The Generation That Sucked


By Joe Campbell
December 8th, 2008


 
With apologies to all those Baby Boomers I know – I, of course, don’t mean you.

There is something so very right about trashing the Baby Boom generation. Tom Friedman – a member of said generation – suggests a few names in his column on Sunday:

“The Greediest Generation?” “The Complacent Generation?” Or maybe: “The Subprime Generation: How My Parents Bailed Themselves Out for Their Excesses by Charging It All on My Visa Card.”

Barack Obama himself wrote in The Audacity of Hope:

In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.

Perhaps this passage is what led Andrew Sullivan to describe Barack Obama’s candidacy (back when he was a long shot) as America’s only chance for a much needed truce in the long civil war fought by the Baby Boom generation:

…the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

The point of all of this is that the Baby Boom generation was quite terrible. While the “Greatest Generation” tackled a Great Depression and won a World War, and then came home and created an age of prosperity and the United Nations – and then, by the late 1950s and early 1960s, fought for and won civil rights, finally erasing the official discrimination against African Americans that had blighted America since it’s inception – the Baby Boomers – the children of the Greatest Generation – started an American civil war, focused initially on Vietnam, and then later on the role of government, on abortion, and on religion’s place in public life. While these are worthy issues to argue about, the culture war of the Baby Boomers kept them from tackling many of the urgent challenges of their day – from global warming to infrastructure deterioration to America’s place in the world. As the Baby Boomers entered adulthood, their national cohesion that was evident in the Greatest Generation dissolved into squabbles and then by 1968, into a virtual civil war.

Since the 1960s, America has failed to invest in our roads, our utilities, our energy infrastructure; America’s dependency on foreign oil was demonstrated in the 1970s, yet we did nothing and blamed it on Jimmy Carter’s bad leadership; at the same time, a radical brand of extremist Islam began to grow – and our government encouraged it, seeing it as a tool to use against the Soviet Union; some two decades ago, global warming was accepted as a fact by the greatest majority of scientists, yet we have failed to take any significant steps.

Instead, since the late 1960s, we have fought and re-fought the war over the war in Vietnam. What happened in the rice paddies and jungles of that nation are almost irrelevant to the culture war. What is remembered is where people stood while they were here. John Kerry served with distinction, but spoke against the war when he came back – forever putting him on the liberal side of the war. Dick Cheney got one deferment after another, avoiding serving at all – yet he was enthusiastic about the war as long as he himself wasn’t fighting, making him a conservative. John McCain was captured and came home a hero and George W. Bush served stateside in a cushy National Guard unit for the sons and daughters of those politicians influential enough to prevent their children from serving – yet both are equally conservative because they both were annoyed at the hippies protesting. Barack Obama was only a boy, but as Sarah Palin never failed to mention, he served on a charitable board with someone who decided to fight an insurgency against the American government to oppose the war – which by association made Obama a far-left radical. Much less important than what these Baby Boomers actually did is how they felt about the war.

It is possible to determine with a great degree of accuracy whether a Baby Boomer is a Democrat or Republican simply by asking their position on a war that ended almost forty years ago. Those who protested the war and stood against it took one side in the culture war; those who supported the war took the other side. As a rule, the Democrats – Kerry, Clinton, Gore – were against the war. The Republicans – Bush, McCain, Cheney – were for it. (This was despite the fact that it was “the best and the brightest” under Democrats John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who started the war.)

The obvious problem is that these divisions are barely relevant anymore.

The Baby Boomers pissed away the prosperity their parents bequeathed to them and squandered the opportunities presented to them – and now are busy using their children’s future earnings (our future earnings) to buy their way out of the mess they have created. They avoided the challenges of their times and found people to blame. They focused on OJ Simpson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Monica Lewinsky – on abortion, Vietnam, gays, and religion – and not on global warming, on campaign finance, on the corruption of our political process, on an overleveraged economy.

After decades of avoiding systematic problems – as the solutions became embroiled in the ongoing culture war – we now must face them. With two wars in the Mid-East, a failing world economy, a growing threat of catastrophic terrorism, and whatever else may come our way, procrastination is impossible. Now it’s time for us to try to salvage this wreck.

That’s what the 2008 election was really about. And that’s our challenge. It remains to be seen if we’re up to it.

