It seems to be fashionable these days to consider people in demographic cohorts, with the characteristics of the members supposedly determined by the characteristics that define the group. Thus it is with the demographic groups known as the Greatest Generation (born 1901-27), the Silent Generation (1928-45), the Baby Boomers (1946-64), and all those other generational groups who’ve been labeled in recent years.
What seems to be most significant about this is that in each case the classification is not solely about an idea but a sentiment—that is, an idea plus an associated feeling, or attitude, or judgment. The Greatest Generation is held in positive esteem, whereas the Baby Boomers are increasingly disparaged for supposedly squandering the advantages they inherited and leaving their descendants much worse off.
All this hints at something deeper: the motivations of those whose own disappointing experiences have soured their sentiments. They blame the Boomers for the circumstances they endure and have little or no hope of a better future. It almost goes without saying that this might very easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially when these beliefs are exploited for political purposes. In the meantime, an entire generation is being blamed for the failures of only a very few of their number, a point well made by Nathaniel Peters.
It is only through self-reflection that we can ascertain how our outlook and conduct influence the way that our life turns out. Blaming others for how we experience life—and subsequently behave—may inhibit the development of insight by inducing in us a fatalism that becomes self-destructive. But—and awareness of this fact is a necessary starting point for any process of self-development—how we experience ourselves and the world is inseparable from the act of experiencing. That is, the content of the act is part of the act itself.
Precisely how we divide up our experiences is the stuff of seemingly endless philosophical disputes. The ideas we have about ourselves and the world can become the malleable creatures of our own capacity for self-deception and hubris. Or we may come to believe that our ideas are more important than what we actually take to be our experiences: that, in some way, ideas determine how we experience ourselves and the external world.
This way of thinking has been applied to the Baby Boomers. Dividing successive human generations into discrete, seemingly homogeneous, groups is the expression of an idea that shapes our attitude toward those groups as well as the expression of a preexisting sentiment. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation that challenges our capacity for self-understanding and sound moral judgment.
Social “facts” being what they are, Boomers are assumed to have enjoyed all the benefits of being the descendants of the Greatest Generation who fought in WWII, benefits that they in their turn should have passed on to their offspring, but didn’t. The problems with this thesis are fundamentally conceptual in nature, arising from how the idea of there being discrete “generations” is applied in practice, and what this signifies about those doing the labeling.
The fundamental issue concerns not the concept of a generation—parents and their children are clearly of different generations—but how to identify specific generations as discrete collectives determined by date of birth and sharing common characteristic features that determine how their lives turn out. Demographically, such distinctions are unproblematic. Dates are chosen, and labels are attached. And it is true that parents can accumulate wealth (both economic and cultural) and that their children can waste it without replenishing it. But to accuse an entire demographic of this is to ignore the diversity within generations. The members of a demographic group do not all behave in exactly the same way.
Methodologically, the problem is this: where are the conceptual boundaries that make such discernment possible? How can a person born in 1946 (the start of the Baby Boomer generation) be said to be significantly different from one born the previous year, and yet fundamentally the same as one born in 1964 (the last of the Baby Boomers)? The cultural, historical, and material influences could not possibly have changed sufficiently at the chronological markers to make those born immediately afterward fundamentally different from those born immediately before.
A further conceptual problem concerns the homogeneity indicated by assigning a presumed discrete generation a specific label. The Baby Boomers did not all enjoy the benefits of the postwar economic boom. Vertical economic stratification condemned many to lives of disadvantage and poverty, while only a very few inherited all the benefits of great wealth and influence. Those at the top of the pyramid of wealth could afford to make mistakes and be carefree, or—if born to turmoil or torment—could at least suffer in comfort, with the leisure to reflect on this. Those at the bottom struggled through life with little or no relief, envying the growing middle classes for their newfound and increasing prosperity.
