The “Janet and John”1 nuclear family of the post-war years was quickly overtaken by those who were born in the Great War2, schooled during the slump, conscripted in the Second World War, and rationed for years afterwards. They would not willingly forego the security and comforts now within their grasp, in the hope of some future long-term economic growth.
Children born in the years immediately after World War II grew up free from civil unrest, hunger or the extreme deprivation expressed in the rest of Europe. They benefited from the wonders of the free National Health Service; few of them died in infancy and, as a result of the Clean Air Act of 1956, even fewer developed the bronchial conditions that had killed many children only a generation before. They were better clothed, were heavier, taller and reached puberty earlier. Their mothers understood all about keeping regular bedtime hours for their children, routine eating hours and keeping their child’s bowel movements regular. After the disruption that the War had caused to family life, marital relationships settled down and were remarkably stable for more than a decade. People married ever younger: in 1931 only a quarter of the twenty to twenty-four age group were married, but in 1951 it was very nearly half. Only one mother in five went out to work, which tended to mean that the relationship between parents and children was probably stronger than it had ever been3.
This was still a “make and mend society”4. Not only was money short, so were materials, and boys learnt from their fathers how to repair boots, change washers on a tap and, as they grew older, how to maintain the engine of what was probably a very ageing family car. An article in 1948 suggested that, amongst other things, school leavers should know “how to skin a rabbit, to clear a blocked-up drain, and how to detect ordinary tricks of crooked thinking”5. In the same year the Empire Windrush brought the first five hundred Jamaicans and their music to England6. In the days before children were cautioned not to talk to strangers, children were free to roam. Their parents, if they ever stopped to think about it, wanted their children to grow up street wise. Shirley Williams, who grew up exploring a countryside “that was a land of hidden places, of hedges and secret gardens behind wooden doors” records how she occasionally came across men who exposed themselves, “though”, she said, “I could never understand why they imagined that silly penises were attractive”7.
In comparison to today’s youngsters children in the 1940s were lucky; today we are so afraid of our children having to face such problems that we keep them tightly under adult control. In 1957 fifty percent of English people rated themselves “very happy”, whereas now, half a century later and with all the material comforts with which we now surround ourselves, that figure has fallen to 33%8. In the world before television became the ubiquitous form of evening entertainment ─ there were only a million sets in 1953 ─ families really did play endless board and card games together. They also read a lot. As the economy improved so many a child found a job at a market stall on a Saturday, delivered newspapers, cleaned cars or ran errands. Not until the 1950s did most parents think in terms of giving their children pocket money. More people took holidays; farmhouse holidays in particular were popular, and seaside resorts experienced boom conditions. People often borrowed each other’s cars to get away from home. In real terms wages improved by 20% to nearly eight hundred pounds a year. It was a golden age for the family. We are now told that the average level of tension felt by today’s adolescence would have them placed in a psychiatric clinic in 1957. Whatever has gone wrong for children has gone wrong outside school, not inside9.
Britain was driving its economy as hard as it could in the 1950s. “Let’s be frank about it”, mused Harold MacMillan, the Prime Minister, “most of our people have never had it so good”10. But he then said, “What is worrying some of us is “Is it too good to be true, or perhaps I should say is it too good to last?” Perhaps a better question might have been, “Is this actually what England needs?” As the domestic economy became stronger, fewer and fewer young people had personal knowledge of a life that had necessitated thrift, carefulness and delayed gratification, so youngsters became ever more individualistic. It was a whole new youth culture that had lost interest in established religion, politics, or conventional morality. It was more than ready for the sexual licence that followed from the widespread availability of the contraception pill in the early 1960s, and from the Feminist Movement that was released by Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique”11 in 1963.
This was the world of “teenagers” whose distinctive behaviour was essentially economic: they spent money on clothes, records, concerts, make-up, magazines; all things that gave immediate pleasure but little lasting use”. An older generation looked on with a combination of horror and some envy. Maybe the difficulty was not with the young, but with their elders. “If young people tend to be dishonest it is because many of them have had a rotten example from their parents. If they are lazy, it is because older people have taught them the art of doing five hour’s work for eight hour’s pay. If they grow up with an irreverence for sex it is because they have heard sex dirtied and degraded by the conversations of their elders”12, stated a Halifax church newsletter in 1958.
No longer could the school assume that its authority came from acting “in loco parentis”, for very many parents had far less confidence in what they thought they should do for their children, than had their own parents a mere twenty years before. Thesis 64: 24th August 2006