Generations

Boomers, part 1: how does it feel?


Not Mr. Jones….

Everything starts somewhere.

This series of posts starts from a thoughtful post by Sara Robinson over at Campaign for America’s Future that our colleague Russ Wellen alerted us to. This sparked some discussion among the writers for this blog and led to a passing comment by our esteemed Dr. Slammy that made me see red – and write an email that I never sent:

It’s a great piece and fundamentally right on so many points. The odd irony, of course, is that the upstart educated middle class rampaging through the streets in the ’60s turned out to be the most able cohort of would-be aristocrats in US history.

If there’s one meme that pervades A LOT of blogosphere chatter (both here at S&R and elsewhere), it’s one that goes something like this:

Boomers have fucked everything up and now we’re all going to hell in a hand basket and it’s the Boomer generation’s fault over under sideways down…

Okay, that last part is just a gratuitous Yardbirds reference.

Most of this yammering about how evil the Boomers are comes from Gen X – whose “cohort” dominates blogging – and who pride themselves on knowing everything about everything.

Let me speak on behalf of my generation for a moment….

You don’t know us.

Maybe you’ll have some idea about us by the time this series of posts is finished, but I doubt it. It’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll, as the man said….

News flash: No generation knows another generation. We may love/hate them, live with them, interact with them on a daily basis, but we don’t know them.

Maybe if, like Billy Pilgrim, one could become unstuck in time….

So say hello to the Baby Boomers. I’ll be trying, in my own idiosyncratic way, to explain what makes us – us….

First, there’s that Port Huron Statement stuff that fired so much of “Boomer rampaging” in the ’60’s:

We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit. When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world: the only one with the atom bomb, the least scarred by modern war, an initiator of the United Nations that we thought would distribute Western influence throughout the world. Freedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people — these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men. Many of us began maturing in complacency. As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss…. (bold face mine)

Those “events too troubling to dismiss” were the repression of civil rights for our (then) largest minority, the looming rise of a war in Southeast Asia that would blossom under Lyndon Johnson into the pointless military/industrial complex economic hog trough for corporations we remember as Vietnam , and the rise of an imbecilic consumerist culture that at this point is threatening our environment, our educational systems, and our economic future – hell, it’s killing us.

The first two of these “troubling events” led to my generation engaging in student protests (the Boomer writers for this esteemed blog were part of that cohort), the takeover of universities, the burning of draft cards, bras, and American flags, yadda, yadda, yadda….

And you know what happened as a result of our shenanigans – which Sam alludes to in his snark above even as he then dismisses us as cavalierly if not as viciously as Hunter did?

Let me quote from that unsent email I alluded to earlier: Once we’d forced an end to overt American Imperialism in SE Asia, embraced trying to move the country toward civil rights for all no matter what their race, gender, or sexual orientation, and driven Satan’s minion Nixon from office, we were tired, over 30, and ready for our younger cohorts to take up the banner.

Of course there’s our poet/rock god/generational hero Bob Dylan, pictured above. He lovingly describes us this way:

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Of course, we thought who Dylan was talking about was our parents. And if there’s one thing we would never become, it was our parents.

And then we did. Or did we?

That’s for part 2….

33 replies »

  1. Well, before we get too knee-deep here, let me sorta defend myself a little.

    1: It’s true that I provoked you. Yes I did. Glad to see that it worked.

    2: There might be some small value in distinguishing between Sam the Gen Xer, snarkyknow-it-all though he may be, and all Gen Xers. That m-m-m-my generation never set out to change the world because we were a pack of feral anti-collectivists hardly needs saying, but as I’ve noted elsewhere, it’s not like we weren’t cynical for reasons.

    3: Yes, I have had bitchy things to say about Boomers as a cohort, although it must be noted that I have had very good things to say about particular Boomers. And while Gen X maybe cannot know the Boom, I do know many Boomers. No answer any of us provides will be complete, but I’ve always tried to temper the large, macro critique with the intimate knowledge of a good number of people in that cohort. It’s the best I can do.

    4: In the end, GI Genners, Silents, Boomers, Xers and Millennials have done what we have done. For my part, I hope to hell that X, now that we’re of the age to lead a society, can do some things that we haven’t done before. We’ve been successful as entrepreneurs (you’re welcome for the Internets), but as a collective we have been self-focused to the point of obsession, we have trusted by god nobody, and we have not projected onto the public life the values that govern the lives of our small tribes. Our first president has so far made very little case for inclusion on Rushmore.

    All of which is to say that my yarping about your generation or any other comes within a context of the failings of my own.

