The life and times of Australia's Baby Boomer generation

Times of Change: the Baby Boomer years

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If ever a decade could be described as a decade of change, it was the 1960s. Between 1965 and 1975 Australia changed dramatically and significantly, to the degree that the education historian, Alan Barcan, described the changes as a cultural revolution. Social historian, Donald Horne, concurs, saying that, for most of the twentieth-century "the prevailing culture in Australia included racist, anglocentric-imperialist, puritan, sexist, politically genteel acquiescent, capitalist, bureaucratic and developmentalist strains." In Rowan Cahill's article, "A Decade of Change", on the Evatt Foundation website, which introduced a new book on social ideas and movements that changed Australian culture, Cahill expresses a similar view of the turbulent 1960s:

It was during the period 1965-1975 that the skids were put under this "prevailing culture", with much of the challenge and impetus for change coming from social protest movements subscribing to an interpretation of democracy at odds with the prevailing understanding that "democracy depended on quiesecence among the citizens".
The period seeded the future with movements and ideas that challenged and changed Australian society and culture as women, aborigines, gays, lesbians and environmentalists variously articulated, demanded, claimed, struggled and gained attention and rights previously denied. Perhaps its greatest legacy was in striking an almighty blow for the legitimisation of protest in this country, "enlarging the space for democratic action".
Not that a desire and propensity for change did not exist prior to 1965. It did. As Mark Davis has pointed out, a mood for change built during the final years of the Menzies government, "an urgent sense that a shift was needed in social and administrative priorities". This mood found expression, for example, in books like
Robin Boyd's "Australian Ugliness" (1960), Peter Coleman's edited collection "Australian Civilization" (1962) and his "Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition: Censorship in Australia" (1962), and Donald Horne's iconic best-seller "The Lucky Country" (1964). But the prevailing culture remained intact, to the extent that during the 1950s and early 1960s there was a steady exit of creative youthful talent to cultural Meccas overseas, seeking liberation from being hemmed in and stultified by the "sanctimonious Australia of Robert Gordon Menzies".

Popular Music

"What set the ball of protest and change irrevocably rolling were the events of 1965 - the linkage by the Menzies government of conscription with service overseas, and the increased military commitment to the Vietnam War.
Conscription, or "National Service" as it was euphemistically known in Australia, had been introduced in 1964 without public debate, as a fait accompli. Beginning in January 1965, twenty-year old men (in reality "boys" because the right to vote and adult status were not attained until reaching the age of twenty-one) were selectively conscripted for two years of full-time military service by a birthday lottery-ballot system ... As Australia's involvement in the War intensified, opposition grew and also intensified. Protest action increasingly became confrontational and disruptive, the new mood signalled by the demonstration involving the blocking of Pitt Street, Sydney, during peak hour on the evening of 22 October 1965.
A snowball effect was generated by the Vietnam War. The centuries long struggle of the Vietnamese people for national independence, Australia's part in the latest episode of imperialist history and the way this was explained, justified and conducted on the home-front, led many Australians, especially amongst the post-war baby-boomers, to develop wide ranging radical, political and social critiques. These led to personal transformations and to political actions that challenged accepted decision making processes and many of the social manifestations of power, from the power of the state, to the power involved in personal relationships, and to the ways in which race and gender were constructed and construed.
The Labour Movement - the trade unions, the ALP, the small parties and organisations to the Left of the ALP - was variously affected by, and helped influence and shape the cultural revolution of 1965-1975. For many young people the ALP came to represent the promise of an end to conscription and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, and especially after Gough Whitlam became leader in February 1967, their hopes for a better society in which egalitarian and social justice principles could take rein. For many of these people the 1969 and 1972 Federal elections, the last gasps of the Cold War, were their political introductions. See: Full text of the article

