Regeneration: Lawrence and Wishart, ed. Clare Coatman and Guy Shrubsole, 2012, £12.99 / free e-book
Last night I headed to the launch of the new collection of essays on intergenerational justice, Regeneration. As I squeezed into the Foyles Gallery - an impressive turnout for a Thursday night book launch - I couldn't help guessing the average age of the audience. Mostly late 20s to early 30s (my own age group), a few silver whiskers in the mix, one lone 12-year-old looking strikingly stern. The book defines young people as those born after 1979, so were the majority here Thatcher's children, or our elders that have helped bequeath us a ravaged environment, a crippled and volatile economy, and a hollowed-out democracy with scant strength to resist the sustained assault on our public institutions and civil society?
This urge of mine to categorise reveals the issue with the book that arose repeatedly as Evan Davis probed the panel of contributors and fielded questions from the floor. Does the intergenerational framework create false exclusions and polarise debate? Does it belong to the jealousy narrative into which all struggles for social justice are fed in order to prepare them for easy dismissal?
No, said the panelists, this was emphatically not baby-boomer bashing. Nor was it 'a whinge of epic proportions', as Shiv Malik, co-founder of the new Intergenerational Foundation that sponsored the book, said it must not be in his preface. While there is no fixed consensus between the thirty-plus contributors, co-editor Clare Coatman outlined the book's concerns as "not just about sorting things out for ourselves", but finding a way to live that is sustainable "both for our own and future generations". Green activist and writer Adam Ramsay took this point further: while the generational framework was "not useful as an identity politics", it is the younger generation that must "re-appraise the old models" and seek alternatives, and it is useful that we discover a voice and a purpose together.
Deborah Grayson, who wrote the book's conclusion, completed the four-strong panel, all of whom seemed more comfortable once the managed discussion had ended, and these old models could be questioned and new ones explored in open discussion with the floor. What is the psychological impact of trading security for choice? Can we escape Adam Smith's formulation, that we all desire 'trinkets and baubels', in a world where the store has run dry? How could an intergenerational justice movement mobilise the working class? Is the generational prism meaningless given the radical transformations in the political economy over the last century? Does giving to the younger generation necessarily mean taking from the older?
Davis began to look the teeniest bit out of his depth, faced with directing such depth and diversity of debate. He had opened the evening with an 'admission' that he was 'still making his mind up' about the book: One drink and I'm unconvinced by the framework; two, when I get that warm fuzzy feeling, I begin thinking it's a landmark work; drunk and all I hear is that old moan, 'the world was so much better back then'. By the end of the evening these terms had been comprehensively exploded. There was nothing 'warm and fuzzy' about the discussion, nor is there about the book that provoked it. No occasion for an indulging smile: how driven, well-educated, international, networked and eloquent are the young people of today! At the heart of the book is a call for a new kind of politics: one that rejects the self-serving, careerist, closed logic of our parties and parliamentarians, and asks a simple, brave question: what kind of society would we like to live in, and how do we secure this for future generations? The average age of those in the room was, I judged, around 33. But this is a book that should be read by all ages, whether or not they are the children of Thatcher.