Monday, May 13, 2013

Boomers Go Bust

In the wake of World War II, the United States stood intact amidst countries leveled and exhausted by conflict and was thus in a position to dictate the terms of the new international economic order. From this position of strength, the USA relieved the British of their global empire, set the US dollar as the world's reserve currency, and established a flow of imperial tribute from the global economic periphery to the new center of imperial gravity while demurring at the prospect of actually calling ourselves an empire.  Our soldiers returned home to a booming industrial economy that was hungry for workers.  Jobs were plentiful, as were houses in the new suburbs for qualified GIs.  The corporations feared underproduction, and the government feared discontent among veterans who might organize and agitate, and so advertisers convinced workers to define themselves and express their individuality through their purchases.  Their patterns of consumption became their identity.  The rights and privileges of citizens devolved into the rights and privileges of consumers.

The architects of suburbia laid out the new subdivisions without public spaces and with houses designed to direct the family's attention to the backyard rather than to the street.  Fossil fuels were practically free, and a new interstate highway system and prosperous workers elevated the car, that was a necessary component of suburban living, to an exalted position in the pantheon of consumer goods.  Jim Kunstler's Age of Happy Motoring commenced.

The children of this jubilant period, the Baby Boomers, were the ultimate repository of the aspirations of this triumphant culture, and their parents, the self-identified Greatest Generation, told their children that they were the heirs to the kingdom of heaven made manifest on earth.  They could have anything, do anything, and surpass God's angels as the ultimate manifestation of His vision.  The Boomers' parents told him that if they played by the rules, embraced their own self-aggrandizing mythology and worked hard, that they could enjoy unprecedented educational opportunities, careers, prosperity and abundance.  And so it was.  For a time.

In that period in which the Baby Boomers self-congratulatory narrative was taking shape, the United States was the world's biggest oil exporter.  By the time I was born in 1968, domestic oil production was reaching its peak.  I was a child when the second OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s created fuel shortages.  TV news reports focused on the long lines and short tempers at gas stations.  The embargo was short-lived, and the bonanza soon resumed, and by the time I started driving in 1984, gas still cost less than a dollar a gallon.  My father continued to repeat the core tenet of the Boomer belief system, that every generation in America does better than their parents.

Douglas Copeland published his novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture in 1991, when the Boomer belief system remained unassailable.  The explanation for the fact that the Boomers' children did not seem to be on track to exceed their parents in achievement and material abundance was a story of how the Gen Xers were cynical, psychologically detached and more interested in sabotaging the American dream with their hip irony than in joining the workforce and embracing their American birthright.  The problem had nothing to do with the decline of an economy based on manufacturing or with the rise of the new financialized economic order that didn't need nearly as many workers as before.  The problem was clearly with young people who could have lived even larger than their Baby Boomer parents if only they would shrug off their unjustified malaise and get with the program.  According to this narrative, the Gen Xers' obscure media obsessions and their rejection of the supposedly bourgeois values of their parents was just a smokescreen for laziness.  

Richard Linklater's 1991 film "Slacker" sealed the deal and indelibly affixed the suffix "slacker" to my generation.  Just speak the words "Gen X slacker" aloud.  Notice how easily they roll off the tongue.  As easy as it is to say, the "Gen X slacker" meme slotted into the Baby Boomer's worldview just as effortlessly as it spilled out of their mouths.

The Greatest Generation propelled the USA on its path to global dominance with their hard work and belt-tightening at home and with their courage and self-sacrifice in the theaters of war.  Or so goes their self-serving narrative.  Louis Menand, writing about Timothy Leary for the New Yorker, offers a different take.

Leary belonged to what we reverently refer to as the Greatest Generation, that cohort of Americans who eluded most of the deprivations of the Depression, grew fat in the affluence of the postwar years, and then preached hedonism and truancy to the baby-boom generation, which has taken the blame ever since. Great Ones, we salute you!

The Baby Boomers enjoyed an unprecedented starting position, and they did their part to fulfill the glorious destiny that their parents’ heroism made possible.  Then along came Generation X, and in a self-indulgent fit of unjustified cynicism, the slackers sabotaged the whole glorious enterprise with their obstinate refusal to get with the program.

This scapegoating of Generation X is a narrative you probably haven't heard repeated any time recently, but if you are a Boomer you surely did not encounter the phrase "Gen X slacker" for the first time here on this blog.  You may not have heard it or read it (much less, said it) since the fall of 2008, but reading it now surely activates long dormant mental circuits as when hearing an advertising jingle from yesteryear.  "Plop plop.  Fizz fizz.  Oh what a relief it is.  Fast.  Fast.  Fast."

Now that the grand scale malfeasance of a financialized economy is a fait accompli and the speculative bubbles that seduced homeowners into liquidating the accumulated equity in their homes have effected a massive transfer of wealth to the rentier class, and the Boomers feel the walls of the shrinking middle class closing in on them, the Gen X slacker meme no longer fits the current narrative.  Consequently it has fallen into disuse.

