Talkin’ ’bout My Generation

A New Year’s feuilleton for 2018

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What do Rolling Stone magazine’s top twenty albums of all time and Donald Trump’s cabinet have in common, and what does it say about the state of the world at the beginning of 2018? 

 

1  The greatest albums of all time

I saw The Who perform My Generation at Rochester Odeon, where they were jointly headlining with the Spencer Davis Group, on April 23, 1966.  Rochester is a small town in Kent in south-east England, the Odeon was our local cinema, and I was 15.  It was my first rock concert.  The Spencer Davis Group topped the British charts that week with Somebody Help Me, their second #1 single of the year.  But it was My Generation—which had peaked at #2 in the UK the previous November but never got any higher than #74 on the US Billboard Hot 100—that became legendary.  The Who never had a UK or US number 1.  Still, Rolling Stone magazine ranks Pete Townshend’s “immortal fuck-off to the elders in his way” as #11 in its “definitive list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.”

“I hope I die before I get old” screamed lead singer Roger Daltrey.  Drummer Keith Moon obliged when he succumbed to an overdose of barbiturates in 1978 at the age of 32.   Bassist John Entwistle partied on to age 57, when the stripper he had taken to bed the night before woke to find him dead of a cocaine-induced heart attack in his Las Vegas hotel room early one morning in 2002. Townshend and Daltrey continue to perform as The Who.  By the time they headlined Superbowl XLIV in 2010 both were on the verge of qualifying for their UK state pensions (Townshend was 64, Daltrey 65).  On that occasion they tactfully omitted My Generation, but it is usually a highlight of every show.

Nowadays Daltrey is a high-profile Brexit supporter. “We went into the Common Market in 1973,” he told the Daily Mirror.  “Do you know what was going on before we went in?”

It was the 1960s.

The most exciting time ever—Britain was Swinging.

Films, Theatre, Fashion, Art and Music.

We were the World leaders.

You had Harold Pinter, The Beatles, John Osborne, Mary Quant, The Stones, Queen … and The Who.

This was all before we joined the EU. We were just Kids but we were filling stadiums all round the World.

Britain was the centre of the World.

You got that because Britain was doing its own thing.

It was independent. Not sure we’ll ever get that again when we’re ruled by bureaucrats in the European Union.

Exactly which EU regulations would have prevented Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Mary Quant, and The Beatles from doing their own thing, Daltrey doesn’t say.  He neglects to mention that The Beatles debuted All You Need Is Love for the European Broadcasting Union program Our World—the first live international satellite television production—in June 1967, and that The Rolling Stones recorded their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, at Keith Richards’s mansion Nellcôte in the south of France.  The album’s title references the fact that the band fled the UK for the Côte d’Azur in 1971 to escape the long arm of the British taxman.

Daltrey is not the only aging rocker nostalgic for a half-remembered golden past.  Despite having previously dismissed Brexit as a “romantic delusion of Victorian isolation” in which “There’ll be no industry, there’ll be no trade, there’ll be nothing—a slow, dismal, collapse,” John Lydon—better known as Johnny Rotten, the infamous lead singer of the 1970s punk band the Sex Pistols—proclaimed in March 2017 that “The working class have voted and I support them.  Let it be a nice exit.  A truly brilliant British exit.”  He went on to describe Nigel Farage as “fantastic,” adding that Donald Trump (whom he insisted was not racist) was “the political Sex Pistol.”  Everybody’s favorite Beatle Ringo Starr (who lives in Los Angeles) also thought Brexit was “a great move,” while former Smiths’ frontman Morrissey hailed the EU referendum result as “magnificent.”

It’s not quite Eric Clapton’s rant on the stage of the Birmingham Odeon on 5 August 1976, but it’s getting there:

Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch [Powell] will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans don’t belong here, we don’t want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here … Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!

Clapton is ranked #2 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists.  It must have galled him to lose the #1 spot to Jimi Hendrix, a black American whose career took off after he moved to the UK in late 1966.

