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The Transforming Effect of the 1960s

Authored by Mark Donnelly
Published on 31st August, 2022 14 min read

The Transforming Effect of the 1960s

The 1960s continue to inspire and provoke. Despite the passage of time, there is a sense that the decade has not quite fully passed into the past. At one level this is a symptom of people’s interest in the surfaces of retro culture. Sixties music, fashions, and haircuts have never been far from tastemakers’ views about what might be due for a revival. Mid-century modernism still seems oddly at home in the early decades of the 21st century. But thinking about the sixties also means engaging with serious matters of ethics and political values. In a decade that was marked by changes, questions were asked about where the limits of new freedoms and ways of living could be re-drawn, especially among women, people of colour, and sexual minorities. In a decade that also saw strong cultural and organisational continuities, the damaging ways in which traditions and social norms restricted people’s lives were increasingly contested in the public space. Of course, all periods are an ‘in-between’ mix of past experience and future anticipation. But the contrasts between an old world that was being challenged and a new one that was emerging were especially vivid in the sixties. Moreover, the visions of different ways of living – less dominated by paid work, less alienating, more spontaneous, more autonomous – have not been disavowed entirely in the decade’s long aftermath.

The Modern Decade

It was around 1965-6 that belief in the promises of ‘go-ahead’ modernity in Britain peaked. The sixties’ vision of futuristic possibility drew its energy from a constellation of factors: demographic, economic, and technological. When children who were born during the baby boom at the end of the Second World War came of age in the mid-sixties, they constituted one side of a generational divide. As if to underscore the idea that the war represented an age-based turning point, no one born in Britain after September 1939 was later required to perform national service in the military. [1] Freed from a stint in uniform, ambitious young opportunists like Andrew Loog Oldham were feted at the time as examples of a growing youth meritocracy. Born in 1944, Oldham was just 19 when he became manager of the Rolling Stones – via a period working for fashion designer Mary Quant and a spell as a music business press agent – and 21 when he set up his own record label in 1965. Echoing journalist Piri Halasz’s claim that the sixties were ‘dominated by youth’ [2], the teenage Oldham thought of an older associate from 1963 as ‘grey-haired, grey suited and in his mid-thirties – to someone my age that put him over the hill’. [3]

The new economy that was emerging from the war years accelerated the pace of change in the mid-sixties. As with all periods of economic growth, the gains were distributed unevenly, with many people seeing little if any difference to their own finances. Worse still, a report in December 1965 found that some 7.5 million people in the country were living in poverty. [4] Nonetheless, a rise in average weekly earnings of 130 per cent between 1955 and 1969 made a remarkable difference to living standards generally. [5] Many of the well-paid jobs were in traditional areas of industry and manufacturing, where strong trade unions ensured that workers took a fair share of rising national income. As far as Harold Wilson’s Labour Government (1964-70) was concerned, however, Britain’s economic performance would increasingly rely on the high-tech jobs that would be forged in the ‘white heat’ of the ‘scientific revolution’. [6] This was a popular line to take at the time, with TV shows like ‘The Avengers’ and ‘Tomorrow’s World’ feeding people’s imaginations about how scientific advances and space-age gadgets would shape the future. Innovations in computers, satellite communications, pharmaceuticals, synthetics, automation, and new forms of mass production grabbed people’s attention because they promised to transform so many aspects of lived experience. One of these was the world of work which saw a rise in the number of service sector jobs – including those in retail, media, advertising, health, and social care – many of which were taken by female workers. Here was a glimpse of one important legacy of the decade: the transformation to a post-industrial economy that was to cause so much social upheaval after the 1970s.

Swinging London

London was not the only city to feel the force of change in the sixties, but it was central to the perception that ‘new times’ had arrived. The capital was at the heart of the wider social and cultural loosenings of the decade, soaking up influences from elsewhere, reworking them, and pushing them back as commentary or commodity. To see this process in miniature, watch how in the film A Hard Day’s Night (1964) the Beatles travel from Liverpool to London to record a TV special for broadcast nation-wide. The Daily Telegraph read the signs of the capital’s cultural resurgence earlier than most, labelling London ‘the most exciting city in the world’ in April 1965. [7] A more powerful piece of myth-making came one year later, when Time magazine carried a front-cover feature titled ‘London: The Swinging City’. Here, the city was presented as the world capital of art, entertainment, and creative cool. In London, it declared, talent now counted for more than inherited social class, and the burden of running an empire was dissolving as op and pop art, mod boutiques, cosmopolitanism, and modernist architecture were embraced as alternative symbols of the national self-imaginary.

