American Culture

How will history remember Baby Boomers?

CATEGORY: Baby BoomersThe generation that fought World War II is, thanks to Tom Brokaw, now known as “The Greatest Generation.”

If his great grandson writes a book about Baby Boomers, what would the title of that book be? How will our generation be remembered?

Perhaps history will term us “The Kindest Generation,” for we certainly cared more for social causes than had previous generations. We tackled and for the most part were successful in improving the positions of the less powerful—blacks, women, gays, and the handicapped. It’s not clear exactly why we took on these challenges. Perhaps it was because we enjoyed an unprecedented era of prosperity and simply had the resources to do so. Or maybe it was just time. Every issue has its day, e.g., improvements in rights for black people seem to move in hundred year increments. Maybe our generation was just in the right time and place for a little kindness.

Maybe we’ll go down as “The Coolest Generation.” Certainly generations before us had “cool,” but it was typically confined to small subsets of the population, e.g., musicians and artists. We were the first generation to democratize cool. During the jazz era, there were many in the population who wouldn’t be caught dead listening to that “negro music.” But there’s no Baby Boomer that doesn’t listen to rock and roll, and probably none that doesn’t own a pair of jeans or think of themselves as “with it.” Surely no generation has tried to hang on to cool for as long as we have, at least in terms of paying exorbitant tickets prices to see ancient rockers rasp and creak their way across the stage. We’ve also spent our fair share on trying to keep ourselves looking cool through cosmetic surgery and pharmaceutical attempts to cheat the aging process. Of course, the Pharmacological Generation has a ring to it, too.

Of course, history may see our insistence on hanging on to our own fashions and culture and refusing to age as something that makes us “The Self-Centered Generation.” It’s amusing to see covers of Time magazine calling current young people the “Me” generation. Really? The only reason we think they’re the “me” generation is because they aren’t all about “us.” How dare they want their own music on commercials? Who do they think they are? Certainly our belief that we deserve everything we want is pervasive (“Eat, Love, Pray” anyone?). (Indeed, the idea that we get to name ourselves is a little self-centered to begin with.)

Perhaps we’ll go down as “The Silliest Generation.” And not silly in a good way of “joyful and carefree,” but silly in a bad way of “naïve and trivial.” After all, it’s hard to imagine anything sillier and more trivial than thinking that a few mass demonstrations would end war, or that a concert or two would solve world hunger, or stop economic forces like mechanization of farms in their tracks. We were the generation that thought that massive, intractable problems could be solved in a weekend with a party, like Live Aid or Farm Aid, etc. If they can’t, like climate change or the growing prosperity gap, why we simply pretend they don’t exist. “La, la, la, la—I can’t hear you.”

It’s possible we’ll be seen as “The Fractured Generation,” at least here in the U.S. It’s hard to remember a generation with more passionate factions and less interest in compromise. Although that’s one where our perspective may be skewed. History, after all, is written by the winners. There may well have been such factions at every point in history, and looking back we don’t see it. I doubt it though. I suspect that the echo chamber created by the internet and partisan media are creating groups more insular and intractable than any we’ve seen, at least for a century or two.

I’d guess the best we can hope for is to be remembered as “The Well-intended Generation.” No, we didn’t solve poverty, hunger, war, but we cared about them enough to buy the tee-shirts. We didn’t stop racism, but we did slap people who use the “n-word” and force race-mongers to use euphemisms. We didn’t defeat Hitler, or communism, or theocratic rule, but we certainly annoyed those states that espouse centrally-planned economies and assassinated the dictators that dared mock us. So we did something. In our own kind, cool, superficial, confused, self-centered way, we tried. We really did.


Or maybe we should just go with the “Wasted Opportunity Generation.”

19 replies »

  1. I know that it’s common to say history is written by the winners, but I’m not all sure that historiographers would agree — or, at least, not entirely. The first battle account we have, for instance, is from Ramses II, reporting on the Battle of Kadesh against the HIttites. He depicts it as a glowing victory, even though his aim in the campaign was to conquer Kadesh and, perhaps ultimately, all of the northern Levant, right up to the Cilician Gates. In fact, he turned his entire army around and went home. I don’t think any serious historians believe he won there. At best, he may have salvaged a tactical draw after being roundly beaten in the first part of the battle.

