12 February 2021

The baby boomers promised freedom but left chaos


American millennials might disagree about what is wrong with their country, but they all know who to blame: the baby boomers. Through sheer force of numbers, the cohort born between 1945 and 1964 have been the most important voters and consumers for almost half a century. They have set the economic, cultural and political running, and so the world we live in today is, for better or for worse, one built by, and for, boomers.

Very much for the worse, according to Helen Andrews. In Boomers, she sets out the conservative case against her parents’ generation in biographical portraits of six consequential Boomers. Andrews uses Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians – the blistering, bestselling assault on a previous generation’s leading lights and the tired ideas his generation had inherited from them  – as a template. The editor who suggested this model to Andrews apparently said, “You’re like Strachey. You’re an essayist, and you’re mean.”

Andrews, a senior editor at the American Conservative and an Eastern Orthodox Christian, delivers an unsparing verdict: “The Baby Boomers have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.”

The tragedy of the boomers, Andrews argues, is that “the boomers were dealt an uncommonly good hand, which makes it truly incredible that they should have screwed up so badly. They inherited prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions. They passed on debt, inequality, moribund churches and a broken democracy.”

To make this argument, Andrews picks as her targets Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, economist Jeffrey Sachs, academic superstar Camille Paglia, politician and provocateur Al Sharpton and Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor. Respectively, they represent technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics and law, all fields in which Andrews thinks the Boomers passed on to their children something that was “worse than what they inherited”.

Early on in Boomers you realise you are in the hands of an author with unapologetically fogeyish tastes. Andrews complains that, unlike previous generations, boomers never graduated from the “good-time music of their youth to opera and classical”. Sounding less like a millennial and more like the boomers’ own parents, Andrews writes that, “The rise of television has altered the human mind as much as the printing press did… the result has been generations of young people who lack a grounding in the basic facts of history, which can’t possibly be absorbed by video.”

If you accused Andrews of wanting to turn the clock back 70 years, her response would be along the lines of “of course” or “yes, please”. Thankfully, Boomers still rewards readers like me, who don’t think TV has turned us all into morons, and might even dare to suggest that good pop music is capable of being more than light entertainment.

After all, Andrews’s argument isn’t just that the boomers haven’t delivered a world that she doesn’t like, but one that doesn’t live up to the boomers’ own claims. Collectively, her portraits are an attempt to get at “the essence of boomerness” which, according to Andrews, “sometimes manifests itself as hypocrisy and other times just as irony: they tried to liberate us, and instead of freedom they left behind chaos.”

Given her scathing view of the boomers’ legacy, Andrews isn’t always as mean as you might expect – or as her editor claims. Her portraits of Steve Jobs and Aaron Sorkin border on sympathetic. The pictures she paints of the others, less so. In fact, Andrews appears to have organised her subjects in descending order of the esteem she holds them in.

Mean or not, Andrews’s editor was right about one thing: she is a masterly essayist capable of cutting to the core of her subject. Her treatment of familiar post-war territory is idiosyncratic, insightful, entertaining and genuinely countercultural. Boomers is full of memorable lines. An example of Andrews at her pointed best: “Lots of people claim to know what the people want. Democracy is how we know which of those people are telling the truth.”

Andrews is more persuasive when dealing with the boomers she has some respect for as well as scorn. Camille Paglia, the feminist theorist who has for decades made headlines with her defences of pornography, provocative lines about sexual violence and puncturing of political correctness, is the subject of the most devastating chapter in the book. Andrews tips her hat to the force of Paglia’s will and the “power of her intellect” before tearing her apart.

“Individual disillusionments pile up, and still her basic optimism is untouched,” writes Andrews. Paglia once said that “one cannot make any kind of firm line between high art and pornography. Michelangelo is a pornographer.” Andrews adds: “While Paglia was busy descanting on the erotic qualities of the Pietà, men under forty were developing erectile dysfunction at unprecedented rates from watching too much Pornhub.”

Her treatment of Sonia Sotomayor, is, by contrast, one-dimensional. The most liberal member of the Supreme Court is presented by Andrews as an intellectual light-weight who has leveraged identity politics to get ahead. “The journey from Bronx housing project to Ivy League law school had taught Sotomayor resilience,” writes Andrews, “But it also taught her that bullying would yield results, that she would never pay a price for acting out; on the contrary, that she would be rewarded.” Bullying, Andrews argues, is what activist liberal judges like Sotomayor have being doing to the American people for decades.

In her chapter on Al Sharpton, the African-American preacher, politician and rabble rouser, Andrews advances two arguments with mixed results. First, she argues that the boomers have a fatal preference for transformational political leadership over the transactional. “The transformational mentality looks at opposition and sees nothing but reactionary holdouts who don’t deserve to be accommodated, only defeated,” she writes. “A transactional leader sees potential allies whose cooperation could be gained if their concerns were placated.”

Sharpton and his mode of what Andrews calls “crass racial shakedowns” succeeds because “when the art of bargaining with your opponents is abolished, other forms of extracting concessions from them inevitably take its place.” This contrarian defence of “machine politics” is compelling. But Andrews fails in her second goal: to address race relations more generally and knock down the boomers’ best defence against her charges of a squandered inheritance.

She rightly point out that her parents’ generation have craftily managed to claim credit for the civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, “which, unless they were freedom riding age ten, is a stretch”. But the idea that Boomers have left race relations worse than they found them is unpersuasive. Andrews says that the problem with school integration is that it happened too quickly. In her telling, black Americans protesting against discrimination resemble little more than members of a mob at leaders like Sharpton’s beck and call.

As with racial inequality, so too with gender inequality. It is one thing to argue that boomer feminism has over-promised but under-delivered. But has the “net effect of boomer feminism” really been “to restrict the choices of typical women, taking the choice that was making most of them happy and removing it from the set of options”. I’m not so sure.

Andrews is rightly scathing about the narcissistic boomer version of history according to which, “America was a totalitarian nightmare until the advent of that holy trifecta, civil rights, women’s liberation and the gay movement.” But just as that story is overly simplistic, Andrews is excessively cheery about pre-boomer America and too gloomy about the country today: a suspiciously neat inversion of the boomer’s morality tale.

In Andrews’s telling, the United States today is a hellscape of porn-addled men and over-medicated women living meaningless, godless existences. Forgive me for thinking things aren’t quite so bad. That said, you needn’t have quite as bleak a view of contemporary America as Andrews to feel dissatisfied with the world the boomers built – and to regret the loss of some of the things they demolished.

Andrews ends Boomers with a chapter on millennials. She worries that her own generation are repeating their parents’ mistakes but doing so without the social, cultural and economic guardrails that were still in place 50 years ago: “The only thing worse than a street protest that’s all fun and games is one that isn’t.” A more optimistic prediction would be that millennials, who now outnumber the boomers, are fully aware of the older generation’s shortcomings and, like the boomers before them, will shape the future in their own image.

In the final pages of the book, Andrews accuses the boomers of “failing to take their place in the chain of civilization”. It all adds to the impression that she sees the boomers as a uniquely destructive generation. They’ve certainly made their fair share of mistakes, but such a view is surely short-sighted and, in its narcissistic preoccupation with the present, even a little bit, well, boomerish.

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.