The 80s gave birth to a generation that wants it all and wants it all now. Could this be a side effect of Thatcher & Reagan's free market economics?
The term “Thatcher’s Children” generally refers to the generation of people who were born or who came of age during the reign of the feisty and resolute British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who held office from 1979–1990. A similar term can now be heard amongst social commentators in the US, who refer to their generation of Sony Playstation teenagers and celebrity-obsessed twenty-somethings born between 1980 and 1988, during the reign of then-President Ronald Reagan, as “Reagan’s children.”
The affection these two world leaders held for each other is unquestionable and possibly the closest and most sincere relationship between any US President and British Prime Minister. Thatcher once called Reagan “the second most important man in my life.” And he once called her “the best man in England.” Together they are credited with having defeated communism, reshaping the economic and moral landscape of the western world, and of spawning a generation that translates the global economic reforms of the 80’s into: “Get rich or die trying.”
The children of Thatcher and Reagan are the real testament of the Thatcher/Reagan legacy. They are not consumed by the preoccupations of an earlier generation: family, social justice, black power or even white power. The children of Thatcher and Reagan are consumed by the notion of consumption itself: conspicuous consumption and lots of it.
Once respectable vocations, such as teaching, nursing, and bank telling are now no-go zones for this want-it-all-and-want-it-now generation, who consider anyone in the service industry a “loser.” Today, they compete for the “cool,” “slick” careers of city traders, TV presenters, or investment bankers. Or, even more preferably, lives of fame and fortune as a pop, movie, or sports diva. Is it any wonder that British state schools are in the condition they are in, when so many teachers now view teaching as merely a short stop-over, similar to working in Woolworths or Tesco’s, before eventually following their desired career path or being inadvertently discovered on some reality TV programme? Today, so many teachers have “settled” for teaching that they have defaced the profession. So much so that the genuine teachers – and there are many – are no longer taken seriously and now have to struggle for the simple principle of respect and the budget to properly support their classroom needs.
The foundations of this self-serving delusion can be found in the individualism and free enterprise philosophy constructed in the 80s and epitimised through soaps like Dallas and Dynasty. However, in and of itself, free enterprise was not such a bad thing, for it inspired people to think beyond the limitations of class and race. No longer were the material trappings of elitism reserved for solely the upper classes, for this time period was home to ghetto superstars who would go on to show the world that materialism would also be the benchmark of one’s street cred.
Many working class children left factories to take up such deceptively sounding, commission-based positions such as pension, sales, investment or portfolio executives, selling new pensions and investment schemes which duped their working class brethren into investing into ill-fated plans. The most successful of these fast-talking, working class “Fagins” would eventually find themselves head-hunted to work in larger companies with grander ambitions. For these young people, Thatcher and Reagan’s world proved to be a real rags-to-riches dream come true. Coupled with the introduction of the “right to buy” your local government-owned accommodation and the working classes were soon transfixed with the notion of property ownership, accumulated wealth and climbing the “class” ladder. Blackpool and Margate lost favour, as Corfu and Costa Del Sol became the No.1 summer holiday destinations of Thatcher’s working classes with their newly found expendable incomes.
On the darker side of this reality, there existed a black hole: the destitute and dilapidated areas where the media rarely trod, unless to expose the details of some gruesome murder or to showcase the latest civil disturbances. Yet in these most neglected, dilapidated corners of the UK and the US, the philosophies of free market enterprise were also being enthusiastically embraced by the urban dwellers, many of whom had been forced to fend for themselves by Thatcher and Reagan’s policy of cutting social spending. Thus, the black market blossomed and yielded record bounties for black marketers; the city traders and professional class’s constant demand for cocaine from the inner city pariahs informed many of the underprivileged of the profitable theory of “supply and demand.” It was this trade in cocaine that would eventually ravage the inner cities and set ablaze a period of unprecedented violence as crack cocaine was created as a cheaper derivative for the lower classes. Nevertheless, it also created a new lifestyle and an urban elite which have left behind tales of rags-to-riches, that have inspired the criminal careers of many inner city youth who view this route as a shortcut to success. It is amidst this backdrop of nihilism and excess that the children of Thatcher and Reagan have been brought up.
Today, if you visit the bedroom of any young adolescent, whether it be on a run-down council estate or in the affluent suburbs, you will more than likely find the ubiquitous accessories of the generation: mobile phones, Sony Playstations, iPods, and the ever present pop/movie/sports star posters, all the trappings of the emerging consumer. Thatcher and Reagan’s children are a hybrid of free market enterprise and class and racial politics, yet they remain a homogeneous group, united by one sole aim which has been purified by ideological interbreeding: the ambition to accumulate, invest and spend capital in the shortest time possible.
