Magazines: Boom Times


Bill Clinton's election marks the first time that a member of the "baby boomer" generation has become president. In the aftermath of the presidential race, trendologists are proclaiming that the Clinton triumph is not just a victory for the Democrats; it means that the 76 million baby boomers, after decades of trying, have finally taken over America.

In the Winter 1993 Trends Journal, staff members of the Trends Research Institute explore 16 trends for 1993. Nearly all the political trends have something to do with our new baby-boomer government. "Bill Clinton is a trend," the institute reports. "Instead of looking up at the generation running things, boomers suddenly are the generation running things."

"Now, and for the rest of the decade," the institute declares, "the values of society will be defined by people with a 60's mentality, just as the values of the 80's were defined by people with a World War II mentality." But this analysis is severely flawed. It is as impossible to describe the tastes and hopes of all baby boomers as it is to describe the desires of all women, all blacks, or all Hispanics. As Karl Zinsmeister has observed, many baby boomers fought in Vietnam, listened to country music, raised stable two-parent families, and have no urge to remake the world in their own image.

And many boomers are not looking forward to sipping the sweet nectar of power; they're feeling old, depressed, tired, and broke. Newsweek captured this trend in its December 7 issue on "The New Middle Age," which featured a popart cover by Lou Brooks showing a man clasping his sweat-soaked brow with a hand and saying, "Oh, God…I'm really turning 50!"

In her Newsweek cover story, Melinda Beck reports that the American Association of Retired Persons sends about 75 percent of America's 50-year-olds an invitation to join. "Not since the Selective Service Board sent 'greetings' to 18-year-old men during the Vietnam War," Beck reports, "has a birthday salutation been so dreaded by so many."

Most of Beck's piece, as one might expect, consists of long agonized wails from aging boomers anxious to preserve the frazzled remains of their youth by any means necessary. Often, they resort to redefining middle age. In a poll conducted for the American Board of Family Practice, Beck reports, 41 percent of Americans thought that middle age began when you worried if you could afford health care, 42 percent thought mid-life started when the last child left home, and 46 percent said "it was when you don't recognize the names of music groups on the radio anymore."

Still other boomers are depressed about the social changes that have taken place in their lives. In the September 14 issue of Forbes, Peggy Noonan argues that it is no longer morning in America; it is twilight.

What is most puzzling about the boomers, says Noonan, is that compared to their ancestors, they are quite rich. Compare two popular situation comedies, one from the 1950s and the other from the 1980s. In The Honeymooners, Ralph and Alice Kramden live in a small apartment with a few chairs and a table; the characters in Family Ties have fancy couches, a color television, a VCR, better art on the walls, and straight teeth, thanks to thousands of dollars spent on braces. Both the working-class Kramdens and the middle-class Keatons of Family Ties symbolize the average American families of their times. "The average couple was working class then," says Noonan, "and is middle class now."

But with all this wealth, says Noonan, has come malaise. The parents of baby boomers, she says, knew that politicians tend to be fools, work is largely boring, and life is a mixture of one part pleasure and nine parts gall. The baby boomers rebelled, demanding undiluted happiness in their lives and abandoning God. "My generation, faced as it grew with a choice between religious belief and existential despair, chose…marijuana. Now we are in our cabernet stage."

While the boomers are lost in drift, drink, and doubt, they are also realizing that there are younger people out there—and they haven't done as they were told! They've voted Republican! They've gone to politically correct classes…and fallen asleep!

In the December Atlantic Monthly and the January Washingtonian, Washington wonks William Strauss and Neil Howe analyze how the twentysomethings differ from the baby boomers. They argue that there have been 13 generations in American history, and these generations alternate between idealistic ones and inward-looking, less political ones.

The baby boomers, write Strauss and Howe, want to remold the world in their own image. Their successors, the Thirteeners, grew up in a time in which baby boomers (using the cultural facilities they control—foundations, public radio and television, the universities) kept defining the rules of the world in such a way that Thirteeners always failed. If you are a Thirteener, Strauss and Howe write, "You're expected to muster passions against political authority you've never felt, to search for truth in places you've never found useful, to solve world problems through gestures you find absurd."

The Madison Center's Robert Lukefahr expresses the rebellious spirit of the Thirteeners in the Fall 1992 issue of Diversity & Division, where he blasts the baby boomers for being egotistical whining lovers of big government whose legacy to the Thirteeners is high taxes, overcrowded courtrooms, and cultural standards that decree Joni Mitchell the equal of Shakespeare. "Boomers run amok," says Lukefahr, "crashing the nation's institutions, declaring victory, and leaving others to wade through the flotsam in their wake."