The Who don’t make the top twenty in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” but their 1970 effort Who’s Next checks in at a creditable #28.  The list echoes Daltrey’s assessment of the 1960s as “the most exciting time ever.”  No less than seven of the top ten albums—The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (#1), Revolver (#3), Rubber Soul (#5), and White Album (#10), Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited (#4) and Blonde on Blonde (#9), and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (#2)—were released between 1965 and 1968.  This was peak sixties, understood as a cultural phenomenon rather than a chronological decade.  The sixties went together with sexual intercourse, which as Philip Larkin famously observed began “In nineteen sixty-three … Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.”  They ended in a swirl of violence at Altamont Speedway in San Francisco on December 6, 1969 when Hell’s Angels killed a black teenager, Meredith Hunter, as The Rolling Stones were performing on stage.

The remaining three albums in Rolling Stone’s all-time top ten are Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? (#6, 1971), the Stones’ Exile on Main Street (#7, 1972), and The Clash’s London Calling (#8, 1980).  Entries 11-20 in the list marginally expand the timeframe to include Elvis’s mid-1950s Sun Sessions (#11), Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (#12, 1959), Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (#16, 1975), and Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run (#18, 1975)—and give us yet more peak sixties with Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? (#15, 1967), The Velvet Underground and Nico (#13, 1967), Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (#19, 1968), and the Beatles’ Abbey Road (#14, 1969).  Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991) at #17 and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) at #20 round out the top twenty, bringing the total number of albums recorded after 1975 to three.

Acoustic recording has been with us since the turn of the twentieth century, electrical recording since the mid-1920s, and the long-playing record since 1948.  Yet 15 of Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums of all time hail from the single decade 1965-75, and 11 of these date from 1965-9.  The Beatles alone produced a quarter of the albums in this list (and three of the top five).  For those of us with long enough memories this cannot but bring back that astonishing week of April 4, 1964 when John, Paul, George, and Ringo held the #1-5 positions in the Billboard Hot 100 with “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me.”  Who could doubt that Britain was the center of the world?  I was 13.

The Rolling Stone editors compiled their “definitive list of the 500 greatest albums of all time” in 2011 on the basis of two polls, one carried out by a panel of 271 “artists, producers, industry executives and journalists” in 2003, and the other undertaken “by a similar group of 100 experts” in 2009 to pick the best albums of the 2000s.  I don’t know who these experts were, but that the most recent album to make their top twenty was recorded twenty years earlier, in 1991, speaks volumes.  So does the fact that despite the enormous indebtedness of Anglo-American popular music to Afro-American musical genres only four of the top twenty albums—and only one in the top ten—are by black artists.  The only female singer to make the top twenty is Nico, who fronted the Velvet Underground’s 1967 debut but thereafter left the band.  My generation, baby.

 

2  The highest IQ of any cabinet ever

Many Rolling Stone readers would no doubt resent the comparison, but this arrogant equation of the formative musical landmarks of a generation with the best of all time brings to mind the hyperbole of Donald Trump, for whom never in history has there been so huge an inaugural crowd, so massive a tax cut, so persecuted a president.  His cabinet, Trump claimed, had “by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled.”  Whatever its intelligence, just like Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums that cabinet was also conspicuously old, white, and male.

Trump’s first cabinet contained 18 white men (as compared with Obama’s 8, George W. Bush’s 11, Clinton’s 10, and George Bush’s 12) and only 6 women and members of ethnic minorities—two of whom, Elaine Chow and Nikki Haley, did double duty as both.  None of the latter occupy major offices of state, as Condoleeza Rice did under George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton did under Obama.   While the racial and gender biases of Trump’s cabinet have been widely noted—along with its members’ unprecedented wealth, which Quartz values at $9.5 billion, more than the bottom third of all American households combined—less attention has been paid to the cabinet’s age composition.

At 70, Trump is the oldest man to begin a first term as US president, beating the record of 69 set by Ronald Reagan—whose dementia symptoms, according to his son, already manifested during his first term.  Trump likes to be surrounded by folks from my generation.  The average age of his first cabinet was 62 years, compared with 58 for Obama’s and 55 for George W. Bush’s.  This is the oldest cabinet in American history.

