Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On the Baby Boomers

Timothy Noah on the Baby Boomers


November/December 2009

The year 1983 saw the release of The Big Chill, a film that
capitalized on the early waves of baby boomer nostalgia with the
story of a group of thirtysomething friends looking back upon their
'60s youth. Washington Monthly editor Timothy Noah­born on the tail
end of the baby boom, which missed the sixties­took aim at the film's
smug generational narcissism, and offered a broader critique of the
boomers' middle-aged retreat from idealism.

Even those of us who weren't invited to the party must concede that
there was something unique about the sixties. The intensely felt
experience of either opposing or fighting in the Vietnam War, the
exuberant optimism among those who wanted to create racial and
economic equality, and the general feeling of high-spirited
nonconformity all served to define a group of people whose common
values set them apart from and­at their best­above the narcissism and
grim conformity of the 1950s and the 1970s.

But now that the sixties are over and the members of that generation
are looking toward middle age, the bonds that remain among them have
taken on an unattractive quality that sometimes makes me glad I
wasn't invited to the party. For too many veterans of that decade,
the litmus test of political idealism­and, in a larger sense,
virtue­has come to be not what you do, or even what you believe, but
when you were born. In this view, the Woodstock generation doesn't
have to grapple with the issues of today's larger political community
because, unlike the benighted souls who came before and after, it
earned its stripes in the political battles of the sixties. This
sustains a feeling of commitment that is curiously apolitical. The
idea seems to be that if the world doesn't seem a much better place
now that the college students of the sixties have assumed adult
responsibilities, then, dammit, it's the world's fault, or perhaps
the fault of adulthood itself. It certainly isn't theirs. And if the
children of the sixties don't like the world as they now find it,
then the answer the generational view sets forth is not to make it
better; rather, it is to retreat to the companionship of one's fellow
thirty-five-year-olds, among whom can be found a smaller, more
exclusive society where some of the old attitudes and customs still
reign. As the advertisements for the movie The Big Chill put it, "In
a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm."


The idea that membership in a particular age group was a precondition
to enlightenment has always been one of the more unattractive
doctrines of the sixties generation. During the sixties, when the
object of exclusionary sentiment was the older generation, "youth
culture" consciousness was but one shrill note among many more
melodious ones. Now that the political turmoil has subsided, however,
generational chauvinism, now directed against the young, has become
practically the whole symphony.

Thus when Abbie Hoffman recently turned forty-seven, he declared that
"watching college students today is about as exciting as watching TV
bowling" and vowed that he would "never trust anybody under 30." A
cloying new television series, Family Ties, has appeared, presumably
the brainchild of someone in his thirties, about a family where the
parents are ex­flower children and their son is­you guessed it­a
stuffed-shirt right-winger. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to find
in any of the popular-culture depictions of the Woodstock culture
grown up a sympathetic portrait of anyone under thirty, while there
are plenty of damning ones. The function of this generational
chauvinism against the under-thirty crowd is to provide a cover for
the Woodstock generation's own seductions during the Me Decade. Sure,
we may be career oriented and narcissistic, but we're not as bad as
the kids who never got the chance to experience the fleeting brush
with campus radicalism.


The larger problem with allowing people to go strutting around saying
they're superior because they're thirty-five is that it encourages
them to regard the larger bonds of community with an informality that
society can ill afford. SEC regulations may not get violated very
often in the name of sixties solidarity, but the world does seem to
be populated with quite a few members of the sixties generation who
think there's nothing inconsistent about being both an ex-radical
and, say, a tax lawyer who now contrives to minimize the
contributions of our richest citizens to the Treasury­so long as you
treat your job with the proper amount of contempt. The key is to draw
your real sense of worth from your membership in the Woodstock
generation. The irony of this stance is that where once it sought to
create a "relevant," alternative culture, now it serves to create a
deliberately irrelevant one. And where once such distinctions were
made in the name of politicizing previously neutral questions, now
they are made to depoliticize them.


Where the sixties idea of community went wrong was in its failure to
keep alive the idea that community should exist to make the world a
better place, and not merely to reinforce already strong bonds
between people of the same age. The kind of community that the
Woodstock generation needs to be calling for should not be the kind
of community that comes easily­where attitudes and experiences are
held in common. Instead, it should be calling for the kind of
community that you have to work at, forging bonds between people who
grew up at different times, in different places, under different
circumstances of class and race. It should be a community that is
more like a neighborhood, a city, a nation, and less like a class reunion.


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