Don’t Blame the Boomers

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American History

Jill at Brilliant at Breakfast has words for the young folks who blame America’s problems on Boomers.

Last month I had an extended and rather heated exchange with one of our commenters who made a host of sweeping generalizations about baby boomers, few if any of which were true. I’ve had conversations with some of my Gen-X friends on this as well, with many of them similarly blaming the baby boomers for their own plight. I’ve even seen Gen-Xers trying to claim Keith Olbermann as one of their own, even though he was born in 1959 and therefore is indisputably a baby boomer. I hate to tell them this, but no less a Gen-X icon than old Lloyd Dobler himself, John Cusack, only escaped the dread Baby Boomer label by a mere six months.

I’m seeing a lot of this lately; blaming the baby boomers for everything that’s gone wrong in this country, hand-in-hand with the idea that Gen-X, Gen-Y, and the Millenials are somehow either a) hapless victims of the evil boomers (largely the province of Gen-Xers who are now reaching an age when the refusal to “sell out” is starting to have the nasty consequences of no savings and no health insurance); b) greedy, evil people who have sucked up all the resources and left nothing for anyone else; or c) an entire generation of hippies who had all the sex and all the drugs and all the fun and then became Republicans and tried to deny anyone else the fun they had.

I’ve seen a lot of this, too, and while I don’t think all Gen-Xers, etc., are guilty (that would be generalizing), enough of ’em are guilty, and it annoys the bleep out of me.

Jill is right when she says,

There’s this notion Chris and others put forward that the 80-hour workweek is somehow the invention of sellout baby boomers out of pure greed for bigger houses and ever-more electronic gewgaws and STUFF. But the fact of the matter is that at least for people born my year and later, especially those of us on a white-collar track, the defined benefit pensions and job security that our parents enjoyed was already largely gone by the time we emerged from college into a recession caused by the second oil shock in a decade.

This was my experience, also, and I’m older than Jill. By the time I was out of college the kind of job security my parents had enjoyed was already evaporating. I agree that younger people today are getting a raw deal generally compared to us Boomers, but we Boomers got a rawer deal than our parents did after World War II. And I believe the forces causing this creeping rawness were put into place while most of us Boomers were still babies.

I have in my hands a book titled Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945-1960 by Elizabeth Fones-Wolf. Dr. Fones-Wolf documents that during the very years the Boomers were birthed, a cabal of wealthy corporate leaders used their resources to undermine the popularity of New Deal progressivism and unions. They succeeded, and this success ushered in the era in which corporations could demand that workers pretty much turn over their lives to the Company. Before most Boomers were even in high school most of the damage had been done, and by the time we entered the workforce the rules had already been changed, although we didn’t realize it right away.

Our parents were certain that the road to success lay in staying with one employer for years and years and years, accumulating pensions and vacation time, and for the most part that worked for them. But most of us Boomers learned, slowly and painfully, that this life plan was no longer possible. Certainly some among us bought the corporate bullshit and played the games, but most of us have just been trying to survive. And now making a living is even more precarious. This concerns me deeply. I want to reverse this pernicious trend and help younger people achieve a better quality of life.

However, my dears, if you are going to blame me for your problems … go bleep yourselves.

I’ve pointed out many times that the archetypal rightie-bot is a Gen-Xer whose earliest political memories are of the Carter Administration. You see this over and over again. I’m not saying all Gen-Xers are rightie-bots, but I do think a disproportionate number of the loyal soldiers of the Right are Gen-Xers. I expect someday the Millenials will turn around and slam Gen-Xers for causing their problems, so be prepared.

Every generation has its idiots. My generation is as diverse as any. The activists among us did get some things wrong, such as putting too much faith in single-issue and “identity” politics. We also thought Ralph Nader was our hero … oh, wait; that’s a cross-generational mistake. Sorry.

The truth is that we Boomers were brought up in the 1950s to be idealistic and patriotic. I’ve written about this before, here and here. We faced an entirely different culture with entirely different challenges than younger people do today. No doubt some of what we did makes no sense outside that context — you had to be there — but if you’d been brought up in the 1950s, you’d have felt drawn to beads and patchouli oil, too. Trust me.