Of the 24 current US cabinet members and cabinet rank officials, Wilbur Ross (80), Dan Coats (74), Sonny Purdue (71), Jeff Sessions (71), and Robert Lighthizer (70) are older than any Obama or Bush appointee, while Linda McMahon (69), Jim Mathis (67), Rick Perry (67), John Kelly (67), and Ben Carson (66) are all also at or past the normal US retirement age.  If we add Rex Tillerson (65) and Elaine Chao (64), fully half of the US cabinet is over 64—the age at which, on Rolling Stone’s #1 album of all time, Paul McCartney looked forward to a quiet retirement doing the garden, digging the weeds, while his lover dandled their grandchildren on her knee.  Betsy DeVos (59), Mike Pence (58), David Schulkin (58), and Ryan Zinke (56) are in their later fifties.  Only four members of cabinet—Alex Acosta (48), Kirstjen Nielsen (45), Nikki Haley (45), and Scott Pruit (49)—are under 50.  The rest are all old enough to remember where they were when Elvis died.

The same pattern prevails across the legislative and judicial branches of US government.  In 1981, the average age of congressmen was 49 and of senators 53.  The comparable ages today are 59 and 63—on average, Congress has aged by ten years since Ronald Reagan first entered the White House.  In the current Congress 14.4% of congressmen are 65-69, 14.2% are 70-79, and 2.35% are over 80, while 20% of senators are 65-69, 17% are 70-79, and 8% are in their eighties—meaning that over 30% of congressmen and almost 45% of senators are past the normal retirement age of the rest of US society.   The gap between the average age of Americans and that of their congressional representatives is the same as that between the most recent entry in Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums and the date the list was compiled—twenty years, which is to say a full generation.

The average age of US Supreme Court justices is over 69, and the projected age when a justice will leave the Supreme Court is now 83—ten years later than it was in the 1950s.  Assuming good health, Trump’s controversial nominee Neil Gorsuch, who joined the court at age 49, can expect to still be there in 2050.  People over pension age lead both the Republican and Democratic parties: Mitch McConnell may be 75, but Chuck Schumer is 67, Elizabeth Warren 68, Hillary Clinton 70, and Nancy Pelosi 77.  Bernie Sanders, who is currently regarded by many on the left as the only candidate who can beat Trump, is a sprightly 76.  Should Sanders be elected in 2020 and survive his first year in office the US would have its first octogenarian president (Reagan was “only” 77 at the end of his second term).

While Americans seem to regard their gerontocracy as unremarkable, this pattern is strikingly out of line with other western democracies.  The average age of Theresa May’s cabinet in the UK is 56, and only one minister, 69-year-old David Davis, is over 62.  Some might think it appropriate that he is the minister in charge of Brexit.  In France the average age of ministers is 54.6, while Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is 46 and President Emanuel Macron is 39.  The average age of Angela Merkel’s cabinet is 52.  Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is the only member of his government over the age of 60, and 13 of his 22 cabinet members are under 50.  Canada’s Justin Trudeau is now 45, and presides over a gender-balanced and ethnically diverse cabinet whose average age is 50.  New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is just 37.

Most of these folks are way too young to remember the Summer of Love, Woodstock, or Altamont.  Not to mention the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, the marches from Selma to Montgomery, the Vietnam War, Watergate, or any of the other formative political experiences of my generation.

It is an ironic coincidence, in this context, that in 2016—the year Trump was elected—the number of millennials (those then aged 18-34) in the US population reached 75.4 million, surpassing the 74.9 million baby boomers for the first time.  Generation X (those aged 35-50) is projected to overtake the boomers by 2028.   The boomers are understood here as those who were aged 51-69 in 2015, i.e. people born between 1946 and 1964, but many scholars have argued that from a cultural standpoint the boomer generation is better understood as having begun with people born in the early 1940s.  Many of those most closely identified with the sixties, including The Beatles (b. 1940-43), Bob Dylan (b. 1941), and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones (b. 1942-3), were war babies.  So were Roger Daltrey (b. 1944), Pete Townshend (b. 1945), and Eric Clapton (b. 1945).  When The Who immortalized my generation, this was the cohort they were talkin’ ’bout.

However we date the start of my generation, in Donald Trump’s cabinet and other US institutions of government not only is power heavily concentrated in its hands, but this concentration has increased even as the proportion of over 50s in the population has declined.  We are hangin’ in there for dear life, baby, and gatecrashing all tomorrow’s parties.

