The Boomer Buster
Mike males is talking about his generation. They think they’re going to live forever, he’s complaining. They’re in unbelievable denial about their vulnerability. Look at the numbers: dying of drug overdoses in this state at more than twice the rate documented in 1990. Fastest-growing age group for felony and violent felony arrests in California. Biggest demographic for HIV and AIDS cases. One in three not just overweight but obese.
He sets aside the pile of papers he is grading in his apartment near UC Santa Cruz, where he teaches. The street below bustles with young people, but they’re not the issue--teenagers’ markers of trouble have been declining for decades.
“No one wants to hear it,” says Males, a gray-bearded sociologist whose latest project is a book tentatively titled “Boomergeddon,” “but we’re having a lot of problems with the middle-aged.”
Males has been talking this way for a long time, and he’s right on at least one count: The public hasn’t always been listening. Ten years ago, when news magazines and academics were warning that a generation of “super-predator,” “time bomb” adolescents were shooting up schools and risking their lives with unprotected sex and hard drugs, Males, then a graduate student at UC Irvine, fact-checked some of those assumptions and wrote “The Scapegoat Generation: America’s War on Adolescents” (Common Courage Press). The 1996 book, dense and jammed with statistics, was prescient in its examination of the ways in which adult interest groups had exaggerated the problems of young people while ignoring or minimizing comparable dysfunction among themselves.
The book made a splash, but adult crackdowns on kids continued. Males pressed his point with more books, including “Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation,” and “Kids & Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth.” Government statistics and other scholars confirmed his story: In measure after measure, problems among teens were declining, but problems among their baby-boom parents were another matter. Policymakers all but ignored the information.
So Males has decided it’s time for a full reassessment of boomers.
As it turns out, this time he’s not so alone.
For the past half century, the lives of the baby boomers have been coalescing into a shared legend: Once upon a time, a Generation was born.
Its members became wildly well-educated and turned “sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll” into a mass motto. Then they left all that behind to form a lot of blended, two-income, exceptionally health-conscious households. Then they became inordinately conscientious parents, rethinking whole aspects of child-rearing, but in a good way. Now they’re safely ensconced in midlife and expecting to live past 100, with no worries save for the ever higher cost of seeing the Rolling Stones.
Of course, serious people (boomers included) know that narrative to be silly and a far cry from the whole truth. But at the shallow mass level, it has more or less prevailed. Americans may carp about boomers--their self-absorption, their permissiveness, their obsessions with spirituality and fitness, their balsamic vinegar fetishes--but it has been a fond kind of carping. Headlines don’t warn of looming “boomer crises.” Cultural critics take it for granted that the Beatles were timeless and the Sixties were of profound importance. Policymakers don’t commission special reports on crime and substance abuse among middle-agers.
Part of this may be because boomers are by now too tired at the end of the day to watch “Law & Order,” let alone rob banks to support their drug habits. But part also may be because about 75.8 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964, and for some time now their views have dominated the culture. Boomers populate the media, fill the church pews, run the corporations, rule the market and, for the past two administrations, have sat in the Oval Office. As with all parties in power, they reign over conventional wisdom. Or, as a boomer might put it, they control the horizontal and the vertical.
But a critical mass of new thinking has been gathering in the past few years, and with the rise of the Internet and the maturing of younger voices, the tenets of the Boomer Nation are quietly getting a closer look. Social scientists such as Males are only part of the equation. One of the hottest fields for historians at the moment is the study of the 1960s not as the cradle of liberalism (as many boomers would have it) but as the start of an era that begat the Reagan Revolution and America’s red state/blue state divisions. In public health research, the symposia and medical journals recently have been devoted to drug addiction and AIDS among aging boomers. Critics are challenging boomer hegemony over what is and isn’t “classic” rock music. (Blender magazine in November published a list of the “500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born,” with an editor telling the New York Times that “the best music hasn’t just been made by dead guys.”)
Even the boomers’ signature creation--the idea of organizing the world into clearly defined “generations"--has been getting hammered. Some are arguing that the generation thing always has been a false construct, others that it may be true but it’s divisive and petty, still others that, for boomers, it has become a political liability. When Newsweek ran a cover story on the boomers’ beginning to turn 60, National Journal columnist William Powers complained that boomers had used the generational template to turn history into something exclusive, “like a gated community ... closed to anyone of the wrong birth year.”