The Boomers may have conveniently forgotten how regularly they once used that detestable phrase or how fully they embraced it as a label that identified something real, but for most of my 20s and well into my 30s, the mainstream narrative of the echo chamber corporate media and the dinner table conversations that it informed treated the concept of the Gen X slacker as if it had real explanatory and predictive power.  The Boomers may have forgotten their behavior from this period, but we Gen X slackers remember.  Now that the glorious destiny of the Baby Boomers lies in ruins and Boomers have eclipsed depressed teenagers and the elderly as the group most likely to commit suicide, it is tempting, though certainly not helpful or praiseworthy, to enjoy a moment of schadenfreude as the Boomers wallow in their incomprehension, disbelief and despair.

If you are a member of Generation X or some later generation and grew up in the confining shadows of the most annoyingly smug, self-important, pampered and flattered demographic phenomenon in living memory, a group that has insisted that they did everything right and now that things are visibly falling apart that it must be because young people are too lazy or self-absorbed to take on the roles of responsible working adults (no, the Boomers don't see the irony in their accusing anyone of putting selfish obsessions above the good of one's community, nation or civilization)… Well, if you want to take a moment and enjoy their wailing and gnashing of teeth, go ahead.  We have work to do, but if you don't think that you have taken ample time to gloat, snort and savor their lamentation, then a nagging sense of a missed opportunity might distract you from the task ahead.  That task will require your full attention and focus, so if you want to just pause here and take satisfaction in the Boomers' moment of manifest failure and ignominy, that's okay.

I won't even say, "I'll wait," because I cannot claim that I've yet had my fill and that I'm over it.  I will be gloating right along with you for as long as you care to linger in this moment of anti-bodhisattvahood.

[Insert timeless moment for gloating]

Okay.  Done?  Good.  Me too.

Now, let's build up a little compassion before we continue, because we are going to be a lot more useful to our communities and to our civilization if we are working in a spirit of compassion and empathy than if we move forward with a gale force ideological wind filling our egoic sails with righteous indignation.  What's more, forgiving the Baby Boomers and welcoming them into the ranks of conscious revolutionaries will be good practice for forgiving and learning to work with the 1%.  We cannot build lasting prosperity, effect ecological restoration and navigate the challenges of increasingly disruptive technological development while simultaneously fighting a war against our oligarchs.  I certainly don't want to leave a world to my children that is the product of a global revolution in consciousness born of savagery and vengeance.

As annoyed as you may have felt at Boomers who thought that their own choices and actions created the unprecedented prosperity that they enjoyed from birth, right up to the moment when they had the rug pulled out from under them at the end of their careers, you probably never wanted to parade them through the streets, march them up onto a platform and end their lives in a public spectacle of brutal revenge entertainment.  But, if you don't occasionally thirst for the blood of the 1%, the people who robbed the rest of us with debt, presided over the dismantling of the industrial economy, confiscated that portion of the Imperial tribute gravy train that used to go to the middle class, and used the occasion of global crisis to justify a massive transfer of wealth to their own strata and simply assumed that the rest of us would just reconcile ourselves to the new normal and continue to feed on the false hope of winning the lottery or somehow becoming famous, then you are a more spiritually advanced being than I am, and I salute you.  We will need more like you if we are going to make it through the coming transition with our souls intact.

For the time being, just know that the Boomers were, for the most part, either doing what their parents told them was the right thing to do or trying to correct the moral and intellectual failings of their parents and mostly failing themselves but in new and spectacularly creative ways. If we can learn from the mistakes of previous generations, the Boomers have much to teach us.


Phil in Freeport said...

So I'm a boomer and a doomer, let's shorten that to B&D. I listen to an obscure podcast called the c-realm and on that podcast not too long ago was a guest named Guy Mcpherson. Guy pointed to 9 self re-enforcing feedback loops that all point to near term extinction. We as a species are like a relatively healthy patient who has been told by his doctors that he has stage 4 metastasized cancer. "But Doc, I feel pretty good, not as much energy as I used to have, but overall not too bad." And the doctor shakes his head, points to the images, the charts, the test results and says "the evidence is overwhelming. You are in the miracle zone. There's nothing I can do for you. Chemo won't help. Radiation won't help. I suggest you arrange your affairs and enjoy what time you have left."
That is an accurate metaphor for where we are as a people. We can engage in inner-generational sniping and gloating but that won't change our collective diagnosis.
Now maybe some of the nine feedback processes won't develop in the direction they are heading. Ma Nature may well have a few more tricks up her sleeve. If you must engage in the sport of schaden freude, save it for the 1%. They still believe that there is such a thing as wealth. They still believe that pieces of paper covered with contrasting symbols actually represent rights and privileges to food, clothing, water and shelter. They still believe their computer screens with digitized numbers "Holy crap! Will you look at that! I've go a bank account with 3 (count 'em) 3 commas!"
Enjoy the day. Be kind to small animals. Tip generously and give some love away.