    Glad you’ve finally waded into these waters. You’ve been fighting it off for, what, 20 years now? I look forward to the rest of the series….

  2. As a prototypical Boomer, age-wise anyway (born 1950), I’d like to bring to light one trait that many of us acquired that has either gone unappreciated about us or that we’ve lost. (I’m not enough of a student of generations to know.) That is, acceptance of others as they are — a live-and-let-live ethos which reached its apex in what’s today become the butt of jokes: the hippy.

    I personally and many of my friends from that era bought into that totally. However much not judging people leaves me at a disadvantage, I never considered being any other way.

    • Russ makes a good point. But if I’m the designated hornet’s-nest-poker, let me recontextualize the issue. Accepting is a good thing. But what do we do with that if the same cohort enables – as seems to be the charge I’m accused of leveling – a system that depositions people outside a narrow economic elite?

      There is NO question that previously marginalized groups like racial minorities and women have improved their lots in the last generation, and there is no argument that the Boom drove much of that. At the same time, overall acceptance and opportunity are arguably worse as a result of the attempted eradication of the middle class, right?

      Or am I just being difficult?

    • Greedy, grasping assholes (GGAs) aren’t unique to any gen. However, at the macro level, the percentage of GGAs is not random – across a population of 50+ million a difference of a fraction of a percent is statistically significant, so the question becomes more about the dynamics that account for the differences.

      Regardless, I think we more or less know what it means when the proportion of GGAs is higher rather than lower… 🙂

  3. And you’re positing that the Boomer experience resulted in a significantly higher proportion of GGA’s than might have been expected? I just need to know which dog is which in the pit, here.

  4. “Gen X, who pride themselves on knowing everything about everything. Let me speak on behalf of my generation: You don’t know us. … No generation knows another generation.”

    LOL, that’s about as ironic a contradiction as I’ve ever heard you make, Jim.

    As far as Boomers, they sold out bigtime. But any generation of Americans would’ve done the same thing. Just happened to be you guys. Had you been born ca. the 20’s, you would’ve kicked Nazi ass too. Had you been born in the 60’s/70’s, you would’ve Breakfast Clubbed and Less than Zeroed too. Had you been born in the 80’s/90’s, you’d be gaming, ripping, texting and sexting like there was no tomorrow too. Boomers rebelled, rocked and then, sadly, rolled over. Oh well.

    • But Mike, had they been born in those other times, they wouldn’t have been Boomers, by definition. Generations are shaped by a variety of factors – political, social, economic, cultural, and not the least of these factors is their place in the generational cycle. Howe & Strauss have illustrated pretty compellingly that our gens run in four-cohort cycles (the Mills are the second coming of the GI Generation – or, to be more accurate, are the fourth coming of the Glorious Generation [1648-1673]). The generational personalities are consistent with certain dynamics which are predictable in part.

      From this angle, what you’re ultimately saying is that if blue had been red it would have been red, which is true, but lacking in a certain nuance… 🙂

  5. Russ: Thanks for that wonderful insight into the Boomer character. It’s a cornerstone of part 2….

    Sam: “…recontextualize the issue”? – LOL, indeed. This means, “I may not be able to win if I don’t redefine the debate, so let me do that because Jim has offered a position (generations don’t really know each other) that I can’t argue against successfully. So let me advance a position that I CAN argue against..” Good old Sam – he’s been trying this crap on me since 1975…. 😉

    As Sam well knows, the overwhelming majority of Boomers ARE NOT GGA’s. This is called a red herring. It’s not even relevant (as he acknowledges, every generation has GGA’s) to the subject under discussion – the character of the Boomer generation.

    Mike: We could go around forever over my point and your counter, so let’s ignore that. You make another, more interesting point – there was a sociologist named Morris Massey who made a mint on the “generations thing” back in the 70’s-80’s. His premise? “Who you are is where you were when….” And you DO have a point despite Sam’s tap dancing that seems to suggest that generations arrive trailing clouds of glory or some such nonsense….

    Ann: Enjoying watching the Gen Xers tell the Boomers who we are because – well, Gen Xers know everything, right? Wait – it’ll get better….

    However, Russ and Denny and I accept you all as you are. Well, Russ and I do – Denny may be another story…. 😉

  6. “…I may not be able to win if I don’t redefine the debate…”

    Ummm, why would I do that when I AGREE with your point? (“generations don’t really know each other”) Besides, that’s not what the “recontextualize” comment was in regards to. THAT was with respect to the “accepting” issue that Russ raised.

    I need to be careful here. I’m clearly up against a greased weasel in this one.

