Let the Deflating Begin: Talkin’ ‘Bout Our Generation Is Getting Old. And So Are We

E.J. Dionne, Jr.
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

December 26, 1999

May we all, in the media and everywhere else, make this millennial resolution: Please stop, forever, with the baby boom obsession.

I can hear the world shouting back at me that this resolution is doomed, that the obsession cannot end until the last, self-absorbed boomer has lived his final, thoroughly documented day. It’s demographics, man.

I’m a boomer myself (b. 1952). So perhaps I have standing to ask: Why are we always talking about ourselves as if we were the pivot of history? It’s true that the sheer size of our generation has endowed our adventures and antics with greater impact than if we were just average-sized. Yes, the Vietnam War years were a searing time for our country, and for us. And there’s no getting around the problems we’ll create when we all reach retirement age.

But aren’t you sick of stories suggesting that perfectly normal human experiences are somehow special if they involve people who happen to have been born between 1946 and 1964? How many articles have you read about boomer parenting? Okay, a lot of us are parents and that’s wonderful. But let’s say it out loud: big deal. Our parents were parents, too, and so were their parents. Do we honestly think we’re so special that we do infinitely better (or, for that matter, infinitely worse) at the job than our parents or grandparents did?

If you think I’m overly sensitive about this, consider the 2000 presidential campaign.

Among the front-runners are two boomers and a near-boomer—George W. Bush (b. 1946), Al Gore (b. 1948) and Bill Bradley (b. 1943)—and an anti-boomer, John McCain (b. 1936). If the fall campaign comes down to a contest between Bush and Gore, you’ll have, as columnist Tony Snow has already written, “the first baby boom grudge match.” But should McCain pull off an upset, his victory will be explained in learned commentary as reflecting the country’s desire for “maturity” and a “grown-up”—that is, anything but another baby boomer president.

Meanwhile, the big social policy story of the year will be the baby boom’s retirement and how we’ll pay for Medicare and Social Security. The talk shows will go on and on about the looming catastrophes in 2015 or 2030.

Baby boomer themes first showed up in presidential campaigns in 1984 with Gary Hart’s promise of “new ideas for a new generation.” In 1987, we heard the first “I used marijuana” confessions (by Gore and Bruce Babbitt, a presidential candidate at the time). The first Clinton campaign in 1992 was boomer central, right down to the theme song (Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop”).

But in the current campaign, the boomer babble has gone many tokes over the line. Here are the storyboards thus far:

1) The boomer candidates confess to sins involving sex and drugs; or
2) The boomer candidate innovatively declares a statute of limitations on certain questions involving drugs (atta boy, George!); or

3) The boomer candidates engage in introspection, wondering if their “values” will hurt later generations and collectively wring their hands over what they will tell their kids;

4) The cultural conservatives go ballistic, telling us that everything wrong has its roots in the ’60s;

5) Everybody has to answer the “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” question, meaning the war in Vietnam;
6) Boomer journalists go self-critical, saying their generation lacks the great civic generosity of the World War II generation and woe unto us;
7) There’s a new spate of “where are the grown-ups” stories, with heavy emphasis on the Clinton scandal, implying that boomers are still too immature to lead; followed quickly by
8) A round of stories on why baby boom candidates have such a hard time running (answer: because baby boom voters still can’t imagine themselves as being old enough to be president or, alternatively, are jealous of those baby boomers who actually do have a shot).

As that boomer icon, Charlie Brown, would say: Arrghh!

I didn’t make up any of these, and not all of them are stupid. It’s entirely fair to know who did what—and why—during Vietnam, particularly because so many Americans, especially less-privileged Americans, did serve. There is, indeed, something special about what the World War II generation accomplished. And it’s fair to debate what was good and what was not so good about the cultural changes brought about in the 1960s.

But huge problems haunt those story lines, and unattractive self-involvement is only one of them. There is a clear symbiosis between baby boom pretensions of superiority and ’60s bashing. If baby boomers think that every single thing that ever happened to them is so special, they are laying large claim to having transformed the culture. But of course that’s what ’60s bashers think, too. They lay every social problem—family breakdown, divorce, permissive sex, drug abuse—at the feet of the counterculture. That is, at the feet of baby boomers.

The problem with this sort of ’60s bashing is not that it’s wrong to say dumb things happened in the ’60s. Dumb things did happen. But the standard knock on the ’60s credits the counterculture with far more influence than it deserves. The Pill did more to encourage sexual permissiveness (or, if you prefer, sexual freedom) than any song by the Stones or Rod Stewart. It’s been observed before, but bears repeating, that the baby boomers didn’t invent sex. And the wide choices offered in the consumer culture did more to challenge traditional institutions and arrangements than anything the New Left said. This point was made forcefully years ago by Samuel Brittan, the staunchly capitalist author of “Capitalism and the Permissive Society.”

Unadulterated ’60s bashing consistently ignores the good things that the ’60s brought. Few ’60s haters, I suspect, would undo the advances made in civil rights for African Americans or equality for women.

For baby boomer candidates, scoring points off the legacy of their own era can be a risky business, indeed. Take the case of George W. Bush.

Mild ’60s bashing was once a staple of the Texas governor’s rhetoric. He smartly kept things a bit vague, but there was no mistaking his target: “For too long,” he declared in one of his 1998 reelection campaign ads, “we’ve encouraged a culture that says, ‘If it feels good, do it, and blame somebody else if you’ve got a problem.’ We’ve got to change our culture to one based on responsibility.”

Fast forward to this past August, when Bush was facing questions about illegal drug use (which he answered by declaring that he had not used illegal drugs in the past 25 years, and what he did before that was nobody’s business). There was a certain, inevitable awkwardness as Bush tried to square his endorsement of responsibility with his past behavior: “One of the interesting questions facing baby boomers is, have we grown up? Are we willing to share the wisdom of past mistakes? I think the message ought to be to all children, don’t use drugs, don’t use alcohol. That’s what leadership is about.”

When asked how a parent should respond if directly asked by a child about past drug use, Bush replied: “I think the baby boomer parent ought to say ‘I’ve learned from mistakes I may or may not have made. And I’d like to share some wisdom with you.’”

Now I feel for Bush, who found himself in a jam of his own making. And perhaps his “mistakes I may or may not have made” formulation will fly with some kids (and, it would appear from the polls, a fair number of voters). But what I like most about that exchange is that Bush now has a powerful incentive to stay away from broad attacks on the youthful mistakes of baby boomers and, to the extent that he talks about the issue at all, he may do so with a bit more nuance.

If I’m being honest—and baby boomers are supposed to be terribly confessional—my reasons for hating the baby boom obsession are personal. Self-obsession of any kind is a dangerous disposition, and that applies to generations as well as individuals. The baby boom prides itself on being open to all that is new and young, yet its self-obsession now is a repudiation of that view, a declaration that folks middle-aged and older have some monopoly on wisdom.

It’s true, of course, that as the years go by, I think elders have more and more to teach the younger generation. But that is exactly what my parents thought back in the days when Bob Dylan told them not to criticize what they couldn’t understand.

There’s nothing wrong with the baby boom that a dollop of humility wouldn’t cure. Far better for everyone if the baby boom accepts itself as a normal—if oversized—generation. There’s a deal to be made: If we don’t claim exceptional virtue, we won’t have to confess to exceptional sinfulness, either. And then we can stop being obsessed with what we may, or may not, have done.