Life passages are often marked by the frequency of events you find yourself attending. At first it’s 21sts, then weddings, then 30ths and christenings until we eventually arrive at funerals.
Fortunately, I am not yet at the stage where my friends have begun dropping off the twig, but I do find I am most often invited to 50ths, as I was last Sunday.
There is a theme at today’s 50ths a general sense of bemused astonishment. This astonishment operates on a number of levels. The first and most obvious is the general amazement that we, the children of the revolution (sexual, I mean) could possibly be so old so quickly.
Another is a sense of self congratulation. In our own opinion we neither look nor feel 50 not the way 50 looked and felt to us when we were 20, anyway. Of course we studiously avoid asking any of the stray 20-year-olds who find themselves stranded at such gatherings how we appear to them. If there is one thing we have learnt during our 50 years on the planet, it’s how to hang on to fond illusions.
Last Sunday, the conversation turned to the difference between our past, and our kids’ future. We began to marvel at the extraordinary window of opportunity that opened just as we were leaving school and entering ‘real life’. As we talked, we reached heights of both hilarity and incredulity about our own quite unprecedented and historic luck (this was late in the afternoon, you understand, and quite a lot of excellent grenache had been drunk).
Most of us had graduated from high school between 1972 and 1975, straight into the arms of the first Labor government for 23 years ready, willing and able to make the most of the rollercoaster ride that were the Whitlam years. For young people like us, this was a remarkable piece of good timing.
First and, for the boys among us, most importantly, Whitlam withdrew our troops from Vietnam and ended the awful conscription lottery that had hung so heavily over the heads of our older, less fortunate brothers.
Second, for the first and only time in our history, university education was free. As a result, every last one of us sitting around that table on Sunday had attended university. Being a very middle class group, this perhaps was not so surprising for the boys, but it was a huge change of opportunity for the girls. We must have been the first Australian generation where so many young women found they could attend a university. When a university education was expensive, most parents found the money for their sons, but not their daughters. Indeed, we found ourselves at university with a huge number of mature age students. Most of them were middle-aged women who had not been able to go to university when young.
But there were other unusual opportunities available to us, as well. The sexual revolution was in full swing. The Birth Control Pill had been invented and was fairly easily available and there was no AIDs. We were probably among the first school-leavers ever who could, and did, have a lot of sex without having to worry about the possible consequences. If you were gay, you could be open about it, certainly in university circles. It was de rigueur to go out with someone whose skin was a different colour from yours.
The White Australia Policy was dead, and Australian students were fighting the Springbok tour and apartheid in South Africa. We argued about Marxism and feminism and capitalism. Dope was mild and plentiful, though some of us did experiment with harder drugs. We all had school friends who ended up dying of heroin overdoses, so there was a dark side, but it was rare. Australian film, music, food and wine were exponentially improving in quality. The cultural cringe, we confidently believed, was dead, and we had killed it.
There was full employment. I walked out of uni with an average Arts degree majoring in English Lit, and straight into a trainee marketing position in a multinational company. That simply wouldn’t happen today.
My husband who had rebelled against his narrow upbringing and spent the five or six years after high school riding powerful motorbikes while supporting himself by variously pumping petrol, being a brickie’s mate, selling encyclopedias door-to-door and working for the local council got a hair cut, bought a suit and walked into a job as a rep for Cadbury Schweppes. You could do that, then. You could be young and rebellious and drift about a bit, and when you pulled yourself together, there were good jobs waiting for you.
Moreover, it looked like a whole lot of old battles were being won, and won conclusively. We were heady with Women’s Lib, Black Power, Aboriginal Land Rights, the first stirrings of the environmental movement, Gay Pride and a sense that the world was getting better and fairer, and no matter who you were, you could both be yourself and get ahead.
Last Sunday, it dawned on us just how damn lucky we had been and how different the world now was for our kids. As parents, my generation is often, rightly, castigated for being far too anxious, protective and controlling, unlike our own parents, who can, by today’s standards, seem positively neglectful.
Well, no wonder our parents had so much less to worry about. They saw we were getting opportunities they had never had (and now, it seems, our kids won’t have them either). Ironically, one of our few misfortunes is to be the first generation ever who cannot amuse ourselves by telling young people we had it so much tougher than they do.
And that is another reason for our bemused sense of bewilderment. When we look at the world today the world, after all, that we made it is not what we wanted or how we expected it to turn out. The old battles we thought we’d won are on again. God is back, puritanism is back, sexism is back, racism is back and so is the class system. War is back and South Africa, post apartheid, is not the free and fair society we all hoped it would become.
Not only is university no longer free, 30 per cent of our kids go to schools that aren’t free either. Worse, even such old ideals as the presumption of innocence and the rights of workers to bargain collectively are under attack. Despite our once-in-a-millennium window of opportunity, it feels like we have not managed to create anything lasting.
But maybe, as is true of all disappointment and unhappiness, the reason we feel so bewildered is because our expectations were too high. We were too young and inexperienced to realise how unusual our luck was and how good we really had it, so we failed to value it as we should and failed to make the most of it.
What is it they say: Youth is wasted on the young? Well, it isn’t wasted on the middle-aged.
In our more philosophical moments, perhaps we are at last old enough to understand, that while the pendulum has currently swung the other way, it is, after all, a pendulum, and will inevitably swing back. Given our ever-increasing life spans, perhaps we might even be one of the first generations lucky enough to live to see what all that youthful energy and generosity and peace and love and, yes, hope, has actually bequeathed to the world in the long term.
Maybe our grandchildren will be as lucky as we were.
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