The middle-aged in Britain at present complain about the lack of respect for authority and the lack of consideration for others. The middle-aged have always done this. In 423 B.C. Aristophanes in Greece was putting on comedies which showed how young people were questioning the authority of their parents. In one of his plays a young man beats up his father on the stage, to show his independence, and then he says, “And just to be fair, now I am going to beat up mother.” That is more extreme than anything which has been shown on the ‘theatre of cruelty’ these days. Aristophanes wrote it to show the corruption of morals which was being caused by the teachings of Socrates (of all people!). Socrates was shown on the stage, and is his methods of instruction were parodied there. He himself was in the audience one night, and during the interval stood up “so that people can compare the original with the stage role.” In this he showed his humour and his courage—not long afterwards he was condemned to death for impiety and corruption of morals.
In the novels of the 1920’s, society is still complaining that children are abandoning all moral principles. In Point Counter-point of Aldous Huxley, one of the young people remarks that the ‘generation gap’ of misunderstanding is now complete. She is asked, “Do you think your children will misunderstand you?” She says, “How could they, when the bottom has been knocked out of everything?” (This means complete disillusionment.) The other character says, “Perhaps your children will put the bottom back in again . . . .” She says, “Oh, I never thought of that.”
Well, today in Britain, after the usual complaints about the Permissive Society (which means that sexual freedom is not now concealed like it used to be under a thin cover of respectability), there is a big movement among young people to put the bottom back in again.
As an example, take a young people’s organization in London called ‘Task Force’. It was set up in 1964, and comprised a body of young volunteers, many of school age, who devoted much of their free time to helping the sick and the elderly. It was founded by an idealistic young law student named Anthony Steen, who first took a group of youngsters from a poor district of East London to visit some of the old people living in the surrounding streets. His principal aim was to help the old, many of them lonely, living by themselves.
Within a year he had over a hundred active volunteers. But he needed money if the scheme was ever going to develop. So he approached the Government, hoping that they would give the lead in a nation-wide movement which he felt would have a big appeal for youth. The Government agreed. Money was provided, and enthusiasm for the project soared. After seven s years, Task Force had 8,000 young volunteers and a full-time staff of 46 qualified social workers. Together they assist on a friendly and informal basis a large number of elderly and handicapped people all over London, calling on them and talking with them in their homes.
They help in a lot of practical ways, but it seems that the main thing is just visiting and talking—providing the essential outside human contact which everyone, most of all old people, desperately needs. There is are tasks which old people cannot always do for themselves: shopping, moving furniture in the house, taking clothes to the laundry, looking after the garden, doing minor house repairs.
In most cases the activities of these young volunteers are carried out at the request of the local welfare services who turn to the Task Force local office with appeals for help—sending someone to push a wheelchair invalid, escorting an old lady to visit a friend in hospital, collecting children from school while a mother is ill, looking after mentally handicapped children during the school holidays.
Operating this kind of community service hasn’t always been easy. Task Force runs up against a fair amount of criticism; for instance, some local authorities in the London area have thought the very idea of it implies criticism of their own welfare departments. Some of these local authorities felt that young people s are unreliable and that old people would not welcome them.
And it is just here that the generation gap is showing itself, but in reverse. In previous generations young people have shown very little interest in personal service; often their idealism has been directed towards changing ‘the system’. But now they want to give personal service—and I believe that many of the older generation like myself feel a bit guilty before this enthusiasm which we never felt. So we try to show that is it is ineffective.
The evidence however shows that older lonely people very much welcome the young visitors—“perhaps they are not so efficient, but they are coming to see us because they want to come; we know they are not paid anything, and that they are really interested in us.”
I asked one schoolboy who spent two evenings a week looking after an old man, “Why do you do this?” He said, “I just felt sorry for him at first, but now we’ve got to know each other and I enjoy going round there. He’s so pleased to see me. He’s very old but he won’t go into an old people’s official Home; and he
doesn’t trust any of the officials who come to see him. He won’t answer their letters, and he can’t find things. But he trusts me, and sometimes when a paper has to be found I bring the pile of them and we go through them together, looking for it. I felt I wanted to do something for other people, and now I feel I am doing it. The other things which I do are for myself, but this I’m doing for him.”
