Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Boomer Generation Goes Bust

New York’s Zuccotti Park has just been cleansed of the Occupiers. Let’s hope it’s going to be a catharsis.

With any luck people will recognize that having a legitimate grievance does not justify throwing tantrums and disrupting the commerce of everyday life.

Since it had neither a plan nor an organization the Occupy movement degenerated into a celebration of anarchy. You cannot launch an effective political movement when you have no clue about how to solve the problems you see.

The Occupiers are a cultural symptom. They have learned to express their feelings, to vent their anger, to hurt each other, and to accomplish nothing.

No one disputes that something is wrong with America. Blaming it on the 1% is a catchy slogan. It will mostly appeal to those of a a primitive mindset, the kind that attempts to solve all problems by sacrificing a few well-chosen scapegoats.

The Occupy movement stands for nothing and has no agenda. As we have already seen, the Demagogue party will try to co-opt its energy. We will see how well that works.

For now, it appears that the Demagogue party officials who cheered the Occupy movement are trying to dissociate themselves from its increasingly disturbing pathologies.

Scapegoating the 1% will not solve the problems. Scapegoating never solves the problem. Besides, the 1% is not the problem. Gross income disparities are a symptom, not a cause.

Last week graduate student Thomas Day proposed an analysis of America’s problems in a Washington Post op-ed. In particular, he saw that the world his parents’ generation was bequeathing him was vastly inferior to the world they had inherited.

In his words: “Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work.

“For those of us in our 20s and early 30s, this is not the world we are inheriting.”

An astute observation, indeed.

Unfortunately, Day then moves on to demagogue the issue. He claims that the fault lies in George Bush’s failure to call for a national mobilization and shared sacrifice after 9/11. Beyond that, he blames the Bush tax cuts.

Unless you are a Democratic politician, you should avoid facile explanations. They undermine the respect you earned when you analyzed the problem clearly.

Yesterday, Walter Russell Mead iterated Day’s point. The Greatest generation bequeathed the Boomer generation an extraordinary gift. But, like the do-nothing heirs to a great fortune, the Boomers have squandered their inheritance.

Mead does grant that the Boomer generation has gotten some things right. It has made America a more open, tolerant and inclusive society. Yet, its failures of political and moral leadership dwarf its successes.

Mead explains it eloquently: “The Boomer Progressive Establishment in particular has been a huge disappointment to itself and to the country.  The political class slumbered as the entitlement and pension crisis grew to ominous dimensions. Boomer financial leadership was selfish and shortsighted, by and large.  Boomer CEOs accelerated the trend toward unlimited greed among corporate elites, and Boomer members of corporate boards sit by and let it happen.  Boomer academics created a profoundly dysfunctional system that systemically shovels resources upward from students and adjuncts to overpaid administrators and professors who by and large have not, to say the least, done an outstanding job of transmitting the cultural heritage of the past to future generations.  Boomer Hollywood execs created an amoral morass of sludge — and maybe I’m missing something, but nobody spends a lot of time talking about the towering cultural accomplishments of the world historical art geniuses of the Boomer years.  Boomer greens enthusiastically bet their movement on the truly idiotic drive for a global carbon treaty; they are now grieving over their failure to make any measurable progress after decades spent and hundreds of millions of dollars thrown away.  On the Boomer watch the American family and the American middle class entered major crises; by the time the Boomers have finished with it the health system will be an unaffordable and dysfunctional tangle — perhaps the most complicated, expensive and poorly designed such system in the history of the world.”

How did the Boomers perform this reverse alchemy? How did they manage to turn gold into lead?

Mead suggests that they suffer from an idealization of youthful rebelliousness. The Boomers refused to emulate their successful elders; they rejected the wisdom of the past. They preferred relying on their own feelings and wallowing in an extended adolescence. They rationalized it  by saying that their youthful exuberance was a better guide through life than the wisdom of tradition.

In Mead’s words: “What the Boomers as a generation missed (there were, of course and thankfully, many honorable individual exceptions) was the core set of values that every generation must discover to make a successful transition to real adulthood: maturity.  Collectively the Boomers continued to follow ideals they associated with youth and individualism: fulfillment and “creativity” rather than endurance and commitment.  Boomer spouses dropped families because relationships with spouses or children or mortgage payments no longer “fulfilled” them; Boomer society tolerated the most selfish and immature behavior in its public and cultural leaders out of the classically youthful and immature belief that intolerance and hypocrisy are greater sins than the dereliction of duty.”

I would offer some alternative explanations. The Boomers might have been so intimidated by their parents’ success that they chose not to compete. Or else, failing to compete they chose to enhance their self-esteem by demeaning their parents' accomplishments. Or else, they fell into a round of self-serving and self-indulgent behavior because they could afford it.

