October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
It’s easy to get silly when you start generalizing about generations. Witness the recent mania regarding Tom Brokaw’s beloved “Greatest Generation.” Yes, those individuals who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II were certainly courageous in guiding America through the two worst crises it ever faced. But does that really make them any greater than, say, the generations that fought the Civil War, or the Revolution, or who pushed the American frontier through to the Pacific?
Just what are we talking about when we use the word generation anyway? I’m sure that those older Americans who were around in the 1930s and 1940s thought that they had something to do with saving the country too. For that matter, it used to be that a generation meant 30 years, but with the pace of change today, a generation—like a dollar—just ain’t what it used to be.
The famous baby-boomer generation, for instance, refers to little more than a demographic anomaly, a period of exceptionally high birthrates that occurred between 1946 and 1964. To search for any greater common denominator than those dates is to venture into tricky waters. How much, for instance, does an individual who graduated from college in 1967 really have in common with one who graduated in 1985? Nearly all their popular culture reference points and tastes are different, which in modern America is enough to constitute an unbridgeable gulf. This type of generational confusion can have all sorts of unintended consequences, as when many managed to convince themselves, for instance, that the Clintons were feckless, amoral hippies, while others tended to recognize them as that much more common boomer archetype known as the yuppie.
Yuppies, hippies—is there any defining characteristic to a “generation” that produced such disparate stereotypes? Well, maybe there is: insecurity.
In a recent article, The New York Times business analyst Louis Uchitelle examined the highly conflicted attitude many Americans seem to have about how they live now, and what their future will be. “… Can it be that living standards are actually slipping in America? No economist, demographer or historian would make that case,” Uchitelle writes. “Living standards, after all, almost never go backward, at least not in a material sense. Indeed, the economy today is growing, consumer spending is plentiful, and new technologies … make life better than ever, as they do in every generation.”
Yet Uchitelle also points out a central paradox of our time—and generation. While nearly 90 percent of Americans cited in a Gallup poll expressed themselves as “satisfied with their standard of living,” “25 percent of the nation’s families also worry all or most of the time that they won’t be able to pay their bills.”
Americans are satisfied with how they live but afraid they won’t be able to pay their bills? Uchitelle attributes this seeming contradiction to the circumstances of working life in the age of downsizing and “reinvention.” Job security, corporate pensions and health care, and steadily rising wages are all increasingly things of the past. Even the most basic, long-term economic trends have become unpredictable. Between 1973 and 1995 the nation’s productivity was sluggish, and real hourly wages did not increase at all. Since 1995 productivity has shot up, but for the last five years wages have not kept pace. In the twentyfirst century, median family income has actually declined.
The years the boomers grew up in, by contrast, were ones of almost unprecedented growth and security in American life. The period from just after the war until the oil shock of 1973 was one of nearly unbroken prosperity—and a prosperity that was almost universally shared. Productivity rose by close to 3 percent a year, with incomes not far behind.
But American capitalism has generally been dynamic; what was unique about the postwar years was how sustained our economic growth was and how widely we shared in it. The boom was really a product of a greater consensus than we have ever seen before or since. Business —especially big business—had come to more or less accept the idea of a regulated economy. American unions reached their zenith, representing 35 percent of the industrial work force, and the bitter labor wars that had plagued the economy for some seven decades were increasingly replaced by amicable settlements. Corporate health care plans and generous pensions became commonplace. Tremendous economic power passed over to the federal government, and social welfare programs flourished. For the first time, Americans had some real insurance against illness, old age, and unemployment. Even the ostensibly conservative Richard Nixon famously proclaimed: “We are all Keynesians now.”
What brought about this grand consensus? The Americans of the Greatest Generation—the baby boomers’ parents—had, in John F. Kennedy’s words, been “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” The Great Depression and World War II had painfully impressed upon many Americans the need for cooperation. The Cold War made it a habit. The fight against communism was used to justify everything from the building of the interstate highway system to federal backing for the civil rights movement to increased science education in the public schools.
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 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.