Why baby boomers want the ultimate freedom


After getting all sorts of personal freedoms, many baby boomers now want the right to choose when to die, says Sarah Dunant in her A Point of View column.

Let me come clean with you. I was born in the early 1950s, slap bang in the middle of the most influential demographic bulge the modern world has ever seen.

Like much of my generation I had hoped to die before I got old. The fact that I haven't now makes me and the rest of us a "big problem" in the post-crisis economy. Having had jobs, houses, pensions and now expanded life expectancy, it appears we have left those who come after us with nothing. Or certainly not enough.

Getting a bad press is hardly news for the baby boomers. From early on we were a bloody-minded, selfish lot. Instead of being grateful for being born into a welfare state and not having to die in any major war, what did we do but use our free education and our healthy teeth to try and gnaw off the hand that had fed us.

No respect for our elders from us lot. Instead we looked around and found the world wanting. Attitudes towards race, class, empire and sexuality - especially sexuality - were all up for radical change.

We were born into the free world and we took that word free seriously. When it came to play as well as work. The baby boomers, unlike any other children, set out to make sure they were not only seen but heard and listened to.

For many years our elders saw us only as an apocalypse in the making: Pandora' s open box darkening the air with moral malignancies. Free love would lead to sexual anarchy, women's and gay rights to the destruction of the family, marijuana was the precursor to heroin, and together with rock 'n' roll they would all breed a race of young punks subversive to both Queen and country.

In fact, bar the odd Sex Pistols gesture with a photo of Her Majesty, it's amazing how quickly much of the baby boomers' agenda was incorporated into the fabric of British society. Forget radical ideology.


In large part, this was about economics. Even as teenagers we had more disposable income than any generation before us. Add to that the serendipity of the contraceptive pill and feminism, which challenged the notion of the family as an only one-wage unit, and suddenly we created an army of consumers the like of which society had never seen before.

And the market was more than ready for us. Ironically, those who would otherwise have been our ideological enemies - conservatives - were by the late 70's developing their own radical agenda when it came to promoting freedom, but in their case it was to do with money. A free world needed a free market. And free markets, of course, are driven more by profit than morality.

image captionPunks were seen as subversive

As a strategy, while it was surely unconscious, it was also brilliant. How better to neutralise revolution than to market it back to the revolutionaries. With sex no longer a taboo, naked flesh and simulated orgasm could be used to sell everything, from cars to flaky chocolate bars.

When it came to targeting women, the language of feminism easily morphed into the language of persuasion. "Because you're worth it" sold us truck-loads of beauty aids. But however much we slathered on, there was always something more needed to make us perfect.

Little did the early women's movement imagine that their hard-won freedom would lead to an epidemic of eating disorders or rat poison injections to paralyse our faces against wrinkles.

In much same the way, the softening of attitudes to homosexuality went hand in hand with the growing power of the pink pound. And when it came to fighting racial intolerance, one could argue that the market's inherent colour blindness endorsed a multi-culturalism that laws and social policy alone might have taken longer to achieve.

Come the new millennium and that social liberation the boomers had championed had indeed changed society, although not perhaps quite as they had predicted. Now major politicians of any hue would argue that this was what modernity looked like.


But, just when it seemed we might be the answer rather than the problem, we're back in the dog house again. Fittingly, our sins are economic. Once again I am guilty. I own a house, I drive a car, I travel by plane and I've got a pension.

While the generations beneath me scrabble to find a job and a roof over their heads I, having lived the life of Riley - sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, career, children - am now looking at staying alive to enjoy it further.

Ah, the irony of it. We baby boomers are now being vilified for the very things that first drove us into revolt against our parents. A comfortable lifestyle. Financial security. A gentle old age. Forget "hope I die before I get old", our real theme song was obviously "may you stay forever young".

Yet, you could argue that even being vilified is better than being ignored. Now that's something us baby boomers really couldn't stomach. We are, after all, the original "me" generation. How fitting then that our very specialness means that historically we are now seen as responsible for the destruction of the world as we know it. Apres nous le deluge. Or le desert. Or the ice age.

But before you start shouting at me, I have what I think is some good news. Because having got everything that we wanted in life, baby boomers, more than any other generation, are uniquely qualified to address the biggest taboo of all - death. This, I hasten to add, does not mean that we are intending immortality. Rather that an increasing number of us want to choose when and how we go.

Precisely because we thought we would never grow old the idea of death is hitting us harder than most. It is not entirely our selfishness. While we may have rebelled against our parents, like most children we loved them deeply underneath and we have lived - and in many cases are still living - through their aging and dying.

It has been a painful, often shocking experience, seeing the effects of Alzheimer's alongside all manner of agonising illnesses which corrode the mind as well as torture the body. We have learnt at the most poignant level that increased life expectancy does not always mean sustained quality of life. And just as we have got our way in everything else, more of us are talking about getting our way in this: the right to die when and how we choose.


A few of us have already argued with our feet and when the prognosis is bleak gone to Switzerland to end our lives. Others, brave souls such as Debbie Purdy or Diane Pretty - who feared that the nature of their vicious degenerative diseases would leave them incapable of taking action themselves - have gone to court to argue for the right for assisted suicide.

While the private members bill to change the law failed in the house of Lords in 2006, the pressure has got greater rather than gone away. As we know when it comes to social change, it has been the sheer weight of numbers that has been the baby boomers' greatest power.

That and the fact that we are the first largely secular generation, certainly in terms of our membership of the established church, means that ideas that would once have been seen as unacceptably provocative are now being discussed in the mainstream.

image captionOld age puts a burden of care on people

Indeed this very week, a group of health professionals, including - most importantly - some doctors, launched a campaign aimed at challenging again the 1961 assisted suicide law. Fittingly, the chairwoman, Dr Ann McPherson, is herself a baby boomer suffering from pancreatic cancer.

All of which will come as good news to Terry Prachett, two years into a death sentence of Alzheimer's and a man with a status close to a national treasure. He has publicly argued in favour of a medical profession which would be allowed to give him the wherewithal to take his own life.

Once he had the requisite dose, he said, he could put it in a cupboard and get on with living until he was ready. For every person who might have been deeply disturbed by that idea, there were others for whom it sounded eminently sensible.

In its own way, it would make for the perfect happy ending. If we were allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil when we chose, rather than when medical science ran out of ways of keeping us alive, then our generational legacy would become socially benign: from the bits of the planet we wouldn't consume, to the houses we would vacate, the money we would save the health service.

The emotional burden of care we would lift from our children, not to mention the disposable income we would hand onto them. And for us, the sense that we had gone out as we had lived: changing the world from the cradle to the grave.

All that remains is for us to find an generational anthem to take us into the final rite of passage. There is of course one obvious choice, though slightly outside our boomers remit. Sid Vicious after Frank Sinatra: "Regrets, we've had a few… but then again…"

Join in on the chorus now: "We did it our way."