In 1969, Margaret Thatcher became Shadow Education Secretary, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and 10,000 11-year-olds — all born in a single week in 1958 — wrote essays predicting their lives at 25.
Either about to leave primary school, or newly arrived at secondaries — they described their hopes and ambitions.
All were part of the National Child Development Study, which has kept track of their lives every decade for 60 years.
This year, those baby boomers turned 60 and, here, five of them talk to Beth Hale about how their childhood dreams have matched up to half a century of reality.
I wanted to be a nurse – then realised girls CAN be doctors!
As a girl growing up at a time when men and women had strictly defined roles, hospital-obsessed Sally Seth-Smith assumed she would become a nurse.
‘I am sitting in a ward on night duty I will soon be a staff nurse,’ reads her painstakingly neat essay — neat except for the fact that staff nurse has been scored through with a single line and replaced with ‘sister’.
It was only later, while at her small comprehensive school in Cumbria, Sally realised she might be able to become a doctor.
Sally Seth-Smith assumed she would become a nurse. It was only later, while at her small comprehensive school in Cumbria, she realised she might be able to become a doctor
‘My mum was a nurse and my dad was a doctor, so I was always very interested in medical stuff.
‘I used to have a permanent hospital for my dolls and teddies set up in my bedroom, where I would do ward rounds, check their temperature and stuff like that.
‘As long as I could remember, I had wanted to be a nurse and then someone said to me “You might be clever enough to become a doctor”, and I thought “Gosh, can girls be doctors?”
‘Men were doctors and women were nurses, and that was absolutely how it felt then.’
But a seed had been planted and Sally, who settled in Hampshire, has now been a GP for 30 years.
Two of her children are also doctors, and her youngest son works in finance. She has two grandchildren.
Sally smiles as she reads back her childhood dreams of a world where 2,000 people live on the moon, ‘England is like Switzerland with no fighting’, ‘the Russians no longer invade other countries’ and ‘the whole world is running out of food’.
‘It is just so me; socially, politically and ecologically aware — a lot of what I’m passionate about now, but I had no idea I had that sort of understanding or thoughts when I was 11,’ she says.
But as eloquent as her essay is, Sally’s recollections of that time are tinged with sadness.
Not long after she’d written her essay, Sally’s mother committed suicide. She had discovered that her husband was having an affair with one of her friends.
Sally and her three younger brothers were almost immediately uprooted and taken to Cumbria by their father, who never discussed their mother’s death.
It was only later that they began to piece together what had happened in their parents’ lives.
‘I was probably well into my mid-20s before I could really talk about it,’ says Sally, who has been married to her second husband Nigel, an electronics engineer, for nearly 20 years.
I still regret money woes killed off my ideal career
Jackie Adkins laughs as she re-reads the three paragraphs that constituted her idea of an ‘essay’.
‘I work in a hair dressers and looking for a shop (sic) when I have saved up some money I will buy one,’ she wrote.
Cinema trips with friends and buying clothes on a Saturday — those were Jackie’s dreams.
Cinema trips with friends and buying clothes on a Saturday — those were Jackie Adkins’ dreams. Today, she has been married to Paul, 63, for 35 years and has three children and one grandson
Today, she has been married to Paul, 63, for 35 years and has three children and one grandson.
She wonders whether she wrote so little because she was so certain where she would be at 25.
‘I was always going to be a hairdresser,’ says Jackie.
‘I used to cut my own hair and my mum’s and I used to carry my hairdressing scissors in my school bag and at lunchtime the girls would say “can you do my fringe for me?” or “can you put layers in my hair?”’
Jackie loved her secondary school in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, one of the brand-new comprehensives, and was among the first year to start when it opened in 1969.
She had a place to study at hairdressing college when, aged 16, her parents moved to Sussex, and her dreams were shelved.
She found herself working in a bank because her parents could not afford to support her through college.
Her father had a heart attack and died when Jackie was just 19, so her income was even more essential and thoughts of going to hairdressing college faded.
She remains wistful about the career that might have been — she still cuts her grown-up children’s hair and one of her daughters is a hairdresser — but Jackie says: ‘Once I got into the cycle of earning money, it was so hard to break away from that.’
Jackie left banking after the birth of her second child and since then has done everything from selling candles to catering for parties and working for a mining recruitment company.
But today, after surgery for a benign tumour in her stomach, Jackie is ‘enjoying taking life a little slower’, while helping her builder husband with his books from their home in Lancing, West Sussex.
‘It’s time to do the things we couldn’t do when the kids were younger,’ she says.
‘I’m off to Amsterdam soon, going to do a Scandinavian boat tour in the summer and next year we are hoping to go to Cuba.’
All I knew was that I didn’t want to be like my father
Looking back, Steve Christmas is all too aware of the poignancy of his essay.
Writing about his grown-up life, he predicted he would be a ‘sargant’ (sic) in the police with a wife named Jane, a new surname (Stephensone), a house in Wales and four children.
The new surname and life in Wales were, he suspects, because he wanted to get as far away as possible from Harwich, Essex, where his parents ran a café and sweet shop.
Steve Christmas’ father was an alcoholic who could put away a bottle of whisky a day and was verbally abusive to his wife and two sons. He promised himself he wouldn’t ever be like him
Steve’s father was an alcoholic who could put away a bottle of whisky a day and was verbally abusive to his wife and two sons.
