Recovering the spirit of the 1960s

| 2nd October 2018
Alan Heeks

Alan Heeks

The fiftieth anniversary of 1968 offers an opportunity to rekindle our idealism and learn from those who lived through a pivotal decade

The way people re-invented themselves in the sixties, amid all these shocks, could inspire us today.

One upside of our ageing population is that there are millions of people in Britain who experienced the 1960s, and are still alive and kicking today: I’m one of them. As we move steadily through the fiftieth anniversaries of this critical decade, it’s a good chance to see what we can learn now.

For environmentalists, your view of the sixties probably depends on whether you’re a pessimist or optimist.  Was this decade a crucial chance ignored?  Did it lay foundations for the progress since then?  Probably both.

Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, is widely seen as the start of the environmental movement.  It gained widespread interest from President Kennedy down, and some major green initiatives grew from it.  The US Environmental Defense Fund, set up in 1967, started to bring lawsuits over pollution issues.

The Environmental Protection Agency, formed in 1970, gave credit to Carson’s inspiration, and its early policies were guided by her book. The formation of Friends of the Earth, in 1969, was another example. The Ecologist was first published the following year.

Pivotal moments

Another key catalyst was The Limits to Growth, published in 1972, but growing from the environmental concerns of the sixties. It is tragic that world leaders in the sixties and seventies did not make radical changes in environmental policies back then, when the issues were less overwhelming.

Why was this? The power of big corporations and vested interests was massive back then.  And although mass protests were a feature of the time, most focussed on other pressing issues: the threat of nuclear annihilation (the Cuban Missile Crisis was in 1963), the Vietnam war, racial tensions, Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and lots more.

The way people re-invented themselves in the sixties, amid all these shocks, could inspire us today.

One way to find the essence of this moment is to explore a pivotal month in a pivotal year: October 1968. To do this, you need to look not only at political and social events, but at music, for the two were truly interlinked in the 1960s.

Here are a few of the major events that took place that month:

  • 2 October: in Mexico City, police and troops fire on a studentled protest, killing or wounding thousands
  • 5 October: Civil Rights March in Derry, Ireland is stopped by Royal Ulster Constabulary and leads to two days of rioting often considered the start of troubles in Northern Ireland
  • 16 October: Two African American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, create a firestorm when they defiantly raise their fists in a black power salute at a ceremony awarding them their medals in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City
  • 18 October: Police find 219 grains of cannabis resin in John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s apartment and fine them for possession
  • 24 Oct: Mick Jagger & Marianne Faithful are busted for pot and are released on £50 bail
  • 27 October: 25,000 people in London march in a demonstration against the Vietnam War
  • 31 October: US President Lyndon Johnson calls a halt to all bombing of North Vietnam


Already you can recognise iconic themes: violent protests and violent responses; an interplay between demonstrations, mass protest and political decisions; and an establishment struggling to adjust to social changes.

Darker mood

And what about the music?  Top UK singles and albums in this month included:

  • With a Little Help from My Friends: Joe Cocker
  • Those Were the Days: Mary Hopkins
  • Sunshine of Your Love: Cream
  • Folsom Prison: Johnny Cash
  • Bookends: Simon and Garfunkel


In his superb book devoted to the music of 1968, Behind the Music, Wayne Robins highlights a darker mood in American music, a big shift from the Summer of Love in 1967.  The UK hits above suggest more a mix of nostalgia, escapism and lostness. The musical response came a bit later, in 1968, for example Beggars Banquet by the Stones, and Revolution by the Beatles.

A simplistic view of the Sixties calls up Flower Power in California, Swinging London, mini skirts and Carnaby Street.  The reality is subtler, in both positive and negative ways.

Perhaps the best social history of Britain in the Sixties is White Heat, by Dominic Sandfield, which unpacks the subtleties brilliantly.

Hope and action

There was undoubtedly much progress on many fronts, from the sweeping away of outdated laws on abortion and homosexuality, to the many burgeoning ideas and ideals that have become mainstream today, such as nuclear disarmament, human rights, animal welfare and renewable energy, to name a few.

There was also a dark strand though the Sixties: hopes of radical change that were dashed on many fronts, such as big political reforms in France, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.  The drug culture produced outbursts of craziness. It’s tempting to dismiss the decade.

