Boomer or Bust

December 23, 2004 | By Jeff A. Taylor

It has taken 40 years to for me to come to the conclusion that if you are born a baby boomer you are pretty much destined to die one, too. You can’t escape them. I know, I’ve tried.

Acting half your age does not work; the boomers patented the whole forever young thing. Besides, it is tiring as hell and annoys your wife. Coming into the world at the absolute ass-end of the boom in December, 1964 closes off the acting-older escape route too, as there is no shortage of 55-year-old boomers waiting to suck of the life out of you with golf, stock tips, and the time they saw Mick and Keith and the Stones.

It is not enough that by sheer force of numbers, boomers have kept America’s politics and popular culture boomer-centric for decades. There’s that recurring boomer exceptionalism—most, best, only—that often muscles its way to the front.

William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book Generations took this constant refrain of “we’re special” to actually mean something besides bad parenting. Strauss and Howe declared the boomers’ strident tendency to announce from on high the goal and wants of society to be the defining characteristic of the generation. Howls of indignation from boomers promptly demonstrated a moralizing busy-bodiness that has given rise to one movement for “change” after another.

Yet millions of boomers, each insisting they had discovered the best way to live and work and pray and play, did have profound consequences, just not the intended ones. As the hysterical line from the Team America soundtrack puts it: “America! Fuck Yeah! Freedom is the only way, yeah.” The net effect of all the boomer striving was to increase personal freedom and possibilities, not so much in any one direction, but in many sometimes contradictory ones. Turns out freedoms were the only way, yeah.

Unlike the Beat Generation that headed off to North Africa or South America for a few weeks or months of “real” freedom before settling into permanent disaffection and (if they were lucky) early, spectacular death, boomers said, “Screw it, let’s make our own life right here.” What started as an effort to build a counter-culture soon fragmented into niche cultures that had nothing to do with, or even hated, flower power. That continued with succeeding generations to the point that today, with a big boost from technology, the average American can burrow deep into one comforting culture and/or surf across dozens of cultures with equal ease.

The mythical hippy-drippy boomers even gave birth to another myth that refuses to die, that of their conservative Millennial offspring. Considering this all started 20 years ago with a limp Michael J. Fox sitcom, it is time to retire the played-out joke before it gets flipped onto the next generation. Holo-headline 2031: “Look! The conservatives have hippie kids!”

Yet history will show that, for all their organizing skill and moral sensitivities, the boomers took a pass on actually changing one hellish state policy rather than have a few uncomfortable conversations with their kids. Gotta have that moral high ground even at the kitchen table, it seems. Boomers have collaborated and shamelessly switched sides on the war on drugs with full knowledge of the constitutional repercussions. If the greatest generation had landed at Omaha Beach, pissed themselves, tossed their weapons into the sea, and begged to serve as Nazi slop-boys, then you might have an equivalent act of mass cowardice.

One glimmer of hope here is that as the war on terror follows down the same domestic path as the war on drugs, any new, deal-killing restrictions on personal freedom may be clearly seen to have their roots in the drug war. Overseas, as America’s rebuilding effort in Afghanistan will demonstrate in the coming years, it should become abundantly clear you cannot fight both drugs and terror. Pick one and you might win.

But boomer self-absorption is finally generating a little movement on the Social Security reform front, an issue that has required urgent reform for 20 years now. Fear that the program might go poof for boomers may spur enough political will to do something other than prop up the Ponzi scheme. Or boomer exceptionalism may demand even more benefits from future generations, just as the new Medicare drug benefit does quite boldly. We’re special—pay up.

Quite a bundle of contradictions, these boomers. The last generation raised on a unified, mass popular culture, doomed to always try to rebuild one, only to produce the tools that make mass culture impossible; obsessed with social justice, except when it counts. And if that sounds like more boomer exceptionalist bullshit, so be it. We’re tricky old farts.