Things do only get better


Like many people, I have found the TV programme Grumpy Old Men addictive viewing. The sight of wealthy, middle-aged British men like Rick Wakeman and John Peel feeling sorry for themselves, often with impressive eloquence, is an astonishing sight.

Yet the extent to which we laugh at, and not with, these cosseted misanthropes, may surprise them. Secretly we despise them. Their parents and grandparents tolerated unsafe working conditions, outside lavs and exploding ordnance with a cheery grin and a cigarette. By contrast, these comparatively rich individuals have the temerity to moan about coffee bars because, although the product is excellent, they find corporate logos a bit naff.

They complain that young women are too attractive, that not all television programmes appeal, and that sometimes they have to do a bit of shopping. Their sole problem, of course, is that they have no problems. Each is an example of what we in the north call a complete wuss.

Partly there is a generational explanation. I am 10 to 15 years younger than the grumpy old men, having been born in the 1960s and experienced youth in the late 1970s. When the new Victor Meldrews were young adults the economy was booming, the war was over and they were sold a vision of ever-rising peace, democracy and technological wizardry.

They had reasons to feel hopeful. We did not. Half a generation later, we entered our late teens with rampant inflation and unemployment, street violence, terrorism and the spectre of nuclear war.

They had JFK, John Lennon and George Best. We had Ronald Reagan, Sid Vicious and football hooligans. They had Concorde, we had the Sinclair C5. They had the summer of love, we had the winter of discontent. I could go on.

The plus side of this for my generation is that life has always had little chance of being worse than we expected.

It is all a question of expectations. The grumpy old men thought things could only get better. We felt things would only get worse. I remember reaching the mid 1980s and feeling genuinely amazed that economic growth had returned and nuclear war had not broken out.

George Orwell once commented that it is a fixed aspect of the human condition to refer to a Utopia, whether it is a mythical Golden Age of the past, an expectation of a perfect tomorrow, or a belief in Heaven. The grumpy old men seemed to have fallen for the first two of these three. They have the strong belief that things were wonderful in the 1950s (an odd notion – I wasn’t alive, but I’ve seen Cecil B de Mille movies) and that the Blair Government should have abolished poverty and reconciled all the nations of the earth. They set themselves up for disappointment.

For the punk generation, like myself, our expectations started at zero, so there is endless scope for pleasant surprises. There is almost no aspect of life in Britain that is not better than when I was a teenager. There is less poverty, racism and extremism. Inflation, unemployment and interest rates are lower. The IRA seem to have stopped killing people.

Our cities have been transformed from a collection of assorted bomb sites with meths drinkers into engaging metropolises filled with offices, shops and restaurants and beautifully architectured riversides. You can find any lyrics and guitar chords of any song within a few seconds on the internet.

Even the supposed ‘crises’, like gridlocked transport and high levels of immigration, are actually symptoms of success. You wouldn’t want the opposite.

It is odd. As life becomes more benign, so the language to describe it becomes more negative. Take employment: work is far more plentiful than 20 years ago, and while it may be demanding, it is generally more interesting. Yet even respectable management journals start talking hysterically about the ‘epidemic’ of work-related stress, and unions bang on about the ‘work till you drop’ culture.

My great-grandmother, whose husband was killed in an industrial accident in the days before compensation payments, raised a young family without an income, without the NHS, Tax Credits or council housing. Now, she could give us all a lesson in handling stress; but it is something of which most of us have no experience.

Perhaps the lesson is not to be an optimist; but a tactical pessimist. Things do generally get better – but only if you’re not expecting them to. The grumpy old men should learn to plan for the worst.


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