Generation 498, 1950-1975: the invention of youth culture

In this period, television became widespread. Images from around the world were now seen in most houses.

This generation can also be characterised by two extremes: fear and freedom.

First, the fear. For the whole of this period, the communist and capitalist blocs had stockpiles of nuclear missiles aimed at each other, each with enough weaponry to destroy most of life on Earth several times over. Each tested their weapons, on atolls in the Pacific, in the deserts or in the Arctic, so that the air itself was poisoned with radioactive fallout. Each side knew that if they fired a weapon, the other side could fire one in retaliation before it had reached its target. This was the incentive not to do so, and was known as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction or MAD, not without irony. As the final decision to press the button rested with a few men, there was the additional fear that one of them might unleash a weapon anyway in a moment of insanity, or that an accidental firing would be misinterpreted by the other side as an attack. This enduring state of  tension between the two blocs was known as the Cold War.

Now to the freedom.

There were different mass youth movements through this period, starting with the Beat generation in the 1950’s, a group of poets and authors in the US. Rock and roll music started then too. In the sixties there were the hippies, Flower Power, pop music, mods and rockers, and many liberation movements.

There were protests. In 1955 in the American South, a black woman refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person, not the first time this had happened. She was arrested for doing so, again not a first, but this time there followed a boycott of the buses by black people, starting in her town and spreading to others. It lasted for over a year and resulted in the desegregation of buses. And much more – ripples from this moment spread out through the rest of the period. There were sit-ins at racially segregated shops, libraries and college campuses, marches were organised through town centres. It led to changes in the law in many countries, banning racial discrimination. Now, two generations later, the word ‘racism’ is part of our language. It didn’t exist then.

In the 1960’s the Women’s Liberation movement (known at the time as Women’s Lib) was triggered by the publication of ‘The Feminine Mystique’ in the US and ‘The Female Eunuch’ in the UK. Women also marched and organised protest events, including one at a beauty pageant in which bras may or may not have been burned. The concept was taken up by the press, and women’s libbers were also known as ‘bra-burners’ from then on. This movement also led to discrimination on the basis of gender being outlawed, and the coining of the word ‘sexism’.

There were protest movements organised by other minorities too. There was the environmental movement: the book ‘Silent Spring’ described the other effects of DDT beyond eliminating malaria. 1968 became known as the year of protest, with mass events in many countries, against the established elites, against perceived unfairness and injustice in many areas of life. Some of them started as student protests, but led to general strikes as other sectors of the population joined them. There were protests in communist countries too. 1968 was also the year of the ‘Prague Spring’ in Czechoslovakia. The Cultural Revolution was under way in China.

Another theme of the period was the festivals. This can be traced back to 1967, the ‘Summer of Love’. The Woodstock Festival first took place in 1969,  Glastonbury in 1970. Both were originally free festivals, and there were many more each summer in the capitalist world.

Another significant moment in this period was the launch of the first satellite in 1957. Now each time we connect to the internet or make an international phone call it is probably via a satellite. In this period, making an international phone call was expensive, and there was a noticeable delay. On the other hand, you could pick up the phone and speak to an operator (who would set up your long distance call).

The structure of DNA was discovered in 1962. The first successful organ transplants were carried out. And the oral contraceptive pill was developed and made available, which is probably why the Summer of Love was not followed by a Spring of Babies.

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Generation 499, 1975-2000. The decline of the gatekeepers?

Back we go, to the generation that came to maturity between 1975 and 2000, the last quarter of the twentieth century.

By the time we get to the start of this period, there is no internet, no mobile phones, no digital photography, no satellite television, and no CCTV. In the UK a woman could be refused a job on the basis of her gender, and be paid less than a man if she was employed.

Lack of internet means that accessing information is slower, more difficult, more expensive and mediated by gatekeepers. I have to order a book from the library or a bookshop. There are four TV channels in the UK, and although I can record a programme if I want to, the choice is determined by the TV companies.

I get news from the newspapers, another set of gatekeepers. They describe a world that is polarised into the communist and capitalist blocs, and demonise the one they are not in. Information can be suppressed or manipulated by rich or powerful individuals who lean on the relevant gatekeepers. The Berlin Wall came down in the middle of this period, after some intrepid East Germans got into their Trabants and made a long journey to the other bloc. The wall itself became an irrelevance.

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A young man stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The moment was photographed by a journalist and sent around the capitalist bloc.

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Some of the gatekeepers believed themselves to be benevolent guardians and keepers of standards. Even now, if you watch terrestrial TV you can be sure of a certain standard and when output is deemed to fall below it the complaints are loud. Compare that with the anarchy of digital TV output.

Music is played on CDs at the end of the period, LP’s or cassettes at the beginning. What I can listen to is determined by the music companies. Photographs are taken on reels of film, usually 24 or 36 exposures. They are sent away to be developed, and that is expensive.

There is no CCTV, so when I go to the city centre or supermarket my movements are not recorded by ranks of hidden cameras as they are now. No speed cameras catch me when I drive over the speed limit. Lack of mobile phones means that when I go into the wild I am alone in a way that is almost unimaginable now. It also means that if I get stuck there is no way to let anyone know where I am. There are public phone boxes on the street in the towns.

In this period there are different freedoms from those of generation 500. A student in the UK could get a maintenance grant rather than a loan as is the case now. In the world of work, a person could expect to be in one job for a long time, and to retire with a company pension. At the start of the period air travel was expensive and so for the few who could afford it. On main roads a hitch-hiker with their thumb out asking for a lift was a common sight. I rarely see a hitch-hiker now.

This is also the period in which the authority and accountability of the gatekeepers begins to be questioned. At the start of the period a medical doctor has almost demigod status. By the end their pronouncements can be challenged. The questioning of the behaviour of some people in the church also begins here, to be taken up much more by the following generation.