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10 Responses to “The Generation That Sucked”

  1. TrendsWatching Says:

    Well-written piece. Obama is part of the boom in babies after WWII, but he is certainly not part of the Baby Boom Generation. Many nationally prominent commentators have said that Obama is specifically part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Baby Boomers and Generation X. Google this and you’ll see it’s a pretty long list of commentators who have already stated this position. Among those who have publicly referred to Obama as part of Generation Jones are: David Brooks (New York Times), Karen Tumulty (Time Magazine), Roland Martin (CNN), Michael Steele (Chairman, GOPAC), Chris Van Hollen (Chairman, DCCC), Stuart Rothenberg (Roll Call), Clarence Page (Chicago Tribune), Juan Williams (Fox News Channel), Howard Wolfson (Political Advisor), Mel Martinez (U.S. Senator [R-Florida]), Carl Leubsdorf (Dallas Morning News), Jonathan Alter (Newsweek), and Peter Fenn (MSNBC).
    You can see some of them discussing this topic in this 5 minute video on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Ta_Du5K0jk

  2. Joe Campbell Says:

    I’m aware of the fact that Obama is technically part of the Baby Boom Generation – and specifically a part that some call “Generation Jones.” Specifically, conservatives especially seem to have focused on Obama as a member of Generation Jones based on your list.

    Obama himself though doesn’t seem to consider himself to be a member of “Generation Jones” as much as a post-Boomer. Which is part of his appeal to Generation X, Generation Y, and even the Boomer Generation itself. The vagueness is part of the charm.

  3. A New Phase in the Culture War: National Security - 2parse Says:

    […] some sense, the Culture War can be traced back to the “psychodrama of the baby boom generation” as they fought over Vietnam and then social issues. By the 1990s, the Baby Boom generation […]

  4. Marina Pratt Says:

    I find your analysis a bit sloppy and prone to overgeneralization–particularly troubling if you’re going to label an entire generation as “quite terrible”. Your definition of the “Greatest Generation” seems to be a hodgepodge of the World War II veterans and the so-called “Silent Generation”. Even the latter category is murky. Its early cohort (grown up in the Depression, too young to fight in WWII) tended toward conformity and conservatism in the 50’s and came to open marriages and free love in middle age during the 70’s (although, to further complicate matters, it also included Martin Luther King, Jr. and Teddy Kennedy). The later “Silent” cohort included idealists, agitators and artists who really set the tone for the baby boom–think Abby Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Crosby, Grace Slick, the students who took part in the freedom rides, and a woman who had a highly formative influence on Obama: his mom. Regarding the Vietnam war, it’s important to remember that while the baby boomers took to the streets in droves to protest, they also fought and died in droves because of the catastrophically mistaken policies of those heroic “Great Generation” leaders. Myself, I was born after Obama, but I’m more inclined to identify with the boomers, in part because my parents were older New Deal Democrats(more typical of the generation that begat the early boomers), but also because I valued the lesson of resistance to the Vietnam War and participated in a similar movement that, I would like to think, kept our country out of a military intervention in Central America during the 1980’s.

  5. Joe Campbell Says:

    @Marina Pratt,

    I am not labeling the individuals in the Baby Boom generation “quite terrible.” As individuals, I admire many of them.

    But the public policies the Baby Boom generation has supported as a group have been terrible — as detailed above and in other posts on this blog.

    As the Baby Boom generation ascended into power, they have failed to do what other generations of Americans have done: Invest in the future and maintain the infrastructure of the United States.

    I’m willing to revisit the matter — but your argument doesn’t address the thrust of mine: That it isn’t individuals I’m criticizing — it’s the policies that the generation as a whole and of the leaders it’s elected that I am criticizing.

  6. Marina Pratt Says:

    Read my comment again. I characterized your piece as labeling an entire generation, and that, precisely, is my problem with it. The thrust of your argument reminds me a lot of the clueless racist who paints African-Americans in the abstract as a stupid, lazy and criminal, then says “oh, come on, some of my best friends are Negroes.” If you have a problem with the certain policies, then fine: argue the merits of the policies (which, in many cases, seem to be Reagan era policies–he was hardly a baby boomer). Somehow, an “analysis” that uses such terminology as “generation that sucked” and brands a generation as “terrible” (aside from the “best friends” that you admire, of course) seems to have an agenda that’s not quite so lofty. What it is, I’m not exactly sure–perhaps a personal need for self-definition (that seems to be the usual motivation for people to decry a group they consider “other”). It just doesn’t contribute to any meaningful discourse.

  7. Joe Campbell Says:

    @Marina,

    I grant you a bit of rhetorical sloppiness on my part. But the overall thrust of my argument isn’t what you describe it as.

