The Myth of the Boomer Bogeyman

How often the youngsters use the Boomer—sometimes, BOOMER!—when airing their grievances. Maybe they’ve created a keyboard shortcut to spit out “Boomer” with two strokes instead of six. Shift-plus-something or other. Perhaps one of them can show this Boomer how to work this consarn machine.  

What you hear these days, and you hear it all the time, is that the Boomers are the root of all our ills. In January, when Neil Young demanded that Spotify defenestrate Joe Rogan or else lose the Young catalog, writer Declan Leary said Young made his announcement with “boomer sincerity.” Maybe there is a unique Boomer form of sincerity, and maybe Young has it, but one thing Young is not is a Boomer. He was born in 1945. Neil Young belongs to the so-called Silent Generation 

“Boomer” is now an epithet for anything one does not like about the 1960s. In other words, “Boomer” now has practically no meaning whatsoever, assuming it ever did. 

Creators and Consumers 

The real issue is the 1960s. Someone must get the blame for the ’60s! But it isn’t the Boomers. To be sure, the first wave of the Baby Boom were the first consumers of the 1960s. But they did not create the ’60s. Those ghastly people were almost all born in the Silent Generation era and even all the way back to the Lost Generation, another essentially meaningless term. 

In his otherwise masterful book, The Age of Entitlement, Christopher Caldwell argues that back in the Reagan ’80s, Boomers used resources taken from future generations to fund a “vision of an easy and indulgent lifestyle.” He says they outsourced labor and opened the door to massive immigration in order to make this easy life happen. But did Boomers play any part in that? 

I am a Boomer, and I voted for Reagan, but I have no memory of voting for him in order to impose my bills on future generations. I voted for him to kill the Soviet Union, which he did, to cut taxes, which he did, and to reduce the size of government, which he didn’t. Caldwell argues Reagan made an unspoken bargain that would save the Great Society entitlement programs in exchange for lower taxes and increased defense spending that drove up the deficit and the debt, and massively increased the size of the federal government.   

If the Boomers didn’t do this, then who did? Reagan’s commerce secretary, Malcolm Baldridge, was born in 1922. Donald Regan, then-secretary of the treasury, was born in 1918. The chairmen of Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers were born in 1927, 1939, and 1923, respectively. One Boomer was there, David Stockman. He was born in 1946, but he opposed what Reagan was doing.

Abbie Hoffman (David Fenton/Getty Images)

Helen Andrews wrote a whole book bashing Boomers. Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster argues that Boomers are “proud of what they did” and that their generation chalked up a number of successes. To whom did she turn? Three ’60s-era gasbags: Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and David Crosby. Hayden said, “We ended a war, toppled two presidents, and desegregated the South.” Crosby said, “We were right about the war. We were right about the environment. We were right about civil rights and women’s issues.” Hoffman said, “We were young. We were reckless, arrogant, silly, headstrong—and we are right.” 

The problem is that none of them—not Hoffman, Hayden, or Crosby—are Boomers. Hoffman was born in 1936, Crosby in 1941, and Hayden in 1939.  

This is one of the fundamental flaws in this whole anti-Boomer mythology. The social, political, and cultural markers of the 1960s—usually blamed on the Boomers—came from those born before 1946 and, in many cases, long before. 

Smut and the Sexual Revolution 

Consider pornography. Andrews argues Boomer complicity in the spread of the porn industry. Certainly, Boomers consumed porn—usually a Playboy found in their dad’s stash somewhere in the basement. More than likely their inadvertent supplier dads were of the Greatest Generation, as was Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who was born in 1926. Without a doubt, the Boomer kids liked what they saw. But they were consumers, not creators.  

Andrews cites the Fanny Hill case from 1966, where the Supreme Court decided a book could not be banned if it had any literary merit. This opened the door to much of the nastiness that came after. But Boomers played no part in this case. It was decided by two Supreme Court justices born in the late 19th century and three born in the early years of the 20th. The lawyer who brought the case was born in 1915, and the defendant was born in 1922. Not one of them were even remotely Boomers.  

Andrews partially blames Steve Jobs for spreading online pornography because he created a global tech brand, including the iPhone, where even kids can access hardcore porn. She does give Jobs credit for making Macs relatively child-friendly with more robust parental controls. She considers that to be anti-Boomerish, though. I don’t know why. But Jobs did not invent the Internet. Donald Davies, born in 1924, did that, along with Paul Baran, born in 1926. Free-streaming porn was created in the mid-aughts by a trio of Canadian GenXers inspired by YouTube, also founded by GenXers. No Boomers around here.  

