NEW YORK - They partied and protested, then grew up to dominate America with their chutzpah and sheer numbers. Yet now, as the oldest of the baby boomers prepare to turn 60, there are glimmers of doubt within this "have it all" generation about how they will be judged by those who come next.
The ferment of the '60s and '70s — when boomers changed the world, or thought they did — faded long ago. Nostalgic pride in the achievements of that era now mixes with skepticism: Have the boomers collectively betrayed their youthful idealism? Have they been self-centered to the point of shortchanging their children?
I gave some consideration to just letting this post stand right there, but then there's Digby's fine tribute to Richard Pryor, including the backhanding he received from the gang at FAUX, which is really of a piece with this.
So let's start here. Richard Pryor was not a Boomer. Nor George Carlin nor Lenny Bruce . Not the Beatles, Elvis, Chuck Berry. Not Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, or Michael Schwerner. Kate Millett was born in 1934, Muhammad Ali in 1942. The Mattachine Society was fighting the New York statute that made gay bars illegal in 1965, before the oldest Boomer could take a legal drink at a heterosexual gin mill. The fight for civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights do not "belong" to Boomers. Neither, for that matter, does rock and roll, rebellion, or shag carpeting.
And, okay, one more bad wire-service story assignment isn't going to kill us (Crary, to be fair, manages to collect some interesting quotes along the way). And I bet that even people who find some sort of broad truth in this sort of thing don't imagine it runs too deep. The thing that irks me is how much this looks like the lazy stenography and easy Red Right/Left Blue coverage our politics receives in the very same papers. Isn't the whole Boomers/The Sixties/Change the World/Tune In Turn On just the Hippie/Leftist/Traitor/Pornographer bogeyman stripped of the overt politics?
How exactly do you square the Sixties Love-In March on Washington social agenda with our national politics since then? The massive defeat of George McGovern, Nixon's Southern strategy, a one-term moderate Southern Democrat followed by twelve years of Ronald Reagan (the man who ran against the Sixties for sixteen years before he got the nomination), the mass migration of Dixiecrats to an increasingly right-radical Republican party--is it reasonable to believe that millions of Woodstock attendees turned their backs on social consciousness the minute they had to earn a living? Or could the unthinkable be true--that our pet construct is too simplistic, or just plain wrong, to serve as anything but wire-copy fodder?
I was born at the tail end of 1953, which puts me right in the middle of the second Boomer quarter. It means I wasn't old enough to have a driver's license when the Sixties ended (if you're out there doing the math, the legal driving age was 16-1/2). I was in the last draft class of the Vietnam war. Much as I'd like to, I can't take personal credit for the '64 Civil Rights Act or ending the war. I was affected by them, as anyone is affected by his times. But the people I grew up with and have known all these years were just as conventional as their parents before or their children after. They smoked some dope and listened to Pink Floyd instead of packing phone booths and jitterbugging, or getting their eyebrows pierced and sharing files. They didn't go to socialist summer camp or make bombs in the garage. They went to college to get good jobs, as well as smoke some dope and listen to Dark Side of the Moon with headphones continually for four or five years.
Which brings up the attendant point. Boomers, apparently, have all the money:
The boomers — 78 million of them born from 1946 to 1964 — are wealthier and more numerous than any generation before or since. They have controlled political power long enough to stack the financial deck in their favor.
I gotta say I'm nearly speechless at this. I'd be happy to go on at length about dirty hippies turning into soul-dead Yuppie scum, and if you want to blame our numbers on someone the place to look is probably our parents, but "the wealthiest generation ever"? Is there some way to quantify this? Boomers are in their peak earning years. When I was young my parents' generation was the wealthiest ever. It's hard to imagine how, under a capitalist system, it could be any other way. Still, the incredibly wealthy people I know are either a) older than Boomers; b) Boomers who inherited wealth; or c) plastic surgeons. I don't know that many people who live much better than their parents did, or do now. I know any number of people who want as little to do with money as possible, and would probably ignore it entirely if they could.
And few of them are able to finagle the system, let alone for their own benefit. Compare what happened in the first Reagan term when he proposed tax withholding on dividend checks. It wasn't Boomers shot that one down.
In my youth we lived through two oil embargoes, wage and price controls, massive inflation, stagflation, spiraling interest rates, three recessions, and double-digit unemployment. Every Boomer family I know of, save a few of the very wealthy ones, is a two-income household at least in part of necessity. The 80s helped some, unless you went hog-wild for real estate, and the 90s helped a good deal more, same as the 50s and early 60s lifted my parents' generation. The explanation for tax-cut mania--which hasn't exactly benefitted the bulk of Whatever Generation You Give A Trendy Name To--is the rise of extremist anti-everyone else Republicanism. Go blame them.
NEXT: The younger generations offer their judgment on the baby boomers.