    Bringing this down to race is ridiculous and is really quite offensive to those who have been affected by racism. Making a generalization about the policies favored by the Baby Boom generation over the past 50 years — as I have — including some rhetorical bombast which is over-the-top — “the generation that sucked,” etc. — is in no way equivalent to racism. Both deal with generalizations — true. But then, so does any social or policy analysis.

    The Baby Boom generation began to come into prominence in the late 1960s — right around when the liberal movement splintered into radical elements that ended up discrediting it. That’s not a coincidence. The Baby Boom generation was more radical than the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation. They grew up in a time of plenty with the specter of nuclear annihilation hanging over them. Liberal leadership pushed America into Vietnam — and then Republican leadership led to Watergate was a common experience that crystallized the mistrust of government at a early point in the generation. And about a decade later, the Baby Boomers — who had previously been largely supported liberal candidates (albeit with a sizeable radical right wing group in the population) turned to Ronald Reagan. They voted in large numbers for Reagan and propelled him to the White House. He wasn’t a Baby Boomer — but he it was that demographic group that provided the “Reagan Democrats” that provided his margin of victory.

    Ever since the Baby Boomers took a prominent place in American public life, the political conversation has become more radical. First, with warring elements among the left. Then with culture war between left and right. At the same time, the Baby Boom generation has been the key group favoring both lower taxes and more spending on programs that benefit them. Their shifts in power have largely been the result of the Baby Boomers switching sides. The defining elements of the generation have been ideological radicalism — as well as a flexibility of that radicalism that has allowed many members to switch rather easily from being leftists to being right-wingers. To attacking LBJ from the left and then to push Reagan to the right.

    All that said — clearly, there have been extraordinary Baby Boomers. But it’s pretty clear that since the Baby Boomers have entered into political life, they have dominated the political conversation. They have done so because they are radical and prone to shifting opinions. Thus, with the general consensus among the Baby Boomers, so went the fate of the nation. This era is coming to an end. But while it lasted, public policies that tended to benefit those in the age group of the Boomers tended to be adopted — even if they were short-sighted.

    Equating this view to a sort of racism is ridiculous. Disagree if you want — point out the positive things the Boomers did — fighting to end Vietnam; leading the environmental movement; creating a more feminist society; deregulating many industries (though that can count as a negative for many other industries). These and more are all worthwhile.

    But counter to all this, this generation led America into more debt; they supported policies that cut taxes and raised spending; and their radicalism has been the key factor that has left special interests to obtain so much power.

  8. Marina Pratt Says:

    @Joe – My gut reaction to your characterization of the 1980 election is that it was WAY off base, but we live in an age of readily available data, so I can rebut with something a more substantial than my personal memories. According to exit polls done by CBS News/New York Times during the 1980 election, Reagan carried at least 54% of the vote in the three age groups above 30 (30-44, 45-59, and >60), but only 43% in the two groups below (18-21 and 22-29). The big story that year was that this difference didn’t translate into an advantage for Carter because of the votes that were siphoned off by independent candidate John Anderson, who carried an impressive 11% of the under-30 vote. This all jibes with my memory–it was my first election, I had supported Kennedy in the bitter democratic primary, and it took all of the discipline I could muster to fill out my absentee ballot for Carter, although I’m now glad that I did (not that it made a difference …).

    In contrast to the rather bizarre narrative you put forth (of individual baby boomers flipping from radical left to radical right), the dreary reality was that many people with center-to-left views in my particular cohort of the baby boom (the one Obama belongs to) just sank into apathy and stopped voting, allowing an emerging fundamentalist right-wing backlash to grow in influence.

    The boomers came of age in an era of tumultuous change, brought about by forces over which they had no control. If the entire generation conjures up “radicalism” in your mind, it’s only because, to quote the great historian Howard Zinn (born in 1922), “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Indeed, as I just mentioned, apathy and inaction among many of my peers had very real consequences.

    Like any sane person, I share your longing for a more positive, forward-looking period in public discourse in this country, and I agree with Andrew Sullivan’s assessment that Obama really was the right person at the right time. But given your penchant for overgeneralization, name-calling, and historical narratives that are sorely in need of some fact checking, I seriously wonder what kind of person you would have been had you been on a college campus in 1969, and I find it hard to imagine that you would have been one of the voices of reason. Hopefully, in a few years, you will be able to say, in the words of Bob Dylan: “In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand/At the mongrel dogs who teach/Fearing not that I’d become my enemy/
    In the instant that I preach/My pathway led by confusion boats/Mutiny from stern to bow/Ah, but I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

  9. Joe Campbell Says:

    @Marina,

    Readily available data — yes.

