What’s with the fashion for bashing baby boomers?

There’s something irritatingly infantile about blaming the boomers for everything from recession to eco-apocalypse. But in some ways, the boomers invited such ridicule.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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Gone are the days when the baby boomers were perceived as the personification of a relaxed but enlightened 1960s live-and-let-live lifestyle.

Cover illustration by
Jan Bowman

This cohort of people, generally defined as those born between 1945 and 1965, are globally pathologised as the source of most forms of economic and environmental distress. Constantly accused of living way beyond their means, the baby boomers are blamed for depriving the young of opportunities for a good life. They are condemned for thoughtlessly destroying the environment through their mindless pursuit of material possessions and wealth, as well as resisting change, hanging on to their power and preventing the younger generations from progressing.

In the late 1990s, Australian academic Mark Davis raised the banner of the anti-boomer crusade. His book Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism (1997) accused the boomers of exercising a stranglehold over Australian cultural and economic life. From the perspective of this genre of j’accuse, the betrayal of the younger generations by the old is presented as the source of most of the problems afflicting society.

Paradoxically, the accused are more than happy to play the role assigned them by their generational foes. Indeed, if there is a generation that has turned self-loathing into an art form it is the baby boomers. David Williamson’s 1971 play Don’s Party, set on the evening of the 1969 Australian federal election – the one Labor’s Gough Whitlam narrowly lost – vividly captures a group of self-obsessed boomers who are all too aware of their empty existence. Self-deception and betrayal comes naturally to these vain and fickle characters. The sequel Don Parties On depicts the theme of generational betrayal in more graphic terms. While Mal, the elderly boomer, nostalgically recalls ‘our generation gave the warning’, Don’s 16-year-old granddaughter, Belle, retorts that ‘your generation was the greediest, most materialistic, most environmentally destructive generation in history’. Despite his nostalgia for the 60s, Don accepts that his generation screwed up and declares that ‘the party has to end and the way we live our lives has to change’. In Williamson’s sequel, the original group of narcissistic poseurs mutate into self-aware, apologetic planetary vandals.

When Belle condemns Don and his friends with the words ‘you were so busy grabbing what you could get’, she speaks to the 21st-century cultural script that decries the phenomenon of elderly excess. In this radical transformation of the representation of intergenerational conflict, the classical idea of wasteful and overindulgent youth gives way to the sin of the excessive consumption of elders.

During the past decade, the association of the boomer generation with greed and selfishness has acquired the status of an incontrovertible truth. This sentiment appears to transcend the political divide. Queensland Liberal National Party state MP David Gibson remarked last year that ‘it never ceases to amaze me when I listen to the baby boomers who are just incredibly selfish in expecting that other generations will pay for their retirement’. In comparison to the signed-up members of the ‘I hate the boomers brigade’, Gibson comes across as restrained.

‘Climate change has provoked a war between the generations’, British Greenpeace campaigner Joss Garman warned as he exhorted ‘younger members of the government’ to ‘choose their side’.

‘This isn’t a fight between Left and Right or Labour v Conservatives; it’s between generation debt and the baby boomers’, British journalist Neil Boorman declared in his pamphlet It’s All Their Fault (2010).

The idea that ‘it’s all their fault’ captures the intense sense of cultivated immaturity of the parent-basher. A sentiment that is usually associated with the intellectual universe of a truculent five-year-old is now embraced in earnest by biologically mature generational warriors. Paul Begala’s Esquire article ‘The Worst Generation’ captures this sense of uncontained resentment. ‘I hate the baby boomer’, he wrote, concluding that ‘they’re the most self-centred, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandising generation in American history’.

