As I write, Greece is experiencing a dramatic confrontation between the governing classes – imposed by the EU, rather than elected democratically – and those who are presently suffering the economic consequences of several decades worth of mismanagement. Most strikingly, this is an exchange as reported in the Guardian newspaper: “Six inches from the riot policeman's shield outside the Greek parliament last Friday, a tall, pale boy was shouting at a man who could have been his uncle: "It's your generation that brought us to this point, but it's mine that has to pay for it. You have to take responsibility for what's happening here."”
Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. How have we ended up with such a crisis in the European Union – supposed vanguard of all that is most modern – that is running such a risk of turning into generational conflict? For that is what is at stake. In order to keep the economy functioning – or, at least, to maintain the pretence that the economy can continue to function in the way that it has done – the young and the poor are being bled dry in order to maintain the appearance of good order and financial management, to stop people looking behind the curtain. Sadly, there is only a certain amount of illusion that can be maintained in the face of abject misery and suffering – which is what is happening in Greece at the moment, and may well be coming to a street closer to home sometime soon.
One of the ways in which this will gain a painfully clear focus is through pensions, and this is where generational conflict is likely to rear its head. The financial crisis is, to put it brutally simply, a result of an imbalance between claims to wealth and actual wealth. That is, the banks and other asset-holders have a certain amount of genuine wealth – shares in companies, ownership of land and other valuables like gold and so on. The claims to that wealth are vastly greater – that is, there are a very large number of IOUs being passed around, keeping up the illusion of how much wealth we have. It is essentially like a game of musical chairs, except that whereas, in the game, only one chair gets removed at a time, when the music stops for our financial affairs, most people will be left without a chair. Wealth that isn't directly tied to an asset directly – eg the deeds to a property – is highly likely to simply melt away, in the way that those who have held Euro-denominated Greek government bonds are finding their wealth melting away. This applies, most of all, to pensions.
When this happens – and it probably won't happen all at once; there will simply be a steady progression of pension funds finding that they are unable to meet their commitments – those who are reliant on such paper will find that they have to fall back on much more old-fashioned sources of wealth – such as family ties. Yet this is where the whirlwind is really likely to cause havoc. For what sort of family structure has been left behind by those who wish to be drawing their pensions? Let us remember that these are the generations who pushed through 'no fault' divorce, leaving misery in the lives of their abandoned children as they pursued the gratification of their own needs and desires. Of many possible exemplars, let's take Bill Clinton as the type – someone who was for a time 'the most powerful man in the world' who was incapable of exercising power over his own passions.
Now obviously this is a vast generalisation – this is an opinion column, the natural home of vast generalisations – and it doesn't apply to every boomer, nor even to a majority of boomers – but there does seem to be a prominent generational characteristic to the boomers of 'live now, pay later'. Well, we have now arrived at 'later' and the trouble is that it is the next generation along that is going to have to pay the bills. Or, to change the metaphor, we have now reached the morning after, and it is the children who are having to clear up after the wild party of the night before. The great political negotiation of the next ten to fifteen years will be how far those who are presently working will be prepared to pay higher tax rates to cover the costs of failed pension schemes. My suspicion is that the answer to that question is 'not very far'.
What I believe that we shall see is a political movement centred upon the restoration of classical virtues and traditional morality. After all, those are the only tools that we will have to cope with the immense poverty bearing down upon us. We will only be able to make it through if we return to the values of economy and thrift. Other nations in the world can already see the extent of the transition that we will have to go through; it's only the make-believe of our governing classes that stops us grasping the truth. Mahathir Mohammed, the former leader of Malaysia, commented in a BBC interview recently: "Europe... has lost a lot of money and therefore you must be poor now relative to the past. And in Asia we live within our means. So when we are poor, we live as poor people. I think that is a lesson that Europe can learn from Asia."
We are going to have to live as poor people – which means much greater reliance on the extended family and the local community. This is not an unattractive vision – after all, the happiest places in the world, such as the Philippines, have exactly this pattern of life, and there is no reason why we, too, couldn't be (relatively) poor but happy. But it is not what our culture has supported for many years, and there is a bill to be paid for the destruction of family life. Who gets to pay that bill will, as I say, be one of the principal political issues of the next several years.
* For those who are unfamiliar with the marvellous Monty Python film 'Life of Brian', my title is an allusion to a particular scene in that movie – my point being that, of course, boomers have done lots 'for us'.