Thursday, February 15, 2007

Boomers, take a bow for the great Oz culture shift

Boomers, take a bow for the great Oz culture shift

IT began innocently enough. English model Jean Shrimpton turned heads with her daring and fulsome exposure of the female leg, above the knee, at the 1965 Victoria Derby. The 23-year-old was also hatless and gloveless! Ms Shrimpton's "saucy parade" was nothing less than the opening salvo of a cultural revolution that would manifest itself by the end of the decade.
The miniskirt had arrived direct from Carnaby Street and was immediately adopted by lithe and not-so-lithe baby-boomer women. But it didn't stop there. After the Beatles toured Australia in 1964, teenage boys emulated their mop-top hairstyle. Parents and barbers were outraged: the short back and sides had prevailed since the war. It looked clean and especially when topped with a side part and a cow-lick wave set rock-solid with Brylcreem. What could possibly look smarter on a young man?

Get out your family photograph album and peruse pictures taken between 1968 and 1973. I argue that in this half-decade the Australian nation underwent a revolution of social mores and values. Upstream of 1968 women wore hats and gloves as well as knee-length skirts. Downstream of 1973 lay a different Australia: here was a culture in which young people leveraged far greater impact on the social agenda to the extent that their values and mores were accepted and in some places celebrated.

The cultural revolution effectively comprises the shift from the pre-boomer to the boomer world. This transition pivoted over the six years leading up to the Nimbin Counter-culture and Music festival of May 1973. It followed music festivals at Sunbury as early as January 1972. These were both local versions of the 1969 Woodstock festival and San Francisco's Summer of Love some years earlier.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was an era of some turmoil in Australia. The Melbourne establishment's Menzies and Holt had suddenly disappeared from the political scene. We were engaged in an increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam from 1966. And, most important, first-wave baby boomers born in the late 1940s were approaching adulthood.

But it was more than this. The catchy rhythm of the Mersey beat reverberated out of provincial England, of all places. This soon gave way to the first mass market subculture, "the hippie", and to the psychedelic drug culture of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. The Beatles made the transition effortlessly with their Sgt Pepper's album (1967).

A pitched battle ensued between young teenage boomers and their "middle-aged" parents, who were all of 40-something at the time. And the battle centred on issues of morality, values, belief and mores.

In the late 1960s the Melbourne department store Myer unveiled a copy of Michelangelo's David. A furore erupted over the public display of what was coyly referred to as "the undraped male figure".

At secondary schools older teenage boys fought for the right to allow their hair to grow "over the ears" and "over the collar". A similar fixation with measurement, and wooden rulers, was applied to school girls. They were made to kneel so that the height of their hem above the floor could be measured, precisely!

An anti-war movement gathered momentum. In May 1968, rioting students at Paris's Sorbonne University were almost successful in overthrowing the De Gaulle government. And in Australia, draft dodgers, anti-war moratoriums and racy locally produced television programs such as No 96 and The Box all clawed at established thinking.

Here was a time of new music, new rhythms and new values. The Mersey beat subsided as folk advanced. Bob Dylan, Cat Stephens, Leonard Cohen and Ralph McTell introduced a reflective component to popular music. I think the advent of the solemnly spoken Desiderata in 1971 was possibly the apogee of this movement.

Germaine Greer unleashed the bold concept of equal opportunity for women with her 1970 publication, The Female Eunuch. This quickly seemed to spawn other rights movements - for the gay, the black, the disadvantaged, and for the environment.

Women had had access to the Pill since the mid-1960s, much to the chagrin of the pre-Vatican II Catholic church. However, by the end of the decade, along with women's liberation, the most compelling and contentious front for women was access to abortion. The new freedoms demanded by women in the workplace and in society challenged established orthodoxies.

Out of America in 1969 came the skittish sketch show Laugh In. Here was a television program like no other. It ridiculed, it chided, it was silly, it was funny. It followed old-world variety programs like Showcase 68, which was a talent show. Its catch-phrases immediately entered the vernacular and remained there for two decades: "sock it to me" and "very interesting". Not funny now, but in 1969 it connected with youth as much as it repulsed the establishment.

These battles were largely about morality and mores. Boomer victories in these and other skirmishes would eventually lead to the Family Law Act of 1976, which introduced the concept of no-fault divorce. Sham marriages ended. But so too did the sanctity and the primacy of the traditional nuclear family. Within 30 years the single-person household would usurp the family as this nation's preferred social structure.

Here was a time when anything seemed possible. The political ground had shifted by the end of 1972. Conscription ended and fee-free tertiary education began. It could be argued that it is the generation that was freely educated by Whitlam that has delivered, and managed, this nation's current 16-year boom. That's right, we boomers are responsible for your good times now. Show some respect.

Fashion and cultural mores changed seismically in 1972. It was in this year that American Levi jeans became popular: they were so much cooler than the locally produced Trailmasters. Women dispensed with the miniskirt and discovered hotpants, often teamed, to devastating effect, with white vinyl lace-up boots. So hot!

And purple was the T-shirt colour of choice: these were plain as silk-screened symbols were still a year or two off. Although when message clothing did arrive, it immediately took either the political form of peace symbols or the frivolous form of a "smiley face".

It was in this year also that tea yielded to coffee, that "bloke' gave way to "guy" and that "sheila" was sidelined for "chick". I even noticed the pronunciation of schedule shifting from the soft English "shed" to the hard American "sked".

The cultural revolution seemed to complete its transition with the advent of a series music festivals at Sunbury outside Melbourne between 1972 and 1975. Here was a celebration of all aspects of youth culture replete with new hair styles, dress codes and sexual mores that would simply not have been possible a decade earlier.

It was the boomer generation that transformed Australian culture from its comfortable hat-and-glove trajectory prior to Jean Shrimpton's shameless parade. It was the boomers who set the framework for subsequent social shifts. Indeed, in the 34 years since 1973, I don't believe there has been an equivalent six-year era resulting in such widespread cultural change. No interest, political or demographic group has so widely shaped modern Australian society as did those starry-eyed hairy-hippie baby boomers of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Bernard Salt is a partner with KPMG