This impressed me very much, and I felt rather guilty at the lack of practical service which my generation gave. We would never have done such things even in a dream, except perhaps for some old relative. We were always talking about changing the political set-up, and believed if only ‘the system’ could be is changed, everyone could be happy. I remember now the words of Chekhov, “I can’t bear to hear children crying; but it often turns out that my own children have been crying but somehow I didn’t notice them.” My generation was tremendously concerned with the welfare of society in the abstract, but it never occurred to many of us to give some personal service to make it better.
Many of these young people today only do this social service for about a year—then they leave it. But others continue. And my feeling is that as these people grow up and get their votes, candidates from among them are going to come forward, who will be elected.
Then we may very well see a quite new spirit in Parliament, What form that will take one cannot know, but I imagine that the spirit of the Welfare State, which consists the idea in that all will be well if one pays for officials to look after the handicapped and poor, will be markedly changed.
The ‘Beatles’ generation was strongly criticized by its elders for being simply permissive and destructive—and there was obviously some truth in that. Today, however, the merely anarchistic view that “if there is something evil, destroy it” is losing to the counter-argument— “If you have a painful arm, you don’t chop it off; you try to understand it and slowly bring it to health.”
However, this new generation, with its emphasis on personal responsibility and service, is viewed by the older generation with more nervousness. Of course we applaud them, but we feel a deep sense of guilt, much more than we felt when the anarchist Beatles-type accusations were made. The anarchists and extreme left-wingers at that time attacked the system but it was obvious that the system was not working too badly. There were some bad spots, but clearly as a whole people were well off, including the young anarchist students.
Now it is different—fewer accusations are made against the system; many young people have no interest in public speeches or movements or agitations or protest meetings. They are just getting on with their ideas of service to the neglected members of the community, and service to the amenities, such as cleaning dirty and polluted canals and lakes. They only get restive when their elders try to stop them. And conversely that makes the older people feel much more guilty. The accusation is a silent one.
I am amazed at the mixture of idealism and extremely practical realism shown by some of these young people. The schoolboy, whom I mentioned earlier as a member of Task Force, refused to go on to university when he left school. Instead, he qualified as a Chartered Accountant. This took six years of hard work; the final examination is most difficult and only 15 % pass each year.
A Chartered Accountant can make money easily in a big company, but he refuses to do that. He wants first to see something of the world (he is now studying Japanese kanji, with a view to a year in Japan), and then intends to become an accountant-administrator in some institution like Task Force. He says they are mostly run by idealists who do not understand financial affairs, and he intends to use his expertise to help run one of them efficiently. The salary will be lower than he could get in the business world, but he will be some use to the world, as he says.
These are standards quite different from those in vogue when I was young, and I find them impressive. In many circumstances the difference in outlook appears. When I heard a rumour that there would be a shortage of bread, I was proposing to buy a number of extra loaves. But this boy, who was with me at the time, said, “You shouldn’t do that. The Government says that if we don’t buy in panic, there will be no shortage. To buy extra now is short-sighted. It’s like throwing your rubbish away into a lake; it’s convenient in the short term, but in the long term it’s damaging for the whole community.” I bought one loaf.
No one knows what the future will bring in the spirit of the people. This new movement may fade out, but—as a wild guess—I would not be surprised to see a new seriousness, perhaps a new Puritanism, springing up. It will not be political, but it will be individual and moral, with a sense of responsibility not to a narrow circle like the family or one’s group, but to the widest circle. Puritanical young people can be fairly ruthless with what they regard as meaningless, and I can’t say that, as one of the older generation, I would look forward to a new Puritanism as regards its effect on our personal lives. However, it will bring a new life; and I think one can already see the first shoots of that new life coming up in the post-Beatles generation.
© Trevor Leggett 1976