In the 2016 American presidential election boomers formed the single largest age cohort of Donald Trump’s voters.   Clinton emphatically outperformed Trump among 18-24 year olds (56%-34%), 25-29 year olds (53%-39%) and 30-39 year olds (51%-40%), but Trump took 53% of the vote of those aged 50 and over.  Indeed, 62% of his voters were over 45.

Much like Rolling Stone’s top twenty albums of all time, Trump’s supporters reflect America’s divisions of race and gender as well as age.  Whites voted 58% for Trump and 37% for Clinton, while Hispanics voted 65% for Clinton and 29% for Trump and African-Americans voted 88% for Clinton and 8% for Trump.  Overall, Trump won the votes of 53% of men and only 41% of women.  But 63% of white men voted for Trump—and so did 53% of white women despite his advocacy of “grabbing them by the pussy.”  While white non-Hispanic Americans made up 61.3% of the US population in July 2016, 87% of Trump’s supporters were white.  Only 4% of Afro-American women voted for Trump as against 96% for Clinton.

As I mentioned earlier, the political institutions of the UK are not as gerontocratic as those of the US.  The average age of UK Members of Parliament is 51, only two years higher than it was in 1979, and Britain’s youngest MP Mhairi Black was just 20 when she was first elected in 2015.   But age did play a crucial role in the Brexit referendum.  The slender majority (52%-48%) in favor of leaving the European Union was delivered by a similar Trumpian combination of mostly older, predominantly white voters.

As in the US presidential election race, class, locality, and educational level also played a part in shaping people’s choices (though gender was not as significant an axis of division).   But on average, the older the voters the more likely they were to vote leave.  While 73% of those aged 18-24 and 62% of those aged 25-34 voted to remain in the EU, a majority of my generation—and 65% of over-65s—chose to leave.  Twenty-seven of the 30 areas with the highest proportion of elderly people in the UK voted leave, while London, whose proportion of inhabitants aged 65 and over is well below the national average, voted decisively (60%) to remain.

None of this is to say that age is the only factor in shaping these votes.  Nor is it to deny that large numbers of older people are as appalled by Trump and as devastated by Brexit as I am.   Many of them—including some old-time rockers like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Geldof, and Neil Young—have been prominent in resisting the sharp right turn in Anglo-American politics.  But the fact remains that it was the votes of my generation (or more accurately, the white part of it) that took Britain out of the European Union and put Donald Trump in the White House.

We are the elders now, and it is us that are standing in the way of the young.

 

3  Why don’t you all f-fade away?

As we enter 2018 I am not enthused by the prospect of a future in which classic rock radio stations have Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds on endless repeat while the refugee and migrant hordes are kept at bay by Trumpian walls.

Instead, I despair at the breathtaking selfishness of my generation—the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived generation the planet has ever known, in part because of the seventy years of peace safeguarded by the framework of international institutions, including the UN and the EU, that the Brexiteers and Trumpers are busy demolishing.  Yes, I know Europe and the US offshored their wars after 1945, but this too was part of my generation’s extraordinary—and entirely unearned—good fortune.

Certainly these privileges have not been shared equally.   But it is fair to say that more baby boomers—especially white baby boomers—have enjoyed security of employment, home ownership, decent pensions, rising living standards, and affordable healthcare and education than in any generation before or since.   They seem determined to keep these privileges for themselves, at whatever cost to their grandchildren.

The young are meantime trying to make their way in a world in which job security and guaranteed pensions have become a thing of the past, home ownership is beyond most pockets, post-secondary education comes at the price of crippling debt, the welfare state is under siege, and politicians react to climate change by withdrawing from international agreements and making a demagogic bonfire out of environmental regulations.  In the UK Roger Daltrey-style nostalgia for a non-existent golden-age past has also robbed them of the opportunity to live, marry, and work freely across the 28 countries of the EU—an opportunity the baby boomers have enjoyed for over 40 years.

Today’s Anglo-American world is ruled by the most privileged members of an entitled and narcissistic generation that will not consider sharing its wealth or its power.  My generation played a disproportionate part in voting them into office.  The new gerontocratic order is epitomized in Donald Trump’s cabinet.  But it is also reflected in Rolling Stone magazine’s exclusionary list of the top twenty greatest albums of all time.

I cannot help thinking it would have been better if a few more of us had died before we got old.  Just enough that the young really could say fuck off to their elders, and not just through their music.

 

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