The Democratic Age Gap

I THINK THAT EUROPE IS ABOUT TO SUFFER AN OUTBREAK of Obama mania, just as we caught the epidemic of Kennedy mania in 1961, when Camelot and the young president seized everyone’s imagination. All European countries wanted to have their own Kennedys, and aged politicians fluttered their rheumy eyelids at their electorates, pretending to be young senators from Massachusetts, fresh from Harvard Yard.

There has been an extraordinary shift in the age group that dominates political life, in Europe as well as in the United States. Those of us who are older than the baby boomers saw them take over from our generation, and we now see our children’s generation taking over from them. Technically, I think that Barack Obama is himself a baby boom child, if one extends the birth dates of the baby boom generation from 1947-1965, but he relates to the generation born from 1965-1990. To it, Hillary Clinton, aged 60, seems to be on the cusp between the middle-aged and the elderly. Every time she refers to her greater experience, she reminds the generation now in its 30s that she belongs to an earlier generation.

My generation, now in our 70s, is the one to which Sen. John McCain belongs. We find it easy to empathize with him. We were at school during World War II, lived our adult lives under the threat of the Cold War, and were contemporary with the Vietnam War, whether we were involved in it or not. It affected the lives and the political attitudes of most American students. It had less of an impact on European students, but still enough to cause the events of 1968 in Paris. To us, the student experience of Bill Clinton himself is still a contemporary event. For the post-baby boomers, it is quite distant in history.

The trouble with the baby boomers is that they have become too familiar. They have been around too long, and there are too many of them. They are boring to the next generation, who became students in the ‘80s, but they are also boring to the pre-baby boom generation, who were students in the ‘50s.

I was never sure what “triangulation” meant. It sounded like poor geometry, as well as poor politics. But Hillary Clinton is exposed to the double difficulty of having lost the younger generation without creating enthusiasm among the older — she makes good speeches, but her speeches do not relate to the hopes of either generation. She does, however, retain her identification with the women of her own age group.

In Britain, the young are having quite a tough time. They now have to pay high tuition fees if they go to college; the average debt at graduation is £20,000. They have to incur an even bigger debt to get into the housing market. The cost of rearing children is phenomenal. The norm, by the age of 30, is a debt of £100,000-200,000. There are far fewer lifetime jobs outside the civil service. The companies, such as ICI, GEC, or British Leyland, that offered training and lifetime jobs in the 1960s and 1970s no longer exist.

I do not know what the ideals of this generation will prove to be, but I do know that it is responding to Barack Obama’s rhetoric of hope, just as my father’s generation in England responded to Franklin Roosevelt’s message of hope in 1933: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Hope may be an illusion, but it has powerful political appeal. If there were primaries in the European Union, I think Barack Obama would win them comfortably. I might vote for Sen. John McCain, who is my contemporary, but the 30-year-olds would vote for Sen. Obama.

Lord William Rees-Mogg
February 25, 2008