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Boomtastrophe 

Baby Boomers hoped to die before they got old. They lied. And now they’re dragging the whole country down.

Wednesday, May 2 2007
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Noted philosopher and Spinal Tap frontman David St. Hubbins once observed that only a fine line exists between clever and stupid. So it is with reality and delusion. For example, common sense tells us Baby Boomers largely squandered their chance to improve the world, their potential first wasted on spliffs and 'shrooms, then on chakras and Botox. But a few weeks ago, shunning veracity, PBS presented The Boomer Century: 19462046. Billed as a documentary, it wove a narrative that hewed closer to mythology, depicting the Me Generation as mankind's gift to its own.

Aired on KQED and across the country, the two-hour apologia purported to trace both the past and future of Boomers. Yet while This Is Spinal Tap thrust mockumentary into the lexicon almost a quarter-century ago, it took The Boomer Century to reveal the word's hidden meaning: a genuinely earnest production that mocks the intellect of anyone who knows better.

The brainchild of its host, Ken Dychtwald, a San Francisco author and gerontologist, the program began by exalting the early years of the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Archival video showed how their idealism inspired the feisty youngsters to torch buildings and sit in the lotus position. In on-screen interviews, an array of aging Boomer luminaries — Erica Jong, Rob Reiner, Oliver Stone — affirmed that their generation ranks as the finest to grace Earth. Or at least to practice est.

The look back provided a glimpse of the 1960s and '70s through rose-tinted revisionism. We learned that Boomers deserve nearly all the credit for every major sociopolitical advance of the last 60 years, ranging from women's lib and civil rights to the anti-war and green movements. Indeed, the lone event for which they stoop to recognize another generation's role is their birth, an admission of mortality that sent many of them into therapy.

The Boomer Century's second half explored what awaits the generation that, after lopping off its ponytail and donning a tie, hopped in its Volvo, picked up the kids from private school, and headed home to a gated community. Fortunately for his fellow Boomers, Dychtwald delivered a soothing prognosis for their Maalox years: "Increasingly liberated from parenting and full-time work, we'll be free to seek out new experiences and adventures." So long, pesky kids! Across the screen flashed images of gray-haired men playing football and driving race cars, proving once again that while a human be-in happens only once, hedonism lasts forever.

His own hair thick and brown, Dychtwald cut a figure of tanned, toned virility, matching the vigor of his message. Likewise, reflecting Boomers' penchant for denial, he closed the program by suggesting they may finally shed their lifelong vanity and coalesce into the We Generation. With "more time, money, and, hopefully, wisdom to contribute than any generation before us," he declared, together they might solve the planet's biggest crises, whether AIDS in the Third World or global warming.

In other words, we're doomed.

Sound cynical? Call it a conditioned response to the hubris of a generation that would attach its name to an entire century. Dychtwald's optimism aside, if the last three decades portend the next three, his brethren will find their inner altruist around the time Eminem covers "Kumbaya." In truth, as they approach Social Security age, Boomers appear most concerned with reminding us they've never loved anything so much as themselves. They stand hunched over not because of arthritis or back pain; they're gazing at their navels.

Since last year, when the oldest among them started turning 60, Boomerganda has blitzed the country. A mix of self-promotion and historical fantasy, this pro-Boomer hype recasts them as The Greater Generation, to borrow the humble title of a recent book touted as a "defense of the Baby Boom legacy." On TV and Web sites, in news articles and windy tomes, generational shills aver that the nation rode the Boomer rebellion into an enlightened age, freed at last from the tyranny of Pat Boone.

But as sure as Woodstock's free love gave way to Altamont's bloodshed, the promise of Boomers succumbed long ago to egotism. Beneath the middle-class nostalgia lies an American dystopia of their making, a state of disgrace now laid bare by social critics and the online hordes.

