Last week I turned 50 and would like to take this opportunity to reflect not on my own largely inconsequential life, but on the changes or lack of them I have been witness to in the past half century.
Living in Brazil, the date of my birth is a source of some embarrassment, since it coincides with that of the military coup which blighted the country for twenty years and whose shadow has arguably still not entirely lifted.
However, I do not wish to spend my half-centenary celebration dwelling on thorny local issues, but instead look at the broader picture. What truly global, truly profound changes or seminal events occurred in the first half century of my life? What human achievements do I have to look back on in my lifetime with awe or pride?
The answer I keep coming to, sadly, is ‘not many’.
Events are exciting and rouse passions and appeal to our natural instinct to attribute change to direct human agency—increasingly so in a world of 24/7 breaking news. But events very, very rarely have a true long-term impact. The Fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism, half way through my first fifty years of life was a dramatic and multi-faceted event with far-reaching consequences, but we must surely question whether it was fundamental, in a world where Russia and the West appear to be returning to the state of mutual mistrust that long preceded the Bolsheviks and the Cold War. Even, before my time, but casting a dark shadow over it, the tragedy and the agony of World War II seems now more stumbling block than watershed. I have long argued that 9/11 was a ghastly but not particularly significant event.
More intangible, medium-to-longer term events in my lifetime have likewise not been as groundbreaking as they might appear. The rise of neoliberalism in the late 1970s and 1980s, consolidated and apparently justified by the collapse of the Soviet Union, is in fact just a return to the late 19th century status quo ante and by no means marks the end of ideology or the end of history that some have claimed. Even the rise of China over the same period represents more of a belated return to the international fold, albeit on terms more favorable to that populous nation than of late, than a sharp U-turn in the course of world history.
Likewise, my lifetime has been peculiarly devoid of great discoveries, inventions or revolutionary new ideas. No Einsteins, Darwins or Newtons, Voltaires, Edisons or Jeffersons, Shakespeares or Picassos strutted the stage. In place of scientific breakthroughs, we have cool designs, profitable scams and killer apps. True ‘we’ landed on the moon—an achievement that awed the five-year-old boy I was at the time—but that was more television spectacle and Cold War bravado than actual achievement. Forty-five years later we have little more to show for it than non-stick pans and the US is increasingly dependent on an ever more inimical Russian regime for the furtherance of its space program, which is now largely confined to ensuring teens worldwide have access to Facebook and Angry Birds through low-orbit satellites and an increasingly urgent need to clear up junk… The recent demise and fiasco of flight MLH370 has shown that even space satellites aren’t quite as good as billed at capturing images of even quite big stuff on earth. Conspiracy theorists needn’t worry any more about the CIA being able to read their number plates or credit card details.
Some recent studies have suggested that people of my generation are the stupidest in history. I beg to agree… Sarah Palin and Nigel Farage were both born in the same year as me. I rest my case. People like Sarah, Nigel and I somehow fell into the chasm on the cusp between the ‘tried and tested’ authoritarian educational policies of the past and the tough-minded and genuinely innovative autodidacts of the new digital age. Our forebears were trained to fight in wars, to rule or obey; our children and grandchildren dominate the new social media and are cool about negotiating a precarious employment market. Frustrated by our ingrained ignorance and growing irrelevance, we bang on about Zen or collectively negotiated solutions, preen the intellectual headgear of our competing tribes; have become latter-day post-modernist Trotskyites or Stalinists, born-again monetarists, perps or vics in Ponzi schemes, self-help junkies or gurus, prescription-drug addicts, weight-watchers, UKIP or tea party supporters, gun-nuts, conspiracy-theorists, outright snobs, environmental anarchists, ageing hooligans, couch potatoes, televangelists, wannabe celebrities or nobodies with a chip on the shoulder the size of a monster truck, shifting willy-nilly from one fragile identity to another, without a care for consistency, personal integrity, logic or the reality of the world. Our diversity is increasingly less debating chamber, more zoo. WTF, this is my party; this is all about ‘me’…
I am not very proud of the generation to which I belong…
Neither, despite centuries of improvements in sanitation and medical care have we done much to advance this vital cause in recent years. As those of us born in the 1960s and 70s move into old age, we are finding ourselves less likely to live longer, for the first time in centuries, than our luckier forebears. Sedentary lives of overeating, casual promiscuity and self-indulgent drug use have taken their toll over time and are to some extent passed down to future generations. At the same time, paranoia about germs, rather than sensible precautions, has led to an epidemic of allergies and a sharp decline in the efficacy of antibiotics.
The rise and inevitable fall of the ‘stupid’ generation and declining health (despite increased investment) are truly significant (if sad) developments of the past fifty years…
But I would argue that, in my lifetime, there has been only one genuinely epoch-making change and that is the rise of women.
Back in the 1920s, the largely conservative and almost exclusively male establishment feared extending suffrage to the female sex, because they believed that women were inherently more emotional than men and would, therefore, be more inclined to veer towards radical socialist candidates, thereby undermining national security, at a time when the perceived threat of Bolshevism was much on people’s minds. As it turned out, in the first UK election in which women had the right to vote, the fairer sex actually tipped the balance in favor of the conservative nationalist government, against an increasingly unionized and radicalized male populace. In fact, had women not been given the vote, Britain might well have veered sharply to the socialist left, in the 1920s, with who knows what consequences….
Checks and balances and human rights considered, it was probably for the best. But at the time, it led to a stalemate in international and domestic politics. Women didn’t want their maids unionized but were ferocious, as Peter Turchin has shown in his outstanding study of the role of women in the forced recruitment of soldiers in the early stages of World War I, in bullying their supposed beloveds to sacrifice themselves in an overseas war.