By the end of the decade the White Australia immigration policy was all but dismantled, and the government had begun to introduce social reforms for Aborigines and working women. Australia was not the only country to experience a social revolution in the 1960s; American and Britain were in the thick of change, too, and in many ways led the way by voicing the thoughts and feelings of 1960s youth in song, and promoted an alternative lifestyle that was reflected in the music, fashion and social mores they embraced. Like their Australian counterparts, the Baby Boomers of these countries demand change and wouldn't be satisfied until they got it. The protest songs, the "ban the bomb" / "make love, not war" slogans, the rejection of the conservative attidudes of the previous generation towards sex and relationships, the calls for people to be free to be what they are and not what society demands they be, were all expressions of the dissatisfaction the Baby Boomer generation felt towards the status quo.

The 1960s was the decade of the Cold War, in which the world became divided into East and West, Communist and Democratic, with the Soviet Union leading the East and the USA leading the West, thereby establishing itself as the most powerful and influential nation on earth. The Cold War cast a shadow of fear of nuclear anihilation over the whole world, and took it to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Cold War fuelled the dividing of the German city of Berlin with a wall; the involvement in the West in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, we witnessed the Soviet Union and the USA take the Cold War into space where man finally walked on the moon; while back on Earth the contraceptive pill and amplified music fuelled revolutions between generations and between men and women. For the first time, world events were beamed into our homes as they were happening via the medium of television. We witnessed in our lounge rooms the tragic assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, civil rights champion Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy, as well as the horrors of late 20th century warfare as they enfolded in Vietnam. These images opened the eyes of many who had previously been oblivious to what our Government had commited us to, and opened the eyes of the man in the street to issues that Governments had previously shielded from their view.

Economically, Australia witnessed great change and excitement in the 1960s. Discoveries of massive mineral deposits, particularly in the northern parts of the country, made prosperity seem permanent. Cities rapidly increased in size and progress in the construction of the Sydney Opera House became somewhat of a marker of time during the decade. The building boom of the 1960s and '70s changed the face of Australian cities, particularly Sydney. The height limit of 150 feet (45.72 metres) on the city's buildings had remained unchanged since the 1920s. This restriction was lifted in 1958 and the sky became the limit. In the ongoing rush for development, many heritage buildings were demolished and bushland areas bulldozed to make way for housing developments. This wanton destruction of the country's natural and man-made environment by developers and governments in the name of progress began to be questioned, and for the first time the nation discovered its conscience on matters of heritage and conservation.

The voice of the people had been first heard on such matters when the ugly Cahill Expressway across Sydney's Circular Quay was first proposed in the 1940s. A decade later, it was heard again when public pressure blocked property developer Dick Dusseldorp's plans to build rows of high rise buildings in North Sydney (Harry Seidler's Blues Point Tower was the only one to be given approval). Kelly's Bush in leafy Hunters Hill in Sydney became the unlikely place for builder's labourers to link arms with the middle classes and give birth to a conservation movement that spread around the world in the 1960s. The subsequent actions of the NSW Builders Labourer's Federation (BLF) in saving many aspects of Sydney's built environment from developers and their wrecking balls, including historic Woolloomooloo and The Rocks, much of which was scheduled for demolition, were a world first.

Many view the 1960s as the decade in which Australia lost its innocence. The kidnap and murder of the son of a Sydney lottery winner, which was made possible by his name and address being published in newspapers, led governments and the community at large to re-evaluate attitudes towards matters of privacy and public safety; the disappearance of the Beaumont children from busy Glenelg Beach in Adelaide on a public holiday in 1966, and the Wanda Beach murders in Sydney, caused parents around the country to question the wisdom of allowing children to travel unaccompanied through our towns and cities, which up until then had never been an issue for concern.

