Before the likes of James Dean and Natalie Wood invented youth culture in the mid-1950s, young adults in the developed west generally considered themselves to be defective older adults. They dressed much the same and consciously attempted to appear middle-aged.
All that changed (and how) in the 20 years that followed. But the pendulum swung again from the yuppified 1980s, when young people became more conservative. I call in evidence the strait-laced Saffy, daughter of ageing ‘it girl’ Edina in the sitcom Absolutely Fabulous.
To me it seems clear the pendulum has now swung back. Today, I wonder whether the generation gap has ever been so wide – even in the professions.
How so? In the law, we know junior lawyers have become increasingly vocal – indeed militant – over recent years, on issues such as the glacial pace of diversity, bullying, toxic masculinity in the City and work-life balance. Regulation, too. Complaints that inexperienced lawyers who err should be accorded greater latitude where they are coerced into breaking the rules by the actions of their superiors have become louder.
One reason for all this is the inequitable distribution of rewards. NQs enter the profession loaded with debt. Maintenance grants are a historical relic and even the modest minimum salary is long gone. Secure training places are hard to come by, and the time-honoured path to partnership is not considered by everyone to be the gilded highway it once was.
The Boomers did not fulfil their side of the bargain, in short. Instead, they gratefully consumed the benefits of the post-war welfare state and pulled up the ladder.
In this vein, one news story to watch is the unlikely revolt of junior bankers at Goldman Sachs, itself an emblem of capitalism red in tooth and claw. Like the MeToo movement, I suspect we’re going to see more of this. I remember a partner at a top law firm telling me he had zero sympathy for ambitious young colleagues forced to work insane hours, as he had had to do so himself when a trainee. It was a rite of passage.
To me at least, that attitude now seems as passé as Jimmy Dean’s quiff.