Let’s lay off the Baby Boomers

PJ O’Rourke gives his much-maligned generation a break.

Jennie Bristow

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The world doesn’t need another book eviscerating the Baby Boomers. Fortunately, the American satirist PJ O’Rourke has written something less boring instead.

O’Rourke’s account of ‘The Baby Boom’ begins promisingly with the preface, ‘to a book attempting to capture the spirit of a generation of God’s favourite spoiled brats’. ‘Herein is a ballad of the Baby Boom, not a dissertation on it,’ he writes – ‘a rhapsody, not a report. A freehand sketch, not a faithful rendering. That is to say, I am – it is a writer’s vocation and the metier of his age cohort – full of crap.’

But at least it’s honest crap. Much of the earnest discussion today about the problems allegedly caused by the Baby Boomer generation is no more accurate than O’Rourke’s semi-fictionalised autobiography, yet we rarely see such a disclaimer. An Ab Fab caricature of the Baby Boomer – greedy, irresponsible, owning all the houses and sucking all the money out of the welfare state – is paraded across British books and newspapers, and presented as fact.

How refreshing, then, to read a book that tells the story of one Baby Boomer, making clear that this is not a factual history of all the other 76million members of the cohort. And making particularly clear that the book cannot tell us very much about the runty little birthrate-bump on the other side of the Atlantic.

For the British ‘Baby Boom’ was very different to its American sibling, in both respects of the word. Demographically, Britain – like many other Western countries immediately after the Second World War – experienced a spike in the birthrate, but this dropped back quickly until the mid-1950s, when there was a less dramatic, but more sustained, bulge over the next 10 years.

When the received wisdom of our times is that Britain is groaning under the weight of a bloated blob of young-olds, it is hardly pedantic to point out that the Boomer demographics in the UK don’t support this argument. In the US between 1946 and 1964, says O’Rourke, ‘some 75,821,000 of us made our appearance in previously tidy American homes. At the time the country had about 192million people. The Baby Boom was almost 40 per cent of the population. No wonder when we farted the nation shat.’

By contrast, the demographic impact of the extra Baby Boom births in the UK was very limited. As Jane Falkingham, now professor of demography and international social policy at the University of Southampton, wrote back in 1997: ‘[W]hilst the number of babies born in the UK in the years 1947 and 1964 exceeded one million, over the entire period 1941-81 the number of births averaged about 800,000 per year. Therefore, even the absolute peaks of the two Baby Booms constituted only an additional 25 per cent over the average for the postwar decades. In place of every four births, in these years there were five.’

Size isn’t everything, however, and the other aspect of the Baby Boom label is the period of prosperity and growth that followed the war in the US. O’Rourke’s introduction to the UK edition of The Baby Boom points out another fact that tends to be ignored in the slating of the British Baby Boomers – that ‘postwar experience in America was very different from postwar experience in a place where war, in fact, occurred. That is, we had the “post-” and you had the war.’

O’Rourke lists, with rather depressing clarity, the difference in postwar prosperity across the Atlantic. ‘America’s Baby Boom got the benefit of a period of social stability and strong economic growth’, he writes – while Britain got the NHS. In Britain, ‘food and clothing remained rationed until the early 1950s,’ but in the US, ‘[w]e plumped up and dressed in silly coonskin caps’. While Britain disposed of its old empire, ‘[w]e went looking for a new one – in all the wrong places, such as up along the Yalu River and on the underside of Chiang Kai-shek and in South Vietnam’: ‘And the American car culture was an important factor in the lives of our Baby Boom. Meanwhile, the British car culture was…’

You get the drift.

Throughout the book, O’Rourke’s fond accounts of growing up during the Fifties, which are generally amusing and often stylistically annoying, hammer home the space, freedom, affluence and indulgence enjoyed by the American Baby Boomers as children. In Britain, accounts of the so-called ‘Golden Age’ of the Fifties tend to extend to children playing by the river and neighbours leaving their front doors unlocked, glossing over the more drab reality that kids did not have anything to play with inside, and that most homes were not worth burgling.

Given the divergence in experience between the British and American Baby Boomers, one might wonder how the American debate, about the problems of the Boomers’ size, wealth and health (which, many grumble, means they will live ‘too long’, robbing younger generations of their fair share of pensions and healthcare resources), became plonked on to Little Britain with scant regard for the differences.

The answer lies partly in what the US Boomers did share with their counterparts in the UK, and in parts of Europe, too. This was the experience of growing up in the tumultuous Sixties, when youth appeared to be in the vanguard of a cultural revolution that swept aside established norms and values, rejecting the authority of tradition and, above all, of adults.

Swiftly demolishing another great myth about the Sixties, O’Rourke points out that, in reality, ‘the Baby Boom was the tailgate party, not the team on the field’: ‘There was a lot of “talkin’ ‘bout my generation” (Pete Townshend, born 1945), but it wasn’t my generation that was causing “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye, born 1939) during the “Youthquake” (a coinage from Punch, edited by people born when mastodons roamed the earth).’

He provides a ‘birth-year checklist’, which includes Bob Dylan (1941), Mick Jagger (1943), Che Guevara (1928), Gloria Steinem (1934), Jimi Hendrix (1942) and Chairman Mao (1893). The campaign against the rules of the adult world was not led by young people; the older, ‘Silent Generation’ was actually ‘producing the loudest noise’.

But as the historian Arthur Marwick has argued, ‘The consequences of what happened in the Sixties were long-lasting: the Sixties’ cultural revolution in effect established the enduring cultural values and social behaviour for the rest of the century’. Because (some of) the Baby Boomers came of age and were most visibly associated with the turmoil of these years, they are seen to embody the zeitgeist of the Sixties – even if they didn’t actually lead the way.

In O’Rourke’s account, the Boomers internalised the ‘antinomianism’ of that time, and carried it with them in later years: ‘Antinomianism is the belief that faith (the Baby Boom has a lot of faith – in itself) and grace (the Baby Boom has been graced with a lot of good things) allow men (and, let us hasten to add, women) to be (according to Webster’s Third International) “freed not only from the Old Testament law of Moses and all forms of legalism but also from all law, including the generally accepted standards of morality prevailing in any given culture”. That’s us in a nutshell.’

That spontaneous non-conformity was all well and good in the twentieth century. But in the twenty-first, the liberationist, hedonistic spirit of the Sixties has become very unfashionable – making the Baby Boomers, in turn, deeply unpopular. Which is all really rather unfair.

Insofar as it is possible to generalise about an entire generation, we can say that the Boomers had their quirks, their faults and their problems. But they did at least know how to break a few rules and have some fun. ‘The Baby Boom is the generation of the mocking tongue’, writes O’Rourke. Its spirit may be under attack, but thankfully, it is not dead yet.

Jennie Bristow is an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, where she is studying the sociology of generations. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny and co-author of Parenting Culture Studies and Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here, here and here.) Bristow also runs the editing service Punctuate!

The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way (And it Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do it Again), by PJ O’Rourke is published by Grove Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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