Boomer Century

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Now at the height of their political influence (the 2000 presidential election saw the first-ever race between two baby boomers, and the commentators Neil Howe and William Strauss estimate that boomers will hold a plurality in Congress until 2015) they are also presiding over the creation of a national debt that their children and grandchildren will be left to pay off in coming years.

In the end the boomers may be less culpable, less praiseworthy, and less remarkable than they, and everyone else, think. Their cohort was so big, arrived so suddenly, and has grown up so closely alongside the modern broadcast media that they have always struck us as standing apart from larger historical forces that drive the normal workings of states and societies. Yet much about this seeming exceptionalism just isn’t new.

When the husband-and-wife sociologist team Robert and Helen Lynd visited Muncie, Indiana, in the early 1920s, they found many of the same traits popularly associated with the boomers already evident among Jazz Age youth. Their famous, pathbreaking book, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture , reported a younger generation in the thrall of movies and music, willing to stretch the limits of romantic and sexual propriety, obsessed with clothes and cosmetics, and eager to stake out shocking new degrees of personal autonomy.

And if the children of the 1950s were technically the first generation raised on Spock, they weren’t the first generation raised on the ideas of Spock. By the mid-1930s upward of 75 percent of middle-class men and women were reading advice books that, more often than not, counseled unprecedented attention to the child. Most experts in the 1920s and 1930s had figured out Spock before Spock figured out Spock.

Nor were the boomers the first generation to make therapeutic self-discovery a competitive sport. In their parents’ youth, in the twenties and thirties, Freud was already all the rage. Popular books of the day included The Psychology of Golf , Psychology of the Poet Shelley , and The Psychology of Selling Life Insurance . Bookstores and mail-order houses peddled new titles like Psychoanalysis by Mail , Psychoanalysis Self-Applied , Ten Thousand Dreams Interpreted , and Sex Problems Solved .

Long before the boomers arrived on the scene, Americans were drawn to a new cult of self-improvement that celebrated the mastery of one’s deepest impulses and thoughts. In the 1920s millions followed the advice of the French wonder guru, Emile Coué, faithfully repeating the simple catechism “Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” The explosion of self-help literature peaked in 1936 with the publication of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People .

If the boomers weren’t entirely original in their loosened sexual standards, emphasis on physical appearance and youth, or search for a therapeutic mind cure, neither were they all that unusual in their resistance to collective sacrifice. It hardly diminishes the decisive effort of the World War II generation to note that civilians traded on the black market, deeply resented rationing and wage and labor controls, and often worked in defense production as much for profit as for patriotism.

Even the era’s soldiers had mixed reasons for going to war. When The Saturday Evening Post ran a series of articles by American GIs entitled “What I Am Fighting For,” readers learned that their sons and brothers were in Europe “for that big house with the bright green roof and the big front lawn,” their “nice little roadster,” pianos, tennis courts, and “the girl with the large brown eyes and the reddish tinge in her hair, that girl who is away at college right now, preparing herself for her part in the future of America and Christianity.”

The same conflation of private and public interests drove home-front advertisers to pitch their wares as a just reward for wartime sacrifice—as in an ad promising that “when our boys come home … among the finer things of life they will find ready to enjoy will be Johnston and Murphy shoes. Quality unchanged.”

None of this suggests that the boomers aren’t a distinct category of Americans. If many of the character traits popularly assigned them were in evidence long before they were born—if the boomers were, in fact, walking along the arc of history rather than outside it—still, they have, for good and for ill, made a lasting imprint on the nation.

Social commentators have long been inclined to make sense of the world in generational terms. Writing about his travels in the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that “among democratic nations each new generation is a new people.” Roughly 100 years later the social scientist Karl Mannheim similarly observed: “Early impressions tend to coalesce into a natural view of the world.”

The boomers—a generation born into national wealth and power, raised on the promise of their limitless potential and self-worth, reared on television and advertising, enthralled by the wonders of modern science and medicine—are, for all their differences, a most potent emblem of the long American Century.

Even today they remain characteristically unfulfilled. Looking for “more, more, more”—for that “satisfaction” that seems forever to elude them—they will, as they have since 1946, stretch the limits of America’s possibilities and its resources.

In 2046 we’ll still be appraising their work.