Timothy Noah on the Baby Boomers

The year 1983 saw the release of The Big Chill, a film that capitalized on the early waves of baby boomer nostalgia with the story of a group of thirtysomething friends looking back upon their 60s youth. Washington Monthly editor Timothy Noahborn on the tail end of the baby boom, which missed the sixtiestook aim at the films smug generational narcissism, and offered a broader critique of the boomers middle-aged retreat from idealism.

Even those of us who werent invited to the party must concede that there was something unique about the sixties. The intensely felt experience of either opposing or fighting in the Vietnam War, the exuberant optimism among those who wanted to create racial and economic equality, and the general feeling of high-spirited nonconformity all served to define a group of people whose common values set them apart from andat their bestabove the narcissism and grim conformity of the 1950s and the 1970s.

But now that the sixties are over and the members of that generation are looking toward middle age, the bonds that remain among them have taken on an unattractive quality that sometimes makes me glad I wasnt invited to the party. For too many veterans of that decade, the litmus test of political idealismand, in a larger sense, virtuehas come to be not what you do, or even what you believe, but when you were born. In this view, the Woodstock generation doesnt have to grapple with the issues of todays larger political community because, unlike the benighted souls who came before and after, it earned its stripes in the political battles of the sixties. This sustains a feeling of commitment that is curiously apolitical. The idea seems to be that if the world doesnt seem a much better place now that the college students of the sixties have assumed adult responsibilities, then, dammit, its the worlds fault, or perhaps the fault of adulthood itself. It certainly isnt theirs. And if the children of the sixties dont like the world as they now find it, then the answer the generational view sets forth is not to make it better; rather, it is to retreat to the companionship of ones fellow thirty-five-year-olds, among whom can be found a smaller, more exclusive society where some of the old attitudes and customs still reign. As the advertisements for the movie The Big Chill put it, In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.

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Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is the labor policy editor at Politico, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, and the author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It.