Baby boomers are the largest, richest, best-educated generation of Americans, the favored children of a strong, confident and prosperous country. Or, as other generations call us, spoiled brats. Born between 1946 and 1964, the 76 million boomers reaped all the benefits of the postwar period’s extraordinary economic growth.
We were dizzy with our aspirations. We’d be rock stars. We’d be spiritual avatars. We’d be social activists. We’d be billionaires. No, better yet, we’d be all those things at the same time. (Steve Jobs came close.)
Every time opportunity knocked, we let it in, even when it should have been locked out for decency’s sake. And behold the boomers’ remarkable experiments with prosperity — the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble, the enormous financial bubble that’s still got the nation trying to get fiduciary gum out of its hair.
And now the boomers run the world.
The youngest members of the generation that decided to be young forever are turning 50 in 2014. That’s the age of maximum privilege and power. We’re giving everybody orders. The oldest boomers are enrolled in Medicare, collecting Social Security and receiving tax-free Roth IRA disbursements. Plus, American life expectancy has increased by almost 12 years since the baby boom was born, so it doesn’t just seem like we’ll never go away.
From President Obama, Rand Paul and Jeff Bezos at one end of our age cohort to Hillary Clinton, Rush Limbaugh and Cher at the other, we cannot be escaped or avoided (or shushed).
But running the world means taking responsibility for it. The boomers have been good at taking things: Mom’s car without permission, drugs, umbrage at the establishment, draft deferments, advantage of the sexual revolution, and credit for the civil rights and women’s liberation movements that rightly belongs to prior generations. The one thing that can be left in plain sight without us putting our sticky mitts on it is responsibility. Ask our therapists. Or the parents we haven’t visited at the extended-care facility.
The world is being run by irresponsible spoiled brats. And yet the world started to get better as soon as the boomers took over. That was in the late 1970s, when we were old enough for our deepest beliefs, our most cherished values and our unique vision of the future to have a profound and permanent effect on American life. To be precise, we took over on July 28, 1978, the day “Animal House” was released.
Things have been more fun since we elected Senator Blutarsky. Sometimes too much fun. The boomers can be scolded for promiscuous sex, profligate use of illegal intoxicants and other behavior that didn’t turn out to be healthy. But somebody had to do the research. Somebody had to be the guinea pig. And, running around in the sex-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll wheel, we had a good time while it lasted.
This is how we brought down the Berlin Wall. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev get the kudos, but we were the ones who tagged the Wall with all that awesome graffiti. When people our age on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall saw how much fun people our age on the right side of the Berlin Wall were having, it was all over with the Communist bloc. Today the Soviet Union is just a collection of countries with too many K’s and Z’s in their names, and China is the kind of dictatorship whose idea of world conquest is domination of the global smartphone manufacturing sector. We’re the generation that laughed off totalitarianism.
Little wonder that we’ve created a political system best known for producing comedy. A Rasmussen poll from a few years ago found that 32 percent of Americans under 40 think that satirical TV programs such as “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” are replacing traditional news outlets. You can’t really blame them, considering the news that Senator Blutarsky and his colleagues generate. And yet, although partisan polarization may have Washington deadlocked, there are worse things than a deadlocked Washington — such as a unified Washington marching boldly forward toward disaster in Vietnam when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed in 1964 (with a vote of 416-0 in the House, 88-2 in the Senate).
Anyway, we’re not “polarized.” We’re just bickering on the Capitol Hill playground. We love to argue. Half the boomers want more social services, to be paid for by other people. And half the boomers are those other people. At our age, we can’t always remember which half we’re in. For me, it depends on the day. Some days I’m a Part D prescription drug beneficiary; some days it’s April 15.
We’re also the generation that laughed off the kind of casual bigotry once widely acceptable in American life. To see how far we’ve come, compare “All in the Family” with “Modern Family,” two popular TV shows about intergenerational relations in a changing world. Boomers didn’t exactly create a race-blind society, but the kids we’ve raised might.
This dawned on me when my daughter was 9. She came home from school asking about adoption; she didn’t quite understand what it meant. My wife and I explained and said, “You’ve got friends who are adopted.”
“I do?” my daughter answered.
“Suzie Duncan,” we said. “Suzie was born in Ethiopia. The Duncans adopted her when she was a baby.” The Duncans are pink, freckled, short people of Scots-Irish extraction. Suzie is tall and thin with a luminous anthracite complexion.
My daughter said, “I thought Suzie looked different than her mom and dad.”
But boomers haven’t made life perfect, the way we promised we would back in the 1960s. We promised we wouldn’t fight any wars. We were fibbing — we’ve had seven or eight since Vietnam. However, we did make them smaller. The United States has suffered more than 5,800 combat deaths in the three decades of the post-Vietnam era. The number is painful, but it’s also less — by almost a thousand — than the number of U.S. servicemen who died in just five weeks during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
It would be nice to think the boomers did something to make the world less warlike. More likely, our voracious consumerism has just made the world richer. Gross world product — the total of all the goods and services produced on Earth — increased fivefold between 1975 and 2012, to almost $72 trillion. There’s a theory that rich people don’t like to fight huge wars (itchy uniforms and ugly shoes). China’s economy is nearly 40 times larger than it was in 1978. Let’s hope the theory’s true.
Our own standard of living hasn’t climbed at that heady rate, the way the Greatest Generation’s did. But we didn’t get to start with nothing. In a world destroyed by the Depression and war, every Levittown bungalow looked like the Ritz-Carlton, and a $20 pay raise was a winning lottery ticket. American family income, adjusted for inflation, grew by about $25,000 between the late 1940s and the middle 1970s. Since then, it’s grown by only about half that amount after adjusting for inflation and has, in fact, declined overall since 1999. For a so-called sandwich generation — pressed between the demands of kids who aren’t yet independent and parents who are getting less so — we haven’t put many bean sprouts in the pita pocket.
But a lot more things now come standard with our standard of living, thanks to all the great stuff we’ve invented. In 1978 few people had a personal computer, and if they did, it took up half the house. There was no GPS in your car. The Greatest Generation was lost all the time. You had to go to the library to look things up, and then you couldn’t because the Dewey Decimal System made it impossible to figure out whether Dewey ran for president against FDR, defeated the Spanish navy in the Battle of Manila Bay or invented the Dewey Decimal System.
We may not have managed America’s money well, but the boomers’ demand for more and better gizmos has filled the nation with amazing playthings, from tiny talking computers to gigantic flat-screen TVs with roughly 2,000 channels to watch on them. We’re the generation that will die with the most toys.
Until that day finally comes, we’ll still be riding our bicycles, jamming in garage bands and wearing jeans and T-shirts. We’re famously careful about the way we raise our kids, because somebody has to grow up. It won’t be us.
And what about those kids? Will Generation X and the millennials do a better job running the world than the boomers have? Let’s hope so. But first they’ll have to move out of our basements.
Humorist and political reporter P.J. O’Rourke originally wrote this essay for AARP: The Magazine. O’Rourke’s newest book is “The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And it wasn’t my fault).”