Boomers traded tree-hugging for money-grubbing and unraveled the social welfare net. Their refusal to reform Social Security and Medicare threatens to bankrupt federal coffers, while their talk of "reinventing" retirement conceals the bleak fact that almost half of them can't afford to quit working, thanks to deficient savings. Their budget woes derive, in part, from checkbook parenting, an indulgent manner of child-rearing that has yielded a cultural anomaly once thought impossible — a generation of young adults more narcissistic than Boomers.

Not that Mom and Dad would utter a mea culpa for their blunders, either as parents or as members of the generation that popularized the Smothers brothers, bad credit, and wife-swapping. After all, it's the Boomer century. We just curse at it.


State Senate leader Don Perata proposed a ballot initiative last month demanding removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Explaining his rationale, the Oakland Democrat evoked the blood spilled by his generation during an earlier war of choice. "A lot of us Baby Boomers, we've been here before," he said at a press conference. "We lost our moral center in this country because of what happened in Vietnam. I'll be damned if I'm going to let that happen again."

Memo to Sen. Perata: Vietnam started happening again four years ago, and this time, the Texan in Chief sending young Americans to die hails from your age bracket.

Despite a ripe sense of entitlement and past drug use, George Bush may seem an unlikely figurehead for his generation. A momma's boy who stocks his Cabinet with Daddy's friends, he respects his parents, violating the Boomer golden rule. As a young man, by all accounts, he showered regularly, wore nothing tie-dyed, and regarded Kissinger as the true lizard king. He tuned out the consciousness revolution, perhaps unable to pronounce its name.

All of which confirms Bush's squareness in the view of his generation's liberal bloc, whose ranks include no small number of the 10 million Boomers in California. Beyond the Red-state/Blue-state rift, however, he represents his cohort's abiding self-interest with as much fidelity as his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Boomer-aged voters supported Bush and Clinton in huge numbers in their respective presidential bids. Bush appealed to them with tax cuts; Clinton appeased them by honoring his pledge to "end welfare as we know it." The combined fiscal policies of the two Boomer presidents have split the U.S. along a different color line, argues Santa Cruz sociologist Mike Males.

"There's been such a rapid increase in Boomer wealth, it's created a racial segregation that's worse than what we had in the '50s and '60s," he says. Consider the city that sired the Summer of Love. In the Western Addition, walk-ups worth $1 million or more border the district's chain of public housing projects, where minorities comprise most of the resident population. Neighbors live a street and a world apart.

Yet as Boomers voice faint concern about the widening economic divide — everything's fabulous on our side, thanks — they persist in lionizing their role in the civil rights crusade. "They don't like to admit hypocrisy," says Males, who's writing a book titled Boomergeddon, an analysis of his generation's influence on America. "They like to think, 'We are good, we are just, we do almost no wrong.'"

The tendency of Boomers to claim the moral high ground as their private domain explains the popular perception that they alone agitated for civil rights. In fact, their parents and grandparents, the Silent and G.I. generations maligned by Boomers as social conformists, supplied the movement with brigades of foot soldiers and its most visible leaders — Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, and Rosa Parks, among others. "Boomers take the credit, but the Silent Generation should get it for civil rights," says social historian and author William Strauss, an expert in generational studies. "What the Boomers were doing was starting riots."

Strauss exaggerates — somewhat — for humor's sake. Undeniably, the largest generation in U.S. history invested bodies and passion in the fight for civil rights, feminism, and nuclear disarmament, as it did in protesting against the Vietnam War. Boomers magnified the urgency of every cause they joined.

Still, just as undeniably, advocating for the greater good now holds scant appeal to them. They're too busy living well. The nation's richest generation to date, its members devote their days to attending Pilates classes and scouring organic-food stores for the finest saffron. They host home spa parties and fret over whether their wine collection needs more pinot noir. They sleep with a copy of Real Simple under the pillow.

