A review of “Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster,” by Helen Andrews (Sentinel/Penguin Random House, 256 pages, $27)

The Baby Boomers’ Dismal Legacy

There is no generation about which so much has been said, written, filmed, and sung as the Baby Boomers; most of it by the Boomers themselves who have, from their youth, been absolutely enthralled with . . . themselves

Helen Andrews’ new book, Boomers, is a welcome corrective to the steady stream of hagiographic literature produced since the first Boomers picked up a pencil, a camera, and a guitar. It is at once beautifully written, incisive, entertaining, maddening, and flabbergasting. As she writes in the book’s introduction: “they tried to liberate us, and instead they left behind chaos.” I would add that Janis Joplin (of the Silent Generation) predicted this when she sang that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. But the Boomers weren’t listening.

Penguin Random House

If you want to understand the Baby Boom generation you might start with this epigram: Extremism in the defense of vice is our liberty. I don’t think anyone ever put it quite that way, but it could be a Boomer slogan. And it’s part of unlocking the secrets to their generation and to many of the problems they have inflicted on America. Never has any generation in this country—or perhaps any other—so monopolized every aspect of society, for so long, and for such selfish ends while congratulating each other on their selfless righteousness.

Tear apart the family, the churches, the charities, the schools, and everything else in your path; encourage mass drug use, promiscuous sex, and spend, spend, spend-materialism; even saddle your kids and grandkids with tens of trillions of dollars of debt to make sure you can keep the party going “Big Chill”-style, until the very last Boomers depart for the Strawberry fields where it’s always 1967. 

Until the past few years, not many people noticed what the Boomers were doing. It’s no surprise—they started their victory tour, celebrating themselves while they were in college in the 1960s, and haven’t stopped since. It’s only now that many of them are in their 70s that space has opened for a reassessment.

If you want to really understand the full Boomer cycle (and I suggest you do, because their long ascendancy is a big part of the story of America from about 1960 until, well, right now), there are three books you need to read—the holy trilogy of Boomer pathologies. They are The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, written by Tom Wolfe in 1968, The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch published in 1979, and the Götterdämmerung of this cycle, Andrews’ Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, published in January.

Boomers is an astounding book. Modeled on Eminent Victorians, Lytton Strachey’s sharp 1918 reassessment of the British generation that dominated the 19th and very early 20th centuries, Andrews examines six high-profile members of the Baby Boom generation: Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor. Each represents an element of the essential Boomer character. None of them are natural villains. Rather, each is hobbled by a fatal flaw that leaves him permanently stunted. 

The one possible exception is Jobs. When compared to the others, Jobs seems like a man out of time: in some ways, the Apple co-founder is the essential Boomer. But while he shared—and in some ways defined—the Boomer aesthetic, his soul belonged to another generation. He did, after all, insist that the Apple MacIntosh be manufactured in the United States. It was Tim Cook who later shifted manufacturing to China. And Jobs kept porn out of the App Store. “We believe we have a moral responsibility to keep porn off the iPhone” Jobs said in 2010. “Jobs had some very un-Boomerish views,” Andrews observes.

Every profile in the book is fascinating and Andrews is in her element. Her penetrating gaze leaves the subjects of these character portraits naked and vulnerable, but her elegant writing and humane style turn what could be acid takedowns of caricatures into the human, all too human, failures of the “Me” generation. 

Where Tom Wolfe described the Boomers in their rebellious, countercultural, drug-addled youth, Christopher Lasch picked up the thread as they were starting families, advancing in their careers, making some money, and taking over the institutions they had rebelled against just a few years before. But don’t worry—they didn’t sell out. No, not the Boomers. They put a deadhead sticker on their Cadillacs. And they parked the Caddy in front of a nice house in the suburbs that steadily rose in value. 

But the Boomers were the last generation that could support a middle-class family on one income. And that house they’re living in that has appreciated so nicely over the years? It’s become so expensive that their kids, the Millennials, can’t afford to buy one—let alone have kids. In fact, the Boomers had about four times the wealth the Millennials currently have as they enter their 40s.

Throughout the book, Andrews paints a picture not just of unrelenting narcissism, but of radical, lifelong immaturity. Her profile of Aaron Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing,” was striking in this regard. But the chapter on Camille Paglia is particularly jarring, mostly because it seems to hit dead center and lay her bare. She describes Paglia’s decadence as “a mauve decadence: corrupt but nonthreatening.” And her mimetic, yet one-sided, rivalry with Susan Sontag exposed a petty side to Paglia that diminishes her cultivated reputation for brassy independence.

Throughout the book, Andrews exposes these small, but revealing, tidbits about her subjects and in so doing holds a mirror up to them and to the America they created. One example is a quote she includes from Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe’s memo to Barack Obama (a former student) advising against nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court: “Bluntly put,” he told the president, “she’s not nearly as smart as she seems to think she is.”

This book is wonderful in many ways—I’ve already given it to a few friends—but there is also a melancholy undercurrent that runs throughout the story. Part of it is seeing so much potential wasted on performative narcissism. It can perhaps be tolerated in youth, but only just. Yet witnessing, through these profiles, a lifetime devoted to it is both contemptible and dispiriting. 

In the end, the Boomers didn’t build anything. As Andrews points out, Boomers claim credit for the civil rights movement, but that would require them to have been riding freedom buses and sitting in at lunch counters before most of them hit puberty. It was the generations that came before them that did the work. Instead, they just tore down everything they were born into in a lifelong tantrum that they justified as idealism. And now everyone else is left with the consequences.

Tom Wolfe wrote a fitting epitaph for the Boomers in 1968. The scene he describes in which the young woman known as “Stark Naked,” liberated by drugs and promiscuous sex from the square society of husbands and wives, parents and children, is left literally naked, broken, and screaming on Larry McMurtry’s front lawn as her former compatriots—I won’t say “friends”—on Ken Kesey’s magic bus drive on down the road without her could apply to the Baby Boom generation as they, too, are left behind: “Stark Naked had done her thing. She roared off into the void and was picked up by the cops by and by, and the doors closed in the County psychiatric ward, and that was that, for the Pranksters were long gone.”

Ultimately, Andrews concludes that “the Boomers leave behind a dismal legacy. In all the fields touched by the six Boomers profiled here—technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics, law—what they passed on to their children was worse than what they inherited. In some cases, as with Steve Jobs and his products or Camille Paglia and her books, they left behind accomplishments that are impressive and worthy of gratitude. But the overall effect of the Boomer generation has still been essentially destructive.”

Her judgment is brutal, but it is just.

Photo: Marlon Correa/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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