    We remember Julius Caesar pretty much through the eyes of his enemies, and he beat his enemies pretty soundly right up to the assassination. I think it’s accurate to say that modern historians focusing on that era have some very serious questions about the way GJC is portrayed, since many of the qualities attributed to him in the written record seem very much at odds with his actual policies and actions.

    In my own childhood, the history books I had in school were very pro-Confederacy, and the most famous historian of the Civil War (perhaps until Bruce Catton) was Douglas Southall Freeman, a notorious Confederate apologist. To the popular mind in that day, “Gone with the Wind” probably defined the average person’s view of the South of that time.

    And let’s not forget that one of the most famous histories of all time, “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” was written by Thucydides, a general on the losing side. After all, the Spartans didn’t write ;-).

    I do think that first histories are often written by the winners, though, and that it is only in the last century that historians have revisited some history most people thought was settled, but which turned out to be little more than folktales. For instance, my eyes were opened in college when I read a book that turned the idea that Reconstruction was some horrible ordeal for the South on its ear, and serious history taught about that era has never been the same.

    “The Greatest Generation” won’t last as a term for the WWII generation. It’s simply popular at this time. Once the golden glow of the romance of WWII as a “good war” has faded, historians will take a much harder look at that era and discover that America rose to preeminence because it had the largest and most intact industrial base in a world that needed to buy practically everything from us. It didn’t take “greatness” to succeed in that economic environment, and it spawned an unjustified sefl-confidence in American know-how that led to the ultimate decay of our industrial base on marketing schemes that sold form over substance, perpetrated by companies like GM that were run by Greatest Generationers.

    It’s really too early, in my opinion, to write much about the Boomers. The hottest management book in the early 1980s was “In Search of Excellence.” Within a decade, almost all the highly touted companies researched in that book were ailing or gone. It’s only with a fair amount of hindsight that large trends achieve some clarity, especially when looking at history through a cultural and socio-economic lens.

    Just my opinion, of course.

    • Sometimes, particularly when I read a comment like this, I wish I was more erudite.

      I love the way all of us say stuff all the time that we take for granted but simply isn’t true, e.g., history is written by the winners. As I stop to think about it, I think it entirely possible that it’s exactly the opposite for a simple reason–winners don’t need to write it down. It’s losers that want to recast the story. Marg Mitchell and DW Griffith are great examples, as are the Rambo movies. We couldn’t win in Viet Nam, so we made up movies where we did. (Although the first Rambo was arguably an anti-war movie, the follow ons were sheer revisionism.) Nice observation.

      Now, to the main point. Of course, you’re right. This is not going to the floor for a vote for a hundred years. It’s still in committee. However, I do think it possible that my generation will be remembered as one of those generations that came between big events and accomplished not much, which should chagrin us all since we think so much of ourselves.

      • I’m reminded of a story I heard a few years back. It may be true, but who knows. Anyway, a famous Japanese historian was visiting the US for some reason or another and was at a party or reception. He got to talking with one of the attendees, who asked him what he thought was the major impact of the American Civil War. The historian said it was too soon to tell.

        Of course, in our age of rapidly accelerated instant everything, there may be a desire to write the history more immediately than was once true. This will add another layer of complexity to what future historians must do in unraveling our present moment.

      • Giving it some more thought, Otherwise, I think that history may be written by those who can write and/or those that annihilate others. For instance, what we know of Carthage, the Roman-era Celts and Germans, the druids, the Scythians, Numidians, etc.comes to us largely from the Romans. In some cases, it was just that the Romans could write and had a society with the kind of wealth to support chroniclers. In other cases, the Romans wiped out a few societies, and there was no one to gainsay them. But in the case of the Jewish revolt in 66-70 AD, we know it almost entirely through Josephus, a Jewish commander on the losing side. A lot of Judeans could read and write, and their society wasn’t wiped out.

        Certainly, settlers of European origin wrote the first draft of history in the conquest of America’s indigenous tribes, and the British wrote the first draft of history about most (and maybe all, for all I know) of its colonial conquests. And I suspect that there are histories written by losers that are out there we’ve never heard of because they were either not translated into English, or had very limited English circulation.