Tacky programming such as MTV Cribs, where the viewer is taken on a tour of the extravagant home of some boastful pop diva, or Pimp My Ride, where a run-down vehicle from white middle-class America is given a Mack Daddy street makeover, is now touted as entertainment geared toward this generation. Big Brother or I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and the plethora of other reality TV programmes which saturate our airwaves serve to reveal much more about the pathology of their target audience than they do to provide entertainment. It is a generation that is narcissistically consumed by its own reflection.
Traditional values of religion, family, and community are now anachronisms, displaced relics of a forgotten time. Success is what matters now, or more importantly, being perceived as successful. Fashion is a number one preoccupation of the children; it enables them to maintain a façade of looking successful even if the opposite is true. The age-old fundamentals of mankind, “Food, Clothes, and Shelter,” are now prioritised as: “Shelter, Clothes, and Food.”
Status means everything to this generation: status which is determined by complex and varying trends such as the clothes one wears, the cars one drives, home ownership, the number of bedrooms in one’s home, and where one’s home is located. No longer is this generation contented with establishing roots in a modest family home, for the home is simply an investment which can be traded to climb the status ladder as soon as opportunity prevails. Of course, status and materialism have always been a part of our culture. One need only look at the extravagant architecture of Victorian homes or the excessive grandeur of the history of upper-class fashion in order to get a glimpse at what the world of materialism has brought us. Fifty years ago, wearing a suit was an unmistakable status symbol. Today, it's been replaced by wearing the season's hottest designer labels. Yesterday's television set is today's iPod. The wants and desires may change as technology advances, but the attributes of want and desire are the same. What the generation of Reagan and Thatcher achieved, however, was a totalitarian attitude towards materialism. Excess used to be a state reserved for the exceedingly wealthy, and, some might argue, the eccentric. Today, however, the values that used to seem so prevalent in the working and middles classes seem to have vanished. People live beyond their means without thinking twice. Today, American citizens are collectively in an estimated $3 trillion in credit card debt. A people who once prided themselves on “making an honest living” now owe their entire lives and everything that helps create the façade of their success to the collection agencies. The greed of excess has found its way into all aspects of Western life, even for those who cannot afford it. Youths who proudly claim to live “in the ghetto” return to that “ghetto” they describe only to settle down in front of their big screen TVs and play “shoot ‘em up” games on their Sony Playstations. Everything has become an illusion: an illusion whose thirst is quenched only by the means of instant gratification.
Tabloid front pages pander to the desires for excess by glorifying the decadent overspend of celebrities. Magazines such as OK and Hello showcase the extravagant purchases of the world’s rich and famous. Who spent how much on such and such. Who forked out X million for such an apartment in such a location. The price of this or that piece of diamond jewelry. Hip hop artists rap endlessly about their wealth and the status of the “gold digger” has been elevated more now than ever.
The parameters of class may truly be closing in, as the inner city elitists now compete almost pound for pound and dollar for dollar on the moneyed circuit. The nauseating tackiness of “bling`’ as it has become known (the wearing of platinum and diamonds within hip hop culture) is merely an urban parody of the diamond encrusted and platinum plated divas who straddle the red carpet and capture the world’s brief attention come every movie or music award. Whether it is the diamond encrusted teeth of some wannabe gangster or the diamond encrusted dog collar of some high society dame, Thatcher and Reagan’s children share the same delusions and preoccupations.
These illusionary lifestyles need bankrolling and the pressures to succeed or to be perceived as successful are enormous. The desire to consume short-circuits all sense of logic and morality and tempts people from all social corners to push the boundaries to feed their addiction. Whether it be the billion-dollar fraud of Enron or the one-ounce cocaine sale on a street corner, the motive remains the same. Nevertheless, like capitalism’s inevitable boom and bust cycle, the lifestyle of overindulgence and consumption for consumption's sake must surely face the same fate.
Whilst the legacies of both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan shall be hotly debated for decades to come, what is certain is that the world we presently live in has become indelibly influenced by the Free Market policies and the get-rich-quick mentality championed by this Anglo-American partnership.
It would be interesting to hear Baroness Thatcher’s opinions on society today; did she foresee this grotesque deformation of her vision when she once quipped, “…it is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake”?
1st June 2006