A striking feature of 1968 was deep anger and frustration combined with hope and action. Many people were willing to get out on the streets for mass demonstrations, to name their hopes and call for change.  A big gift for our times from the sixties would be a renewed belief that positive change is possible, and that collectively we have a real influence.

There are many reasons why the youthful idealism of 1968 is hard to find now. One reason youth culture was so dynamic back then is simple demographics: the baby boomers made my generation a big one.  Now we’re older, but are we wiser?

Deluged by decades of materialist pressures, and now manipulated by social media, it seems that the collective mood is of scepticism and meeting individual desires. 

The truth is subtler: as Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest, beautifully describes, there are millions of people working for the greater good, but they’re largely invisible.  We have to seek them out, and pull ourselves into an idealism that was far easier in 1968.

Creative ageing

We now have plenty of powerful ways to see life more positively, without using drugs: for example, mindfulness, deep ecology, forest bathing.  But the reminder from the sixties is - get up, stand up, chose for yourself.  And let’s be kind to ourselves: these days we have to live with far greater awareness of the damage humanity is doing to the earth, and a constant deluge of bad news across the globe.

Joanna Macy was a strong voice in the US protests of 1968, and has been a passionate activist for decades.  Her deep ecology approach is very relevant for our times, showing us a way to face, feel and share with others our feelings of grief, despair and complicity at the state of our world: Moreover, it enables us to act on these feelings instead of being stuck in denial.

In 1968, 83 precent of the UK population was under 45: now it’s only 58 percent.  I’ve been exploring creative ageing for some years for my workshops and books.  It’s worth considering what the 1960s can teach us about this topic.  I believe that the period of midlife and beyond requires us to go through a process of shipwreck and re-invention, even “breakdown - breakthrough”; a dismantling of who we thought we were, and choosing again.

The 1960s were in one sense a series of shipwrecks, a dismantling of innocence.  The late 1950s were a time of rising affluence underpinned by the Welfare State - the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, famously told Britain, “you’ve never had it so good”. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, probably the closest the world has come to a nuclear war, brutally highlighted everyone’s vulnerability. And sixties’ Britain was plagued by rising levels of strikes and inflation, leading to the humiliating devaluation of sterling in 1967.

The way people re-invented themselves in the sixties, amid all these shocks, could inspire us today.  There was a real belief in love, freedom, brotherhood and sisterhood, a sense that together we can fulfil our hopes and dreams.

Lived wisdom

In 2018, we have an ageing population who need to rekindle the idealism of the sixties, and who need the skills of reinvention.  It’s clear that government and business won’t deliver the world we dream of: we have to do more as individuals and local communities.

I think it’s useful to all age groups to consider what we can learn from the 1960s, particularly baby boomers.  Relatively healthy and affluent, they are a large sector of society and would be a considerable force for positive change if they could be mobilised.  I’ve been deeply contemplating this for my book, Not Fade Away, which is a guide to creative ageing for this generation.  The baby boomers aren’t given much of a role or a voice in our society, but they have the potential to be the elders that society lacks.

I use the term “elder” here to describe the lived wisdom of the older generation, and of our ancestors.  Traditional indigenous cultures, like the Native Americans, the Bedouin desert tribes and the Celts had great wisdom, including the role of the elders.

In these cultures, the elders often had a powerful role as a group.  Alongside the chief, they would guide the tribe in a crisis, uphold values, mentor the young and dream the way forward.  Evidently, we live in a different kind of society, but I believe the role of the elders is something we would do well to learn from and update.  And today’s elders have the capacity to embody and recapture the best of the spirit of the sixties.

If we could show early eco warriors like Rachel Carson the world of 2018, what would they think?  In many ways, they’d see great progress: the mainstream understanding of recycling and sustainability, the level of environmental regulation, are massive progress.

And we also know that the situation is desperate.  Crisis fatigue doesn’t help. As in the sixties there are so many huge issues competing for our concern.  I need to turn to writers like Thomas Berry (The Dream of the Earth) to keep myself from despair.  Berry was hopeful for the future, and his reasons link deep into Sixties values: we have to hope, to dream, speak out, and do it together.

This Author

Alan Heeks is a natural happiness writer and workshop leader specializing in resilience and wellbeing.  His new book, Not Fade Away: Staying Happy When You’re over 64, is now availableAlan will be leading an Elder’s Circle at Hazel Hill Wood near Salisbury on Silver Sunday, 7 October (a day celebrating older people), where he will share his vision for a new form of Eldership.


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