Boorman’s and Begala’s lightweight politicisation of parent-blaming echoes a wider tendency to recast social and economic problems as the outcome of the excess of elders. So the global economic crisis and the hardships it has imposed on young people is interpreted as a consequence of the reckless behaviour of the older generation. In the anti-boomer literature, the elderly are accused of inflicting severe psychological damage on the opportunity-deprived youth. Some claim the younger generations have been deprived of their birthright to the point that their ontological security has been put to question. In Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth (2010), Ed Howker and Shiv Malik note that because of dire economic circumstances, the journey to genuine adulthood of university graduates will be ‘put on indefinite hold’. Apparently growing up will have to wait until these graduates ‘get a stable home and a relationship’, and can ‘start to meaningfully develop’ a ‘narrative of identity’. From this perspective, even the routine existential problems associated with becoming an adult are recast as the fault of Mum and Dad. Freud, who had a few things to say about the Oedipus complex, would have been fascinated by this intense displacement of psychic energy by young adults, who seriously refer to themselves as the ‘jilted generation’.

It often seems as though the anti-boomer crusade is kicking against an open door. The elders offer little resistance and often appear to be more than happy to assume rhetorical responsibility for their crimes. Indeed there is now a new genre of mea culpa literature by self-loathing and guilt-stricken boomers. Francis Beckett, in his What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? (2010), tells the story of the irresponsible 60s youth who betrayed the younger generations. ‘It is as though the 60s generation decided that the freedom from humiliation and worry that they had enjoyed was too good for their children’, Beckett notes, before concluding that ‘the baby boomers kicked away their children’s legs, and now they sneer at them for being lame’. ‘The generation war has started’, Beckett informs the reader. But this rhetoric of war obscures the fact most boomers are not fighting back. Another boomer, respected economic commentator, Anatole Kaletsky, argues that old people should give their votes to children. Kaletsky claims: ‘Since the elderly will never acknowledge, even to themselves, that they are voting selfishly and against their children’s interests, depriving them of their vote is only fair!’ This argument for the disenfranchisement of the elderly is justified on the grounds that it makes it more difficult for politicians to bribe ‘current voters at the expense of generations yet unborn’.

Probably the most serious attempt to argue the thesis of the excess of the elders is The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, and Why They Should Give it Back (2010). Written by David Willetts, Britain’s Universities Minister, this book uses the metaphor of the clash of generations to explain many of the cultural and socioeconomic ills afflicting contemporary society. In this text, the environmentalist guilt-tripping of the elderly for threatening the wellbeing of the planet and of unborn generations is recast in the form of a socioeconomic generational analysis.

The guilt-tripping of boomers is underwritten by an unusually philistine interpretation of the way society works. The 18th-century Malthusian obsessions about natural limits has been recycled as a warning to human ambition. From this standpoint, resources are fixed and the consumption of one generation reduces what’s available to the next. Accordingly, the flipside of boomer wealth is the poverty of the generations coming of age today. Catastrophic accounts of how young people have been deprived of opportunities for a comfortable life have fostered a cultural climate where the moral status of the elderly is continually questioned.

This tendency has acquired a powerful momentum as a consequence of the widely held association of human activity with planetary destruction. In schools, children are incited to believe they are morally superior to their polluting parents. An example of this project of de-authorising of elders can be seen in ‘A letter to your father’, written by Australian fear entrepreneur Clive Hamilton. ‘There is something you need to know about your father’, Hamilton writes in his public letter to Australia’s youth, telling children that their dad is helping companies pollute the environment, which will mean that lots of people, mostly poor people, are likely to die. According to this influential Malthusian paradigm, the excess of the elders has acquired the status of original sin.

Throughout human history, tension between young people and their elders was inextricably linked to the aspiration to gain independence and power. Such conflicts were frequently motivated by the belief that the young represented change and a positive alternative to the tired old ways. In such circumstances, the young did not perceive themselves as put-upon, damaged people but as the authors of their destiny. The specificity of 21st-century generational malaise is thrown into relief by its contrast with the ancient Greeks’ celebration of heroic youth. Young men were criticised for their rebellious and intemperate ways, but their fathers also envied and admired their vigour.

