They turned on, tuned in but did not drop out

March 18, 2005

Student radicals of the Sixties wanted to change the world. Mike O'Donnell speaks to some of them 40 years on.

Many of the post-1945 baby-boom generation will be hitting 60 this year. As part of my research on the Sixties, I am interviewing a sample of the generation that thought 30 was old and life after 40 unimaginable. All were students in the Sixties or early Seventies and were either involved in or sympathetic to the radical activities of that period.

Everyone I interviewed felt that "something special" happened in the Sixties: "You got a sense of things changing... you know... in terms of clothes and personal mores, the way things were being questioned."

Most participants came from middle-class homes, and several commented on the conservatism of their parents and on how higher education provided them the opportunity to escape it. David Milner, now a professor of psychology at Westminster University, says that in the mid-Sixties, when the fashion was for long hair and hippy clothes, his father accused him of appearing "effeminate": a fairly standard adult comment about the style of the time.

Two respondents from working-class backgrounds managed to enter higher education. Both felt restricted by the cultural conservatism of their parents but were influenced politically by the socialism of their respective fathers. Both sought new ways of expressing their socialism, preferring to express themselves within the emerging student movement to becoming activists in the "old Left" Labour Party. Each took time to adjust to university life. One was thrown out of university for taking part in a sit-in. The other worked as a university secretary and registered for a BA only when she was repeatedly told by several people that she was "as bright as the students".

Most interviewees related their personal conflicts and their "evolution"to the wider context of economic expansion and greater affluence that underpinned a generational cultural explosion. As one participant put it:

"In the Sixties and Seventies there was a collective sense of a whole generation being bound together."

The identity of higher education students became defined by a sense of belonging to a generation or an aspect of it rather than to their family.

This did not necessarily involve any formal decision to join in - the long hair, the hippy clothes, the music, the drugs, the counterculture were pervasive. Nevertheless, there were informal pressures to conform to nonconformity: not to be "turned on" was to be "square". Not everyone was "an original", but the feeling of originality was endemic.

Few interviewees were "joiners" of political groups, either. Most did not engage in traditional class politics despite their concern about inequality. The various campus Marxist groups were seen as too doctrinaire.

In practice, libertarianism triumphed over egalitarianism.

Marches, protests, ad hoc coalitions and sit-ins happened on such a regular basis that they seemed a normal part of life and students felt they were about to change the world. The timescale demanded for change tended to be immediate: "freedom now" was the iconic slogan. The need for a detailed long-term strategy tended to be overlooked.

If the Sixties student Left was thin on ideology, it was fertile in issues: nuclear disarmament; university bureaucracy; corporate corruption; the Vietnam War. In the Seventies, racism, women's rights, gay rights, the environment and global inequality came to the fore. The social movements associated with these are part of the long-term legacy of student radicalism.

The interviewees had different ways of coping with the move from radical student life to working life. Sue Sharpe, research associate at the Institute of Education, and Janet Holland, professor of social research at London South Bank University, were students at the London School of Economics in the Sixties. They found the feminist movement provided something close to a combination of a career and a way of life for them. It also helped them to distance themselves from what they saw as the chauvinism of Sixties radicalism. Holland adds that she has found it easier to make progress with her feminism than with her socialism.

Others also chose careers that were compatible with their principles. Roger Smith, a former student activist at Essex University, is now director of ADEPT, a community development agency. Quite simply, he says, he could not imagine working for the private sector so he put his entrepreneurial talents to public use. Several interviewees said they followed careers in higher education or other areas of the public sector as a way of squaring their values with the need to make a living. Some have paid a price in marginalised status and lower income as a result.

Several interviewees looked nostalgic when I mentioned participatory democracy: "That got lost somewhere" was one response. All were disillusioned with Tony Blair and saw much continuity between new Labour and Thatcherism. By the time Margaret Thatcher came to power, all the interviewees realised that the Sixties dream of a radically different society was over.

Chris Rojek, professor of sociology and culture at Nottingham Trent University, is, at 50, the youngest interviewee. He regards the emphasis on the cultural changes engendered by the Sixties as a conspicuous example of a long-term trend towards the individualisation and informalisation of society brought about by greater affluence and leisure. However, if liberal capitalism has increased many people's wealth, he and others regard it as manipulative of consumers and exploitative of the poor.

Opinions about contemporary youth are mixed but sympathetic. Students are perceived as more conformist, partly because of the way they are more controlled by government policy. They are typically in debt, frequently need to do paid work as well as study and often live with their parents.

The anti-globalisation movement, which many of today's students are part of, is positively seen as comparable to Sixties radicalism in its values and decentralised organisational style. But whether it is reformist or revolutionary was not raised as an issue.

Mike O'Donnell is a professor of sociology at Westminster University. He is giving a paper, Now We Are (Nearly) 60: Reflections of a Radical Generation, at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association, at York University (March 21-23).

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