Recently Andrew Sullivan wrote an article for The Atlantic that extolled Barack Obama as the post-Boomer candidate (in truth, Obama was born in the waning years of the Boom) and blamed the Boomers for America’s culture wars and “a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.” This is, IMO, one of the biggest piles of steaming crap Andy has ever produced, and that’s saying something. The rifts in our culture pre-date the Boom, and what has corrupted our discourse more than anything else is the emergence of the extreme Right via the Goldwater/Reagan wing of the Republican Party. (See pseudo conservatism.)

Must of the griping against Boomers is the result of rightie propaganda about the 1960s and the counterculture and Boomers generally, and like most rightie propaganda the Narrative has little to do with what actually happened. It’s disheartening to see so many allegedly progressive people fall for it. So if you’ve fallen for it, wise up.

Update: See also Richard Blair at All Spin Zone.

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79 Comments

28 Comments

  1. maha  •  Dec 11, 2007 @5:10 pm

    People keep bringing up the Republican/conservative rise…but its obvious that rise gained its strength from a phenomena studied today – blowback. Or pushback, or whatever you want to call it.

    Of course it was, and the counterculture was blowback or pushback of hyperconservatism of the 1950s, and that was blowback/pushback of the New Deal, which was blowback/pushback of the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover years, which was blowback/pushback of the Progressive Era, etc. etc. How far back to you want to go, son? We could keep this up to the beginning of recorded history.

    There was no beginning. There was no original cause. It’s all just one big circle, spinning to infinity. Boomers didn’t start it. We just got caught up in it, as are you. Take care.

  2. bartkid  •  Dec 11, 2007 @5:27 pm

    >I expect someday the Millenials will turn around and slam Gen-Xers for causing their problems, so be prepared.
    As if.
    There are NOT enough Gen-Xers to create enough problems for the Millenials.
    Political control, thanks to the two generations’ demographic bulk, will go straight from the Boomers to the Millenials.
    The Millenials already are grabbing whatever problems they see by the horns and – as networked teams – tossing them over their collective shoulders.
    I see already Millenials view Gen-Xers as sad-sack bystanders, like Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt.

    >Every generation has its idiots.
    Whatever.
    Thanks to You-Tube, we can see Karl Rove in the early ’70s scheming away in the bowels of CREEP headquarters.
    And, thanks to multiple links to NPR today, we can see Dana Perino (a Mass Comm major with a minor in Poli Sci, and, yes, a Gen-Xer), White House spokeshair, display her deep understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Not.

    Can I, as a Gen-Xer, then blame Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millenials who vote Republican? Is that discerning enough to not upset your donna-blame-me-fest?

  3. maha  •  Dec 11, 2007 @5:57 pm

    There are NOT enough Gen-Xers to create enough problems for the Millenials.

    Au Contraire. They’ve already had an impact.

    Can I, as a Gen-Xer, then blame Boomers, Gen-Xers, and Millenials who vote Republican? Is that discerning enough to not upset your donna-blame-me-fest?

    How about getting past blaming and consider what you’re going to do to clean up the messes? The messes that we’re all responsible for and wallowing in together, I might add.

  4. Brian  •  Dec 11, 2007 @6:11 pm

    Ok, I promised to stay out of the fray, but I can’t help myself.

    The only thing that the “boomers” seem to have learned from history is how to extricate themselves from any responsibility for what has transpired since 1946 (or whatever artificial standard is set).

    The “millennials” that I know, are equally perplexed by the self-destructive behavior and stubbornness of our soon to be “elders” in the political, social, business, and economic spheres, and share many of the sentiments of many members of “Gen-X”, as things go from bad to worse.

    I have heard in this thread that this generational adversarial relationship is natural, and that we young’uns will learn in time, but frankly, if the revolutions that were advocated during the “boomer” salad years (both left and right) came to pass now, much to the elders’ chagrin, you would find that the revolution came from two generations that are heavily armed (left and right) and actually very high on “dangerous drugs” and/or ideologies for various socio-economic reasons, and THAT can be laid very clearly at the feet of the “boomers”

    It’s a sad fact but true and increasingly relevant. Blame game or not. Rational or not. It is a social reality, so wise up.

    and Maha.. please don’t bother shooting the messenger.