While the conflict of generations is a universal theme in history, such disputes rarely acquire the intensity that leads to real physical tensions and confrontations. One of the rare instances of such a confrontation occurred in Athens in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC), where the defeats suffered by Athens unleashed a tirade of criticism by the younger generation about the mismanagement of the campaign by their elders. This denunciation of the wisdom and influence of the elders provoked a furious backlash. In subsequent years the older generation sought to restrain the pretensions of youth through associating it with immaturity and destructive behaviour.

Sophocles in his last play, Oedipus at Kolonos (401BC), reminds the audience of the corrupt behaviour of the young. The hero is a blind old man whose selfish sons lack a sense of duty towards their father. The need to contain the hubris of the self-destructive arrogance of the youth is the theme of Euripides’s The Bakkhai (405BC).

Historically, admiration for the energy and potential creativity of the youth coexists with a dominant theme of the irresponsibility and recklessness of young people’s behaviour. In Greek culture, filial rebellion was often represented as the outcome of immature vanity by glory-seeking youngsters. The theme of young men misled by the temptations of power is frequently addressed in Greek literature.

Euripides’s Suppliant Women tells a story of ambitious young men using their political and military power for the pursuit of their self-interest. Classics scholar Moses Finley notes that in antiquity the young were not trusted with public affairs because they were seen as easily corrupted, morally and intellectually. The charge of corrupting the youth levelled at Socrates, and his subsequent execution, indicated how serious the potential for generational conflict was taken. But as Finley observes, the reverse idea – that of ‘corrupting the old’ – was simply unknown because of the commanding position of the elderly.

The shift in the association of generational corruption from the young to the old took a very long time to evolve. Throughout pre-modern times generational conflict rarely assumed a political form, and the ideal of obedience to the authority of the elder was rarely questioned. Shakespeare’s plays frequently dramatise generational conflict. For example, King Lear is at a loss how to deal with his monstrous children but, despite his personal tragedy, the authority of the elder is not in question. Indeed the authority of the father was so resilient that it was used as a model for communicating early modern authority.

Generational conflict acquired an ideological dimension only as a result of the growing perception of change that emerged with the rise of modernity. Industrialisation, urbanisation and the growth of secularism disrupted the pre-existing stable generational hierarchies. The widespread changes brought up through modernisation served to disorganise community and family life, and encouraged the young to question prevailing customs and traditions. It is at this point in history that the process of change served to deepen and consolidate differential generational attitudes and expectations towards the conduct of life.

By the early 19th century, the young were increasingly portrayed as the bearers of progressive change while the old were often depicted as the repositories of the traditions of the past. The intertwining of rapid social and cultural change with intra-family conflict became an important motif in the literature of the period. Ivan Turgenev’s 1861 novel Fathers and Sons is a paradigmatic text dealing with the theme of the conflict between young and old, in which the young nihilist, Yevgeny Bazarov, represents what comes to be known as the archetypal youth rebel.

Nihilism expressed a confused reaction to the workings of a rapidly changing world. But on one point it was clear. In the cause of freedom, nihilism self-consciously challenged and denied all authority, particularly that of the older generation.

Turgenev succeeds in capturing the ambivalent and contradictory dimensions of the rebellion of romantic Russian youth. Bazarov takes himself very seriously and his aspiration for social justice expresses Turgenev’s own sentiments. But, as with most forms of youth rebellion, Bazarov’s conduct represents a performance of defiance rather than a genuine challenge to Russia’s feudal autocratic rule. As Bazarov lies on his deathbed, his final words, ‘I declare that I protest, that I protest, that I protest’, sums up what will turn out to be the most characteristic feature of modern generational protest; its priority is the gesture rather than the project. American literary critic Irwing Howe describes Bazarov as a ‘revolutionary personality but without revolutionary ideas or commitments’. Turgenev himself was far more ambivalent about Bazarov: ‘I don’t know whether I love him or hate him’, he wrote to a friend. Turgenev’s novel echoed the widely held view of generational conflict as an expression of a wider struggle between the old and the new, between continuity and change, and between outdated conventions and social scientific progress.