Boomer apathy toward the economic underclass parallels their disregard for the green movement, one more cause they deserted in favor of that other kind of green. Starting in the mid-'80s, seduced by greed's goodness, hippies "evolved" into yuppies and cashed in with most everyone else in their generation. Soon enough, Boomers were driving Ford Explorers and living in McMansions, their memories of VW vans and communes dissolving like bong residue.

Boomers piously insist that conservation remains high on their to-do list. After all, they haul their recyclables to the curb each week and volunteer to clean up riverbanks every Earth Day. They saw An Inconvenient Truth (Al Gore is one of theirs, don't you know). Some sat in a Prius once.

Over on the "Killing Earth" side of the ledger, fully one-quarter of Boomers own a second home, and roughly half of the SUVs and RVs on the road belong to them. To this generation, conservation means buying a smaller Cessna.

Last month, as part of its ongoing series that chronicles the impact of Boomers on the culture, Newsweek examined their lifelong love affair with cars. The magazine interviewed a 59-year-old Kentucky lawyer and self-avowed ex-hippie who, after years of driving fuel-efficient vehicles, recently treated himself to a Hummer H2. "I refuse to feel guilty," he said. "I've already saved the environment for most of my life. If I'm abusing it a little right now, I can live with that."

No doubt Bush, that staunch supporter of global warming, would like to give the man a backslap and a nickname — something clever, like Humm Baby — to honor their mutual myopia. As the president once said when asked how history will judge his decision to invade Iraq, "History, we don't know. We'll all be dead."

Well, no. Boomers might be on the dark side of the cemetery lawn. The rest of us will be taking their name in vain for the mess they bequeathed. "The psychology of Boomers is, 'There is no future, we are it,'" Males says. "That's an easy way to excuse your behavior."

Their expedience, besides burdening the country with Vietnam's sequel and ever-more greenhouse gases, poses another threat. The U.S. spends in excess of $1 trillion a year on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, or 40 percent of the federal budget. By 2030, when the number of people age 65 and over will top 71 million, double the current figure, the three entitlement programs could devour almost 80 percent of the budget. Covering the soaring costs may require enormous tax hikes in coming decades, increases that would land hardest on post-boom generations.

Boomers bear fault neither for their sheer numbers nor for aging, even if once upon a time they hoped to die before they got old. But their mulish resistance to reforming the benefits system betrays the allergy to sacrifice that defines their generation. Economists contend that pruning payouts to affluent recipients or raising program eligibility ages would avert a budget meltdown. Boomers counter with a less nuanced argument: Gimme, gimme, gimme.

The reaction exposes their dual identity as the country's wealthiest generation and its least frugal. Boomers leverage their personal finances as if they were running a banana republic, with one-third of them reporting retirement savings of less than $25,000; close to half anticipate they will need to work past age 65. Fleetwood Mac said don't stop thinking about tomorrow. Boomers instead took to heart Jim Morrison, spending money like today was the end.

So the generation that replaced private pensions with the 401(k) wants its public benefits paid in full, on the grounds that, after picking up the entitlement tab for their elders, Boomers merit similar recompense. "There's nothing selfish about that," says Carol Orsborn, author of 15 books on her generation. "Boomers have lived their lives believing that society is supposed to deliver on its promises."

Shuttling between Napa and Washington, D.C., Orsborn works for the public-relations firm Fleishman-Hillard as an expert on marketing to Boomers. She regards the benefits debate as a "false dichotomy" that artificially pits her generation against subsequent ones. Citing the willingness of Boomers to prop up their adult children, the so-called Boomerangs who return to the parental nest, she asserts that "a society that won't take care of its old people or [conversely] its young people is in trouble."

There's only one problem. As a massive voting constituency abetted by proxies in Congress and the White House, Boomers have already chosen to cheat the young. They endorsed Bush's tax breaks without concern for the swelling federal debt that in time will wallop their kids and grandkids. They shrugged as Bush and Clinton alike gutted social-service programs, cutbacks that betrayed scarce empathy for the children of the poor.