  5. maha  •  Dec 11, 2007 @6:47 pm

    Brain, I am going to do you a favor and put you in the twit filter. I’m sorry you are so seething with anger toward Boomers. You must really hate your parents.

    But the FACT is that we’re all caught up in forces long in the making that we understand only dimly. Yes, the counterculture caused a nasty backlash. So did the New Deal. So did forcing southern states to accept the abolition of slavery after the Civil War — in some ways we’re still dealing with the backlash to that. You seem to think that we must not take action at all, such as freeing slaves or enacting the New Deal, in fear it will set off a nasty backlash. But all we can do is what we think is right, and if it sets off a backlash, so be it.

  6. bob  •  Dec 11, 2007 @8:10 pm

    Censorship..now there’s a surprise. Refreshing to see that nothing has changed between 1969 and 2007.

  7. Bob  •  Dec 11, 2007 @8:18 pm

    You seem to think that I represent the right, for some reason. Maybe you should consider that perhaps the younger generations have a point, as you once had.

  8. Charles  •  Dec 11, 2007 @8:27 pm

    Sorry I’m late to the party, but I was busy working all day.

    Consider the following facts:

    1. Vietnam was the first conflict since the Civil War in which large numbers of people served, in combat, but where the wealthy and privileged could get out of serving.

    2. This resulted in a situation where the people who served came back from their service to find that those who had not served had two years of a leg up the ladder.

    3. The peak of the “boomer” group entered the work force in 1969 and later, to find the economy in a downturn that lasted throughout the 1970’s, culminating in the ruinous stagflation of the late 70’s.

    Losing the best two years when you might have got a start in graduate school, or gained two years in industry before the jobs disappeared — not to mention the psychological effects of Vietnam — has produced a top-to-bottom inversion of the leadership, in American civil society, of the boomer generation.

    The military, on the other hand, experienced the opposite effect. So we have a very capable military, and an ineffectual civilian leadership.

    This is occurring again today, and it is likely to have dreadful effects in about 30 years when the current twenty-somethings move into leadership roles.

    If the country survives the next twenty years.

  9. JJ  •  Dec 11, 2007 @8:27 pm

    By the way, from your quoted text:

    …hapless victims of the evil boomers (largely the province of Gen-Xers who are now reaching an age when the refusal to “sell out” is starting to have the nasty consequences of no savings and no health insurance)

    I don’t know about the “hapless victims of the evil boomers” bit, but the relative cost of living is way higher than it used to be. Me and my friends never used to even use the term “sell out”, because there was no shame in making ends meet, when the alternative is living under a bridge (not quite, but close). There’s a whole book written about this reality.

    So in this respect, I don’t blame you, but as we’re normal human beings, there may be some envy. No student loans. Low rent and mortgages. Cheaper health insurance. Cheaper cars (even taking inflation into account). This is where us younger folks say, “must have been nice!”

  10. JJ  •  Dec 11, 2007 @8:30 pm

    But again, with respect to Charles, as I said above, I’m grateful I never had to deal with a draft.

  11. Doug Hughes  •  Dec 11, 2007 @8:54 pm

    A lively discussion. But as I read it, I thought I heard the other shoe drop. A week ago, I mentioned that the demographics will make retired and retiring boomers the biggest voting block in America. And I predicted the conservative philosophy of stripping ‘entitlements’ will be trampled by a boomer majority, some of who were previously hypnotized by the rhetoric, and now see that they will be gored by this conservative ideology.

    The Narative is prepard to deal with that event. It’s the Boomers fault that the country is a mess, so it’s perfecly fair that they be stripped of Social Security & Medicare, so that the county can survive..

    Last I heard, 2015 is the year that SS starts to some level of insolvency, if nothing changes. That’s the tipping point, as far as demographics go. We have presidential elections 2008, 2012 & 2016. Sounds like a long time. Bush & company held court for 7 years and pretty much screwed the pooch. The Democrats should win in ’08, due more to incompetence in the administration than any merit shown by the Dems. If they also win in ’12, but fail to deliver meaningful political progress, the momentum could/will shift back to conservatism despite the shift in demographics. On the other hand, progress in fiscal policy, fair taxes, universal health care, a responsible environmental policy.. could cement a liberal shift for a long time – at least until we boomers die off.