Prester Scott said...

You don't go this far, but this is a pet peeve of mine: can we make a conscious effort not to use the term "the 1%" to mean "any group in society we perceive as being 'the haves' relative to ourselves"?

Sure, Boomers collectively (and looking at people collectively only goes so far) have been particularly prosperous and been irresponsible with that prosperity. They are not the 1% any more than the wannabe Bolsheviks squatting in the park are the 99%, either literally-numerically or metaphorically. Everyone who embraces middle class beliefs about what success is and how to achieve it, regardless how much money he actually has, is equally trapped in the Matrix. The real 1% are the super-wealthy and super-powerful; the types who show up in Davos (and who don't); who count currency in how many corporations, media outlets, political parties, or nations, in their portfolios. Examples are George Soros and Al Waleed Bin Talal. I don't see how it is possible to revolt against them, since you can't do anything, buy anything, support any politics, without placing yourself in the camp of one or more of them.

Further, we have to admit that there is a certain rightness to this state of affairs, for generally men need and want to be ruled, so there must be men to rule them. If you knock down one of them, then another will arise to take his place. Yet the rulers too are but men, and therefore they too are bound to the very system over which they have so much command, as well as to their human weaknesses.

Thus, calls to eat the rich are understandable, but unproductive. We are all in this mess together, and because the only person over whom you have control is you, the only way to start to change the world is to change yourself, such as by learning to have compassion on your enemies.

Anonymous said...

Nice essay, KMO, and on target. I do have a quibble with the whole definition of "Gen X." As you say, Douglas Coupland coined the term in his book, which, as you say, came out in 1991. Ah, but a thinly-disguised Coupland was the main character, the main Gen-Xer. And he was born in 1961.

Somehow, the definition which generation of people shifted from Coupland's "boomer born after the peak of the boom in about '57" to "people born after the boom (which ended in '63 or '64)". His point in the novel was that the first boomers got all the goodies, and once these were gone, there were precious few goodies to leave to the later arrivals.

Then again, no where in the book do the fates of post-boomer generations figure prominently, so including those born (as yourself) in '68 might work well as those suffering under the same circumstance. After all, those early boomers are still in the way of the even younger.

Karl K said...

Just imagine how those of us "contrarian boomers" feel after watching what has unfolded. MANY of us read about the Nearings, latched onto the Rodale's work in organics, read Homepower, Mother Earth News, were heartened by Stewart Brand, and tried our best to awaken others. But, we were steamrolled by most of our brethren. Very, very, frustrating.

Phil in Freeport said...

Hey Karl K,
Ditto. I got to go up to Harborside and have a dinner and conversation with the Nearings back in the 70s. How's your garden doing this spring?

staticwarp said...

great post, kmo. I really enjoy your writing style. your essay leaves me wondering two things:

1: who are the 1%? i know, i know, there have been plenty of articles written about this, I've even read a few. but as much as i enjoy the characterization of a faceless class of evil overlords, i can't help but wonder who they really are. more importantly, why doesn't anyone really have a solid grip on who they are? we know who the boomers are, the generations x slackers, the middle class, the poor, there are so many group-label memes that evoke an image of a specific set of people. i'm sure i'm not alone when the only thing i can think of when i hear "the 1%" is an empty, though extremely expensive, suit and tie. I think it would be worth exploring who these people are, not in a literal sense by naming names and giving snippets of biographical or portfolio information, but to explore who they are as a socioeconomic cultural group. this might help put a face on an otherwise nebulous concept which allows this group to be blamed for just about anything, in the same way that the right blames latinos for white joblessness (et al)and the left blames "the right" for pretty much everything.

2: who came after generation x? the whole generation Y thing never really caught on as a meme, and I don't think I've read or heard anyone attempt to define the generations born in the early 80s, of which i am a part. if anything, this generation seems to defy categorization more than ever, with subcultures spawning sub-subcultures which mate with others to become sub-sub-subcultures at an ever increasing rate. who are the american kids who were given ritalin, then adderall, then antidepressants, and ultimately became the most medicated group of minors in industrial society? the cutting, rapping, headbanging, graffiti writing, skateboarding, cheerleading, football playing, bipolar, manic depressive, school shooting, cough medicine addicted, computer using aimless kids who grew up to find themselves in school for a useless career with more debt than their parents owed on their house, many of whom eventually found themselves "occupying" some space or another in the fall of 2011, or dying in one of the gulf wars or afghanistan? the kids whose parents were up to their ears in credit card debt and thought it was normal? the ones who were born into a culture that saw debt as a normal fact of life, used for everything from transportation to college to meals? it seems that this generation has been hard to pin down into any tidy label. either that or no one has cared to make the attempt.I'd be interested to know if anyone has seen this addressed anywhere but specialized research journals and tabloid books.