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The Garden of Earthly Delights - Detail from the painting by Hieronymous Bosch
Last updated February 2016

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Dominic Fox discusses the impact of social changes on people from the Greatest Generation to the new Generation Z

500 years ago in 1516, Thomas More published ‘a splendid little book, as entertaining as it is instructive’. It is presented as a traveller’s tale, told to More by a returning seafarer, about a fantasy island called Utopia, a prosperous republic without kings or aristocrats, where divorce is allowed, priests are free to marry, women can take holy orders and freedom of religion and atheism was permitted.

There is no money or private property on Utopia, housing is nationalised and agriculture is collectivised. There is no unemployment. Medicine and education are free at the point of use. More rails against the rich, who corner markets and create monopolies, and noblemen who live off the labour of their tenants, bleeding them white by constantly raising rents.

Another anniversary reflects the other side of the coin, a dystopia, literally a "not-good place". 1516 saw the death of the artist Hieronymus Bosch. He painted nightmarish fantasies populated by supernatural beings that nibble giant strawberries and cavort inside transparent spheres, naked as new-borns. Towers as pink and moist as bodily organs rise above the nude revellers, as they ride unicorns and camels bareback, swim with mermaids or crawl inside an egg.

What would Thomas and Hieronymus have made of our world?

The landscape now would be overflown by military planes dropping barrel and cluster bombs twisting bodies into grotesque shapes. Long lines of haggard and sick people would stretch into the distance. Cities of gold and silver would glister tantalising in the north and west beyond which lie wild seas and vast barren deserts.

Giant insect-like creatures would rule the earth spreading dreadful plagues against which humankind would have no defence. Children born with deformities, their parents succumbing to creeping paralysis. All about, pestilence, hunger, death and war.

But hang on. Wasn’t the end of the war to end all wars supposed to have abolished this sort of thing? Did William Beveridge strive in vain to abolish want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness?

I have a horrible feeling it is all my fault. Me and the generation now called the baby boomers, or those born between 1946 and 1964. This includes people who are between 51 and 70 years old in 2016. We predominate in being the group most likely to own homes, have better pensions and enjoyed long periods of full employment.

Growing up in the 1960s we experienced the “generation gap” mostly manifested in your Dad shouting “get yer hair cut!” when Top of the Pops came on. Parents were of “the Greatest Generation”, those who grew up during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II. I and my contemporaries lived in the shadow of these people, a generation that gave everything to build a better world for their children.

The generation gap is back. At the heart of this is the rapidly disappearing expectation that the next generation will be materially better off than us. That now seems in reverse, possibly forever. We seem to have created a world where any tangible signs of economic recovery are not being equally shared.

A stark contrast is being seen between the fortunes of different generations with pensioners benefiting from the triple lock where state pension payments are guaranteed to rise in line with whichever is the highest of earnings, inflation or a minimum of 2.5%. Since 2008 the average retired household income has grown by almost a third, outstripping inflation by 14.3%, according to calculations by insurer Canada Life. By contrast, working households have seen their incomes fall by 4.4% in real terms.

Among those that follow the baby boomers are an estimated 41 million members of Generation X who came of age between 1988-1994. Sometimes referred to as the “lost” generation, this was the first generation of “latchkey” kids, exposed to lots of day-care and divorce. Known as the generation with the lowest voting participation rate of any generation, Gen Xers were quoted by Newsweek as “the generation that dropped out without ever turning on the news or tuning in to the social issues around them.”

Apart from their dreadful taste in music, and high levels of scepticism, Gen Xers are arguably the best educated generation with 29% obtaining a bachelor’s degree or higher (6% higher than the previous cohort).

Then came the famed “Millennials”, the largest cohort since the baby boomers. They are known to be technology wise, which turned out handy for the baby boomers who struggled with the rapid pace of new and highly complex technological developments. It means someone in the house knows how to use the TV remote controls.

If any members of the new kids on the block, Generation Z (born 1995-2012), are reading this I salute you. You have the honour of fulfilling all the other readers’ expectations. Good luck with that. While we don’t know much about Gen Z yet, we can see what sort of environment they are growing up in. It culturally and ethnically highly diverse. Higher levels of technology will make many of the accepted norms redundant.

How the brave new world will look is uncertain and this is reflected in how the world order is attempting to rearrange itself. The political landscape is shifting, with new ideas emerging and new philosophies developing and a lot of old soft-soap being skilfully repackaged.

I like to think I can spot the likes of the current crop of political hopefuls in the Bosch masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights. Surely Donald Trump could rest here on his way to hell and share a giant succulent raspberry with his new sparring partner Pope Francis.

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