We risk raising a new generation of Holdens

Like most people I read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I cannot remember much about J. D. Salinger’s classic, but I certainly remember the tone of voice of the narrator, Holden Caulfield.

It is the voice of the modern teenager (a word that only entered popular vocabulary a few years before the book appeared in 1951). The tone is casual, cynical and, above all, filled with a loathing of the constrained, stuck-up “phoniness” of the older generation. And the older generation was suitably scandalised by the book, not least because of all the four-letter words — this is not Jane Austen.

It is the first great book about the generation gap (another new expression of the time). It was widely taught in schools but was also the most censored book in American school libraries. Those diverse reactions to it are emblems of the culture wars of the 1960s.

It was soon followed by other powerful examples of a deep cultural divide between the generations. The iconic combination of denim jeans and black leather jacket, together with cigarette and moody intensity, first appears with Marlon Brando in The Wild One in 1953. Then, of course, came rock’n’roll.

Attitudes to rock’n’roll enable us to trace the deep gap of mutual incomprehension and sometimes genuine hostility that opened up between the generations. The Pew Research Centre reports that in the 1960s 44 per cent of adults actively disliked rock’n’roll and only 4 per cent said that it was their favourite music. Now two thirds of adults listen to it and it is the most popular music form in America. The Beatles embody this — they are in the top four most popular musical performers for all age groups, including the over-65s.

Many other indicators show the generation gap healing. Parents spend more time with their children than they used to. One in ten parents of children aged 16 to 24 say that they have serious arguments with them, but one in five say that they had big rows with their own parents when they were the same age.

And young people themselves respect their parents’ values. The conventional wisdom that young people lack aspiration is wrong: most young people have mainstream aspirations. They want a decent job and to settle down and raise a family. Surveys of our most disengaged young people, the Neets (not in education, employment or training), found that they had surprisingly mainstream aspirations — one unemployed young person said that his ambition was to have a utility bill addressed to him personally.

University student unions are not fomenting Marxist revolution in Latin America. Instead I find that they are worried that their seminars are too crowded, that they are not getting their essays back promptly, and about the lack of opportunities for practical work experience.

So as we mark Salinger’s death, it is also the moment to bury the idea of the generation gap. The gap that he so vividly brought to life has almost completely disappeared.

But that is not the end of the story. At the same time as that cultural generation gap is closing, so a new one is opening up. It is, above all, an economic gap.

We can see it in the jobs market. In the 1960s and 1970s someone in their late twenties was likely to earn more than someone near retirement. Now that ratio is reversed and the 60-year-old is likely to be earning more. And they are more likely to be in work too. Even during the recession the number of over-50s in work has continued to rise, reaching a record high.

Meanwhile, the twentysomethings are much worse hit and their rate of employment has reached a record low. This recession is hitting the generations very differently from previous ones, when companies often let older employees go first. One reason may be that a redundant older employee becomes a charge on the company pension scheme and now there is no money there.

This generation gap is even more stark when we look at who owns what. As we slowly accumulate wealth during our lives we might expect the older generation to be richer. But again the gap has widened: it is the generation ahead that sits on all the wealth tied up in their houses and their pensions. It is going to be much harder for the younger generations.

The irony is that those very teenage rebels who identified with Holden Caulfield, the baby-boomers born between 1945 and 1965, have ended up with all the money. I reckon that they own at least half of the nation’s wealth. At every stage of their lives economic circumstances have conspired to help them.

First, they borrowed to buy their first house, then high inflation in the 1970s and 1980s wiped out their debts. Then they had high wages when they were young. Now, as retirement looms, the arrival of China and India in the world trading system is holding down the wages of their children. And on top of that we are now leaving a heavy burden of public debt around their necks.

In the 1960s young people rejected their parents’ values. Now young people are closer to their parents and share their values. But the generation gap takes a very different form. Young people are stuck outside, their noses are pressed to the window, unable to get on the housing ladder, into a well-paid job or to build up a pension. All this makes navigating the route to adulthood much harder.

The baby-boomers have been throwing a big party and leaving it to their children to clear up the mess. However close the baby-boomers may be to their own children there is an enormous economic distance between them and the next generation. Now the baby-boomers must offer a fair deal to their children. I believe they can recognise that obligation. Otherwise the younger generation may come to see the older generation with a contempt that rivals Holden Caulfield’s.

David Willetts, the Conservative MP for Havant. His book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future and Why They Should Give it Back will be published by Atlantic next week.