Booming On

If you can stand the narcissism, it's instructive to watch Baby Boomers grow old through the media.

At first glance, Newsweek's current cover story is a triple nightmare. First, it's a trend piece—one of those belches of zeitgeist miasma the national media emit, oh, about every five seconds. Second, this one is about the oldest, most tiresome trend of all, the Baby Boom Generation. "Ready or Not, Boomers Turn 60," says the headline.

Finally is the cover itself, illustrated with the most ghoulish collage of celebrity mug shots ever assembled. We're talking Barry Manilow and Suzanne Somers ... Sylvester Stallone and Cher ... Donald Trump and Liza Minnelli ... Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The longer you stare at it, the more horrors you notice. I just looked again and saw the inscrutable grin of Pat Sajak and, inches away, the all-too-scrutable bosom of Dolly Parton.

A massive generation of strivers grows up in the most powerful nation on Earth, and, lo, it produces—Pat Sajak?

But this story, and all the other Boomers-at-60 coverage that will surely follow, has an upside. If you can stand the narcissism, it's actually fun and instructive to watch the Baby Boomers grow old through the media. Some of their claims to greatness may be overstated, but the one thing you have to admit about Boomers is that they revolutionized the media.

For one thing, the Baby Boom gave us the generational paradigm. Previously, journalists and historians organized history into ages: the Age of Enlightenment, the Gilded Age, the Jazz Age, etc. The nice thing about ages is, they were inclusive: Everyone alive during a given age implicitly shared the experience of the period, even if they were just observers.

Baby Boomers threw out that paradigm and introduced the generational one, which is inherently exclusive. A generation is like a gated community within a given era, closed to anyone of the wrong birth year. The Newsweek piece puts it more gently, noting that Baby Boomers "invented ... the very idea of youth as a separate realm of experience and knowledge." They were always Talkin' Bout My Generation, with the emphasis on my.

When Boomers were young, old people were anathema. And as they've grown older, they have defined "old age" upward, so it's always older than they are. Thus, 60 is the new 30, and if plastic-surgery trends continue, 70 will be the new 20. Boomers are growing old backwards, returning relentlessly to the themes of adolescence. Is it just me, or did the excerpt from Maureen Dowd's new book on sexual politics that ran recently in The New York Times Magazine read uncannily like the lyrics from the old Janice Ian anthem, "At Seventeen"? I learned the truth at fifty-three, that love was meant for beauty queens.

In one poll, Baby Boomers defined old age as "starting three years after the average American was dead," Newsweek says. In other words, as the pollster notes, "Baby Boomers literally think they're going to die before they get old."

Through the big establishment media outlets, which they now run, Baby Boomers have imposed the generational template on every other age group, dividing the public into the neat demographic slices that marketers and advertisers love. The Boomers' parents became the Greatest Generation, while their offspring are Generations X and Y.

The poor kids didn't even get the chance to define their own generation—the media did it for them. Funny thing, too: In the ceaseless coverage of generational trends, the Baby Boomers' progeny always have a '60s-ish rebellious streak, as if their parents were trying to configure them in their own image. In a story this week about Generation Y, USA Today reported: "They're young, smart, brash. They may wear flip-flops to the office or listen to iPods at their desk. They want to work, but they don't want work to be their life."

In fact, the media give us the whole world through the particular lens of the Baby Boom Generation. No sooner had the Iraq war started than Vietnam comparisons started sprouting everywhere. As Iraq has dragged on, the analogy has seemed more apt, but the point is that they made it at all. The past—their past—consistently frames the present.

This is particularly true in pop culture, where '60s performers are still revered in a way that aged stars have never been before. The Newsweek issue includes a foldout multiple-choice test of "Boomer Knowledge" with such questions as, "What was the name of Milton Berle's first television show?" It's bookended by four full pages of ads from Fidelity Investments, featuring their new pitchman, Paul McCartney.

The enduring popularity of the Beatles, the Stones, and all the other Baby Boom icons, 40 years after their glory decade, is roughly equivalent to a pop star of the 1920s—say, Bessie Smith—still reigning supreme in the 1960s. This is generational hegemony never seen before.

The best part of the Newsweek package is a dark, hilarious essay by Albert Brooks, who confesses he's "embarrassed to be part of this generation." Why? Because they sold out. Because Bob Dylan let Kaiser Permanente use "The Times They Are A-Changin' " in its ads. And because plastic surgery is making Baby Boomers look like alien life forms.

In other words, Brooks is the skunk at the birthday party. And since they let him in, I believe there's still hope for this lost generation.