        Interesting line of thought. Thank you for starting it.

      • If it helps Otherwise, while you may feel J Stephen left you lying in the dirt, at least you can still see sunlight. He flat buried me and it’s very dark and cold down here with the wriggly worms! There’s always some comfort in comparison (g).

        The whole concept of discrete blocks of humans arriving and departing en masse is artificial anyway. Every day babies are born and old people pass away. We’re pretty much a continuous mold culture and pointing to a selection of spores and saying, “There’s the dirty sons of bitches that done us wrong” is an interesting device for discussion but it’s not how the blood line works.

        Two steps forward one step back, that’s human history. I crudely mentioned the web in my previous comment and now I’ll bring it up again. We don’t have a clue what we have created and what it’s going to become in following generations. The greatest library, the greatest knowledge base, everything we’ve ever learned, dreamed, thought. All available instantly for searching, filtering, compiling from any place at any time.

        Moving forward it’s going to be impossible to write one sided historical narratives that take hold because there will be too many other voices speaking the truth.
        These are amazing times if we lift our eyes from despair and think of all the good places we have left to go.

        • Oh, I’m in no danger of having my ego crushed by J-Stevo or anyone else. The worst pummmeling I ever took was from Lex for my Palau blog. I am always delighted to see a comment from JS or you because I know it will further the discussion.

          Having said that, it continues to amaze me that comment threads break out and grow on tangential points, e.g., history and winners, which while interesting, surely wasn’t the main point of the piece. It’s not bad, but it’s interesting to observe the gap between what I’m trying to say and what people hear.

          Your point is interesting, but I’m not sure you’re right. Yes, we don’t show up on this earth in discrete blocks, or cohorts as the demographers call them, but we do clump into discrete blocks. I remember a Y2K party where the host had gone to this elaborate and amazing effort to have everyone at the party vote on the best songs of all time. He’d made CD’s (don’t laugh, children) of every top hit for the last fifty years, mailed them out with ballots, etc, etc. Whole thing took months. At the end of the party, we had a countdown. Afterwards people argued and I detected a pattern, so I went around polling people and asking them how old they were. Every single person’s top song of all time came from their senior year of high school/first year of college. That may be a little difficult to follow, but my point is we are less independent minded than we think and are much like our age-group peers. We may have been born as individuals, but we soon herded ourselves into like-minded cohorts. I think we boomers are more of a type than we might be comfortable admitting.

          And the correct answer was Layla. Can you believe some idiots voted for Meat Loaf? The young fools.

  2. All valid points Otherwise and I might throw in the “Digital Generation”. We’ve helped build the beginnings of the greatest library and meeting place of humans in history, the web, as well as satellite communications, cell phones, and computers shrinking to nano sizes as capacity and clock speeds explode off the charts.

    I’d also mention we’re not done yet. We’re in charge now, we’re the doctors and lawyers and business owners. The writers and teachers, bankers and stockbrokers. It’s our turn for a moment to lead the charge, and as you lamented above, I hope we don’t waste too much of the opportunity.

    …at this point I’d be happy if we could just synthesize protein in the form of a tasty rib eye steak so we could stop factory farming animals.

  3. I’m going to go with the last one, sadly. We blew it. We had an amazing opportunity to do it better, and we came up with George W. Bush. We dominate the tea party–it’s mostly boomers, frighteningly. We’re driving the paranoia that pervades modern American politics. The environmental movement has practically collapsed.The social safety net is under its greatest threat since its creation, and it’s boomers leading the charge.The disappointing generation. At least we had good music for a while, but we let that get away too. No wonder we’re cynical. Or at least I am.

    Sam–that’s the answer Chao En Lai gave when he was asked what he thought of the French Revolution.

  4. Otherwise: I find threads that go off on *interesting* tangents the best kind.

    I’m with Frank on this one, only I’d take it a step farther. I wonder if the question you pose, itself, isn’t harmful, because it presupposes that there are such things as defined generations, that those generations are homogeneous enough to make broad generalizations about them, and that, in the end, such generalizations are useful. To me, the question is a bit like asking which race is smartest. I don’t think race, in that sense, exists. It is the mental construct of race that makes it exist in any meaningful way. I believe it is much the same with questions about generations.

