A friend mentioned something the other day I hadn’t heard in a while – the idea of ‘Rags to Rags in Three Generations’.
The story happens more often than you might think. The ‘first generation’ of a family starts with nothing, but through hard work and ingenuity builds up a business. Times are tough in the early days, especially when children arrive, but they persevere, and are eventually successful.
They retire and pass it on to their children. This ‘second generation’ remember the tough times, and so value the comfort and standard of living their business brings them. They carry on developing and growing it, and eventually pass it on to their children.
However, this ‘third generation’ are born into prosperity. They’ve only ever known the good times. They have no idea of the value of money and have no qualms about spending freely and gambling it away on risky business and investment decisions.
In far less time than it took to make the money it is all gone, and they are astonished to find themselves back where it all started – confused, angry and broke.
I think this story also explains how my generation voted in the EU referendum this year.
Our grandparents knew that Europe was a difficult and dangerous place to be born into. They grew up in an age when poverty and squalor were normal. Workers’ rights were non-existent, life was cheap, and discrimination everywhere. Mainland Europe had been at war for a thousand years, and it showed no signs of letting up.
However, the horror and slaughter of WW2 left them aghast. How low could humanity sink? Surely it should be possible to build a Europe where we co-operate rather than fight, and value rather than hate each other.
It was in that spirit that the EEC was born, and our grandparents passed this institution to our parents, the second generation.
Our parents were born during the War or its aftermath. They may remember the shock of uncovering the atrocities of both the hard left and the hard right. They remember the post-War chaos, rationing, rebuilding, and the painfully slow economic progress that followed. But by the time they had their children – the third generation – things were at last starting to turn around.
I’m a member of the third generation. As it turned out we were born at the start of a boom. Fifty years of peace with our neighbours has given us economic, social and technological progress on an astonishing scale.
We have never known anything but peace and economic progress, so we naturally assume that this is a normal, rather than exceptional period in European history. So we’re not thankful for prosperity – we’re entitled to it! And we don’t see any danger in gambling it away.
And so we gambled. In the EU referendum, we put the future on a roll of the dice. We’d better hope our number comes up.