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What’s going to happen when the most prosperous, best-educated generation in history finally grows up? (And just how special are the baby boomers?)
October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
The antiwar movement was always more self-interested than its veterans might wish to admit.
These accomplishments notwithstanding, it’s small wonder that the generation has accumulated mixed reviews. The radical left is no happier with the boomers than is the reactionary right. In their youth they effected so massive an upheaval in politics and culture that they were bound eventually to fall in the public’s esteem. Apostles of what Gitlin has called “the voyage to the interior,” and what the late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch derided as a “culture of narcissism,” they seemed after the 1960s to place an unusually high premium on self-discovery and personal satisfaction.
The generation that had raged against authority, vowing with Bob Dylan, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” was now swinging to Andrea True’s refrain “More, more, more. How do you like it, how do you like it?” They bought minivans, microwaves, and self-help books, embraced transcendental meditation, embarked on various diets, visited tanning salons and fat farms, and filled their homes with more durable goods than their prosperous parents could ever have imagined.
Even their politics seemed to change. In 1980 it was an eleventh-hour swing among boomer voters that turned Ronald Reagan’s razor-thin margin into a landslide victory. In fact, there was always more continuity than the critics liked to admit. Even in 1972, the first year that 18-year-olds were allowed to take part in national elections, fewer than half the eligible new voters bothered to show up at the polls, and just half of those who did cast their lot with the liberal antiwar Democrat George McGovern.
Popular memory notwithstanding, the sixties generation has never been a political monolith. Nor was it uniformly engaged by public issues. Only 20 percent of students who attended college in the late 1960s participated in marches or protests, and far fewer—2 or 3 percent—regarded themselves as activists.
The antiwar movement, which many liberal boomers fondly remember as embodying the altruistic, public spirit of the era, was always more self-interested than its veterans might wish to admit. Whereas virtually every able-bodied, draft-eligible man of the GI generation served in the military during World War II, only 10 percent of the 27 million draft-eligible boomers were in uniform while America fought the Vietnam War. The rest, most of them white and middle-class, found creative ways to stay safe. They claimed medical dispensations and student deferments, became schoolteachers or entered defense industries, or married and had children before their local draft boards could sweep them up.
In opposing the war, which many activists did sincerely view as both immoral and unwinnable, protesters betrayed as much selfish entitlement as noble intent. They wanted the United States out of Southeast Asia, but they also wanted to keep themselves out of Southeast Asia. Richard Nixon understood this when he shifted the draft burden away from men in their twenties and back onto 18and 19-year-olds. Suddenly college campuses quieted down. Why bother to protest once you’re safely out of the woods?
In effect, for all their racial, economic, and cultural diversity, if the boomers shared anything, it was that perpetual search for satisfaction. In their best moments, and in their worst, they demanded that the country make good on the promises it had handed them in the 1950s. The problem was that when they began to come of age in the 1970s, the bottom fell out on the American economy. Even as they clamored for “more, more, more,” what they found was less, less, less. Between the 1960s and 1980s the income of young men just entering the job market declined by 50 percent. This mostly was due to forces beyond anyone’s control: Government expenditures for the Vietnam War caused runaway inflation; economic restructuring took a toll on manufacturing; oil shortages in the 1970s drove up energy costs and interest rates. The long slump also came from the gradual erosion of progressive tax policies and growth in entitlements like health insurance.
Ironically, the baby boom was itself a major cause of the nation’s economic slide. So many young people seeking jobs drove down wages and accounted for as much as half of the unemployment rate during the 1970s and 1980s. So boomers made the necessary adjustments. To maintain a standard of living that reflected their upbringing, they, like their Depressionbred parents, postponed marriage and children. Though women’s wages, once adjusted for changing education and skill levels, remained stagnant in the 1970s and 1980s, the proportion of young married women in the work force more than doubled, from roughly 30 percent to 70 percent. Two-earner households helped keep pace with the generation’s material expectations, but at the expense of outsourcing Generation X to after-school daycare and sports programs.
They will continue to do what they have done since 1946—stretch the limits of America’s possibilities
Even these adjustments fell short. The generation that couldn’t get no satisfaction could hardly be expected to live within its means. In 2002 baby boomers spent between 20 percent and 30 percent more money each year than did the average American consumer. In part, this was out of necessity. They had children to feed, houses to furnish, and college tuitions to pay. But the boomers have long stretched the limits of sound household economy. According to the economist Robert Samuelson, between 1946 and 2002 consumer debt climbed from 22 percent of household income to 110 percent. In other words, we’ve become a debtor nation, and the boomers have presided over this transition.