  12. Silver Owl  •  Dec 11, 2007 @9:00 pm

    When generations come into power like this portion of the boomers have Cheney, Bush, Wolfowitz, Rove, Perle, most of the CEOs, most of the Senate, House and Wall Street while the younger generations are still powerless, getting smacked around like ping pong balls and they know they have to address these issues I can understand the bitching. I do not have a problem with it.

    What they aren’t understanding are those of us in the boomer generation and even the ones in the two generations still alive before this portion of the boomers in power are trying to fight with them.

    Telling the xers to shut up is well, quite antiquated and worn out. Every other generation says the exact same thing. Seems the old roads need new paving. Uniting with the generation x, y and soon to be z can and should be a good thing for America. We need the younger generations.

    I’m a boomer and I fucking know there are a lot of other boomers like Bush, Cheney, Perle, Wolfowitz, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Savage, Dobson and their starry eyed sycophants that suck. Crap we are still dealing with assholes from the generation before them, like Murdoch. It is the reality. America did birth and raise some serious shitheads that are in power and make seriously fucked up decisions. Getting into an tiff because boomer shitheads are considered the boomers they are and people rail against the generation that they represent is silly.

    Now getting the younger ones to know which adults are not out to screw them over that is something that we still have to address. Once we actually starting listening to them.

  13. maha  •  Dec 11, 2007 @9:41 pm

    Once we actually starting listening to them.

    I’m happy to listen to anyone with something rational to say. If a person is only going to spew hate and resentment, I don’t feel a big urge to listen.

    As I said in the post, I fully acknowledge that the younger folks are getting a rawer deal than we got. I’m concerned about this. I want to work with them to make things better. However, I am not here to help someone who is stuck in adolescence work through his issues about his parents.

  14. maha  •  Dec 11, 2007 @9:55 pm

    So in this respect, I don’t blame you, but as we’re normal human beings, there may be some envy. No student loans. Low rent and mortgages. Cheaper health insurance. Cheaper cars (even taking inflation into account). This is where us younger folks say, “must have been nice!”

    I felt the same way toward the Greatest Generation. They got even cheaper college than we did, plus the government subsidized their mortgages. My parents bought a house after World War II and had it paid off in about three years.

    I will say this for the umpteenth time — I see clearly that younger people are being ripped off. There’s no question about this. My kids are 27 and 23, and I know what they’re dealing with. A lot of the reason I write this blog is to reverse the trends causing the decline in quality of life in America. But please note — things are not the way they are because Boomers used up all the good stuff.

    This trend has been long and slow in coming. Really, the pivotal year when the decline began was 1972, when I was still in college. The causes of the decline are complex, but very briefly, we as a people stopped investing in ourselves. Since the early 1970s we’ve gotten harder and stingier, cutting back on “entitlements,” making it harder for people who weren’t already privileged to get an equal start in life.

    And, m’loves, this trend was much more the legacy of the Greatest Generation than of the Boomers. It was the political and business leaders of the 1950s through early 1970s that brought this about.

    As Avedon says,

    By the time the Boomers were out of college, even student aid was gone. The Great Society had been overturned and many of the legs had been kicked out from under the various New Deal programs. Ideas that had been part of the great war-time and post-war progressive push had just stopped being talked about even before they were accomplished – we never even heard about them in college. Boomers weren’t the ones who did this. Boomers didn’t decide HMOs would be a great idea, Boomers didn’t plan the military-industrial complex, and Boomers didn’t force people like Leo Strauss to encourage the rise of a new Toryism in America. Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were not Boomers. And Tucker Carlson was born in 1969; the bright lights of the new Tory movement are post-Boomer. It’s a skip-generation thing.

    Again, I will be very happy to work with anyone of any age who wants to turn America around, but I am not going to put up with little juvenile whiners like Brian who just want to blame Boomers for his problems because he hates his Mommy and Daddy.

