On the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as President, I was in London for a memorial service at St Margaret’s. I was glad to be in that orderly setting, surrounded by solemn words and majestic music, celebrating the life of a distinguished statesman and beloved friend. It seemed appropriate to be in the company of his colleagues, including a former Prime Minister and many former Ministers, a generation that had once presided over the land, but was now on power’s grassy edge.
Not that the members of the congregation looked old. Our friend had died all too young. At 71, he had been vigorous almost to the end and, despite a cancer that had roamed his body for 12 years, he still had a dozen pro-jects on the go, a twinkle in his eye and a curiosity about the lives of his friends that made him seem forever youthful. But looking around the light and airy parish church of Westminster, I thought of what Kennedy said so memorably on that clear, freezing January day half a century ago: ‘The torch has passed to a new generation.’ My heart was filled with a sense of rightness.
Torches need to be passed. We do it with extreme reluctance. As friends were celebrating Miriam O’Reilly’s successful high-kick at the BBC last week, I kept chewing over another side of that coin. Of course, it was a triumph for Miss O’Reilly to take the BBC to task for their graceless dismissal of her, and, as every greeting card proclaims, 50 is the new 40, and 40 is the new adolescence, but, sooner or later, we have to admit that there is a problem here.
Call it the conundrum of our age. The Age of the Baby-Boom Generation. Those of us who were born between 1946 and 1964 occupy more space than any generation ever has. And for a lot of reasons-ego, financial uncer-tainty, a yearning to stay young, a determination not to be old-we are clinging to whatever torch we’ve managed to grab in life.
At times, this stamina of le troisième âge feels like a sign of a civilised society. It’s not worth thinking about what world we’d be living in if Churchill hadn’t become Prime Minister at 66 and still fighting, if not exactly fit, when, still in office, he turned 70. When Chesley Sullenberger landed a passenger jet on the Hudson River on a freezing January day two years ago, the baby boomers of the world cele-brated that the pilot, aged 57, was able to bring a lifetime’s experience to a safe landing. Ask me who I want to fly my plane/unclog my husband’s heart/design my bridge over troubled waters, and I’ll go for the man or woman with experience.
But, and here’s the rub, how does the pilot/surgeon/engineer not to mention the editor/broadcaster/columnist (gulp)-get the experience if he can’t penetrate the bottleneck of baby boomers clinging to the torch? You could say that voters have been nudging at the torch. Two weeks after Mr Sullenberger landed on the river, he attended the inauguration of the young President who had leap-frogged over a generation of politicians-in-waiting.
In Britain, our new Prime Minister and his Deputy are post-baby boomers saddled with problems they inherited from über baby boomers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who governed for a decade as if they were trust-fund babies and the country was their Woodstock.
The title of a new novel about our generation resonates: We Had It So Good. We got university degrees and good jobs, lived in flats at low rents until we bought the houses that made us rich. And now we are the beneficiaries of legislation that says ‘no forced retirement’. If we don’t want to budge, nobody can make us.
I was 13 when Kennedy became President. Looking back on that day, the world seemed young. If we want to feel the wind blowing in our hair like that again, we’ve got to step aside. We may not like the idea, but (write it) we’ve got to pass the torch.