My first argument with any book about the Baby Boomers is with anyone who tries to include me in it, and that would seem to include P. J. O’Rourke. His latest book is about his generation – that cohort born between then end of World War II and the beginning of Lyndon Johnson’s first full term as U.S. president – though to be fair almost everything O’Rourke has written has been, in some way, about this huge and confounding demographic.
O’Rourke isn’t alone in defining Baby Boomers as that group born between 1946 and 1964. Those 18 years have become the standard catchment area for the demographic, agreed upon by everyone from the U.S. Census Bureau to Canadian media mogul Moses Znaimer, whose rebranding of the clique as “Zoomers” has become the keystone of his latest media venture, albeit one he seems intent on expanding incrementally, annexing a year or two’s worth of press-ganged recruits as they edge closer to 50.
I have never felt comfortable with my unwilling inclusion in the group; thanks to having a birth mother who was truly a Boomer, born in the last years of the ‘40s, but also experiencing the ‘60s – the bellwether Boomer cultural moment, or so they keep telling us – as a child, I’ve always felt more spiritually a part of Generation X, the dispirited demographic “bust” that followed the triumphant boom. My earliest memories aren’t of economic prosperity and easy employment and a zeitgeist that insisted that my cohort would “change the world,” but of ‘70s stagflation, the oil crisis, Watergate, and a kind of political helplessness whose sting was lessened by the certainty that politics was probably evil anyway. My first musical hero wasn’t Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix but John Lydon, the man who hit the headlines as Johnny Rotten.
O’Rourke calls my group of latter-day Boomers the Freshmen, and notes that it’s a group that includes Ann Coulter, Jon Stewart, Sarah Palin, Conan O’Brien, Larry the Cable Guy and Barack Obama. He sees us as a group that had no first-hand experience of the great struggles that defined the youth of our older peers, taking what was once exciting history as much duller fact. “The freshman Baby Boomer was born into a sea of hooey and swims about comfortably therein unaware that other environments of discourse exist,” he writes.
But who made themselves the custodian, the archivist and the evangelizer of that hooey? The Baby Boomers have a lot invested in an image of themselves as great agents of change, and even if they never picked up a picket sign or decided if they were the problem or the solution, they like to take credit for everything from ending slavery to the internet. Even O’Rourke, the great iconoclast, bases his whole book around the premise that the world is a whole lot different thanks to the Baby Boomers, who left their stamp on everything from fashion to politics to music and everything in between, on their way to changing the way we age and die, no doubt.
But it’s hard to be sure just how much political influence the Baby Boomers had in their youth. The lightning rod political issue of the late ‘60s – the Vietnam War – was started by a revered Democrat and ended by a hated Republican president that none of them would admit voting for. Even the claim that a war in Indochina was of real generational importance is specious, since it slipped from their priorities when the draft was ended in 1973. The actual war ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, by which time that generation had moved on to other priorities, such as making hot tubs an essential feature in homes, and overseeing a surge in rates of venereal disease. (I have long suspected a link between the two.)
You can put the blame for the mainstreaming of abortion at the feet of the Boomers, and they’ve certainly been eager to accept it as a consequence of the sexual revolution that’s central to their generational mythos, but the activists and propagandists who pushed abortion into the mainstream were all born well before the boom, as were the legislators who made it possible. (Betty Friedan was born in 1921, Gloria Steinem in 1934, Bella Abzug in 1920 and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, head of the Supreme Court that approved Roe v. Wade, in 1907.)
What Baby Boomers have done, however, is build a world that presumes that dissent from the revolution they claimed as their own is a step backwards into a dark age, and that nothing will ever be as hip or fashionable as a set of aesthetic standards and moral judgments made when less than 50 per cent of US households had colour television, by a group of people who’d just barely reached voting age. It’s no wonder that many of us feel that the world is being held to a set of rules made by an angry older sibling who didn’t understand why they had to pay for the broken parking brake in the family car they took for a joyride without permission.
Rick McGinnis is The Interim’s culture columnist.