An Age Of Security?

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Politics did not stop, of course. There were critics of the grand consensus at both ends of the spectrum. Conservatives, about to embark on the long march to Reaganism, took to quoting Friedrich von Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and warned that liberalism was only a way station on the road to serfdom. John Kenneth Galbraith, in his 1958 bestseller The Affluent Society , made the liberal argument that mere consumption and “increased production [are] not the final test of social achievement, the solvent for all social ills” and that we would be better off putting more of our immense new private wealth into public purposes. Cultural critics saw new menaces lurking in the shadows of all those new suburban ranch houses, everything from comic books to feminizing mothers to good old-fashioned indolence. A huge variety of books and movies— The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit , Revolutionary Road , From the Terrace , A Letter to Three Wives , On the Road —worried that we were becoming a nation of faceless company men, wondering with Jack Kerouac, “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

The answer was: To the suburbs, and quite delightedly. After years of scrimping, Americans were thrilled with their new affluence. It may seem remarkable that an age lived under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation can be looked back upon nostalgically, but so great was the sense of security provided by the grand consensus that this is indeed the case for most boomers. And so great was this newfound sense of confidence that Americans felt emboldened to scrutinize their beliefs and values as they never had before.

For the first time, American culture became the predominant influence in the world. In an impressive expansion of human freedom, Americans launched grass-roots movements that widened the rights of women, ethnic and sexual minorities, the poor, and even prisoners. The President of the United States himself, Lyndon Johnson, advocated the creation of a Great Society that “is not a safe harbor, a resting place, a final objective, a finished work … [but] a challenge constantly renewed… .” Americans came to challenge the grand consensus itself, questioning a government they had previously trusted implicitly, along with all its leading, institutional allies—corporations, universities, organized religion—and even the most deeply held customs and mores of their parents. Following Galbraith’s exhortations, the baby boomers set out to find something beyond the carefully regulated Keynesian utopia of ever-increasing production and consumption …

… and marched right into the Republican party. The singular characteristic of the baby boomers is how, in their coming of age, they have turned away from the kind of security that their parents so labored to provide for them. This was in part out of necessity. The oil crisis of the 1970s brought the good times to an abrupt halt, and a world revived from the devastation of the war and now hungrily competitive has deeply eroded our economic advantages. Yet twenty-first-century America, still dominated by the baby boomers, has embraced globalization much more eagerly than any other developed nation. We have largely shucked off everything from trade barriers—once a staple of American life—to unions, to those corporate health care and pension plans, to reliable jobs and raises. The boomers have come to envision themselves, at least, as ideal entrepreneurs, ready to compete in a brave new winner-takes-all society, mistrustful of any collective or governmental solutions to anything.

In practice, this new conservative/libertarian consensus remains somewhat inchoate. The strong opposition to proposals to privatize Social Security indicates that Americans might not be ready yet to wholly abandon their old security net. And generational entitlement battles loom on Medicare and Medicaid. There is probably a conflict between social libertarians and the religious right in the offing, and we are slowly, painfully relearning that a sense of public obligation can be extremely useful for some tasks, such as winning a war. We have not abandoned the old Keynesian dream of ever more production and consumption, but now we feed it with ever greater public and private debt, a course that must also have its consequences.

The baby boomers started life in a society where a great material security provided the foundation for a series of daring cultural upheavals. In their maturity, they have used a dynamic culture to demolish that security. This is all they have in common, and ultimately they will be judged as all generations, and all individuals, are—by their ability to reach some synthesis between the idealistic dreams of their youth and the appetites of their maturity.