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.
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.