‘I didn’t want to be me,’ says Steve, who now lives in Eastbourne with wife Sue, 57, a PA for the NHS, whom he met on holiday aged 21. ‘I wanted to be this other person.’
School was also miserable for Steve.
‘I wasn’t very clever,’ he says. ‘There was too much else going on in my life. I think today someone would have noticed.’
He left school with no qualifications aged 15, and moved with his family to Rye, East Sussex, where he worked as a farm labourer, until his father went bankrupt and uprooted them all again to nearby Hastings.
‘I remember making a conscious decision that I wasn’t going to be like my father,’ he says.
Steve didn’t become a policeman — he realised before leaving school that at 5ft 9in he wasn’t tall enough and that he would struggle to pass the exams he needed.
Instead, several years later, he started working for an insurance company, and studied at night to pass his vocational exams, discovering he was actually quite bright after all.
Fatherhood came late for Steve.
After leaving home at 31 to marry Sue, they eventually had daughter Emma, now 23, through IVF, thanks to Professor Robert Winston.
‘All I wanted when I was 11 was structure, to be happy, have children and for them to be happy, and that’s what has happened,’ smiles Steve, who took early retirement before setting up his own business writing wills.
As for his father, he died in 2003, a year after Steve’s mother.
‘That last year I learned a lot about him,’ says Steve.
‘I stopped him drinking so much, stopped him smoking. Before he died he gave me a big cuddle, which he had never done, he apologised and said: “I’m really sorry for what I’ve done.”
‘Life’s too short to stay bitter. What happens in your childhood doesn’t have to hold you back.’
My dream was dashed but I still feel like that little boy
Nigel Wakeford was a clever child who passed his 11-plus and became the first boy in his family to go to grammar school.
His was a happy childhood with his three siblings and parents.
‘My dad married at 18 and was working class. He did lots of different things, and ended up doing admin for a bus company,’ recalls Nigel.
Nigel Wakeford was a clever child who passed his 11-plus and became the first boy in his family to go to grammar school. He dreamed of being a soldier but failed the medical because he had a lazy eye
‘But if he had ten bob in his pocket he’d take us out on the weekend.’ There were sailing trips, horseriding and countryside jaunts.
Aged 11, Nigel dreamed of being a soldier.
Visualising life at 25 he wrote: ‘I do not spend much time at home because I travel a lot abroad. At the moment I have a job as corpral (sic) in the army.
‘There is a lot of drill and hard work in it but we do have some pleasure time we go to the pictures and have dances.’
Sadly, Nigel’s dreams of joining the Armed Forces were not to be.
Leaving school at 16, he did attempt to join the RAF. ‘I went to the recruitment office in Brighton and did all the exams.
‘I was told I had one of the best English comprehension test papers they’d ever had, but then I went for the medical and failed because I had a minor eye defect, a “lazy” eye.’
Naturally optimistic, he is not regretful but feels he missed out on a ‘career’.
While clever enough to get his English and Maths O-levels a year early, he spent much of his working life in different jobs, before becoming a carpenter.
Now semi-retired, but looking for a part-time job, he is mortgage free and enjoying life near Lewes, East Sussex, with his wife Caroline, a civil servant.
His hobby is classic cars — and he’s been an MG Owners Club member for 35 years.
‘I’d be a rich man if it wasn’t for cars and bikes,’ he jokes.
‘I still feel much younger than I am, I’ve never lost that. Mentally I’m still 12.’
I was bored with the workday grind even then!
Aged 11, Paul Hoggins imagined life as a lawyer who has already fallen out of love with his job.
He wrote: ‘The alarm clock goes for the start of another day. Another day of work at the office. How boring all I do is sit reading books . . . Why couldn’t I be a miner instead of a lawjer (sic) (who doesn’t do a thing).’
In the event, he became a journalist, and while he doesn’t remember his childhood ambitions, he recognises his love of language and sardonic outlook in the essay.
Aged 11, Paul Hoggins imagined life as a lawyer who has already fallen out of love with his job. But he went on to become a journalist and remembers his love of language as a child
‘My wife saw it and laughed and said that explains a lot,’ says Paul, a father-of-three who has four grandchildren.
‘For an 11-year-old there’s quite a dose of cynicism in there. And I always enjoyed creative writing and English.’
Paul grew up on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, living with his four siblings, his mum’s younger half brother and his parents — eight of them squeezed into a three-bedroom council house while his dad worked for Pilkington, the glass manufacturer.
‘I think I got my dad’s graft and my mum’s brightness. In a different time she would have gone to university, but she was a full-time mum until we all got older,’ says Paul.
He took a degree in business studies but, as soon as he finished, he followed his older brother to work on a local newspaper.
‘Before my degree, I never had it in my head that I would become a reporter,’ he says.
‘But when a junior reporter’s job came up on the local paper, I never looked back.’
Paul, who confesses he has had a rewarding working life, still lives on Sheppey, with fitness instructor wife Amanda and works part-time at the Daily Mail.
One son has followed in his father’s footsteps, one is a carpenter and the third has learning difficulties and lives in a nearby care home.