It is hardly surprising that David Cameron was out and about yesterday boasting of another sharp decline in crime levels. I won’t blame him for claiming credit, any prime minister would do the same, but there is little evidence that political policies have had much effect. Similar trends can be seen in most Western countries and show little regard to the ideology of the government of the day.
Criminologists continue to ponder the decline, although the smarter ones consider not the fall in crime alone, but the rise and fall in crime – a dramatic spike that probably began sometime around 1960 and suddenly went into reverse in the mid-nineties.
A less-well publicised but no less important statistic came to light recently. The fastest growing section of the UK prison population is the over sixties. They are still a small proportion of the whole, of course, but as rates of youth offending continue to decline, grey offending is on the rise. This points to a stark and rarely-stated truth. The baby boomers, those born between the end of the second world war and around 1964, were the most criminal generation of the twentieth century.
The typical cultural portrayal of baby-boomers has been bleached and sanitised. They were the political radicals, the peace-loving hippies, the architects of women’s liberation and the revolutionary soixante-huitards. They were the Thatcherite yuppies who snaffled up the wealth, launched house prices into the stratosphere, took advantage of free education and a welfare state then pulled up the ladder behind them. This painfully elitist, classist, racially exclusive narrative ignores the bigger truth that most baby-boomers were born into abject poverty and austerity, and many never really escaped it.
Those who write history tend to smile indulgently on their own, so posterity recalls the middle-class pot-smoking hippies of the late sixties and seventies who fought with police outside the US Embassy rather more fondly than their beer-drinking, working class contemporaries who fought police on the picket lines, or each other on the terraces. They may have been miles apart in wealth and status, but they were all forged in the furnace of the baby boom.
Woody Guthrie famously sang that ‘some rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.’ Throughout the 1980s and early 90s, it was largely baby boomers who were getting rich on the social disembowelling of our inner cities and industrial heartlands, and other baby boomers who were filling those voids with heroin and crack cocaine. What happened to the crime figures in the mid-nineties? The last of the baby boomers finally grew up.
There are of course many people, mostly now aged between about 50 and 75, who claim crime has actually come down because of better prevention and detection technology; because of higher incarceration rates or even a reduction in environmental lead pollution. (The Economist has a great rundown of the theories] To which I say, well, they would say that wouldn’t they? Anything is better than admitting they belong to a generation of crooks, thieves and thugs.
To be charitable for a moment, I will admit that, as with most social science and statistics, it is all a bit more complicated than that. Nonetheless there is a pertinent truth beneath my provocations. If we ask ourselves what it was about the post-war decades that might have incubated a rise in destructive and anti-social behaviour there would be no shortage of answers.
I recently crawled through the volume of David Kynaston’s remarkable social history series covering Austerity Britain 1945-51. I’ll admit I was really looking for cheap rhetorical analogies to apply to current debates, but I quickly abandoned that plan. The sheer desperation of the hardship and poverty of those rationed years would have made any comparison offensive. It was a tough, tough time to be a child. Add to that huge numbers of children raised in families bereaved of so many fathers, brothers and sons, or with parents emotionally scarred by the terror and trauma of active service or bombed cities.
Then there was the promise of the affluent society, driven by a desire to create a land fit for heroes. It is not hard to imagine that the generation growing into adulthood through that time assimilated a dangerous combination of stressful socialisation and rampant entitlement.
There are lessons to be learned from the crimes of the baby boomers. If we want to understand why people hurt each other, harm each other, damage each other on our streets, in our homes, in our boardrooms. In the meantime, we can take comfort in knowing that the generation responsible for the selfish individualism and crime boom of the late twentieth century is gradually passing into retirement. Goodbye Baby boomers. You won’t be missed.