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Is It Really “the Worst Generation”?

February 2024
6min read

A novelist defends himself and 76 million other baby boomers

“With the convertible and your long hair,” the girl had said, “you must really think you’re something.” And so the next time I got drunk—which was that night—I shaved my head. This was in 1967, immediately before the arrest. “March on Cincinnati, end the war in Vietnam” was the slogan, which even then sounded absurd—even to me. After the disinfectant shower, my college mates and I were herded into the outer shell of the jail, where the more experienced prisoners could look down on us from the tiers.

“Hey, killer,” one of them called out to me, “what are you doing with the hippies?”

Membership in my much-ballyhooed generation has always been a distortion. I am mistaken for another man altogether, somebody important, or dangerous.

Dinner at the Cincinnati workhouse was spaghetti on a tin plate. The guards had automatic weapons. I was treated like a determined enemy of the state, whereas I hadn’t even decided on my major.

I hadn’t intended to go to the demonstration at all, but it was boring at Antioch College, with the campus emptied of activists, and I’d promised a friend I’d try Siddhartha . “Just read the first line,” she told me. “You won’t be able to put it down.”

I read the first line: “In the shade of the house, in the sunshine on the river bank by the boats, in the shade of the sallow wood and the fig tree, Siddhartha, the handsome Brahmin’s son, grew up with his friend Govinda.”

I got into my new convertible and headed south. I’d sooner block an induction center than read Hesse. Escaping that man’s clammy embrace wasn’t easy. He was an icon then, like Timothy Leary, Betty Friedan, or Bob Dylan. Our candy man called himself Demian after another Hesse novel, which he hadn’t read.

Foolish and reactive, I bounced around in life. This makes me, well, it makes me human. So why am I mistaken for the good soldier in a cultural juggernaut? The analogy often used for our generation is that of the pig eaten by the python. There were 76 million of us, a healthy pig, but we mustn’t forget who’s doing the eating.

The piece this essay accompanies is a thorough and sensible exploration of the generation, the mold and the lead that was poured. This is not the norm.

Google “the Worst Generation” and you get us, the boomers. First there’s a book actually titled The Worst Generation . I quote from the preface: “Boomers have created an anti-America, an “Evil Twin” America, a Frankenstein America… .” The next hit is an essay with the same title by Paul Begala, published in Esquire in 2000.

“I hate the Baby Boomers,” writes the former Clinton adviser. “They’re the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American History… .”

Begala, himself a late boomer (1961), would have been six when I went to jail. He worked for the early boomer Bill Clinton (1946), which may help explain his fury. But then Begala is not alone.

When was it agreed that we are the absolute worst? Was a vote taken when I was out sick? What is it about my birth cohort —outside of the size and the alliteration—that makes us such a target?

I’d guess it’s about change. We’ve been safe, we’ve been affluent, but the world has been changing at a dizzying rate. Nobody likes change. Somebody needs to be blamed.

Lord knows we’ve had some screamers as spokespeople. But then our world is so hungry for entertainment that the more outrageous a spokesperson is, the more he or she gets to speak. We’ve had Jerry Rubin (co-founder of the Yippies). Rubin wasn’t born a boomer, but he spoke—or claimed to speak—for the generation. Al Sharpton (1954) is a boomer. These people, and there have been a lot of them, weren’t chosen because they were representative. They were chosen for the scream.

The screamers have often done well, which may help explain why we—as a group —are often condemned for selfishness. Begala, just for instance, writes that “most campuses did not become hotbeds of unrest until the Boomers’ precious butts were at risk as the Vietnam war escalated.” But then I drove to Cincinnati with a 2-S. The three days I spent in jail were used by the Selective Service as justification to switch me to a 1-A. Many desperate phone calls later, I was switched back.

We were spoiled. No denying that. And we have spoiled our children. Is this a moral failing? I think not.

It’s certainly true that most of the 80 students and faculty were quickly bailed out, whereas—I heard—the working-class kids who had joined us stayed in jail for months. That’s the class system for you. Unjust, but hardly new to boomers. And we did have, within our privileged ranks, some who went jail-no-bail and stayed in prison. DeCourcy Squire fasted from December 7 to January 29, generating a lot of attention for the antiwar movement, and had this constant weight-watcher in awe.

My father had paid for my bail but said nothing in support until he was invited to give the William Howard Taft Lecture at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He declined and wrote me this: “I told them I would not make a potholder in the city that had arrested my eldest son.” Fathers and sons, now there’s an issue. Not entirely new to our generation, though, is it? Unless Turgenev was a boomer.

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.

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