Were the 1960s a missed chance?


Fifty years after it started, and forty after it ended, the legacy of the 1960s is as controversial as ever. BBC Radio 4 asks three commentators born in 1960 what the decade meant for them - and the country.


In the 1960s, talent was all that mattered. The icons of the era - The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, David Bailey, Michael Caine and so on - hadn't been near privilege. Quite a few of them, notably Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, had been to grammar schools.

In other fields, the dominance of the meritocracy continued for some time. When one thinks of the 1980s, and Big Bang in the City, the great economic boom of that era was engineered by people called "barrow boys". They were called barrow boys not least by the ex-public schoolboys they put out of work. No longer did where you went to school, or whether somebody knew somebody's else's father, mean the difference between getting a job or not getting one. It was now down to how good you were at making money for your firm.

That may just about have stuck, but there is more competition for the barrow boys now from those further up the social ladder whose schools and universities - the best money can buy, in many cases - have become used to preparing them for the realities of modern commercial life.

I sense that a child born today into what the Labour Party would call an "ordinary" family will find it harder than those of us born 50 years ago to become something less than ordinary. Talent will continue to play a part: but talent needs to be developed. I fear that unless a child's parents have money to spend on doing that, or a child can win a bursary or scholarship to a good private school, much of it will remain latent.

Some comprehensive schools, notably in middle-class areas, are adept at getting some of their charges into Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities. Many others of the sort Alistair Campbell once described as "bog standard" haven't a prayer. The kicking away of ladders after the 1960s is one of the great tragedies of our times. The attempt to end classlessness and deference has backfired badly. It is one of the reasons why the legacy of what appeared to be a revolutionary decade is far less than it might have been.

The pill suddenly delivers sex without complications for women too. And without any barriers, either: the pill will allow them all the spontaneity and sensation that men enjoy. Unlike the clumsy rubber implements of before, their new chemical protection will not spoil the moment.

It seems extraordinary, to the ladies lying, sweaty and tired, on plumped white pillows, in their hospital bed. A woman can be like a man. Promiscuous, insatiable, in control. What a great achievement.

What a missed opportunity.

Women of my mother's generation could have held out for something far more meaningful. Sex, according to women, is far more enriching than the bankrupt notion men were pursuing.  

"Down with tradition! Ignore conventions!" women's groups cried. But in their enthusiasm to sweep away the flaws of pre-1960s womanhood, this wave of feminists failed to hold on to some of the good. Nurturing and caring, volunteering and mothering were sidelined. They were a distraction, after all, for the career woman. The feminine vision of a holistic relationship that wove tender emotions and animal urges into a satisfying whole was dropped. Instead, women adopted the most damaging male convention of all - sex as an exercise stripped of emotion.

It was as if they didn't have any problems with casual sex, or two-timing partners. As if they saw nothing wrong in breaking commitments, contracts, hearts. The management of fertility is one of the most important functions of adulthood, trumpeted Germaine Greer. Perhaps - but what about the management of a loving relationship, and true interdependence? That noble desire, unfulfilled for millennia, was suddenly relegated to the past. It was as if progress were impossible so long as women took seriously any aspect of their relationship with men. 

A shame. Women in that summer of 1960 could have rewritten sex forever. They could have had it on their terms, rather than on men's.

The pill gave women a bargaining tool they'd never had before. They were suddenly in charge of men's futures. With this one instrument they would determine whether the man they slept with could continue to enjoy a carefree existence unencumbered by children; whether he could still nurture his Dynastic aspirations; or would have to set aside his dream of setting up a family.

Challenges that affect us but which we can't express or resolve as children tend to nag away at us as adults. As chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts - with a mission to understand and enhance human capability - I find myself increasingly fascinated by questions of human freedom, its nature and its foundation.

Spend any time thinking about what makes us free and it soon becomes clear that, for those fortunate enough to have satisfied their immediate material needs, autonomy is about self-mastery. Reflection and discipline are required to manage the many frailties of every human's psychological make-up. In large part these frailties are the consequence of us being in possession of brains which evolved to survive in a world radically different to the one in which we now live.

At its simplest, freedom, or at least greater freedom, lies in distinguishing what we need to do from what we want to do and choosing the former. No one said it was easy; instilling such control represents an important part of much religious practice. It is even harder when we live in a consumer culture - the foundations of which were laid in the sixties - which seeks to persuade us that wants are virtues. How should I be free? It's a question it can take us half our lives to understand and the rest to begin to answer.

But in the sixties the answer was simple. Freedom was release from inhibition, from restriction, from oppression. Freedom was everything and all that was required for freedom was to cut the binds that hold. To be able to have a fulfilling emotional life we needed only to remove the social and legal constraints to choosing the relationships we wanted with the people we wanted. To have a life of domestic bliss women needed only to be liberated from the drudgery of housework by a vacuum cleaner, a washing machine and processed food.

For universities to be Athenian-style democracies and students to be the vanguard of a new social order we needed only to occupy the administration building and demand the overthrow of the bureaucracy. In radical politics, perhaps reflecting the influence of Marxist theory - an adamantine certainty about the need for change contrasted with a sublime vagueness about how things would actually operate after the revolution.

Simon Heffer's talk will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2045 BST on 1 September 2010, with those by Cristina Odone and Matthew Taylor broadcast on 8 and 15 September.

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