There is an inextricably existential and moral challenge here, one that faces every generation. Life is never risk-free, and each person must make the best of whatever circumstances are their lot in life. Some will do better than others. These will strive to be the architects of their own lives, encompassing both success and failure. For others, good luck or misfortune will attend their days like the seasons, bringing good or bad weather, unbidden, and without stimulating significant beneficial personal development.
Each generation is stratified according to power and influence. Only a very few people will ever achieve any great measure of either. The vast majority will live according to constraints placed on them, seeking to improve their lot by fair means or foul. But the fact is that most people actually have little say in what is left behind for future generations to enjoy or endure. Each person may contribute a little, a few may sacrifice a lot—even their lives—but the end result is shaped largely by those very few atop the hierarchy of power and influence: the elite.
Such considerations undermine any attempt to blame the Boomers collectively for how the elite of that generation shaped the future. A few individuals will stand out as significant: politicians, successful entrepreneurs, great intellects, creative geniuses, and so on. But the vast majority of Boomers simply got on with their lives as best they could, given the circumstances into which they were born. They may not have done as well as their descendants might have wished, but to disparage them for this is to apportion retrospective blame for not passing on that to which their descendants later decided they were entitled.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is envy. The Boomers did seem to be having a great time in the 1960s, which is the decade most associated with them. It was a great decade in which to be young—provided one did not live in poverty and could avoid being involved in wars or other kinds of conflict or suffering. Not only was this a time of increasing economic prosperity and opportunities, but the popular creative arts were possibly at their most original and diverse of all recent decades, vibrant with new ideas, flooding society with colorful and intriguing sights, sounds, and ideas. I’m biased, of course, but I found nothing that came afterward matched this decade in cultural energy and the simple joy of being alive and optimistic about the future. To be young in the sixties was—according to those who championed the idea at the time—to believe that youth would save the world. Perhaps that’s a good belief to have for a while, until wisdom intervenes where naïveté once ruled.
In the 1960s, we lived each day with the knowledge that at any moment the world could end in a nuclear conflagration. The shadow of WWII and the Holocaust hung over Western civilization like a brooding thundercloud. Every day brought more news of the brutality and misery of armed conflicts taking place around the world. But still people woke up each morning and went to work and planned their future as if life would still be worth living a week hence, and they did so in the knowledge that they were not so different from most others in this respect.
This belief in making one’s own way in life is what marks out the difference between those who make the best of what they have and seek to improve things for themselves and others, and those who instead diminish themselves by blaming the Boomers for what they don’t like about their lives.
The youth of today are herded by political activists into identity groups by the simple technique of persuading them that their personal characteristics are determined by the collective to which they are deemed to belong by those same political activists. In the 1960s, to be free meant being able to decide for oneself what kind of person one wished to be. The emphasis today is very different. If one believes the ideologues of identity politics, to be free means freedom from oppression, which according to them can be achieved only by submitting to the authority of those very same ideologues, who themselves alone decide who is oppressed and who is doing the oppressing, and what should be done about it. That’s not freedom.
On the other hand, this political landscape was being marked out during the 1960s, because many of the youngsters who staged noisy sit-ins on college campuses and participated in the sometimes violent and destructive demonstrations on the streets grew up to be political leaders and academics who in their turn educated and inspired new cohorts of like-minded activists preaching a secular gospel of political struggle and social conflict, even as more and more ordinary people were enjoying greater personal freedom, increasing economic prosperity, and more opportunities for personal growth than at any other time in history.
Instead of generalizing about an entire generation, responsibility should be laid at the door of those who actually take an active role in shaping the future. In each generation this will be that tiny minority who achieve positions of authority, influence, and power. Those who blame the Baby Boomers for the discontent they now feel might wish to reflect that in the coming decades they too are likely to be the recipients of such disapprobation. The blame game always goes around in circles, with those who come afterward seeking convenient scapegoats in order to deflect responsibility away from themselves.
Better still, we can choose to focus on continuity with the past, conserving the best while learning from what went wrong. Instead of seeking conflict in controversy, we can use our disagreements to explore what it is that we have in common so that we all begin our striving for a better world from the same place. Which is where we are right now: not the past, but the present.