Why the baby boomers have bombed

Michael Bywater's rage against the infantilism of modern life is insightful, but ultimately immature.

Anna Travis

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Big Babies Or: Why Can’t We Just Grow Up? Michael Bywater, London: Granta Books, 2006.

Michael Bywater’s latest polemic is a natural progression from his previous study of nostalgia-mania Lost Worlds (2004). Big Babies is a rage against the infantilism sweeping Western civilisation. But in many ways this is a despairing and occasionally misanthropic work, disguised as a bold and angry exposé of modernity. As a result, Bywater fatally turns to and nurtures the very childlike version of humanity he so despises.

Sustaining an exasperated, incredulous tone throughout, Bywater makes a wide-ranging attack on contemporary society, hitting several deserving targets. Taking in risk aversion, the media, paranoid parenting, health zealots, moral relativism, heightened offendability, over-surveillance, authoritarianism and tick-box target culture, he attempts to show how all are encouraged and sustained by the infantilising baby boomers at society’s controls.

The breezily comic style works well, with many of the entertaining literary ticks of his close friend Douglas Adams deployed: the faux scientific register of an alien’s eye commentary, the ironic footnotes, the chastising chapter headings like ‘What do you want one of those for?’. The text is also punctuated with an endless supply of farcical, creepy mission statements and health and safety jobsworths, yet a very decent anger runs beneath. The questions that so rile this writer-in-residence at Cambridge, and self-confessed ‘techie’, are straightforward enough: what’s happened to grown-ups and why are we treated like children? Recent sociology has been similarly preoccupied, coining a lexicon of types and phases, from boomerang kids, kidults, the youthhood, middlescence, adultescents and middle youths.

In key chapters, the deeper ideological and political factors spawning big babies are hinted at. Unfortunately, Bywater turns away from interrogating them much further and settles instead for today’s popular comfort blanket of blame: the great seductress, advertising, and her evil offspring, the modern consumer.

But does this book go beyond a superficial moan at the hectoring nanny state? Mostly, yes. His early answer to ‘Why Can’t We Just Grow Up?’ is: because of the defective philosophical roots of today’s infantilism. Drawing on the ‘modernity trap’ idea, first described by philosopher Mark Rowlands, Bywater rails against Individualism, where each of us separately is ‘at the centre of the moral stage’. Then we have Relativism, the cultural pacifier where I have to refrain from judging your choices. The author is particularly good at detailing the disastrous effects of recasting the positive adult concepts of moral discrimination and judgement as ‘bigotry and prejudice’. The circular nonsense of Voluntarism is then challenged, where our choices are validated because we have chosen them. The final bolt on the nursery door is Instrumentalism, where social interaction is run on the principle of what you and I can do to help each other on the road to self-realisation.

Sadly though, what Bywater finds most disturbing about modernity are its gains, including material prosperity and the ease and efficiency of consumerism. He caricatures our healthy materialist impulses as ‘I want it now!’ tantrums of impatient toddlers, demanding our next fix of ‘punching, attention, drink, oblivion, money, novelty, success… Now!’ The desire for more and better consumer goods is, for Bywater, sinisterly instilled by ruthless big business forces and the vultures in the credit industry, rather than evolving from a sound urge to improve our material circumstances.

He delivers the familiar anti-consumer sermon: we are impossible to satiate, hopelessly chasing false promises of perfection to fill ‘an everything-shaped hole in us which can never be filled by anything.’ We are also eaten up with envy of our more successful fellows, who we know are ‘loathsome.’ ‘Our life has been reduced to an exercise in branding and there is no escape.’

This bleak and familiar stance on the supposedly vacuous hell of modern existence, draws philosophical inspiration from thinkers like Jean Baudrillard. The French philosopher emphasised the cultural mystique invested in objects by advertising, which he felt encouraged people to purchase them in a doomed attempt to construct a personal identity.

For both Baudrillard and Bywater, we are suffering one big, post-modern identity crisis. The impulse for self-improvement is unhealthy. It would be fair enough to criticise such an impulse to the extent that it represents a retreat from wider social engagements that would perhaps be more truly liberating. But Bywater believes this trend is unhealthy because we will never find authenticity and try to get commodities to fill that gap.

The book does convince us that self-absorption is childish in many ways. But a cry to pull our socks up does little in the face of constant cultural encouragement to turn inward for therapeutic answers, rather than outward to a public sphere that has been emptied of meaning.