In both ‘swinging London’ articles, awkward references to ‘dolly birds’, ‘pretty young chicks’, and an obsession with displays of wealth mean that some of the writing has not aged well. But what they did capture in their accounts of fashionable nightlife and hip western districts was an idea that life in the city was becoming less deferential and buttoned-up, more playful and hedonistic. True enough, only a tiny in-crowd was part of the various ‘scenes’ that Time magazine described. Discourses about the ‘swinging city’ ignored the reality of urban deprivation and run-down bedsits that typified large parts of the capital. And the city’s racially minoritised population would not have seen themselves reflected in mid-sixties accounts of urban glamour. This, remember, was several years before the second Race Relations Act (1968) sought to ban racial discrimination in housing and employment. Still, if most people could only enjoy a vicarious experience of the energy and growing self-confidence of London, this was still an encounter of sorts. In much the same way, it was possible for someone to welcome the idea of metropolitan ‘permissiveness’, even if their own behaviour remained largely unchanged.


The ‘permissive society’ was a fashionable but contested phrase of the period, so much so that when Home Secretary James Callaghan told parliament in 1969 that he was opposed to legalising cannabis, he referred to permissiveness as ‘one of the most unlikeable words that has been invented in recent years’. [8] The phrase itself had multiple inflections. In its most general meaning, it referred to the spread of secular codes of ethics that were more personalised and nuanced than religious-based moral injunctions, the authority of which had waned by the early 1960s as church attendance declined sharply. [9] These secular moral codes were summarised in Marwick’s taxonomy of the sixties ‘cultural revolution’ as ‘a new frankness, openness and indeed honesty in personal relations and modes of expression’. [10] More specifically, ‘permissiveness’ described a set of law reforms that changed the ways in which people’s moral and sexual choices were regulated by state agencies. In areas including censorship (1960), gambling (1961), the availability of the contraceptive pill (1961), capital punishment (1965), homosexuality (1967), abortion (1967) and divorce (1969), sixties Britain saw an overhaul of restrictions and outright proscriptions. True enough, regulations were modified rather than abandoned. Also, in each area of reform there was a different timeline that led towards change; we should be careful not to think of liberal law reforms as a single set that occurred because of a new mood of sixties ‘tolerance’. The changes, however, were transformative in the years that followed. In 1965, for example, a man could be imprisoned for having sex with another man; in 2005, same-sex couples could obtain legal recognition of their relationship.

Permissiveness was both cause and effect of new directions in sixties culture. Creatives played a vital role in testing long-established codes of expressive restraint; equally, they were encouraged to do so by relaxations of formal and informal censorship, and because audiences were receptive to more challenging ideas about form and content. Film exemplified the dynamics. The appearance of Arts Labs, the New Cinema Club, and the London Film Makers Co-Op in 1966 showed that there was a small but growing audience for experimental films. As part of this trend, documentary makers like Peter Whitehead in Wholly Communion (1965) and Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967) probed at the relationship between reality and representation. Meanwhile, in more commercial cinema, the success of the new James Bond franchise and Hammer Horror movies proved that screen depictions of characters who operated without limits on their freedom had mass appeal.

Indeed, as the wartime era of collective sacrifice gave way to a culture that prioritised individual consumer choice, ‘doing your own thing’ turned from being an aspiration to a point of principle. And as radical thinkers like Herbert Marcuse pointed out at the time, the most powerful restraint on people’s ability to live freely was the drudgery of doing meaningless work to fund lifestyle-as-consumerism. Confronted by the realisation that the work ethic was the root of alienation, the obvious existential response was to embrace a kind of radical passivity: refuse to be busy. Pop culture signposted the way; or at least this is one way of reading the anti-work meaning in songs like the Beatles’ ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, the Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’, and Small Faces’ ‘Lazy Sunday Afternoon’. Hard work and chasing success were not the keys to living well, the lyrics tell us. Perhaps the vision of escaping the work ethic was the ultimate dream of the sixties: relax, float upstream, laze around as if life itself was a long, sunny afternoon. [11]

Too Much?