    Let’s take the so-called “boomers,” and let’s divide how “history” will see them into two broad categories: ‘Popular history” and “academic history.”

    Popular history simplifies and distorts generational stereotypes. For instance, the Roaring 20s were supposed to have been about booze, flappers, the fast life, and loosening sexual morals. In fact, one could find those things in some cities, but the reality of the 20s was that most people were brought up in an environment of semi-Victorian attitudes toward sex, that drinking any sort of alcohol, ever, was considered grossly immoral in many places, and that flapper dresses were rarely to be seen outside the big cities.

    I suspect popular history will define the Boomers through the unrest of the late 60s and early 70s, but the fact is that most Boomers during this time never joined in any of that. In my own area, Boomers had (generally) short hair and expressed disdain and hatred for the protesters. Many still do. And if there were Boomers marching in unison with civil rights activists, there were as many or more waving Confederate flags and spitting on those activists.

    Academic history is, I believe, pretty much what Frank has already said it is. No serious historian is going to approach a period in history without taking into account an enormous set of factors driving behavior. For instance, Boomers came along in an age of prosperity that everyone thought would last forever. They were the first to be targeted on a mass and daily basis by the extremely powerful means of audio-visual persuasion. They were the second generation to have reasonable access to higher education, and the first to have that access without having to have served in a war to get it. They were also the target of their parents’ aspirations for them in a world that seemed to have a boundlessly bright future. I cannot think of another time in history when so many parents painted such a rosy picture for their children, and pushed them so hard towards paths that could lead to great financial success.

    All of these factors shaped Boomers, just as other factors shaped other generations, and are today. Of course, when that dream went bust in the 1980s, as American manufacturers lost their competitive advantages, that dawning realization that the world is a very different place from what they were taught it was also shaped the people caught up in layoffs and financial distress. But the experience of a white collar worker facing this sort of distress in 1988 at age 42, when middle managers were still being protected, or a blue-collar guy at 42 when he had union seniority, and those facing it at age 24, when they were barely hanging on to entry-level jobs, was profoundly different, and the idea that these people are somehow related because they happened to be born during the “baby boom” is absurd.

    Generations are not homogeneous. Where you are born, when you are born, where you live during your formative years, whether you are an adult in a relatively stable and affluent area, or whether you are in an unstable and economically distressed area, industry, or what have you, shapes you and can make you very, very different from others in whatever cohort someone else wants to pretend exists.

  5. Chiming in belatedly (must watch my feeds more diligently)–

    This is a great analysis of the Boomer Generation question. And comments worthy of it.

    JStpehen’s remarks on who writes history remind me as a pre-Boomer (War Baby) of a passage in our high school American History text, which was written by the famous historian Samuel Eliot Morison. About pre-war life in the slave states, it taught that the life of slaves generally wasn’t all terrible, and painted a happy picture of the life of well-kept slaves, with the pickaninnies playing in the sun—WHAT? The whats?? Come off it! (My reaction in 1957 or so)

    On History, there is C. S. Lewis, complete with offensive outdated rhetoric:
    Men now worship as the Goddess history what a manlier age scorned as Strumpet Fortune.

  6. This isn’t only a thorough and thoughtful exposition, but also pretty much of an exhaustive argument about some of the sterling attributes (and a few shortcomings) of my-my-my generation. Good job, Otherwise! I actually feel good about being a Baby Boomer right now. Hey, let’s party! `S & R’ may not be directly responsible for changing anything, but other B-Boomers here can sure raise a racket and let others know about certain things. Pound the drums! Play that bass! Sing that song!

  7. I think the Boomers will be remembered, mainly, as the generation that squandered the wealth of their parents and then the wealth of their children. A kind of black hole of greed and entitlement.

  8. The Worst Generation.

    FDR didn’t leave the new deal, just for your generation.

    But your generation sure as hell made sure we’d never get to use it.

    Also, your best music wasn’t about holding hands or how people try to bring you down just cause you get around, but about letting everyone know how trash your g g g generation was.