  15. Billo  •  Dec 11, 2007 @10:20 pm

    Comment deleted. Please see Commenting Policy.

  16. JJ  •  Dec 11, 2007 @10:26 pm

    things are not the way they are because Boomers used up all the good stuff.

    I completely agree. I do think it was luck of the draw. I don’t resent that. There were moments, though, when members of my cohort expressed envy.. Things improved for many of us in the 90’s, but it would be nice to leave the resurrected Social Darwinism behind. Last time I checked, we lived in the 21st, not the 19th century …

    And Tucker Carlson was born in 1969

    I agree with what John Stewart said about him (I’m sure you’ve seen that video).

  17. D.R. Marvel  •  Dec 12, 2007 @7:28 am

    I dunno what fucking planet “Charles” is from…

    But the idea that Vietnam was the first conflict since the civil war where the wealthy and priveledged class could avoid serving is totally freakim’ delusional…

    Maybe if someone (anyone) had some idea of what the “draft’ was (is, actually) and how it has always worked we’d be able to discuss it in a more rational manner…

    Bottom line is…EVERY “war” is: “A rich mans’ war and a poor mans’ fight”…

    And BTW…The earlier comment that we have a :”competent” military nearly had me spewing coffee out my nose…

    The military has gone continuously downhill since the establishment of our “standing army” in 1947…And it’ll never get any better…

  18. Charles  •  Dec 12, 2007 @11:26 am

    Thought experiment for anybody who might think like D. R. Marvel:

    Count up the prominent American leaders from the 60’s who didn’t serve in WWII.

    Now do the same for today, of those who did serve in Vietnam.

    As for the quality of the military, what measure of quality would you accept? In terms of training, equipment, success (in strictly military areas) the military of the 90’s was hands down more capable, on a per-capita basis, than that of 1950.

    Admitted, the Chimp-in-Chief has degraded it, somewhat, but it’s still a very capable organization.

    Having a highly capable military isn’t an unalloyed good thing, of course.

  19. maha  •  Dec 12, 2007 @11:48 am

    I think I will add “Don’t argue with D.R. Marvel” to the Comment Policy.

  20. D.R. Marvel  •  Dec 12, 2007 @12:32 pm

    One (and only one) example…

    Lyndon Johnston supposedly served during WWII…His entire “career” in uniform amounted to taking a Congressional junket through MacArthurs’ SWPac turf…

    During LBJs’ tour, he took a flight which was supposedly shot at…And MacArthur met the returning plane and whipped a Silver Star out of his coat pocket for the young Lt. Johnston…Documentation for which was later churned out by Dougout Dougs stable of writers/propagandists…

    LBJ never in his life qppeared with an American flag lapel pin…He always wore a minature version of his Silver Star…Which he called his proudest posession…

    How many of those political leaders you look up to, Mr. Charles, carried a rifle or ever dug a fucking hole and got in it during WWII?

  21. Charles  •  Dec 12, 2007 @1:20 pm

    I hear, I obey, I beg forgiveness. I would suggest that a more useful (and general) rule would be:

    “don’t argue with the following types of people: those who won’t quit even when what needs to be said has been said; and those who will argue about anything at the drop of a hat.”

    or, I suggest debate rules (the one ring approach):

    “One comment to raise the point, one comment to defend it, and one comment to close the point and insult everybody who disagrees with you.”

  22. maha  •  Dec 12, 2007 @1:33 pm

    Charles — Even I don’t argue with D.R.

    As a historical fact, although national mythos says that military service in WWII was egalitarian, it really wasn’t. The well-connected who really wanted out of military service managed to get out of it.

    Now, both of you boys settle down. End of argument.

  23. Charles  •  Dec 12, 2007 @2:15 pm

    Maha,

    I’m only going to make one more comment, and then I’ll go back to lurking. If you feel this comment is out of line, please delete it with my explicit permission.