The Kinks followed their 1966 hit ‘Sunny Afternoon’ with a song two years later called ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’. In this, the rewards of a simple life found in idleness were supplemented with a call for a nostalgic defence of the ‘old ways’. In its playful evocation of Ray Davies’ cultural touchstones (Desperate Dan, strawberry jam, Tudor houses, and the like), ‘Village Green’ pointed towards a sentiment that was becoming increasingly visible in the decade’s second half. For a sizeable group in the population, the social and cultural changes of the sixties had been pushed too far and too fast. After all, most Britons’ cultural preferences at this time were for middle-of-the-road fare. The most popular leisure pursuits were watching television, gardening, and DIY; Cliff Richards sold more singles than any other artist or group; ‘The Sound of Music’ soundtrack was the best-selling album of the decade in Britain; and the largest new voluntary organisation was the Consumers’ Association, who were best known for publishing Which magazine. The counter-cultural radicals who positioned their values as the antithesis of these mainstream tastes were always likely to encounter a conservative backlash. Consequently, various means for reasserting behavioural and artistic orthodoxies were put into operation.

When Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were convicted and (briefly) imprisoned for drugs offences in June 1967, it symbolised the authorities’ determination to discipline pop and youth culture. ‘Why does society want to put pop in chains?’, asked Melody Maker the following October. This was a time when live music venues were having their licenses revoked because drugs were consumed on their premises, and when the government was acting to close down offshore pirate radio stations. [12] Pressure also came from what Stuart Hall later termed the ‘entrepreneurs of moral indignation’. [13] The most high-profile of these was Mary Whitehouse’s moral surveillance group, the National Viewers and Listeners’ Association. Whitehouse mobilised evangelical Christian support for campaigns against permissiveness and the politics of the women’s liberation movement. More broadly, there was the force of widespread public antipathy towards some of the sixties’ key changes. A survey for New Society in November 1969 found strong objections to liberal law reforms, the presence of Commonwealth immigrants in Britain, and student protests against the Vietnam War. Asked whether there was ‘too much publicity given to sex’, 77 per cent of people agreed. Summing up the survey’s findings, New Society’s editor argued that it made more sense to refer to the ‘cautious’ rather than the ‘swinging’ sixties. [14]

In retrospect, we can see that 1969 was too early to gauge the transforming effect of the sixties. Most changes only began to play out in practice in subsequent decades, for better or worse. Perhaps the backlash against new ways of living was proof of their power to inspire; after all, only visions of change that might come good need to be suppressed. As Mark Fisher speculated about the decade's power to haunt our 21st century present: what if the most radically transformative potentials that were unleashed during the sixties have stalled rather than failed? [15]



 [1] November 1960 saw the last group of British males undertake compulsory service in the military. These young men left the armed forces in summer 1963.

 [2] P. Halasz, ‘Great Britain: You Can Walk Across It On the Grass’, Time, 15 April 1966, 32.

 [3] A.L. Oldham, Stoned, London: Vintage, 2001, 176.

 [4] B. Abel-Smith and P. Townsend, The Poor and the Poorest, London: Routledge, 1965, 57-8.

 [5] D. Sandbrook, White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties, London: Little, Brown, 2006, 182-3.

 [6] H. Wilson, Purpose in Politics: Selected Speeches, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1964, 18-27.

 [7] J. Crosby, ‘The Most Exciting City’, Weekend Telegraph, 16 April 1965.

 [8] House of Commons Debates, vol 776, 27 January 1969.

 [9] See C. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000, London: Routledge, 2009 edn.

 [10] A. Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c.1958-c.1974, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 18.

 [11] This idea is taken from M. Fisher, ‘Unfinished Introduction to “Acid Communism”, in Fisher, k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), London: Repeater, 2018.

 [12] M. Donnelly, Sixties Britain: Culture, Society and Politics, Harlow: Pearson, 2005, 151-153.

 [13] S. Hall et al. Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, London: Macmillan, 1978, 234.

 [14] P. Barker, ‘Facing Two Ways: Between the 60s and 70s’, New Society, 14/374, 27 November 1969.

 [15] M. Fisher, ‘Unfinished Introduction to “Acid Communism”, in Fisher, k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), London: Repeater, 2018.


Authored by Mark Donnelly

Mark Donnelly

Mark Donnelly is Associate Professor and Course Lead for History at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. His books include Sixties Britain: Culture, Politics and Society, Liberating Histories, which he co-wrote with Claire Norton, and the edited volume Mad Dogs and Englishness: Popular Music and English Identities. He has published numerous articles and essays in the fields of history theory, public history, memory and contemporary cultural politics.

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