A substantial portion of the book worries deeply about what is portrayed as the relentless and sinister creation of false needs by advertisers. Bywater defines the biggest business in the advanced world as ‘distraction’, because work no longer fulfills this role (through its offer of status, belonging and usefulness). Once basic needs are satisfied, we are directionless and need something to occupy us. Bywater suggests this is the ‘central existential problem facing life on this planet’. At times the book touches on the true causes of modern solipsism – ‘social structures have broken down’ – but ends up simply blaming technology and modernity again: ‘The proliferation of media devices… have reduced our lives’.

A major flaw in his argument is his attempt to extend this false desire thesis to the expertocracy: ‘we need lifestyle advice… and health advisors… precisely because we are being nagged about our lifestyle all the time.’ It is actually a society with little ideological direction that creates a politics of behaviour, and where we subsequently turn to our internal lives for purpose.

The ‘noisy’ media is repeatedly damned, ‘You cannot finish your morning newspaper without feeling that you have survived the most terrible hectoring from people to whom you have done no harm….’ The sex columnists tell us how we could have much better sex, the advice columnists warn us to ‘Live a little!’ or your spouse will leave you. But the likes of Bywater and the anti-consumer brigade are also guilty of berating us with images of how crippled and diminished we are, deluded into chasing false dreams of perfection, stuck on a hedonic treadmill of futile aspiration.

So, why does Bywater think we put up with being treated like babies? He pursues four fundamental arguments. Firstly, because big business sells us the lie that it’s all right to be children to push their wares and we collude in this pleasurable, infantilising exchange. Secondly, because of untamed Freudian impulses: we lack control of ‘base’ appetites and patience. This is where some pretty brutalising, misanthropic imagery comes in: ‘watch the middle manager cram that McDonald’s into the onion-reeking mouth, grease slicking the commuter chin.’

Thirdly, Bywater suggests ‘we are holding death at bay’. A popular position for other contemporary critics of the new immaturity, ‘boomers resist aging and watch TV programs like Nip/Tuck that glorify youth.’ (1)

Lastly, we are not being allowed to grow up because apparently state interference is a natural urge. He cites politician-turned-journalist Matthew Parris’ epiphany on retirement from Parliament that all MPs were the ‘unpopular ones at school, and now they were getting their own back’. He extends the revenge of the nerds thesis: ‘these unpopular ones at school now desperate to get their own back… have lost the ability to listen to anyone else, except in the most calculating way.’ Subsequently their brains are wired autistically where ‘reason goes out the window’ and ‘why?’ is never asked.

Aside from these many faulty positions on Peter Pan culture, this book makes acute observations on our risk-obsessed society. He rightly laments the atmosphere of paranoia surrounding children and how they have lost valuable everyday freedoms. He is also critical of the notion of hate speech: ‘Don’t be affronted. Being affronted (or offended) is no response for a grown up.’ He makes a positive call to cut out the appeals to victimhood, to welcome seriousness and reject suggestions about how we should eat.

Big Babies winds us up into a state of shame and defiance, but we are still left searching for more satisfactory answers to the alternative title ‘Why Can’t We Just Grow up?’ Andrew Calcutt argues in Arrested Development – Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (1998) that ‘In recent times…the state of adulthood has seemed far from desirable, since it connotes an apparently futile commitment to the discredited politics of social transformation.’ Calcutt also pinpoints what makes the baby boomers specifically the driving force of infantilisation – a key link Bywater misses. The baby boomers were the Sixties generation who absorbed the counter cultural ‘radical’ philosophy of denying the existential centrality of work. To accept the classic Western construct of adulthood was to conform to the stifling straitjacket of the industrial system which they so railed against. The victim and child are also such attractive roles because yes, as Bywater argues, they’re ‘easy’, but more crucially because they avoid engagement with the ‘challenging and discredited struggle for power between competing, self-interested adults’ (3).

The message seems to be that it’s our own stupid fault for wanting so much, wanting life to be so comfortable and rewarding. But we haven’t lazily regressed into greedy consumer toddlers in a monstrous playpen where the id rules. Rather, we have internalised concepts of human nature, espoused by the likes of Bywater, which have led to a culture of fear and restraint.

These bestial concepts of ourselves and rejections of modernity are not cooked up secretly in the baby boomer boardroom but aired quite proudly at all levels of society. Crucially, these concepts are used by government and the new expertocracy to keep us locked firmly in the nursery, away from the ‘dangerous’ adult world of our primal selves and the modernity that Bywater, like others, seems to dread.

Big Babies was published in November 2006 by Granta (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

Read on:

The children who won’t grow up, by Frank Furedi

(1) It’s time to grow up – later, Sharon Jayson, USA Today, 30 September 2004

(2) Arrested Development – Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood. Andrew Calcutt. 1998. Cassell. London.

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