The two Boomer presidents may stand on opposite sides of their generation's undying cultural war, but their shared arrogance bridges the gorge. "Bush is a feckless Boomer who thinks he's never made a mistake," says Martin Nolan, a San Francisco author and social historian. "And Bill and Hillary had that attitude of 'Aren't you lucky to have voted for us?'"

Like Nolan, Nancy Pelosi belongs to the Silent Generation, the almost 50 million Americans born between 1925 and 1942. In age and political status, the 67-year-old House speaker wields the authority to urge Boomers to relinquish their childish ways for the sake of their children. As Nolan says, "She has less sympathy for their bullshit, so maybe she can get something done [on entitlements]."

Then again, if she can't, rest easy. We'll all be dead.


Pelosi and her colleagues could solve the looming benefits crisis with one stroke of political boldness. Suppose Congress granted tax breaks to Baby Boomers if they promised to commit suicide when they turn 65. A generation obsessed with wealth and youth could find itself tempted by the opportunity to both earn more money and miss out on incontinence.

Alas, at the moment, the proposal remains rooted in fiction. The scenario propels the plot of Boomsday, Christopher Buckley's new novel that satirizes the generation that "made self-indulgence a virtue," in the sneering opinion of one character. Buckley skewers "the wrinklies," as he describes his aging peer group, with keyboard firmly in cheek. Yet the virulent anti-Boomerism circulating the Internet offers hope that, much like The Jungle spawned the FDA, Boomsday will inspire what it merrily dubs "voluntary transitioning."

The Web site Die Boomer Die takes as its credo "There is no political left or right, only failed Baby Boomer leadership." Run by someone identified as Dead Hippie and featuring a photo of a Kent State shooting victim, the site posts news articles critical of Boomers and ticks down the days until they hit 65. Similarly, Boomer Death Counter keeps a running tally of the percentage who have died, 7.048 percent as the week began, while blogs burst with random generational screeds. A recent posting on It Comes In Pints? conveyed a common sentiment: "I swear, if I see one more story, book, news report, or PBS special about how wonderful and inspiring and inventive and interesting "Baby Boomers' are ... oh, just FUCK OFF."

The backlash spikes every 10 years, when they reach another age milestone and the media react as though covering the simultaneous return of Elvis, Jesus, and Lee Van Cleef. A decade ago, as the oldest among them turned 50, Boomers assured us they still felt spry, engaging in such youthful activities as C-sections. At 60, save for keeping the nearest plastic surgeon's office on speed dial, they're more willing to concede time's march. But they'll have us know they refuse to simply retire and die like their parents, who survived the Great Depression, won World War II, and rebuilt America and Europe, then had the unspeakable desire to rest.

Envy, vanity, immaturity — whatever the precise cause, the Me Generation rejects the popular designation of its parents as "the Greatest Generation." Historians define the 63 million Americans born between 1901 and 1924 as the G.I. Generation; those born in the latter half of the period earned the "Greatest" tag for their heroics at home and abroad, and produced most of the baby boom. Nonetheless, their children brand them as meek conformists, contending that they waited to confront myriad social ills — racism and sexism, starched collars and Glenn Miller — until Boomers forced matters. Their efforts, argues Leonard Steinhorn in his valentine to Boomers, The Greater Generation, has turned the U.S. into "a more ... virtuous nation than at any time in our history."

Now entering life's liniment stage, however, those righteous Boomers continue to deride their parents' quiet approach to retirement. According to Boom, a book Orsborn co-authored last year about marketing to Boomer women, the G.I. Generation's golden years proved utterly leaden: "They looked old. They acted old. Mostly, the only individuals who even considered working past 65 were those who absolutely had to. The only future they faced was one in which a depressing decline was inevitable."

Jeepers, maybe Congress should have offered them tax incentives to kill themselves.