By the 19th century, the young often expressed its aspiration for change through a distinct form of generational consciousness that emphasised its rejection of the old. This conflict was presented as not simply one of age but as an expression of important differences in attitude towards life. New political movements expressly sought to distance their society from the ways of the old.

The Young Italy movement, founded by Giuseppe Mazzini, explicitly charged the young with the mission of creating a united Italian republic. Mazzini later founded Young Europe, as well as helping to launch Young Germany and Young Poland. In this context, the term young combined an apotheosis of youthful idealism and energy with an emotional investment in a break with the past and the founding of a new beginning. In 19th-century European nationalist politics, youth was symbolically represented as the bearer of progress and liberation.

The cult of the young communicated the belief that the elders were not to be trusted. This was a theme that would recur periodically in subsequent decades. The story of generational betrayal was dramatised with passionate intensity by Erich Maria Remarque in his powerful novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), in which the young people who came of age during the First World War are victims of the betrayal of their elders. A war started by the old turns into the mass slaughter of millions of young people. The novel’s protagonist, young soldier Paul Baumer, can no longer trust or respect the older generation. He has nothing to learn from his insensitive and complacent elders, who appear to inhabit a different moral universe.

All Quiet on the Western Front is strikingly different from the more future-oriented accounts of 19th-century generational conflict. At least Bazarov claimed that there was something worth fighting for. Paul and his mates have nowhere to go and believe that they have no future. They represent what Ernest Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises (1926), characterised as the Lost Generation. What is interesting about the conceptualisation of the idea of a lost generation is its association of the existential crisis of the young with the insensitive and dogmatic behaviour of the old. Through the drawing of a moral contrast between young and old, the classical tension between generations became increasingly susceptible to representation in a cultural form.

Throughout the 20th century, suspicion towards the old ways was expressed through a clash of values. The authority of the elders was frequently undermined by the conviction that the latest values trumped the outdated ones possessed by the older generations, and schoolchildren were instructed to assume that new enlightened values they learned in the classroom were far more relevant than the prejudices of their parents. This sentiment was systematically promoted by the baby boomers, whose rebellion in the 1960s affirmed the moral superiority of the values of the youth over those of their parents. Unlike Bazarov and his cohort, who objected to the authority of the old, the boomers sought to discredit the old for being old.

For all its confusions, the 60s youth rebellion was at least motivated in part by the aspiration to change the world for the better. Yesterday’s youthful baby boomer rebels expressed a powerful sensibility of high expectations and clearly felt ill at ease with the comforts offered by relatively prosperous Western societies.

But what this alienation expressed was the conviction that there was something more to life than economic security. Some of these baby boomers clearly wanted it all. The contrast between their ambition and hopes and those of their contemporary detractors is striking. The demonisation of the boomers is rarely fuelled by sense of hope, desire for independence or the realisation of a positive ideal. Nineteenth-century rebels accused their elders of holding back change and progress. Today’s critics of the boomers attack their parents for their lack of restraint and their Promethean belief in technology and progress.

The ‘anything goes’ attitude of the 60s might have expressed a naive form of irresponsible indulgence, but at least it expressed ambition and openness to new possibilities. Today’s cultural criticism of the boomer communicates suspicion of, even hostility towards, human ambition.

Generational conflict has gone through numerous stages, but only in rare and exceptional cases did it give up the language of hope. Often the rebellion of youth was little more than a performance, a kind of rite de passage. Nevertheless, it serves as reminder of the boundless energy and creative power possessed by a generation yet to leave its mark on the world. Its idealism is a precious resource that helps society renew itself. Unfortunately, today’s critics of adult excess often appear as if they suffer from an idealism bypass. Their affectation of planetary responsibility often signals an attitude of premature ageing.

