Being born into the nineteen forties I carry a certain pride, probably because I am a product of the Second World War, where families struggled against the odds with working class values born from the war years, many families already deep in poverty. Life was filled with the days of rationing, grief and loss, whilst sons and young husbands were fighting for the future of freedom. My own family history could be presented in any reasonable historical novel, my maternal grandmother in service as a young house maid made pregnant at sixteen with the ‘master’ of the house which was the first step on a downward spiral of poverty for any girl with an illegitimate child. No such thing as social security or benefit, just something called ‘The Parish’ where rich folks condescended to give handouts to the poor.
Pre war families were resilient and unbeaten by adversity and because of that there was an insatiable drive to lift out of poverty and improve standards which we post war children inherited. We, of course are known as the baby boomer generation, growing up at a time of dramatic social change. We were the first in Western countries, to grow up with television and perhaps seen as rebelling against religion only to return later in life. My own early experience was of a scanty catholic school upbringing, where education came secondary to religion and the wrath of the church. I left school at fifteen, only realising what I lacked in education when it came to finding work. Many of us in those days were considered to be factory fodder and I suppose you could say we were lucky to be able to walk away from one rotten job in order to find another. My best friend was fortunate enough to have to choose between Comptometer operator training or shorthand and typing for which she would attend college. How I envied her. Girls from my background had limited choices in 1959. Sadly it was the factory for me until I discovered night classes at the local polytechnic a few years later. I think that for boys it was generally an apprenticeship, joinery, electrician, the construction industry or commercial. If you were lucky to do well in school you might be accepted into an indentured apprenticeship which meant a company insisted on parents signing an agreement pledging their son would attend work and college in order to complete the training. How many parents today could make that assurance I wonder? What happened to all those skilled trades? Indeed, what happened for us to lose those opportunities when at that time the UK was probably the leader in the Textile, mechanical and electrical engineering industry?
Working class children born pre and post war have seen massive changes, from living in small back street terraced houses with outside lavatories and a tin bath tub hanging on the back yard wall, brought in for the weekly family ablutions. Each member taking their turn, with the littlest child going first followed by the next oldest moving up the line, adults taking time later when they could ‘wash each others backs’ in private. This whole ritual happened by heating up a gas boiler to get enough hot water. There were the joys of getting dry, then snuggling into warm pyjamas in front of the fire, whilst listening to ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ on the radio. Of course the drawbacks were getting rid of the large tub of water and trying to dry up the condensation which ran down the scullery walls all of which went unnoticed by the kids.
In those days we knew no different than putting on a coat to go outside to the loo, using cut up newspaper for wiping our bottoms and taking a candle to protect against the spiders that lay in wait. Of course living conditions have vastly improved. I remember our family moving into a council house and wandering the empty rooms with wide eyes and open mouths at the sight of a white walled bathroom and inside loo, large windows letting in the sunlight, new kitchen units and hot and cold running water. We had our first television around 1956. It was a time when we children were seen and not heard and had to earn what little spending money we could. I remember getting a Saturday job at Woolworths when I was fourteen and hiding under the counter because I couldn’t add up. My first wage packet had to be handed over to my mother who gave me a pittance in spends in return.
Since the war we have born witness too numerous changes, one being ‘make peace not war’ with the onset of flower power and ban the bomb in 1960. Then in 1969 American Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon. It seemed unbelievable back then but now we are blasé about such things. A profound effect upon society was the onset of the computer coming into the home in the late 70’s early 80’s and in the early 90’s we could access the World Wide Web with its capacity to seek out information freely, with a gateway to knowledge that would have been difficult to find previously. We have made the transition from a telephone box at the end of the street to the digital age and the first mobiles. When I had my first computer surfing the net was something I thought happened at the seaside and email terrified me. At nineteen I had learned to type on a very old type writer with a Pitman’s, ‘Teach Yourself Shorthand and Typing’ manual, eventually branching out to a new typewriter followed by the magical word processor. Now it’s impossible to imagine my life without my lap top the internet and broadband.
I really want to say Ah! Progress, I really do salute you whilst acknowledging the wondrous strides within the last fifty years but in terms of unemployment how can we embrace progress when we now have over a million young people falling off the edge of education into the wasteland of benefits.