    But as such, don’t purposefully misrepresent it while accusing me of over-generalizing. In 1976, Baby Boomers would have been aged 12 to 30 and those demographic groups voted 53% to 47% for Carter over Ford — largely handing the election to Carter.
    (Source: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/elections/how_groups_voted/voted_76.html)

    In 1980, Baby Boomers would be aged 16 to 34 — and those 18 to 29 voted 44.5% to 44% for Carter, and those 30 – 44 (1/3 of whom would be the Baby Boomers we are discussing) voted 55% to 38% in favor of Reagan. Almost certainly then, the Baby Boomers voted in favor of Ronald Reagan — and it was their switching from Carter to Reagan that tilted the election in his favor. The young have tended to vote Democratic — and it was in 1980 that the Baby Boomers bucked that trend and voted for Reagan.
    (Source: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/elections/how_groups_voted/voted_80.html)

    In the 1984 and 1988 elections, the Baby Boomers voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates.

    It was not until 1992 — with a new generation finally taking the 18 – 29 slot that the young began to vote Democratic again — favoring Bill Clinton 44% to 36% while Clinton only won Baby Boomers 41% to 38% as compared to the elderly members of the Greatest Generation who supported him 50% to 39%.
    (Source: http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/elections/how_groups_voted/voted_92.html)

    To some extent, every generation flipped from election to election — but all through this time period, it was the Baby Boomers that were the focus of popular culture. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of colleges and radicalism and free love. As the Baby Boomers matured, the 1980s became a time of greed and money. Surely — it is not purely this generation that is to blame — but just as surely, it was this generation that shaped the cultural landscape more than any other during this time.

    Yes — they came of age in radical times. Yes — there are many great members of the Baby Boom generation. No — every member of that generation can’t be blamed for the short-term policies adopted by the government which so often have benefited the Baby Boom generation. Many stood against these changes.

    My argument is a bit of a stretch — a bit of hyperbole to illustrate the outsized role the Baby Boom generation has played in the past 50 years of political life. For they have played that role. I understand my telling of the history of your generation doesn’t gibe with your experience of it. But it is grounded in data — flawed as that data may be. I’m not just pulling this out of my ass.

    And speaking of generalizing. You have constantly generalized about me based on this single post. That’s your right. I don’t know who I would have been on a college campus in the late 1960s. I’d like to think I would have been that voice of reason who was friendly with all but generally more sympathetic to the left wing groups even as I tried to keep things in perspective. That is who I was during my college days during the Iraq War protests. I was the guy sympathetically writing about the Iraq War protests on campus while respectfully opposing those protesting the presence of ROTC on campus.

    Under different circumstances, I may have turned out differently. But I think you may be confusing deliberate hyperbole in pushing forwards an idea that has not been given it’s proper due with the ideological wind tunnel of radicalism in which every utterance serves to ratchet up the anger level.

    I think the sweep of history is far more complicated than can be conveyed in a few hundred word blog post — but that a blog post can sometimes try to put forth a bit of an alternative view.

  10. Marina Pratt Says:

    1. If people 30-44 years old voted 55% to 38% for Reagan in 1980, you have no basis for claiming that those percentages apply to the boomer portion (ages 30-34) of the vote. You would have to go back to the raw data, which could very well show that they voted for Reagan in higher or lower numbers.
    2. You completely ignored the points about a significant third-party candidate in 1980 and the growth of disillusionment and voter apathy. If people with more progressive views abandon the political process, there is going to be a skew toward greater apparent conservatism in that cohort’s electorate. I do not defend apathy–indeed, I decry it–but it is a rather different dynamic than flip-flopping to a different ideology. Happily, the apathy trend does seem to have reversed over the last few election cycles.
    3. Regarding the “outsized role the Baby Boom generation has played in the past 50 years of political life”, I’m afraid that phrase just strengthens the impression that your original post was motivated primarily by a personal feeling of resentment for having been overshadowed. Relax. Like all human beings, the baby boom generation will eventually die off, and you’ll have your place in the sun. Treat them the way you want the next generation to treat you when you start to exit stage right.
    4. You might find this interesting http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2010/09/damning-a-whole-generation-to-make-a-policy-point/63324

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