Why the Boomers Are the Most Hated Generation

F. Scott Fitzgerald's flappers also grew up in a time of plenty, but they were allowed to age out of their sybaritic image. What makes the Boomers different?
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Concert-goers push a stalled VW bus in Missouri, 1974 (Wikimedia Commons)

Pity the baby boomers, blamed in their youth for every ill and excess of American society and now, in their dotage, for threatening to sink the economy and perhaps Western civilization itself.

The revival of The Great Gatsby serves as a reminder that continuing to blame boomers even in their old age was not a foregone conclusion. The young people of the 1920s were as controversial to their older contemporaries as their counterparts in the 1960s and 1970s. They were called flappers (less commonly "sheiks," in the case of men), or Bright Young Things in England. The cartoons of John Held, Jr. have memorialized their hair styles, bobbed for women, slicked back for men -- the Beatles cuts and Afros of their own time. But the gilded youth of that earlier age, having enjoyed bootleg liquor and cigarettes rather than stronger substances, were allowed to make a discreet transition to middle age and then little old lady and gentleman status without the medical clucking or cultural sneers of journalists. They vanished back into the multitude while the so-called Boomers seem destined to be hounded to death. Why?

One obvious contrast is that high-flying former young people suffered with their elders and their children in the Depression, and some of them were still young enough to serve alongside teenagers in the Second World War. But the turbulent 1970s were succeeded not by a new depression but by the Reagan-era boom of the 1980s, in which the Boomers metamorphosed into new folk heroes/villains, the Yuppies. Only the prosperous ones were noted as constituting a generation; the poor melted back into their communities.

There was a second difference. Age consciousness had been growing since the late nineteenth century but was still relatively rudimentary in the 1920s; "middle age," for example, had just been invented and was not fully part of the culture until Walter B. Pitkin's Life Begins at Forty (1933). But it was the postwar media world that created a distinctive youth mass market and thus began the definition of a generation by its popular music and amusements. In the nineteenth century, generations referred to cohorts who shared momentous political and military events that their younger siblings didn't: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the First World War. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a classic description of his own cohort in its historic framework:

We were born to power and intense nationalism. We did not have to stand up in a movie house and recite a child's pledge to the flag to be aware of it. We were told, individually and as a unit, that we were a race that could potentially lick ten others of any genus. This is not a nostalgic article for it has a point to make -- but we began life in post-Fauntleroy suits (often a sailor's uniform as a taunt to Spain). Jingo was the lingo. ...

That America passed away somewhere between 1910 and 1920; and the fact gives my generation its uniqueness -- we are at once prewar and postwar. We were well-grown in the tense Spring of 1917, but for the most part not married and settled. The peace found us almost intact--less than five percent of my college class were killed in the war, and the colleges had a high average compared to the country as a whole. Men of our age in Europe simply do not exist. I have looked for them often, but they are twenty-five years dead.

So we inherited two worlds -- the one of hope to which we had been bred; the one of disillusion which we had discovered early for ourselves. And that first world was growing as remote as another country, however close in time.

Third, there was a vast difference in the experience of world history.  Fitzgerald's generation -- at least the white upper middle class to which he belonged -- shared a unifying experience of expansionist patriotism and post-World War I disillusionment. Vietnam, on the other hand, divided the young as it did the rest of the country. In fact, as the political scientist Gordon L. Bowen has written:

Contrary to the myth, when Americans were asked whether they supported or opposed the war, the youngest set of Americans were uniformly more supportive of the war than were oldest set of Americans. Moreover, 20-somethings also were almost uniformly more likely to be supportive of the war than were 30 to 49 year olds.

Bowen also shows that throughout the war, college graduates were more likely to favor it than were people whose education stopped at elementary school. 

Finally, there is a fourth reason. Old age wasn't really officially defined in America until the Social Security Act set it at 65. The youth of the 1920s began to pay into the system and benefited in the 1960s and 1970s from pensions and Medicare thanks in part to the payments of young people entering the work force then. Now that they are reaching retirement age, they are a ripe target for demonization in the interest of "entitlement reform" as their grandparents never were. There are legitimate arguments about the financing and extent of Social Security and the level of contributions by wealthier people; I don't mean to dismiss such concerns. But Boomerphobia -- with no counterpart in Fitzgerald's time -- appears to have filled the media niche left by the political incorrectness of older stereotypes. If this collective scapegoat didn't exist, it would have to be invented.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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