Civil Liberties

Boomer or Bust

Reflections of a generational refugee.


It has taken 40 years 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 doesn't 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 the life out of you with golf, stock tips, and the time they saw the Stones.

It is not enough that by sheer force of numbers this generation has 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.

In their book Generations, William Strauss and Neil Howe took this constant refrain of "we're special" to actually mean something besides bad parenting. Strauss and Howe declared the boomers' strident tendency to declare from on high the goals and wants of society to be the defining characteristic of the generation. Prompt howls of indignation from boomers demonstrated a moralizing busybodiness that has given rise to one movement for "change" after another.

Yet millions of boomers, each declaring he or she had discovered the best way to live and work and pray and play, did have profound consequences–just not the intended ones. As 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 in any one direction, but in many, sometimes contradictory ones. Turns out freedoms were the only way, yeah.

What started as an effort to build a counterculture soon fragmented into many niche subcultures 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 with equal ease.

Yet history will show that, for all their organizing skill and moral sensitivities, the boomers took a pass on changing one hellish state policy. Boomers have collaborated and shamelessly switched sides in the War on Drugs, with full knowledge of the 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 can clearly be 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.

Meanwhile, boomer self-absorption is finally generating a little movement on the Social Security front, where the need for reform has been clear 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 goodies from future generations, along the lines of the new Medicare drug benefit. We're special–pay up.

Quite a bundle of contradictions, these boomers. The last generation raised on a unified, mass popular culture is doomed always to try to rebuild one, only to produce the tools that make mass culture impossible. The generation 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.??