Consider the sexual revolution. Perhaps the most significant disruptor of Western Civilization was the birth-control pill, first developed by Gregory Pincus (b. 1903), and synthesized by Carl Djerassi (b. 1923). Even the term “sexual revolution” was coined by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who was born in the 19th century. During the 1968 student riots in Paris and Berlin, students threw copies of his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism at the cops. Reich invented the Orgone Accumulator, later mocked by Woody Allen as the “Orgasmatron” in his movie “Sleeper,” wherein adherents sit inside and gather sexual energy. This was an utterly ’60s thing, but it was not a Boomer thing. Norman Mailer (b. 1923) sat in one. After Reich went to prison for his fraudulent claims about the Orgone Accumulator, Mailer built them in his garage. Saul Bellow (b. 1915) sat in one every day. 

Andrews says, “Boomers didn’t just shake up the nuclear family. They broke it.” Certainly, the war on marriage and family blossomed in the 1960s. But the kids born between 1946 and 1964 did not cause the breakdown of the family: they were its first victims. 

One of the most influential books that tore marriage asunder was The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, who was born way back in 1921. She convinced women—overeducated, bored, stuck in the suburbs without a car, the high point of their day hubby strolling through the door at 6:00 demanding his dinner—something was wrong. Friedan’s bestseller came out in 1963, when she was 42.  

Jessie Bernard was among the most influential anti-marriage writers of the time (now largely forgotten), whose work has been cited in hundreds of scholarly works. She was considered a pioneer in sociological research on marriage, which she argued was created by men to the detriment of women’s happiness. Bernard was born in 1903.  

Boomers didn’t even create no-fault divorce. Ronald Reagan, born in 1911, did that in 1969 as governor of California when the front edge of the Boom turned 22. This pernicious idea had swept through all 50 states within a few years, long before Boomers had any electoral or legislative influence. 

Popular Culture

There is this image of Boomers forever entranced by the popular culture they grew up with and forever foisting it upon everyone else. This is undoubtedly true. But it was a popular culture they largely did not create. None of the members of the Beatles were products of the Boom. Neither were any of the Rolling Stones. Hardly any of the performers at Woodstock were Boomers. Ditto for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Roger Daltrey, Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick, Paul Simon, Neil Young, and Steven Stills. 

What about movies? Among the most influential movies of the day were “Easy Rider” and “The Graduate.” These quintessential Boomer movies are arguably the movies that changed the focus of Hollywood to an obsession with young ticket-buyers. Well, “The Graduate” was written by Mike Nichols, born in 1931, and Buck Henry, born in 1930, based on a novel by Charles Webb, who was born in 1939. It starred Dustin Hoffman, who was born in 1937. Even ingenue Katharine Ross, who played Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, was born before the Boom in 1940. “Easy Rider” was the fourth-highest grossing movie of 1969 and is considered a Boomer classic. It was directed by Dennis Hopper, born in 1936, and starred Peter Fonda, born in 1940, and Jack Nicholson, born in 1937. 

One of the truisms endlessly repeated by Boomer critics is that the Boomers inherited a remarkable economy and then proceeded to ruin it. Helen Andrews claims that Millennials cannot buy houses because the Boomers hoard property and cash. And maybe this is true. But, as it happens, the Boomers said precisely the same thing about the Silent Generation. 

Writing in Terry Teachout’s 1990 book Beyond the Boom, conservative social critic Maggie Gallagher said she had “house lust.” Gallagher was miffed that young people could not afford houses because the earlier generation drove up prices in her then Brooklyn neighborhood. She said the Silents “came of age during the greatest continuous period of affluence in American history, got college educations, bought houses, could afford children and full-time mothers,” etc. In other words, arguments identical to Andrews’ complaints about Gallagher’s generation.  

Did the Boomers inherit a booming economy and then ruin it? Consider that the Boomers entered the workplace between 1964 and 1982. The unemployment rate in 1969 was 6.9 percent. In 1970, the federal government enacted the Emergency Employment Act, which instituted wage and price controls. There were repeated recessions. They even invented a new term—“stagflation”—for the combination of slow growth, high inflation, and high unemployment. Remember long gas lines where you could only buy gas on certain days? What about Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech?” Gas lines and malaise happened when the ’46ers turned 34, and the mid-Boom had just entered the workforce. The late Boom was still popping pimples.  

Betty Friedan (UPI/Bettmann via Getty Images)

And who exactly was running the economy when the Boomers were in college, in their 20s, and even their 30s? Who delivered this supposedly amazing economy that the Boomers were supposed to have ruined? Largely the “Greatest Generation.” In 1968, General Motors, Exxon Mobil, Ford Motor, General Electric, and Chrysler were the top-five companies. Boomers were nowhere near the C-Suites of those companies. Nixon’s team of economic advisers were all born between 1905 and 1927. Jimmy Carter’s economic advisers were born between 1907 and 1931. (OK, he had one youngster who was born in 1940.) 

