The Boomer Bust by P.J. O’Rourke
We are the generation that changed everything. Of all the eras and epochs of Americans, ours is the one that made the biggest impression—on ourselves. That’s an important accomplishment, because we’re the generation that created the self, made the firmament of the self, divided the light of the self from the darkness of the self, and said, “Let there be self.” If you were born between 1946 and 1964, you may have noticed this yourself.
That’s not to say we’re a selfish generation. Selfish means “too concerned with the self,” and we’re not. Self isn’t something we’re just, you know, concerned with. We are self.
Before us, self was without form and void, like our parents in their dumpy clothes and vague ideas. Then we came along. Now the personal is the political. The personal is the socioeconomic. The personal is the religious and the secular, science and the arts. The personal is everything that creepeth upon the earth after his (and, let us hasten to add, her) kind. If the baby boom has done one thing, it’s to beget a personal universe. (Our apologies for anyone who personally happens to be a jerk.)
Self is like fish, proverbially speaking. Give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and, if he turns into a dry-fly catch-and-release angling fanatic up to his liver in icy water wearing ridiculous waders and an absurd hat, pestering trout with 3-pound test line on a $1,000 graphite rod, and going on endlessly about Royal Coachman lures that he tied himself using muskrat fur and partridge feathers…well, at least his life partner is glad to have him out of the house.
So here we are in the baby-boom cosmos, formed in our image, personally tailored to our individual needs, and predetermined to be eternally fresh and novel. And we saw that it was good. Or pretty good.
We should have had a cooler name, the way the Lost Generation did. Except good luck to anybody who tries to tell us to get lost. Anyway, it’s too late now. We’re stuck with being forever described as exploding infants. And maybe it’s time, now that we’ve splattered ourselves all over the place, for the baby boom to look back and think. “What made us who we are?” “And what caused us to act the way we do?” “And WTF?” Because the truth is, if we hadn’t decided to be young forever, we’d be old.
The youngest baby boomers, born in the last year when anybody thought it was hip to like Lyndon Johnson, are turning 50. We’d be sad about getting old if we weren’t too busy remarrying younger wives, reviving careers that hit glass ceilings when children arrived and renewing prescriptions for drugs that keep us from being sad. And we’ll never retire. We can’t. The mortgage is underwater. We’re in debt up to the Rogaine for the kids’ college education. And it serves us right—we’re the generation who insisted that a passion for living should replace working for one.
Still, it’s an appropriate moment for us to weigh what we’ve wrought and tally what we’ve added to and subtracted from existence. We’ve reached the age of accountability. The world is our fault. We are the generation that has an excuse for everything—one of our greatest contributions to modern life—but the world is still our fault.
This is every generation’s fate. It’s a matter of power and privilege and demography. Whenever anything happens anywhere, somebody over 50 signs the bill for it. And the baby boom, seated as we are at the head of life’s table, is hearing Generation X, Generation Y and the Millennials all saying, “Check, please!”
To address America’s baby boom is to face big, broad problems. We number more than 75 million, and we’re not only diverse but take a thorny pride in our every deviation from the norm (even though we’re in therapy for it). We are all alike in that each of us thinks we’re unusual.
Fortunately, we are all alike in our approach to big, broad problems too. We won’t face them. There’s a website for that, a support group to join, a class to take, alternative medicine, regular exercise, a book that explains it all, a celebrity on TV who’s been through the same thing, or we can eliminate gluten from our diet. History is full of generations that had too many problems. We are the first generation to have too many answers.
Not a problem. Consider the people who have faced up squarely to the deepest and most perplexing conundrums of existence. Leo Tolstoy, for example. He tackled every one of them. Why are we here? What kind of life should we lead? The nature of evil. The character of love. The essence of identity. Salvation. Suffering. Death.
What did it make him? Dead, for one thing. And off his rocker for the last 30 years of his life. Plus he was saddled with a thousand-page novel about war, peace and everything else you can think of, which he couldn’t even look up on Wikipedia to get the skinny on because he hadn’t written it yet. What a life. If Leo Tolstoy had been one of us he could have entered a triathlon, a baby-boom innovation of the middle 1970s. By then we knew we couldn’t run away from our problems. But if we added cycling and swimming…
So, to the problems of talking about the baby boom, let us turn our big, broad (yet soon to be firmed up, thanks to the triathlon for seniors that we’re planning to enter) generational backsides.
But a difficulty remains. Most groups of people who get tagged by history as a “generation” can be described in an easy, offhand way: as folks sort of the same age experiencing sort of the same things in sort of the same place, like the cast of “Cheers” or “Seinfeld” or “Friends.” I’m pretty sure—as a result of taking Modern Literature in college—that Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ford Madox Ford, Henry Miller and Ezra Pound were roommates in a big apartment on the Left Bank in Paris in the 1920s. (If not, I give this idea for a sitcom away for free to the reader.)
But the baby boom has an exact definition, a precise demography. We are the children who were born during a period after World War II when the long-term trend in fertility among American women was exceeded.
Still, distinctions among varieties of baby boomers need to be made. Geographical distinctions are peripatetically moot for us. Distinctions according to race, class, gender or sexual orientation would be offensive to baby-boom sensitivities. Furthermore, they’d be beside the point, because the author—much as he endeavors to be as different from everyone else as a member of the baby boom should be—finds himself to be hopelessly ordinary in matters of race, class, gender identification and which section of Playboy he turned to first when he was 16. But time is a distinction we all have to endure. And there are temporal variations in the baby boom.