Still, people do not form a youth cult because The Who wrote a catchy song or because some professor had a dumb idea.

I agree entirely with Mead’s analysis of the failures of the Boomer generation, but he would have done better if he had specified that the Boomers failed because they adopted the values of the Vietnam era counterculture.

I wrote about this a decade and a half ago in my book on Saving Face, so you will understand that I am not coming late to this party.

I think it important to understand that cultures form around leaders, and that many cults form around martyrs. In my view, the Vietnam era counterculture was a cult to a martyred president, John F. Kennedy.

While JFK was obviously not a Boomer, he embodied the values that Mead sees defining the Boomer generation. Boomers danced and grooved to rock music, but they emulated the idol that was JFK.

At the risk of being macabre, I would point out that the young martyred president never grew old. His youth is eternal, untouched, and untouchable.

That also means that America never had the chance to hold John Kennedy accountable for the consequences of his initiatives and policies.

Given the power of idolatry, few people today even recall that it was JFK who led the nation into Vietnam and that the war was mostly prosecuted by officials he had chosen.

The best and the brightest were not Lyndon Johnson’s people.

When he was assassinated, JFK’s youthful image became iconic. It was imprinted on the American psyche, for good, but mostly, for ill.

As a result, a cult to youthful idealism grew in America. So did a cult to celebrity. After, JFK was our first true celebrity president.

He represented the triumph of feelings over facts, of aristocratic entitlement over a work ethic, of moral evasions over taking responsibility, of youth over experience, of machismo over manliness, of bravado over substance, of charisma over policy.

The counterculture and the cult to JFK took root with Vietnam. Strangely enough, Kennedy decided to get involved in Vietnam because he felt that he has something to prove.

Following Dwight Eisenhower, a great war hero and national father figure, Kennedy felt that he needed to show that he was a worthy successor, a representative of a new generation of leadership.

Afraid of appearing weak and ineffectual, despairing of being disrespected by other world leaders, JFK decided that he had to make a display of manliness. He chose to do it in Vietnam.


Bizzy Brain said...

A lot of the cultural disintegration, like the banning of prayer in schools in the early 60's, happened while the earliest boomers were still teenagers. Also, the enormous welfare state was begun by Lyndon Johnson in the mid-60's. At that time the earliest boomers were not yet 20. How can they be held accountable?

Phil L. said...

Whoa! JFK got us into Vietnam to prove his manhood? What about the idea that he feared and absolutely detested communism and saw the war as a chance to thwart its advance?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Of course, the Boomers did not produce the Kennedy Johnson administration. Still they came of age in it and learned their values from the counterculture that it fostered. They then lived those values and transmitted them throughout the culture as they gained more power.

Sorry I was not very clear about the point.

As the other story goes, Kennedy made a mess at the Bay of Pigs and then was rolled by Khruschev in Vienna, to the point where the Russians thought that they could get away with putting missiles in Cuba.

As James Reston explained it later JFK was thinking that he needed to find a place where he could restore his reputation as a Cold Warrior. He told Reston that it would be Vietnam.

Keep in mind that Eisenhower and Dulles had demurred when they were asked to save the French at Dien Bien Phu.

David Foster said...

John Adams:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

A big part of our problem is that so many people have assumed they are beyond the level of studying war, commerce, agriculture, and industry and deserve to be practicing painting, music, poetry, etc, regardless of whether or not they have any talent for these fields or are willing to seriously work at them.

Dennis said...

One of the hardest points to make with musicians, artists, et al is convincing them that their success depends on the success of everyone else. One has to ultimately respect those who make one's success possible. They cannot exist without the audience! Even Mozart spent a lot of time in "bars" performing. The ultimate reality when one has to depend on the elites.

JP said...

In modern western civilization, the innovation waves, debt waves, and generational waves create what amount to four archetypical generations.

The boomers are the individualist/spiritualist generation. Classic spiritual "awakening".

What this means is that they are, as a generation, individualist and non-practical. This is caused, in part, by the over-the-top austerity of the prior GI generation.

The current generation, the Millenials, should be both collectivist and practical. They are growing up in a debt saturated era in the middle of an innovation wave bust.

That's just how the West rolls.

Soviet of Washington said...

Excellent summary, JP. The Strauss-Howe name for a Boomer-type generation is "Prophet", and that's a perfect descriptor.

The Boomers are really little different in character than previous Prophet generations (e.g. Missionary generation post-Civil War). The difference is that the post-War abundance and the 'acids of meritocracy' allowed them to go quite a bit further towards their awakening calling before hitting the reality wall. As the over-indulged children of the post-war high, they couldn't help it...it is their nature.