    Obviously, I was speaking in broad, statistical terms, but I stand by my statement. Of course, the wealthy have never served the way the poor have, but there was a sea change during Vietnam. Before that, the wealthy might avoid service, but it meant that they were basically shut out of public leadership roles after that — and this had the result that many of the wealthy and privileged served. This changed during Vietnam. This change has had extensive effects on boomers, not all of them negative, but it means that the leadership of the boomer generation is different in fundamental ways from those that went before.

  24. maha  •  Dec 12, 2007 @2:52 pm

    Before that, the wealthy might avoid service, but it meant that they were basically shut out of public leadership roles after that

    Not having served in World War I didn’t seem to be much of a hindrance, as Harry Truman was the first president who served on a battlefield in that war. World War II was more like the Civil War, in that the political leaders that came after were nearly all veterans. However, some politicians got away with what might be called token service — they wore a uniform but stayed away from flying bullets. Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan are good examples of that.

    I agree that Vietnam was fought by the less privileged to a much greater degree than WWII, but one could quibble that it’s a matter of degree. Men who avoided service in World War II may not have been prime political candidates, but I suspect they had a leg up in the business world.

    That said, I agree with you about leadership. It really does seem that a disproportionate number of Boomer political leaders and media personalities who did not serve. There also might be a parallel between Vietnam and World War I in that regard. Like Vietnam, WWI seems to have been a war everyone wanted to forget as soon as it was over, which may be partly why service in World War I didn’t seem to convey any political advantages.

  25. D.R. Marvel  •  Dec 12, 2007 @3:14 pm

    How well did that super-competent, $400+billion-a-year military serve to defend the nation on 9-11-01?

    There were a lot more active-duty pilots on golf courses that morning than there were sitting in ready-rooms…

    If your country needs defending, you’re gonna have to do it yourself…Which is the main reasopn all our Founding Fathers were adamantly opposed to and took great pains to warn their fellow citizens of the evils of “standing armies”…

    Up through WWII we had always raised an army of “citizen-soldiers” when we needed one…And when the war was over they all went back to the lives they had temporarily left…

    Those armies worked a helluva lot better than what we’ve got now…And cost the nation a helluva lot less…

  26. Charles  •  Dec 12, 2007 @3:22 pm

    Maha,

    When speaking of large-scale socio-economic issues, the only way to speak is “in degree” — so it cannot be considered a quibble.

    Someone who was under 31 in 1917, and therefore subject to the draft (the draft was extended to those up to 45 in September, 1918, shortly before the armistice, but those drafted then did not get a chance to serve) — would have been too young to have had time to rise to a level of national leadership by 1932, when they would have been, at a maximum, 43.

    Notice that boomers didn’t start to fill the leadership roles at a statistically significant level until the 1990’s, when they approached 50.

    There are always statistical outliers, of course, but this pattern seems to repeat, and I suspect it will repeat now. There is a great hue and cry to “support the troops” but the troops who come back find jobs just a little more difficult to find, life a little more difficult to fit back in, while those children of privilege who declined to serve are slotting right into the power structure and rising through the ranks in their professions.

  27. maha  •  Dec 12, 2007 @3:31 pm

    Someone who was under 31 in 1917, and therefore subject to the draft (the draft was extended to those up to 45 in September, 1918, shortly before the armistice, but those drafted then did not get a chance to serve) — would have been too young to have had time to rise to a level of national leadership by 1932, when they would have been, at a maximum, 43.

    But there was no such lag after the Civil War or World War II. Of course, the first new presidents elected after those little dust-ups ended were commanding generals, but then every president-elect for several election cycles after could at least show off photos of himself in uniform. After World War I, what candidates did in the war doesn’t seem to have been important to voters.

  28. SamFromUtah  •  Dec 14, 2007 @2:55 pm

    Fascinating stuff, this. I’m a GenXer with Greatest Generation parents (our family tends to have very long generations; great-grandpa was born before the Civil War). It seems fitting then that I spent a good chunk of the 1990s as a “Touch of Grey” Deadhead.

    Now getting the younger ones to know which adults are not out to screw them over that is something that we still have to address.

    Is there a list? Now that I’m 40 the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” guideline has worn a bit thin. 🙂

    But seriously I’ve always thought inter-generational squabbling was dumb. There’s no way to characterize a whole generation without absurdly over-simplifying.

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