Popular culture changed its direction dramatically in the 1960s; it began in 1963 with the release of the first Beatles records. The day their first single, "Love Me Do", was released could very well be seen as the day the 1960s started swinging. At first, it was simply a refreshing change and somewhat of a novelty to hear someone singing a song with a Liverpudlian accent rather than the usual Amercian twang. By 1964, when more four-piece rock bands from Liverpool appeared on the scene and started pushing the solo American artists and girl groups off the airwaves, everyone knew there was a major change taking place. People began taking notice of Bob Dylan. In America in particular, he was seen as the prophet of his generation, the voice crying out in the wilderness, "Prepare ye the way of the Baby Boomers", even though he was never comfortable wearing that mantle. He told the status quo in no uncertain terms to "get out of the new road if you can't lend a hand, for the times they are a'changin'". In Australia, he was nowhere near as popular or revered to the degree he was in America. It didn't bother the Americans that he couldn't sing, it was his message that attracted them. In hindsight, though, it can be observed that his influence on other songwriters and the movers and shakers of popular music was huge, so it would be unfair to relegate him to the ranks of the "wanna-bes" and "also-rans" locally. We loved his songs - provided Peter, Paul & Mary were singing them!

The two bands at the front of the British music invasion were The Beatles and The Roling Stones. As it was in Australia in the 1970s with Sherbet and Skyhooks, one was cute and likeable, the other appeared a bit rough around the edges and was labelled as rebels. Not that the older generation viewed The Beatles as cute and likeable. The first teens who went to school with a Beatles-style Mop Top haircut were sent home and told not to return until their hair was back to a respectable length. Wearing Beatle boots got similar treatment, and it was every mother's fear that their sons would take up the guitar and emulate one of The Beatles, which most male Baby Boomer teens in the 1960s did at one time or another.

America responded to the Beatles invasion with folk rock, which culminated in the Woodstock Rock Music Festival in 1969. Woodstock was little more than a news item in the newspapers and on television in Australia, though it did inspire rock promoters in Melbourne to run their own version of it at Sunbury near Melbourne in the early 1970s using Aussie bands. The so-called Summer of Love in 1967 which saw the beginning of the hippie movement in San Francisco was also little more than a news item in Australia, and though some Australian youth went bush in their kombi vans and formed hippie communes or became hermit surfies, the majority kept right on going to school or work, depending on their age.

What did affect Australia, however, were the migrant children from Britain who brought with them recordings of all the latest popular artists in Britain. It wasn't long before a number of youths in the migrant hostels of Sydney and Adelaide got together and started making their own music. The bands they formed, along with others that sprang up in high schools around the country, provided the weekend entertainment for the youth of their communities all across the land. Promotors hired halls and ran dances at which these amateur bands would perform, singing the songs of their heroes and immitating their voices and instruments. From these amateurs emerged professional bands like The Twilights, The Easybeats, Zoot, Master's Apprentices, The Loved Ones, The Groop, MPD Ltd and others who dominated the local music scene in the second half of the decade and gave the overseas recording artists a run for their money in the pop music charts.

Just as Australia didn't have its Woodstock or Summer of Love but was influenced by them, so the country did not have a fashion centre like England had in Carnaby Street. Nevertheless, the influence on what we wore was still there. The turning point for fashion in Australia was that infamous day, in October 1965, when British model Jean Shrimpton turned up on Derby Day at Melbourne's Flemington racecourse wearing a skirt with an above-the-knee hemline. Shocked members of the establishment nearly fainted at the sight of The Shrimp's knees and news of the shocking incident made headlines around the world. Whilst the oldies had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 1960s fashion revolution, there was no holding back the younger generation of Australians from donning hotpants, miniskirts and crocheted tops, nor the males from discarding the drab grey flannel suits of the 1950s for vibrant colours, flared trousers, floral shirts and ties and fancy shoes. Plenty of mums and dads had a similar reaction to the old guard at Flemington when their sons and daughters came home with their new outfits for the first time. I was grounded for a week, even though I was eighteen and had a full time job!

The next decade: 1970s

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Baby Boomer Central is published by Australia On CD. © Stephen Yarrow, 2010.