sort of community forged in the air raid shelters, the sort forged by trade unions in the manufacturing cities and the sort forged by a heavy emphasis on the common good. The welfare state and the NHS were blossoming and even in America income inequality was the lowest it had been since the 19th century. In the US, this translated to a booming economy and a society everyone felt they had a stake in. In Britain, it translated to a firm community spirit and a crumbling of the rigid class structure.
But, short of a massive political earthquake, how can we build on those lessons today? Simple: by becoming more community-minded, more charitable and working less for ourselves than for the good of our whole street, country or even world.
While the Americans of the 1950s were spending money on the back of an economic boom, things in Britain were very different. Following the hugely expensive war, the UK was broke. Rationing remained in effect for nearly 10 years after V-Day. Austerity was rife. People may have been lifted out of health poverty by the arrival of the NHS, but nobody was feeling rich. What lesson could we possibly learn from this?
The same one our grandparents did: frugality. Adults of the 40s and 50s learnt to live completely within their means, to take their holidays closer to home and never spend without first having the funds ready. If that sounds slightly-joyless be prepared for a shock: long-term polling analysis has confirmed that the period of 1955-60 had more happy people than any other in history. So maybe the lesson for us to learn here is to live within our means, pay some attention to our savings and investments and ensure any pensions or SIPPs are doing as well as they should. Perhaps it is better to be free from any financial constraints instead of spending in the hopes it’ll make us happier.
Perhaps due to the greater community spirit, levels of trust were much higher in the 1950s than the present day. This translated into all sorts of positives benefits. Children were allowed to play on their own and “get their knees dirty” without being mollycoddled. Health and safety meant practical precautions to ensure no-one got injured at work. Communities were more-open to one another and more likely to chip in and help out and the average citizen could go stand right against the door of Number 10, instead of being kept far back by barriers and machinegun-armed police officers. In short, our grandparents considered each other kind, trustworthy people, unworthy of suspicion.
So how can we emulate the older generation today? Maybe by learning to place a small degree of trust in one another, by getting to know those we might otherwise fear or be suspicious of. Who knows? We may even find out that the world’s not as scary as the media keeps telling us it is.