Luxury has a price we all must pay

25th August 2006 at 01:00
It was when the cold, fine, liquid mist descended from hidden water pipes in the ceiling of the open-air poolside restaurant to keep the diners cool that the unreality of the holidays we baby-boomers inhabit became clear.

The setting was Majorca, in a country club, and the occasion was an interlude in a hot and humid holiday.

This was not the only piece of unreality. At another hotel, exotic frozen fruit was brought to guests by the pool, in case they were too hot. Across the island, Majorca's "trading up" policy has created opportunities for luxury lifestyles.

In theory, this should make those of us in the educational baby-boomer generation happy. We are headteachers, heads of departments, advisers and teachers, and when we graduated from one of the new universities in the 1970s, we assumed that our lives would be ones of severe financial deprivation with intermittent spells of international travel, broken by menial work to earn the money to go off travelling again. We could not have expected the cool mist or the frozen fruit in our wildest dreams.

But our generation has grown to be comfortably off. It takes multiple foreign holidays, has second homes, can eat out as often as it eats in, and indulge in frequent bouts of retail therapy backed by its multiple plastic cards.

Yet overall it does not seem to be a totally happy generation. It has, in the United Kingdom, the highest divorce rate in the industrialised world.

It drinks. It seems sadly aware that the society it has created may have brought material satisfaction for itself, without a corresponding rise in human happiness.

Take holidays. Our former breaks were poor in terms of money but rich in terms of people and the experiences that they bring.

I remember covering three days on the Orient Express from Paris to Athens - not the train that is now a refuge for city yuppies but the old Orient Express where we went eight to a compartment in primitive conditions. Some of us had been ripped off by the shops around the station and had bought fruit so over-ripe that it had self-liquidised. Some of us had Brie and Camembert that had also seen better days. No matter, everyone pooled their food and everyone took from the pool what they needed.

At night, people spread out into the corridors and floors in their sleeping bags, lying wherever there was space. The most undesirable place was by the toilets, from which evil-smelling liquids emerged that pooled across the floor. No matter - everyone took their turn by the toilets.

We talked. How we talked. We were from Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, France and the United States, yet with broken English we communicated.

We traded on our backgrounds, told truths that we would never tell again, were honest about what we wanted, and all parted as friends.

The baby-boomer generation simply cared about people. At my university, the class of 1971 boycotted an examination: we walked out of the exam hall after 30 minutes, when it was permitted, because we were afraid that some among us were going to do badly.

But the paradox of our generation is that while we might have cared, we have created a society which clearly does not. Income inequalities are at Victorian levels. We have messed up the environment. Spivs and bimbos fill the TV channels, egged on by a gutter press which has no international equivalent. And apparently the majority of Americans believe not in scientific creationism but that God made the world, and woman from a man's spare rib.

We hyperventilate about a threat to 10 airliners carrying British people but are complicit in the deaths of more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians. Where did it all go wrong? Maybe the unprecedented rise in living standards made us baby-boomers go soft. Maybe we allowed ourselves to be bought. Maybe we were concerned with externals - the colour of our credit cards - rather than with the people we cared about before. Maybe - sadly - when the cold fine, liquid mist descends, it is desperately hard to want to change the situation that has made this possible.

David Reynolds is professor of education at Plymouth university and lives in south Wales

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