But this conflict has occurred before in American history. The Missionary Generation, born in the 1860s and 1870s, tried to remake the world in ways similar to the baby boomers. Like the baby boomers, such Missionaries as Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harold Ickes Sr., Harry Hopkins, and George Marshall, write Strauss and Howe, "had enormous egos and an undying fixation on self-discovery, values, and moral confrontation." They favored expanding government in moralistic ways, through Prohibition, making marijuana and cocaine consumption illegal, and creating the welfare state.

The Lost Generation, born between 1883 and 1900, rebelled against this politicization of life. The women of this generation rejected the rigid moralism of the suffragettes in favor of fun and unforced equality with men; the men revolted against such doctrinaire leftists as Upton Sinclair. When these youth entered their 20s and 30s, they favored jazz, gin, and jalopies over political activism; when they did vote, they helped ensure the election of Republicans Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover. This generational war, say Strauss and Howe, is being replicated in the battle between boomers and Thirteeners.

In their Washingtonian piece, Strauss and Howe argue that the boomer tendency toward moral authoritarianism will ultimately backfire and that the boomer-led Clinton administration will be marked by "a new public rudeness, a new political vindictiveness, a new moral one-upmanship in policy discourse." After four years of the Clintonian nanny state, they predict, disgusted Thirteeners will join the revolt that will lead to a Republican triumph in 1996.

Strauss and Howe's analysis is interesting and partially persuasive, but limited. First, the trends they discuss largely represent elite viewpoints. Second, the division between baby boomers and people in their 20s is a fuzzy boundary, not an iron curtain.

In the January/February Buzz, a magazine for denizens of Los Angeles, Sandra Tsing Loh argues that "late boomers," born between 1960 and 1966, came of age in that nowhere land after Woodstock and before raves. Most of her status signifiers and her argument are not comprehensible to those of us who live outside California. (For example, one's attitude toward El Pollo Loco, a popular Mexican-style fast-food chicken chain, is crucial in determining one's place in the Los Angeles status ladder.) But she is certainly right in her charge that people who are in her age group are not counted in the generational wars.

In a witty piece in the January 4 New Republic, Alexander Star looks at all the popular culture about people in their 20s and concludes that the idea of a generational war is largely a myth generated by Madison Avenue and Hollywood to sell products and boost ratings and movie-ticket sales in the name of a "generic youth culture." The fragmentation of tastes and interests characteristic of our times, he says, means that a common culture among young people is no longer possible, and that "the twentysomething craze, like its components, will probably blow over soon."

Certainly Star and Tsing Loh's points are valid. And Strauss and Howe's description of the Lost Generation, while interesting, is unrepresentative as well. Surely far more young people in the '20s spent their days in factories and farms than in speakeasies or dance floors.

Strauss and Howe's thesis is of greatest interest as it pertains to the portion of Americans pursuing political careers. They argue that Lost Generation political and literary leaders ultimately became the founders of America's conservative movement. The lives and political transformations of Max Eastman and John Dos Passos, for example, could well be duplicated as the Thirteeners age.

In the December 28 National Review, Amy Lumet indirectly makes the same argument when she describes a group she calls "Baby Cons," young rightists fed up with the agonizing of politically correct liberals and guilt-ridden neoconservatives. These under-30 Baby Cons, says Lumet, are "the first generation to be raised by government as evil stepmother….What they see makes them mad. You'll hear it over and over: big intrusive government, big moral government, big parental government." In short, baby cons are libertarians, a word Lumet is curiously unwilling to use.

Certainly most of the younger people I see at Washington gatherings of rightists are libertarian, and certainly the influence of libertarians in the Republican party has risen to the extent that they have superseded fading, aging liberal Republicans. This change is in part due to a rising number of young people committed to free markets and opposed to government nannyism in the area of morals and culture.

If Strauss and Howe are right, these freedom-loving youngsters will ultimately retain many of their anti-statist values when they achieve political power between 2020 and 2030. I certainly hope this is true; at age 35, I am old enough to remember the '60s and young enough to rebel against that era's values. As Bill and Hillary Clinton prepare to impose neo-Progressive big government on America, I will give a hearty cheer whenever a member of the younger generation denounces the values of the boomers now in power.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a writer, editor, and researcher living in Silver Spring, Maryland.