The seniors of this generation were born in the late 1940s. The author is of that ilk. The seniors were on the bow wave of the baby boom’s voyage of exploration. But they were also closely tethered in the wake of preceding generations. In effect the seniors were keelhauled by the baby-boom experience and left a bit soggy and shaken. If we wound up as financial advisers trying to wear tongue studs or Trotskyites trying to organize Tea Party protests, or both, we are to be forgiven. Hillary Clinton and Cheech Marin are seniors.
The juniors were born in the early 1950s. They were often younger siblings of the seniors and came of age when parents were throwing in the towel during the “What’s the Matter with Kids These Days” feature match. The juniors pursued the notions, whims and fancies of the baby boom with a greater intensity. For them, drugs were no longer experimental; drugs were proven. From the juniors we got the teeny-boppers, the groupies and the more ragamuffin barefoot urchins of Haight-Ashbury. They hunted up some shoes when they eventually made their way to Silicon Valley. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both born in 1955.) But they never did find their neckties.
The sophomores were born in the late 1950s. By the time they reached adolescence, the baby-boom ethos had permeated society. Sophomores gladly accepted sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and the deep philosophical underpinning thereof. But they’d seen enough of the baby boom in action to realize that what works in general terms doesn’t always work when the bong sets fire to the beanbag chair. Circumstances had changed. In college, many of the sophomores attended classes. Some even sneaked off and got M.B.A.s.
The freshmen were born in the early 1960s. They felt no visceral effects from the events that formed the baby boom. To freshmen, the Vietnam War was just something that was inexplicably on TV all the time, like Ed McMahon. Feminism had gone from a pressing social issue to a Bea Arthur comedy show that their parents liked, and, by the time the freshmen were in college, feminism was an essay topic for the “Reading Shakespeare in Cultural Context” course. Hint: Lady Macbeth hit that glass ceiling hard.
Now the American baby boom is the world’s future. Everyone on the planet will turn into us eventually, as soon as families get excessively happy and start feeling too much affection for their kids. Unless, of course, extravagant freedom, scant responsibility, plenty of money and a modicum of peace lead to such a high rate of carbon emissions that we all fry or drown. But you can’t have everything. And you can have a profusion of opportunity and, at the same time, a collapse of traditional social standards.
Just look at Western Europe and the wealthiest parts of Asia and Latin America. They’re almost as useless as we are—with abundant disposable income and ample leisure time to devote to pointless activities that don’t harm anybody much except ourselves.
Baby-boom-like places all seem to be engaged in bellicose national political deadlock the way we are in America. There’s much tut-tutting about bellicose national political deadlock. But it’s an improvement on bellicose national political purpose.
It will take a while to turn the whole world into baby boomers. For one thing, due to declining birthrates, the rising generation won’t be a boom like we were with the same weight of numbers on their side. On the other hand, aging populations in places such as Russia and China will let these babies speak in booming voices.
Noxious politics will disappear as all the world’s political science classes happily degenerate into hourlong shouting matches the way our old Constitutional Law classes did. It’s hard to remain truly noxious when you like being obnoxious better.
Stupid notions of central planning, nationalization and protectionist trade barriers will fall by the wayside when everyone is paying as little attention in Economics as I was.
And sooner or later, the 1.29 billion people making $1.25 a day, the way we were, selling “underground” newspapers on the street in Baltimore, are going to figure out there’s a better way. I just received an email from Nigeria about a rather large amount of money needing to be transferred to an American bank and requiring only modest assistance on my part.
There will be no religious fanaticism. We’re not a generation who listens to anybody, God included. In our defense, I doubt God minds us not bothering about Him. Very few of the people we’ve bothered—parents, college deans, the police, LBJ, the psychiatrist at my draft physical, supervisors, bosses, attractive types in bars—have minded when we quit bothering them.
World peace is probably too much to ask. But it will be hard to assemble those huge conscripted armies that used to fight wars. We’ll all have a letter from our doctor about our deep-seated psychiatric problems and drug use.
Besides, war is about power. Baby boomers aren’t power hungry. Power comes with that kicker, responsibility. We’re greedy for love, happiness, experience, sensation, thrills, praise, fame, adulation, inner peace, and, as it turns out, money. Health and fitness too. But we’re not greedy for power. Observe the baby boomers who have climbed to its ascendancy in Washington. The best and the brightest? They’re over at Goldman Sachs.
And all of you tyrannical, despotic, overbearing squares and wet smacks with your two-bit autocracies in the butt ends of the world? You shall gather in finished basements while your revered elders stand at the top of the basement stairs yelling, “I think something’s on fire down there!” Your offices shall be liberated by raving peaceniks. You shall spend your treasure on cocaine and rehab. Your junk bonds shall default. You shall form overage garage bands and try to play “Margaritaville.” Your third spouse shall acquire an American Express Black Card with a credit limit higher than the U.S. national debt. Your daughters shall wear nose rings. Your sons shall have pagan symbols indelibly marked upon their necks. (Unless you belong to one of those cultures where daughters wear nose rings and sons have pagan symbols indelibly marked upon their necks, in which case they shall not.) You shall be perplexed by the Internet. You shall grow old and addled enough to vote for Ron Paul in a presidential primary.
There is no escape from happiness, attention, affection, freedom, irresponsibility, money, peace, opportunity and finding out that everything you were ever told is wrong.
Behold the baby boom, ye mighty, and despair.
This essay is adapted from the latest of Mr. O’Rourke’s 16 books: “The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way…And It Wasn’t My Fault…And I’ll Never Do It Again,” to be published in December by Grove Atlantic.