The First World War decimated the male population of many European countries. Women now had a demographic edge. They used it in the twenties to party, flirt with men and women alike, and militate for their rights in a way that they had never been able to do before. But this was still at best second-hand power. A room of one’s own perhaps, maybe even a home; but no seat in the cabinet or corner office.
When the men were taken away again during the Second World War, women flooded the workforce. They made the bombs and the bombers their husbands had designed…. And different from their demure older sisters from the last war, they were not ashamed to express their sexuality as well as their skills…
War over; backlash ensued. Horrified by the sexual flexibility the war had unleashed among both sexes, socially conservative governments on both sides of the Atlantic sought to rein in this apparent ill. Women were coaxed back into the home with new-fangled kitchen appliances and men were encouraged to be faithful to their spouses, in so far as women now resembled a technologically enhanced and teasingly liberated version of their moms.
This period coincided with middle class families losing their domestic servants and middle-class women were reluctantly called upon to perform this role. At the same time, working-class women, by necessity or choice, increasingly sought employment outside of the family home, inevitably preferring the white heat of factories to the stuffy stately homes in which their mothers and grandmothers had thanklessly bowed their heads as maids.
However, women only really began to gain ground in my lifetime, in the past 50 years. I would argue that, although this may be the only major change to have occurred in my life so far, it is one of the greatest in human history and its effects are as far-reaching—touching the economy, politics, sexual and social relations, the very ground of our psyche—as they are unpredictable.
David Kynaston tells a funny story about an aristocrat, who in the aftermath of Attlee’s post-War election victory joined the Labor Party, arguing that “socialism seems to be the way things are going and I want to be on the inside,” adding that “this is a damned nuisance, since I can’t abide the working classes.”
The lesson to be drawn from this funny-sad anecdote is that, however fundamental a shift in the class structure may occur, people can adapt to it, switch labels, or, indeed, openly oppose it. This I would argue is not the case with feminism. Men cannot easily rebrand themselves as women, the way some English country squires slapped on cloth-caps or French aristocrats cast off their wigs. On the other hand, neither can men openly oppose women, fearing a constant state of daggers drawn with their spouses and daughters and over 50% of the population, and also because it has rightly become increasingly unacceptable, if not illegal, to do so. Misogyny, a term which arguably only makes sense in its modern feminist meaning in this context, is as repressed as it is widespread. A misogynist in the past was a rare benighted soul who harbored some deep set personally-motivated hatred of women; a correlate of a misanthropist, although confined to only one half of the human race, or sometimes a prejudiced gloss for homosexuality. Now all men are necessarily misogynistic, in so far as they secretly resent their loss of power as a ‘class,’ but can do nothing to recover it.
And yet, whilst women have certainly gained more power than ever before in recorded history, it would be naïve to think that patriarchal society has been replaced by a matriarchal or egalitarian one or even significantly undermined. And this is something that women rightly resent. We thus find ourselves at a juncture in history where men and women alike feel aggrieved and both sides have some justification for feeling this way. This is a poisonous mixture and, although a cap is kept on it in polite society, it does tend to seep out at the edges in the seedier world of our private lives. The short- to medium-term psycho-social effects of this relatively sudden and recent social change are hard to gauge…
The economic and political consequences, however, bear some dispassionate analysis. As is mathematically evident, if men and women are now competing for jobs that once were the exclusive preserve of men, men have less chance of getting a job, and this is exacerbated by the increasing emphasis in so-called developed economies on services that have traditionally been provided by women and jobs that men are more likely to shun. I remember going about town as a child during the day in the 1960s and not seeing any men on the streets. Apart from the occasional tramp, they were all at work in offices or factories. This had changed drastically by the 1980s.
Within the workplace, women are more likely than men to put themselves and their families first and their co-workers second. They are thus less likely to join unions or engage in collective bargaining. They are also, because childcare duties have still largely not been shared equitably by men or fully covered by state benefits, more likely to accept part-time employment, piecework and shorter more flexible working hours for lower pay. None of this good for either women or men or for society as a whole and should be seen as part of a general pattern of continuing exploitation.
The pay gap between women and men has narrowed drastically in the last 50 years. But this is not because women are being paid more; it is because men are being paid less. In fact, if the ratio between male and female income is offset by the fall in the real value of male wages, women are in fact no better off than they were before.
This is a sobering splash of cold water. The rise of women has been used not to promote women’s own interests as a class or the welfare of humanity as a whole, but merely to exploit their weaknesses, to lower wages across the board, to de-unionize the workforce and shore up the power of politicians and corporations that espouse an increasingly unequal capitalist system and supposedly conservative social values.
Since women in this context understandably tend to put family first, they are also inclined to be conservative and individualistic politically, eschewing radical change, even when, in the long term, this would be to their own advantage. And as their power grows within the family unit, they have increasingly won their menfolk over to this over-cautious point of view. Most women in positions of power are not radical feminists. In fact, radical feminists have a hard job of gaining any real grip on power; for them, the ceiling is still made of steel, not glass. The women who have prospered in today’s society tend to hold quite conservative views, even about women’s place in society.
The rise of women may be the big story of the last half century, but it would be wrong to see this as something in itself necessarily progressive, still less as equivalent to a rise of feminism and gender equality as a distinct, consistent, hegemonic ideology. For that to be possible, far deeper economic and psycho-social changes need to occur in the next fifty years. I am at once confident that they will and anxious that they may not.