Boomers grew up defying their parents, an ethos that brought rich rewards, including teen pregnancies and genital warts. In that spirit, and with typically clamorous self-regard, they vow to "revolutionize" retirement. They intend to pursue second careers and volunteer, a go-getting agenda aided by a crop of Web sites, among them Eons, Boomergirl, and Second 50 Years, catering to their refined sense of manifest destiny. They plan to get their post-menopausal freak on. A wave of Boomerotica has washed over the publishing industry the last couple of years, carrying with it such saucy titles as Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty and Sex and the Seasoned Woman. Clearly, this is not their mother's retirement. Nor her spice rack.

A commune revival also has budded, with clutches of like-minded Boomers — nudists, Catholics — living in harmony, so long as nobody confuses one collective for the other. Small groups of men and women are "building" platonic families, sharing homes to save on bills, stave off loneliness, and take turns chasing those goddamn kids off the lawn. "Boomers are bringing a new approach to growing older," says Mary Furlong, author of Turning Silver Into Gold and founder of Third Age Media, a San Francisco consulting firm that focuses on the Boomer market. "We know we're not kids anymore, but we also feel there's plenty of reason to feel young."

Aging Boomers, sensitive to suggestions that they are, in fact, aging Boomers, aim to reshape the lingo of retirement, in the same way they spun draft dodger into conscientious objector. Out: senior, mature, elder. In: "That's still being figured out," Orsborn says with a laugh. "Baby Boomers don't even like the "baby' part of their name."

Here are a few ideas: substance abuser, fat, incarcerated.

Veering from their cultivated reputation as salubrious middle-agers, Boomers own the highest rates of drug use, suicide, obesity, and diabetes of any U.S. age group, federal statistics show. They also represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population. "When I tell that to audiences," Males says, "I almost get looks of disappointment."

Males has written a handful of books in defense of post-boom generations, countering perceptions of them as the country's scourge and assailing what he regards as their parents' hypocrisy. As young adults, Boomers unleashed the libertine within; as parents, they vilify young adults for the same behavior, attempting to shackle them with zero-tolerance policies, abstinence programs, public curfews, and the everlasting war on drugs.

"Boomers have this thing where they say, "We gotta hate kids at the same time we try to behave like them,'" Males says. He points out that the crime rate among people age 25 and under has dropped in most major categories in recent years. "But Boomers just say, 'I feel like kids today are worse.' They knock down younger generations so they can feel good about themselves."

Disparage your parents, demonize your kids. Greater Generation, indeed.


Most Boomer parents fit into one of two groups. The first could be called the In Absentia-Ataris. Rarely present as their children grew up, these parents deserve the same amount of praise as Atari videogames for how their kids turned out. Johnny probably missed having Mom and Dad around — or one or the other after the divorce — but at least Asteroids and Space Invaders kept him company. He counts as one of the 48 million Americans born between 1965 and 1981, also known as Generation X, the original slackers.

The second group could be called Helicopter Parents, to borrow a phrase from generational expert William Strauss. Mom and Dad hovered over Missy like Blackhawk choppers, videotaping every single moment of her first five years, starting with conception. Parents and child remained best friends as Missy grew up, thanks to Mom and Dad's willingness to sink into debt to indulge her with money and high-tech gifts. Missy belongs to the Millennial Generation, the 75 million Americans born between 1982 and 2000, the pioneers of YouTube nation.

The split represents a classic Boomer disparity: too little or too much of a good thing, with mixed results either way. Its oldest members in their early 40s, Gen X tends to maintain an ironic distance from life, its expectations tempered by a conviction that, sooner or later, everyone disappoints. Its oldest members in their mid-20s, the Millennial Generation acts as if everyone owes them, its expectations raised beyond reason from hearing Mom and Dad's constant refrain, "You're special."