    “As Sam well knows, the overwhelming majority of Boomers ARE NOT GGA’s.”

    1: Sam never said otherwise.
    2: When Ann tried to sucker Sam into saying it, Sam pointedly noted that he said no such thing.

    “This is called a red herring. It’s not even relevant (as he acknowledges, every generation has GGA’s) to the subject under discussion – the character of the Boomer generation.”

    Well, it WOULD be a red herring if, you know, I’d actually said it.

    “…despite Sam’s tap dancing that seems to suggest that generations arrive trailing clouds of glory or some such nonsense….”

    Ummm, can you point Sam to where he said that?

    “Ann: Enjoying watching the Gen Xers tell the Boomers who we are because – well, Gen Xers know everything, right? Wait – it’ll get better….”

    Ann: Enjoy watching Jim make up arguments that we Xers never made so as to expedite the ass-whipping of the straw man.

    *aherm*

    Seriously, Jim, I am NOT the enemy here. You’re either going to have to give me credit for having a brain or admit that you weren’t much of a teacher.

  7. I’m sorry, I still don’t understand the original bone of contention. Is it that Jim says that Sam says that the Boomers really screwed things up?

    • Jim contends that I have overblamed the Boomers for all kind of things. What I did say – and admittedly, it was uncharacteristically snarky of me – was that the Boomers started out as this powerful collective voice for positive change, but when all was said and done it was members of their generation who enabled the greatest movement toward aristocracy that our nation has ever seen. Those aren’t the exact words, but that’s close to what I said.

      Now, we can whack at a variety of things that I may or may not have been guilty of implying, but I believe the fact of my words is substantially accurate. What remains is to sort out whether these actions are a function of Boomer character, or perhaps they’re anomalous, or maybe this is all fundamentally a coincidence and it has nothing to do with the gen in power one way or another.

      Jim is a smart guy. I’m sure forthcoming pieces will address these issues in an informed and reasoned manner.

  8. Please look into the fathers of the Internet, no not Al. All that’s been done since is you’ve added attachments. Thank a Boomer

  9. I’m coming here via The Agonist

    Once we’d forced an end to overt American Imperialism in SE Asia, embraced trying to move the country toward civil rights for all no matter what their race, gender, or sexual orientation, and driven Satan’s minion Nixon from office, we were tired, over 30, and ready for our younger cohorts to take up the banner.

    3 things and you’re done? Lazy. And you didn’t even do it that well. That “American Imperialism in SE Asia” happily trades with a communist China and has currently focused that Imperialism on the Middle East. “Trying to move” toward civil rights for all is right. You all tried and made some big head way, but we’re still not there. And “Satan’s minions” were just back in the White House from 2000-2008. I mean, not even descendants or disciples of the minions. Some of the very same staffers crept back. Way to half ass it.

  10. 7?

    Come on, you can’t spot an X-er screed? Tail end of the X-ers at 32.

    My non-subtle point in these discussions is that not every Boomer burned their bra, not every Boomer liked the Beatles, not every Boomer was at Woodstock, not every Boomer protested the war. Not every Boomer marched with Dr. King. That one sit-in that Boomer went to? Did that matter? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.

    In the grand scheme of things, we’re presented this history of Boomers doing great, great things. And they did. But the vast majority of them just went to school, got a job, started a family, and kept with the status quo. They joined the Rotary Club, joined the PTA, etc. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But their numbers! Their numbers! They gave up too soon. How did the “Greatest Generation” out vote them year after year after year when the Boomers were an exponential force? I fear for how the Boomers will exact that revenge.

    That and I fear that the Boomers will die off at a quicker pace than they expect. A morbid thought, especially as I think of my own parents. But the talks of Medicare and Social Security being run dry will drop off quickly much like the Boomer population. Living to 100 is an anomaly. Willard Scott tells me so. That said, I feel the Boomers have a little guilt creeping in. They don’t/won’t rest on their laurels or this imaginary, marketed pseudo-reality (Beatles/Woodstock/King) take hold of their lives. I don’t think they’re going to quit. I see a period of “re-awaking” happening. What stems from that and how the X-ers, Millennials, and who-knows-what-next react…? I don’t know.

    Drop some knowledge Dr. Slammy.

  11. I’m sure glad I have been unaware of the “bash the boomers” phenomenon up to this point, and I hope to go back to being blissfully unaware.

    … when all was said and done it was members of their generation who enabled the greatest movement toward aristocracy that our nation has ever seen.

