In 2014, the last wave of the baby boomers – the generation that vowed to “never trust anyone over 30” – will turn 50. The celebration started last week, when first lady Michelle Obama reached that milestone birthday Friday.
Why should we care?
Because this generation – the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 – has shaped our contemporary world.
In their prime, they ushered in a new era of music, television, books, movies, fashion and toys that has had a lasting impact on the cultural landscape. Now, as they enter the next life stage, they will likely redefine retirement and old age as well.
With this generation solidly in its sweet spot, AARP has declared 2014 the Year of the Boomer and commissioned boomer writer P.J. O’Rourke to pen this essay.
Yes, we’re spoiled rotten. We’re self-absorbed. And it seems like we’ll never shut up. But the boomers made a better world for everyone else. You’re welcome.
We’re the largest, richest, best-educated generation of Americans, the favored children of a strong, confident and prosperous country. Or, as other generations call us, spoiled brats. Born between 1946 and 1964, the 76 million boomers reaped all the benefits of the postwar period’s extraordinary economic growth.
We were dizzy with our aspirations. We’d be rock stars. We’d be spiritual avatars. We’d be social activists. We’d be billionaires. No, better yet, we’d be all those things at the same time. (Steve Jobs came close.)
Every time opportunity knocked, we let it in, even when it should have been locked out for decency’s sake. And behold the boomers’ remarkable experiments with prosperity – the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble, the enormous financial bubble that’s still got the nation trying to get fiduciary gum out of its hair.
And now the boomers run the world. The youngest members of the generation that decided to be young forever are turning 50 in 2014. That’s the age of maximum privilege and power. We’re giving everybody orders. The oldest boomers are enrolled in Medicare, collecting Social Security and receiving tax-free Roth IRA disbursements. Plus, American life expectancy has increased by almost 12 years since the baby boom was born, so it doesn’t just seem like we’ll never go away. From President Obama, Rand Paul and Jeff Bezos at one end of our age cohort to Hillary Clinton, Rush Limbaugh and Cher at the other, we cannot be escaped or avoided (or shushed).
But running the world means taking responsibility for it. The boomers have been good at taking things: Mom’s car without permission, drugs, umbrage at the establishment, draft deferments, advantage of the sexual revolution, and credit for the civil rights and women’s liberation movements that rightly belongs to prior generations. The one thing that can be left in plain sight without us putting our sticky mitts on it is responsibility. Ask our therapists. Or the parents we haven’t visited at the extended-care facility.
We’re also the generation that laughed off the kind of casual bigotry once widely acceptable in American life. To see how far we’ve come, compare “All in the Family” with “Modern Family,” two popular TV shows about intergenerational relations in a changing world. The 1970s sitcom was considered groundbreaking because it got laughs from Greatest Generation patriarch Archie Bunker’s unreconstructed racism and sexism. The current show is considered groundbreaking because it gets laughs from boomer patriarch Jay Pritchett’s bemused confusion about gay marriage, blended families and … actually, “Modern Family” is not considered groundbreaking. It’s just considered funny.
Boomers didn’t exactly create a race-blind society, but the kids we’ve raised might.
Boomers haven’t made life perfect, the way we promised we would back in the 1960s. We promised we wouldn’t fight any wars. We were fibbing – we’ve had seven or eight since Vietnam. However, we did make them smaller. The United States has suffered more than 5,800 combat deaths in the three decades of the post-Vietnam era. The number is painful, but it’s also less – by almost a thousand – than the number of U.S. servicemen who died in just five weeks during the Battle of Iwo Jima.
It would be nice to think the boomers did something to make the world less warlike. More likely, our voracious consumerism has just made the world richer. Gross world product – the total of all the goods and services produced on Earth – increased fivefold between 1975 and 2012, to almost $72 trillion. There’s a theory that rich people don’t like to fight huge wars – itchy uniforms and ugly shoes. China’s economy is nearly 40 times larger than it was in 1978. Let’s hope the theory’s true.
Our own standard of living hasn’t climbed at that heady rate, the way the Greatest Generation’s did. But we didn’t get to start with nothing. In a world destroyed by the Depression and war, every Levittown bungalow looked like the Ritz-Carlton, and a $20 pay raise was a winning lottery ticket. American family income, adjusted for inflation, grew by about $25,000 between the late 1940s and the middle 1970s. Since then, it’s grown by only about half that amount after adjusting for inflation and has in fact declined overall since 1999. For a so-called sandwich generation – pressed between the demands of kids who aren’t yet independent and parents who are getting less so – we haven’t put many bean sprouts in the pita pocket.
But a lot more things now come standard with our standard of living, thanks to all the great stuff we’ve invented. In 1978 few people had a personal computer, and if they did, it took up half the house. There was no GPS in your car. The Greatest Generation was lost all the time. You had to go to the library to look things up, and then you couldn’t because the Dewey Decimal System made it impossible to figure out whether Dewey ran for president against FDR, defeated the Spanish navy in the Battle of Manila Bay or invented the Dewey Decimal System. We may not have managed America’s money well, but the boomers’ demand for more and better gizmos has filled the nation with amazing playthings, from tiny talking computers to gigantic flat-screen TVs with roughly 2,000 channels to watch on them. We’re the generation that will die with the most toys.
Until that day finally comes, we’ll still be riding our bicycles, jamming in garage bands and wearing jeans and T-shirts. We’re famously careful about the way we raise our kids, because somebody has to grow up. It won’t be us.
And what about those kids? Will Generation X and the Millennials do a better job running the world than the boomers have? Let’s hope so. But first they’ll have to move out of our basements.
Humorist and political reporter P.J. O’Rourke’s newest book is “The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way?… (And It Wasn’t My Fault) … (And I’ll Never Do It Again) …”