Yet with Gen Xers older and disinclined to engage, social critics pin their hopes on the Millennials for redeeming their parents in the Baby Boom generation. "There's a lot of potential for them," says author Neil Howe, who has written several books with Strauss about the differences within and between generations. "Gen Xers took a pretty tough situation and did the best they could, but it's the Millennials who really look promising."

The forecast sounds even better to Boomer parents than "Free Bird." As Orsborn quips, "We did something right."

Or perhaps not. Personality surveys characterize Millennials as tolerant, industrious, and law-abiding. But with their parents putting the mother in smother, telling them they could do anything and deserved everything, Millennials carry egos the size of, well, Baby Boomers. The Me Generation has begat Generation Me.

"It's almost like (Millennials) had three pillows strapped to them so they wouldn't get hurt if they fell down," says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. "It's like they had three pillows protecting their self-esteem."

Twenge describes Millennials as "the most self-absorbed generation we've had." Her book and a study she released earlier this year relied on analysis of responses by college students to the Narcissistic Personality Index. Combing the surveys of some 16,500 students between 1982 and 2006, she saw a steady rise in scores, with young adults growing ever more optimistic about their prospects.

That's fine so far as it goes. The risk lies in self-confidence mutating into narcissism, Twenge contends, a trait that tends to lead to higher rates of infidelity, less empathy for others, and an inability to cope with rejection. Last year, almost 90 percent of the 140 violent attacks on homeless people across the country were committed by young men age 25 and under. The New York Times reported last month that rising incivility in public discourse among young people arcs back to how they were raised. As one psychologist told the paper, "The Baby Boomers were self-centered and had self-centered children because they thought, "Everything is for me and my child.' Now these under-30s have grown up and just assume what was cute for their parents is now cute to everybody else."

Twenge echoes the appraisal. Told throughout childhood that they were unique, handed a trophy just for showing up to a ballgame, given grades that reflected parental hectoring of teachers more than the work's quality — Millennials are ego incarnate. They are Boomers redux, with hip-huggers and flip-flops instead of bell bottoms and clogs.

Boomers confess to their excessive doting, with one consistent caveat, Twenge says. "They always say, 'My kid isn't narcissistic.'" But for a generation forever in denial, a reap-what-you-sow moment may arrive within the next quarter-century.

As Millennials age and move into the halls of political influence, they will confront the debt load bestowed by their parents, who refused to trim entitlement benefits after the turn of the 21st century. The new powerbrokers may recall that their parents spent themselves into near bankruptcy to mollify the must-have impulses of their children. On the other hand, faced with an unpleasant political choice between the welfare of their children and their elders, Millennials may decide to put the kids first — unlike their parents did.

"There could be a major slapdown of Boomers [by Millennials] at some point," Strauss says, "and if that happens, Boomers will know why."


The Boomer Century: 1946-2046, the PBS program that aired a few weeks ago, produced a companion book. Its subtitle, How America's Most Influential Generation Changed Everything, invites a rejoinder: And Not for the Better.

More than other generations, Boomers feel compelled to inflate their legacy, a collective chest-thumping that belies their insecurity about what they wrought. They want to believe that without their daring to light up, get laid, and pass out, America would still wallow in the benighted '50s. The Age of Aquarius transformed history and transcended time ... in their own mind.

But as Males says, "A lot of this celebrating of the past seems like more than nostalgia. It's like trying to turn the past into some super-morally conscious era, and using that to condemn subsequent generations."

Boomers were blessed to be born into a country of bountiful prosperity, when opportunity presented low-hanging fruit. With their numbers, they couldn't help change America. Yet they have handed down a divided, divisive culture that holds far less promise than the one they inherited, selling their ideals for a summer home in the Hamptons.

Not that they would utter a mea culpa. As noted Boomer and Spinal Tap frontman David St. Hubbins once observed, "I'm sure I'd feel much worse if I weren't under such heavy sedation." For too long, Boomers have lived trapped inside their own hallucination.

About The Author

Martin Kuz

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