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The Smoking Generation: Where 1946 Babies Are Today

What has become of the generation of people born in 1946? Le Temps' Joëlle Kuntz ponders the past seven decades and the findings of a watershed study of her age group.

Old Gold advertisement
Old Gold advertisement
Joëlle Kuntz

-Essay-

GENEVA — Seventy years ago, tobacco was considered a kind of medicine. The fragility of our beliefs is enough to take your breath away. I feel a terrifying awe every time I glance at the advertisement for Villiger cigars stuck on my fridge. In it is a working-class man in his thirties, neat and tidy, with a cigar dangling from his lips. His blonde little girl, sitting on his lap, is lighting it for him, and the match glows at the center of this scene.

In March 1946, English scientists enrolled 14,000 babies born in Britain during the same week in an interdisciplinary study about generational cohorts. It's the most extensive such study ever undertaken, and it continues to this day, with a separate focus on children born in 1958, 1970, 1991 and 2000. The individuals in the 1946 group, who have answered regular questionnaires throughout their lives, are celebrating seven decades this year. This group intrigues me, because its members benefited from the best in terms of peace and social, medical and cultural progress.

What happened to the little girl?

The little girl sitting on the lap of the working-class Swiss man may have attended university. She was allowed to vote, she knew about the birth control pill, she was free to get married or stay single, she was also able to divorce without great expense, to travel cheaply and, after gaining some weight in the 1980s, she was able to replace a weak hip thanks to government health care coverage. She had a job and a salary, and her pension allows her to contemplate the next 20 years with reasonable confidence. Her only regret is a substantial one: Her children and grandchildren aren't nearly as well off as she has been.

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Happy 70! — Photo: Gurini

The British study clearly shows that social mobility has declined. For people born in 1970, their adult standard of living was more correlated with their parents' income than was the case for people born in 1958 and 1946.

Did she smoke, this little girl dressed all in blue, posted on my fridge? In 1970, when she was 25, 40% of pregnant English women smoked, and nobody appeared to worry about it. Except for the rather curious doctor who added a new survey question for the mothers of babies who were to be born in Great Britain during the chosen week that year: Do you smoke? Two years later, in 1972, an analysis of their responses crossed with a study of newborn mortality brought proof — the first on such a large scale — of the harmfulness of tobacco: 1,500 children had died from it, before birth or just after.

Researchers who were focused on studying the lifestyles of each generation asked all sorts of questions about the habits of babies' mothers, too: How much milk did they drink every day? What were their husbands doing while they were in labor? What did they spend on their baby's clothes and on their own? But Helen Pearson, who discusses these studies in the book The Life Project, the Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives, notes that no one ever asked mothers about sex!

What's left of a generation

Of those from the 1946 group studied, 13% have died. Wealthier men have the same mortality rate as poorer men and women, while wealthier women's mortality rate is half what it is for everyone else. Scientists have yet to explain why this is.

Women now make up the majority of living members of the 1946 group, and researchers are looking into the ways in which the men and women in this group are declining. About 85% of them have at least one of the 15 conditions that ultimately cause death for many people: hypertension, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, respiratory problems, cancer, etc. According to the study, the people who suffer from these ailments are often not aware of them.

I'm vaping as I look at the little girl with the blue ribbon in her hair. The cigar she's lighting with such enthusiasm doesn't produce any smoke. Villiger sells tobacco, matches and family happiness, but apparently smoke is not for sale.

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