    You can’t blame us for the Cheneys, Bushes and Trumps of the world. It was members of the “greatest generation” that pardoned Nixon, not baby boomers. It was their children who did this to us, not the DFHs. It is their children who make up the majority of GGAs.

    Do not dare lump DFH boomers in with the tight-asses.

    Every generation thinks it’s better than the previous one, so don’t you kids go thinking you’re better than the boomers until as a generation you do something to demonstrate you are special or better. End the occupation of Iraq and I might start to be impressed.

    P.S. I wish there was a preview button here — I don’t know if my blockquote’s going to work.

  12. GRS:

    Come on, you can’t spot an X-er screed?

    I’m a big fan of knowing rather than suspecting.

    Tail end of the X-ers at 32.

    Actually, the tail end of X is around 29 at the moment, but you’re close.

    Drop some knowledge Dr. Slammy.

    You offer up a lot of language that, best I can tell, adds up to “there are exceptions and things may change.” Which is true. Now, the idea that Boomers will die off quicker than expected is a novel one, as is the “comeback” theory, and there would be significant implications for either, but you don’t offer us either evidence or reasoning in support of the intuition.

    So maybe you could drop a little knowledge on us instead?

    KM:

    You can’t blame us for the Cheneys, Bushes and Trumps of the world.

    I’m not sure I’m looking to “blame” anyone. However, it’s a basic demographic fact that during the period that the Bushes and Cheney rose to power the Boomers constituted the largest segment of the electorate. So you’d have to admit that the Boom did its part, at least, right?

    It was members of the “greatest generation” that pardoned Nixon, not baby boomers. It was their children who did this to us, not the DFHs. It is their children who make up the majority of GGAs.

    Who do you mean by “their children”? The GI Generation was parent to late Silents and early Boomers.

    Do not dare lump DFH boomers in with the tight-asses.

    Look, let’s be clear. There’s nothing unanimous about a discussion of a group that’s over 50 million strong. Surely that doesn’t even need saying. So nothing said here attaches personally – we’re talking about the behavior of a macro-cohort, a large collective. My generation is full of self-absorbed swine, and when all is said and done those may the very words on the tombstone of Gen X. That doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily a self-absorbed swine, though, and I’m certainly interested in the dynamics that shaped the character of my generation.

    Every generation thinks it’s better than the previous one, so don’t you kids go thinking you’re better than the boomers until as a generation you do something to demonstrate you are special or better. End the occupation of Iraq and I might start to be impressed.

    Hell, I hope we can do better than that. It’s not terribly heartening to look at the bastards who got us into Iraq in the first place and see a lot of Xer support. But then again, this is America, and sadly dumb is a quality that cuts across all living generations.

  13. That said, I feel the Boomers have a little guilt creeping in.

    I have NONE but have looked around in the next group of youth and found few of interest. What amazing is they are just coming out of HS. I won’t live to see the day when most of you are wrong about the human race but I think we will make it when we all agree that greed brings nothing good to the human race. I wonder what it would be like if we all put a side are thoughts of one another and worked to make the world a better place. Ya sure, Sad.

  14. You know, i’m sure that at the time Nixon looked like evil personified, but after Carter, we haven’t had another president that far to the left. His great crime was breaking and entering before the days of hacking into your opponent’s database.

    I’m not saying that Nixon was groovy, but it’s not like LBJ and even Kennedy didn’t have plenty of blood on their hands. And i know that Kennedy is a Boomer hero, but he was real far from sainthood. The man lied all the way through his presidency about the threat of the Soviet Union, starting when he campaigned on the “missile gap”.

    Back to Tricky Dick. What i find strange is that such animosity towards him still exists when the generation that claims to have driven him out of the White House sat on its hands and let Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama do a whole hell of a lot of things far worse than Nixon ever actually did (as distinct from the hissing wishes of laboratory…see, Boomer music reference of deep obscurity).

    Ya know, black folks didn’t really end up on the mountaintop. And i’m hard pressed to think of a time in my life where i heard a group of boomers talk about what a raw deal they got getting locked up in the ghetto with all their equality.

    As to “overt imperialism in S.E. Asia”, well i can’t really argue with a statement as tightly constructed as that. But there certainly wasn’t an end – or really even an abatement – of imperialism overt or otherwise. And while we did get kicked out of S.E. Asia for a good long time, that just focused our attention elsewhere.

    Four years after we left Vietnam, we were cooking up a pretty hefty bout of death and destruction in Afghanistan…but maybe that doesn’t count because Americans weren’t dying.

