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Is It Really “the Worst Generation”?
A novelist defends himself and 76 million other baby boomers
October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
The disposition of my case restricted my return to the Queen City, a ruling that I violated almost immediately, sneaking back to see a particularly well-known gorilla then resident in the Cincinnati Zoo. The animal was losing his hair.
What’s odd to me is that we—the boomers —are so often cast in a moral light. As if life were all about right and wrong. As if ethical decisions were easily made and then inevitably adhered to, whereas I, for one—and maybe it’s because I’m a wretched boomer—am quite capable of deciding not to eat one chocolate-chip cookie and then eating the entire box. Sorry, DeCourcy.
We were spoiled. No denying that. And we have spoiled our children. Is this a moral failing? I think not. More a philosophical development. Freud startled parents with his news about the tender childhood psyche and the terrible predictive force of rejection and pain. Since then we’ve had Dr. Spock, Mr. Rogers, Bob Dylan. Authority has been unhorsed, declawed, and even taunted.
We weren’t nearly as frightened by our parents as they were frightened by theirs. The generation that we’ve raised is not afraid at all. Or not of us.
Do I miss the ranks of silent, tidy children who used to dress for dinner and call their parents Father Dear and Mother Darling? You bet I miss them.
A flock of teenage girls came and settled in the seats around me recently when I was on the train to New York City. I had a laptop and was trying to work. Too much noise. I attempted the Times . Too much noise for that. The girls poked one another, shrieked with glee. The one seated directly behind me plucked the battery out of one of her electronic toys and blew hard on it, in an attempt to clean the contacts. She blew so hard that all my hair went up in the air and then fell back down in a horribly embarrassing display of the stratagems of the partially bald. Furious, I bit my tongue.
When the train wheezed into Grand Central, I stood and saw that I had not been the only adult seeded among this gang of noise hooligans. The other grownups looked as sour and angry as I was. Nobody peeped. We were like Jews sitting with SS troopers.
Kids rule. For decades now we’ve treated them as gods. Has this been a terrible miscalculation? Perhaps. They are happy. Isn’t that what we had hoped for?
It’s been an experiment. And not a cheap one. We’ve gone without sleep. We’ve given up the authority that was once the ample compensation for responsibility. We couldn’t quite give up the responsibility though. The worst that can be said of this experiment is that we’ve loved not wisely but too well.
Why should this excite rage in pundits? What does morality have to do with love?
Almost nothing, and as an amateur moralist I know whereof I speak. Morality is a hobby for me. My most constant hobby. Get on line at the supermarket with 15 items for the register restricted to 10 items or less, and I’ll pack you off to purgatory. Two cups of tea with sugar, and I sentence my own precious self to hell.
Morality is essential. It’s bedrock. Morality is what separates us from the baboon. But then I have also noticed that when I’m truly happy, I don’t dwell on wrong or right. When I’m happy, I mind my own business. I’m a lot less apt to slip into judicial robes.
I wonder if the need to condemn others doesn’t often indicate a personal malfunction. Is this Gabriel’s horn or the whine of a frayed fan belt?
Whatever else we’ve done, we’ve certainly frayed a lot of fan belts. Browsing the Conservative Book Club, I was actually relieved to discover that we are not also The Porn Generation , although the capsule review notes in passing that “their [the baby boomer parents’] liberal attitudes toward sex caused it all.”
“Caused it all”: I like that. “That’s Ben. He caused it all.” Sounds a little grandiose, doesn’t it? Gives us a lot of control. Plus I can’t help wondering how they know us all so well?
It’s difficult to come up with a generalization that holds for 3 people, but 76 million? I’ve been married for 23 years now, and I’m still never sure what my wife will want for breakfast or even if she’ll want breakfast at all. Ever count up the men in our selfish generation who prepare breakfast or at least bring coffee to their wives? Whereas “the Greatest Generation” couldn’t toast toast.