This was brought home in October last year, when French students demonstrated against government pension reform and expressed concern about l’insecurite. When Parisian high school students argue that if people had to work for an extra two years there would be a million fewer jobs for the young, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that very young mouths were voicing the preoccupation of their grandparents. Today’s French rebels show that adopting an elderly mindset can come at a surprisingly early age.

One of the most distinctive feature of the denunciation of the baby boomers is that it lacks any hint of a future-oriented idealism. It is principally driven by a sense of resentment against a generation that apparently had a really good time.

Instead of tackling the question of how to create a prosperous future, anti-boomers are more interested in gaining a larger slice of the wealth created in the past. Baby boomer self-indulgence pales into insignificance in comparison to the low horizons of their unambitious critics.

Never has the term ‘rebels without a cause’ had more meaning than today. At least Bazarov’s nihilism was in part motivated by the cause of ridding Russia of its feudal autocracy. Even the Lost Generation of the inter-war period were responding to a very real event that shaped their existence. Today’s anti-boomers are freed from the burden of a cause to fight for. As Tyler Durden remarked in the 1999 film Fight Club: ‘Our generation has had no Great Depression, no Great War’, before adding that ‘our depression is our lives’.

Until the 20th century, the questioning of the power of elders focused on the manner in which authority was exercised. Youthful critics pointed to the failures, betrayals and cowardice of their elders, but they did not question the right of elders to possess authority. During the past century, the criticism of adult authority has acquired a more ideological and cultural dimension, leading to what can be described as the ‘de-authorisation of elders’. The elders no longer possess moral or cultural authority. Indeed, in recent times it is not only the authority of old that has been called into question but of all adults.

There is something very distinctive in the way that generational tension and conflict are understood and discussed today. Until recently, criticism of the elders expressed the frustrations of young people, who were determined to acquire some of that authority and status associated with being a grown-up. By contrast, today such criticisms are promoted by members of the older generation who are uncomfortable with exercising adult authority. Paradoxically it is the boomers themselves who are responsible for the construction of the cultural disease of elder excess. More than any other generation of elders, the boomers have always felt uncomfortable with the authority of adulthood: their own desperate compulsion to remain forever young is symptomatic of their confusion about becoming seriously grown-up.

Grown-up boomers, who have embraced the spirit of extended adolescence, are not only encouraged to celebrate their playful side but also to regard adulthood with a mixture of suspicion and contempt. Today’s version of adulthood is rarely associated with positive connotations. It is frequently depicted as a stultifying period of conformism with few positive virtues. The contrast between our culture’s affirmation of being young and its awkwardness towards adults is striking. And adulthood is fast becoming emptied of meaning. In such circumstances, ageing is often experienced as an affliction.

Of course, disdain for old age is not new. As Barry Strauss reminds us in Fathers and Sons in Athens, in ancient Athens there was a strain of admiration for unmastered, heroic youth. In The Illiad, Achilles personified the energetic, powerful hero who challenges the authority of his elders in the performance of a great deed. But the Greek elders did not roll over and reproach themselves for being old. They understood that they had a duty to oversee the generational renewal of their community and knew that if they abandoned their responsibility it would be the future generations who would suffer the consequences. The self-loathing of adult authority is unique to the present era.

In recent decades, the moral devaluation of adulthood has acquired a more pathological dimension through the Malthusian redefinition of the old as a demographic burden. From this perspective, adulthood is not simply an affliction to be avoided but actually parasitical on the life of the young. With the ascendancy of the negative construction of the excess of the elders, the boomers do not wait to be condemned; they are often at a forefront of inviting criticism. Indeed one of the distinguishing features of the problematisation of the authority of the elders is that it is principally fuelled by boomers who are questioning their own authority.

Or, to put it another way, the disenchantment of the boomers with the authority of the adult is logically and chronologically before the launching of the generation war against the excesses of the elders.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum in August 2011. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here. This article was first published in the Australian on 1 June 2011.

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