The Passing Show Column from the February 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
When you’re in your teens. forty is such a long way off, you can't begin to imagine what your life will be like then. It seems such a great age, that perhaps you secretly think you’ll never reach it. And as for sixty, seventy or eighty — quite inconceivable. Yet the population of Great Britain is said to be ‘growing older’. That is, the proportion of pensioners to the rest is increasing— old people arc being kept alive longer than they used to be. So, capitalism permitting, the youngsters of today are the oldsters of tomorrow.
Now there's no particular virtue in being young or old, though some people (like Alan Freeman or Wilfred Pickles) may try to suggest that there is; "'Ave some respect fer yer elders!” was yelled often enough at children in the thirties, and ranks almost as absurd as that baffling commandment “’Ave some respect fer the dead!" hissed at us as we played our game of marbles in the gutter, oblivious of a passing hearse. Respect for the dead seemed a contradiction in terms, but as for our elders, perhaps they thought that survival alone in the days before the war justified their demand. Or was it perhaps the desperate clutching at something intangible—a last plea for some sort of recognition before the harsh world of capitalism turned its back on them for good?
In those days, little boys were still told to be seen and not heard, but that’s something we hear much less of nowadays, because little boys are not only seen, but are often determined to be heard as well. Why is this? Well, capitalism of the sixties differs superficially from that of thirty years ago. It’s as if the ‘age of youth’ has burst upon us like a storm cloud; every other advert features someone in their early twenties. “It’s great to be young and with it,” is the theme that’s hammered home, but not just for the sake of it. The ‘young' market is worth many millions, which it certainly was not in the old days. A 1959 survey by Dr. Mark Abrams, for instance, estimated that those between thirteen and twenty-five were drawing about £1,480 millions a year in wages. He mentioned the manufacturers’ ‘problems’ in trying to appeal to the (then) new market, and added that “. . . there is now a business as well as a moral and psychological necessity to understand young people”.
Which gives us our first clue to the reason for the post-war switch in values — if such they can be called. What with the technical developments boosted by the war and the labour shortage which has persisted in Britain more or less ever since, young workers are in demand as their parents seldom were. It’s your money they’re after, and to that end they will encourage you to speak your mind. You, Mr. and Miss 13-25, are the guinea pigs of their market research. In fact, as far as the manufacturers of certain types of goods are concerned, you are their market, and goodness knows how they’d get along without you now.
Add that to the undoubtedly greater importance of youngsters in the productive processes of capitalism, and the pace of modern existence with the accent on youthful fitness to withstand it, and it is not altogether surprising that the spotlight plays so persistently upon youth. Some think that the world is their oyster — that is, if they take too much notice of what the newspapers say. But it’s still very much a capitalist world, and the oyster is there for the lucky few, young or old, who own the means of life. Most boys and girls have to work for a living after they leave school, and that means the usual problems of getting by.
And what about the attitudes of the young towards modern society? Are they really such rebels, and do they differ in this respect so much from their elders? True, teenagers often do not see eye to eye with their parents on such matters as jobs, pocket money, sexual life, and so on (This last aspect of junior’s conduct is a constant source of horrified criticism; sour, grapes some say). Many have joined protest movements like CND, Anti-Apartheid etc. Their parents in the thirties joined the PPU, anti-fascist fronts and the like, and felt every bit as strongly about them.
Perhaps the outlook of youth can sometimes be called ‘unconventional’, but that’s nothing new. What matters is that it has never up to now been sufficiently unconventional to start questioning the very basis of our social system ; for it is the sad truth that objections to the Socialist case are much the same, whatever the age of the heckler at our public meeting. Young people generally accept capitalism, though like the rest of the working class, they kick against its effects at times. Professor F. Musgrove, of Bradford Institute of Technology, was nearer the truth than perhaps he realised, when he summed up the results of a survey in this way: —
No doubt there are youthful 'contra- cultures’ which support values which differ from, even invert, the values of the adult world . . . But the broad picture of (Western) Youth highlights the continuities of outlook and belief between adolescents and their elders. (Guardian 22.4.66).
It is the Socialist who insists that the private property basis of society is the cause of the world's ills, and that only the common ownership of the means of life will end them. That is why our Party makes no false distinctions between young and old in its ranks —- the need for Socialist understanding is vital to everyone, irrespective of his age. Young people we are of course delighted to have join us, but there will be no segregation of them into a special ‘Section’, with all the sickeningly patronising attitudes so typical of the other parties. In the Socialist Party they have equal rights with every other member from the day of their enrolment.
We have tried to show that there is no intrinsic virtue in being young, old or anything else. The whole question must be viewed in its social context, and today that means within the bounds of capitalism, geared to the production of goods for sale, and the profit motive. Youngsters have become more important within this setup, while at the other end of the scale, old people rot out their remaining days on the scrapheap, though many of them could still make a valuable contribution to the running of a sane system. It would no doubt be a different story if the ruling class could find a way to use old age pensioners as a profitable source of labour power.
But capitalism is a wasteful and oppressive system for workers of all ages. It frustrates us at twenty, gives us ulcers at forty, and makes us apathetic and resigned at sixty-five, if we last that long. Of course there are many differences between young and old, and obviously their needs and capabilities differ, but it is capitalism which fosters the spurious divisions, and encourages animosities between various age groups. Whatever our age, we all have an overriding interest in the establishment of Socialism. Then, there would be no earthly reason that all of us should not be able to work harmoniously together, and in that sense forget our ages.
E. T. C.