Critics say Boomers forced women into the workplace. Yet it was Silent Generation feminists like Betty Friedan and Kate Millet, author of the landmark 1970 book Sexual Politics, who began the drumbeat for women to leave the home. Friedan was born in 1921, Millet in 1934. 

What’s more, women had already begun migrating to the workplace. That trend had been rising steadily since the front edge Boomers were toddlers. In 1948, 17 million women worked. That grew to 29 million in 1968, when the first Baby Boomers were just leaving their teens. Granted, Boomers did nothing to stop the trajectory. If anything, they leaned into it. But they were only following the lead set by their parents and grandparents. 

And what about politics? The Boomers are said to have been a revolutionary generation. Certainly, they provided the ground troops for much that happened on college campuses from 1968 to 1972. Understand, though, that the ’46ers entered college in 1964, which were then still fairly conservative. That was the year Goldwater ran against Johnson. And who were the political heroes of the New Left? There was the aforementioned Tom Hayden, who drafted the highly influential “Port Huron Statement.” There was Mario Savio, leader of the Free Speech Movement, founded at Berkeley because the administration would not allow on-campus political activity. He was born in 1942. 

Not one of the Chicago Seven were born in the Boom. One of them, David Dellinger, was born in 1915 

Certainly, leftist young people helped take over the Democratic Party in 1972, and it has only become crazier since that time. But remember, Richard Nixon, that great devil, won 52 percent of the youth vote in 1972. 

Absurd and Lazy 

And this leads us to a central fallacy of those who would paint the Boom with one brush. The collapse of American society doesn’t have a single cause, much less an epicenter. Sure, many from the Boom marched against the war in Vietnam (though they stopped when Nixon ended the draft), but the Boom happily marched off to Vietnam, too. What’s more, the war in Vietnam had majority support across all age groups for almost all of the war.

This naming of generations is absurd and lazy. It seems to have started with Gertrude Stein’s off-hand quip to Hemingway about his “génération perdue.” Next came the Greatest Generation, a moniker coined by—good grief!—TV newsman Tom Brokaw. Then came the Silent Generation, which Time may or may not have coined in 1951. 

There was a vast difference between the early, mid, and late Boom. I was born in mid-Boom, and I have never had much in common with those born 10 years before. Oh, sure: those of us in mid-Boom were envious of the college kids. In 1972, when Nixon began to bomb the supply lines from North Vietnam, my sophomore class in high school wore black armbands—along with the cool, 20-something Boomer teachers. In college, a few years later, we marched against the Shah of Iran. Ever heard of SAVAK? Look them up 

But the proposition that there is any meaningful commonality among those born in the 18 years from 1946 to 1964 is ludicrous. It is to believe my socially conservative Catholic wife, born in 1964, has anything in common with Rolling Stone founder, Jann Wenner, born in 1946. It is a proposition of marketers.  

Jonathan Pontell recognized this essential Boomer dichotomy when he postulated “Generation Jones” for those born after 1954. These Jonesers missed the Vietnam War and much else so closely identified with the ’60s Boomers. Pontell said that Generation Jones fills “the space between Woodstock and Lollapalooza, between ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’ and ‘Just Say No,’ and between Dylan going electric and Nirvana going unplugged.” Generation Jones never caught on, but the distinctions Pontell makes are pretty correct. You might say it is the difference between the demographic and what marketers call the “psychographic.” And this gets back to whether you accept all the ’60s nonsense.  

Undoubtedly, something happened in the 1960s. Without a doubt, a considerable cohort of the Baby Boom joined up with the craziness. But then, so has some portion of every successive generation. The Sexual Revolution wasn’t cooked up by kids born in 1946. They liked it; they joined it; even in retirement, if reports are accurate, the Sexual Revolution rolls on for front-edge Boomers. But it was not their idea. Rock was not their idea. Heck, folk music was not their idea. Radical feminism was not their idea. They were the first enthusiastic consumers of it all, but they did not invent any of it. 

I hate to put it this way, but we were the first victims. We were Patient Zero.  

As one social critic noted, the vital thing to understand about the 1960s is this: It wasn’t the age of Mick Jagger, Abbie Hoffman, and Neil Young. He says it is not relevant that the ’60s came from the Silent or even the Greatest Generation. What’s relevant is that cultural transmission changed from vertical transmission (father to son) to horizontal transmission: sibling to sibling, Boomer to Boomer. Given that most of the cultural change visited upon the 1960s first came from Silents, maybe a better way to put it is that cultural transmission came from older brother to younger brother, from cool uncle to eager nephew. All of this could very well be true.  

Even so, folks should ease off the keyboard shortcut blaming everything on the Boomer Bogeyman. He is a mythical creature. 

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