The Baby Boom Was a Bust

Unfortunately, the generation does not have a political legacy to be proud of.

For the Washington Monthly’s 50th anniversary issue, twenty former editors revisited one of their most important stories for this magazine. They looked at pieces that had an impact on the world or on themselves; that presaged something big to come; or that were totally wrong in an interesting way. Below is one of the resulting essays. Read more of them here.

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It may be difficult today for anyone under thirty to appreciate how thoroughly the Baby Boom, the generation born between 1946 and 1964, owned American pop culture through the early aughts. No other age cohort mattered.

Boomers started calling the shots from the crib, when pediatrician Benjamin Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946). The book sold half a million copies in its first six months. Eight years later, toy stores were selling 5,000 coonskin caps a day to Boomer kids inspired by a Disney TV series about Davy Crockett. By 1958, Boomers had those same toy stores selling about ninety million Hula Hoops. Around the same time, Boomers started reorienting popular music permanently away from the orchestra-backed show tunes beloved by their parents and grandparents and toward guitar-backed rock and roll that their parents couldn’t stand. In 1969, 400,000 rock fans—more than half the population of San Francisco—showed up at Woodstock.

If you worked at a newsmagazine anytime between 1975 and 2005—I worked at two—these facts are engraved on your cranium. More than any other precinct of the news media, newsmagazines were relentlessly trend-minded, and I very much doubt that a single cover decision was made in those years that didn’t take into account whether it would appeal to Boomers. These people were our lords and masters.

I say “these people” because the Boomers who set the cultural pace were the oldest ones, the cutoff birth date being somewhere around 1952. Younger Boomers like me, who reached adolescence in the 1970s, didn’t figure. If you were too young to attend Woodstock without your mother, or to sweat out the Vietnam draft lottery, or to wear a “Free Huey!” button—well, you were unsanctified, and the Boomer vanguard let you know it. The offbeat Woodstock Nation protagonist of Ann Beattie’s Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976) mocked the conformity of his little sister’s boyfriend: “Everybody should go to med school and get a high-paying job.” Alex Keaton, the stuffed-shirt teenager played by Michael J. Fox on the TV sitcom Family Ties (1982–1989), made his ex-hippie parents wonder where they went wrong. 

By 1984 I’d had enough, and in the Washington Monthly’s fifteenth-anniversary issue I published an essay calling out the Boomer vanguard for its generational chauvinism. The precipitating event was The Big Chill, a hugely popular 1983 comedy-drama about a group of college friends in their thirties who gather to mourn the suicide of a member of their circle who, one of them says, was “too good for this world.” These Woodstock refugees spend a weekend reviewing the conformism of their lives. They agonize about having sold out their youthful leftist ideals to work in, among other professions, celebrity journalism and real estate law. Eventually they conclude that life’s only real solace lies in savoring the company of like-minded friends. “In a cold world,” the ads for the movie said, “you need your friends to keep you warm.”

My essay, “The Big Massage: How the Idea of the Sixties Takes the Politics Out of the Eighties,” argued that The Big Chill encapsulated perfectly the smug political insularity of the Boomer vanguard. In various ways the movie communicated that, as I put it then, “if the world doesn’t seem a much better place now that the college students of the sixties have assumed adult responsibilities, then, dammit, it’s the world’s fault, or perhaps the fault of adulthood itself. It certainly isn’t theirs.” Communitarian sentiment was laudable, I wrote, but the bonds that needed forging were those that crossed the boundaries that divided Americans: age, race, class. We needed community that was “more like a neighborhood, a city, a nation, and less like a class reunion.”

The notion that to live your ideals you must break out of your cocoon (generational or otherwise) and actually do something may not seem especially earth-shattering today, but in 1984 its application to Woodstock Nation was somewhat novel. The Boomer vanguard had fallen hard for its own counterculture sensibility and flattered itself into thinking that this constituted a political identity. And because Boomers owned the culture, this pose was largely accepted at face value. In truth, as Thomas Frank would later write in The Conquest of Cool (1998), even Woodstock Nation’s most exuberant rhetoric of revolutionary change was so formless and malleable that it would effortlessly be co-opted by big business to sell Macintosh computers. (One of the characters in The Big Chill owns a chain of running shoe stores called Running Dog.)

After rereading my 1984 essay recently and rewatching The Big Chill, I concluded that my thesis was basically correct. The Big Chill’s politics remain infantile. But they didn’t get me worked up the way they did in 1984 because thirty-five years later, the Baby Boom has acquired a more coherent political identity than it had back then. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much the opposite of what everybody, including me, expected.

The Baby Boom is a spent force in popular culture today, eclipsed almost entirely by Millennials. (Generation X, the tiny cohort born between 1965 and 1980—many of them children of Boomers and parents of Millennials—is stuck haplessly between the two Goliaths.) Politically, though, Boomers have come into their own—not as revolutionaries, but as voters. They achieved this by getting old. The elderly are much more inclined than any other age cohort to show up at the polls, and for the next couple of decades there’ll be an awful lot of them. In next year’s election, voters sixty-five and older will represent about 23 percent of the electorate, the highest proportion in fifty years—and that doesn’t take into account their elevated turnout relative to other age groups. Woodstock Nation is in charge at last, and its politics turn out to resemble not in the slightest the sentimental leftism on display in The Big Chill. Rather, Woodstock Nation turns out to be a group of old people who vote more Republican than their parents did. No age cohort supports the current president today as strongly as the over-sixty-fives. In a cold world, you need Donald Trump to keep you warm.

To the extent that the Boomers have accumulated a political legacy, it’s not one to be proud of. Boomers did nothing to halt a rise in income inequality that began just as the oldest among them were entering their thirties. They guzzled gas while doing virtually nothing to fight climate change. They did precious little for African Americans, and not much more for women. (The civil rights advances of the 1960s were, as Louis Menand noted recently in the New Yorker, the work of an older generation; so was the advent of feminism a few years later.) Boomers created a rhetoric of multicultural diversity that helped change attitudes but, apart from legalizing same-sex marriage, remains mostly aspirational. It didn’t change people’s lives very much.

It was always an illusion, of course, that there was anything especially radical about the Baby Boom. The much-televised student protestors represented only a slice even of the Boomer vanguard. And in hindsight, it was a short hop from the New Left’s flirtation with anarchism in the 1960s to the economic libertarianism that took hold in the 1980s and never let go. Have you ever really listened to the lyrics of the Beatles’ 1966 song “Tax Man”? Grover Norquist could have written them: “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street / If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat / If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat / If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.”

I never got any inkling that The Big Chill’s writer-director, Lawrence Kasdan, read my 1984 essay. But in 1991 he released a film called Grand Canyon that addressed all my criticisms. It had one of the stars from The Big Chill, Kevin Kline, and also featured an ensemble cast. But instead of celebrating the comfort of college friends, it showed Boomers reaching out in daring, sometimes dangerous, but entirely believable ways to make connections across barriers of race and class. It was a fine film, and a risky one, challenging Woodstock Nation to the same extent that The Big Chill pandered to it. It was funny and moving, and it expressed a grounded practical idealism rather than winsome sixties solidarity. It was also, I’m sorry to report, a critical and commercial flop.

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Timothy Noah

Timothy Noah is labor policy editor at Politico and author of The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1983 to 1985.