  15. Slammy:

    Now, the idea that Boomers will die off quicker than expected is a novel one, as is the “comeback” theory, and there would be significant implications for either, but you don’t offer us either evidence or reasoning in support of the intuition.

    I already told you “Willard Scott told me so.” What else do you need to know? Sad fact is, watch the obits. The polls will come soon enough. Just like the Jetsons never gave use jetpacks, they never gave us automatic lifelines into the centenarian years. The bell curve will prevail. And thanks to modern foods (the Boomers started on fresh tomatoes but ended strongly on HFCS) and chemical advancements (how many Boomers remember chasing after the neighborhood DDT truck?) the Boomers won’t live much beyond current life expectancy. Frankly, I don’t think they’ll norm it, I think there will be a regression.

    Now there’s a lot of data out there and much, much more speculation (especially on my part) that no one here wants to be bored with., so consider it more of a prognostication.

    To your point though (or mine?) there are always exceptions and there is always change. My point is: the Boomers f*cked up… a lot. And you can’t pin one single individual for that just like you can’t blame one individual for the successes. But as a whole, wow. I think they did more harm than good. Armchair quarterback over here. “Their generation” unleashed many dangers from Pandoras box. They still haven’t put those dangers away or even addressed them. But I can buy the latest Beatles #1 singles CD.

    Does that makes sense? It’s like the Boomers started on this great quest then just crapped out mid-way through. I often feel like we’re entering a mini-dark ages in regards to science. Let’s go to the moon! F that, we ‘re never going back. Let’s make and market all these long-chain carbon compounds, that never previously existed, for everyday use! Who cares what goes into our oceans. Let’s create mass market mono-culture farms that need to transport goods half-way round the globe! F that garden we grew as kids.

    That’s the Boomer mentality. There’s a slow awakening after 30 years of just plain fat, sloth stupor. What does it mean? Is it too late? Will a massive Boomer shift truly change the direction of the country? I don’t know. I doubt it. We can only wait and see.

  16. Will a massive Boomer shift truly change the direction of the country?

    Just stepping in here with an observation: while the Boomers are by no means a uniform population, they do have one undeniable common characteristic – age. We’re talking about my parents here, and possibly yours, and while I’m not suggesting that Jim or Russ or (perish the thought) my indefatigable mother have lost any of their acumen or drive, I do think it’s relevant to recognize that our focus shifts as we age. While you may be no less passionate about larger issues, making sure you don’t die in a gutter somewhere becomes a rather urgent priority.

    The most physically fit human being I’ve ever personally known, my stepfather, had prostate cancer and an emergency quadruple bypass within two years of his 57th birthday. As my mom says, “There’s nothing glamorous about this crap. Getting old sucks.” And since this suckage is a pangenerational phenomenon, and since significant social change is an excruciatingly slow process, perhaps it’s a bit unrealistic to expect one generation to right the wrongs of the world and leave it all fixed up for the kids?

  17. Commenters: Thanks for this wildly enjoyable discussion. I hope I can continue to provoke such thoughtful (and occasionally emotional) commentary….

    Sam wrote: “Jim is a smart guy. I’m sure forthcoming pieces will address these issues in an informed and reasoned manner.”

    You know me better than that, Sam….

    Ann: At the risk of sounding like Pope Benedict, bless you for your common sense observation about aging Boomers. We are at a different place now – as I’ll discuss much later in this series….

  18. I hope I didn’t make it sound as though you were all tottering around on the edge of the grave. The same observation applies to me, at forty, with a four-year-old daughter. My energy and attention is expended in very, very different ways now than it was twenty or ten years ago…

  19. … when all was said and done it was members of their generation who enabled the greatest movement toward aristocracy that our nation has ever seen.

    You can’t blame us for the Cheneys, Bushes and Trumps of the world. It was members of the “greatest generation” that pardoned Nixon, not baby boomers. It was their children who did this to us, not the DFHs. It is their children who make up the majority of GGAs.

    What Karen Marie said.

  20. That Dylan quote was, I believe, to a ‘unhip,’ reporter; not to the activist, hip, pot-smoking, free loving, sex, drug and rock ‘n’ roll loving aficionados who — as you comment about Gen-X or Y or Z — knew Everything.

    Some of us lived the Sixties, Seventies, etc. — not detached, not commentators, not “walking into the room with a pencil in our hand.” We were not Mr. Jones; we were critics of Mr. Jones.

    Re: How does it feel? — Fine. Although who ever would have thought these generational values apparently had to be fought and debated from the cradle to the grave.

    Others HAVE “picked up the torch.” — Um…I’m not sure what the problem is, Mr. Jones.

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