Meanwhile, Brandeis University scholar Margaret Morganroth Gullette argued in her 2004 book “Aged by Culture” that people of all ages should stop hyping “generation wars” and “boomer bashing.” That sort of thing may seem innocent and humorous, she wrote, but actually it’s a divisive contrivance that has allowed right-wing interests to divert attention from the downsizing and outsourcing that is rendering massive numbers of middle-aged workers jobless. Talking about “boomers,” she says, is just a coded way to demean experienced workers and sap political anger from issues with real consequences for all workers, such as the future of Social Security and Medicare.
There is, too, a little matter of the way other generations view boomers.
“We hate you guys,” spewed one self-described Gen-Xer, after a boomer asked in the online magazine Salon what it was like to be young in late 2002.
“If I hear one more baby boomer start a sentence with, ‘One time, at Studio 54 ... I’m gonna hurt someone,” wrote another.
A third remembered imagining at age 9 that the 1989 craze over Batman movies might be the defining moment of his generation, only to have his father tell him that nothing would ever be as big as Beatlemania. (“I still think about that comment, years later,” he wrote. “Dad was very specific: What would be bigger than Beatlemania? Nothing.”)
Or how about this diss, in the online magazine Slate, when editor at large Jack Shafer wrote about signs that post-boomers had taken over the media:
“It’s such an icky boomer-like exercise, obsessing over your own demise,” sneered The Weekly Standard’s Matt Labash. “It’s understandable I suppose. By now, your health is failing and your prostate has grown to the size of a tangelo--especially considering how you abuse yours. But we don’t think that way. Not because we’re younger. But because we know the Rapture is coming soon.”
“There is a sense of frustration about how much the terms of any discussion--not only about the 1960s, but about today’s events as well--are set by the baby boomers because they’re so much more prominent and powerful than we are,” explains David Greenberg, a 37-year-old Rutgers University historian and author of “Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image,” a book examining Nixon’s image throughout his career. (In a recent Slate essay, he also criticized rock historians for giving short shrift to Bob Dylan’s post-'60s music.)
But the post-boomer smackdowns aren’t only coming from Gen-Xers. College students and teenagers--the boomers’ own children--are posing tough questions as well. Why, they ask, are they too young to vote but old enough to be tried as adults? What happened to the government subsidies that made college so affordable for their parents? Why are so many of them starting their adult lives crushed by debts the size of a second mortgage? (“Generation Debt: Why Now Is a Terrible Time To Be Young” is the upbeat title of one forthcoming book by Anya Kamenetz, a Village Voice columnist in her 20s.)
And by the way, why won’t the boomer-led media stop picking on them?
“Young people . . . are tired of being treated like second-class citizens in America,” declared the National Youth Rights Assn. in a news release posted on its website shortly before the 2000 election. “They are tired of facing oppression at the hand of adult American society. They are tired of unconstitutional age restrictions. They are tired of being stereotyped by the media as violent, lazy, stupid and apathetic.”
On a popular Myspace.com group devoted to Youth Power, a teenager told to respect elders summed it up with an unprintable epithet last summer:
"[Colorful expletive] elders!!!!!!!! Look at the world today.”
At 55, males represents yet another side of the post-boomer recalibration--the side that stems from that old boomer mandate to question authority.
A mild-looking man who speaks with the twang of his native Oklahoma and lives, literally, in a room on a roof overlooking the Santa Cruz boardwalk, he has a life story straight from the Woodstock Generation playbook: hitchhiked as a teenager to California, civil rights and antiwar protests in the late 1960s, college (in Males’ case, Occidental College). Long-term relationship with a woman, no marriage, no children. He was an advocate before he was an academic, working with kids in national parks through the Youth Conservation Corps, then in Montana as a crusading journalist and environmental lobbyist before earning his doctorate in social ecology at age 49 from UC Irvine.
His 80-year-old mother, Ruth Males, a former schoolteacher and paralegal in Oklahoma City, was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and arrested for demonstrating during the Vietnam War. His father, the Rev. Maurice B. Ogden, now of Dana Point, was a 1950s socialist who wrote the well-known allegorical poem “The Hangman.” Ogden, who left the family when Males was a baby and reunited with his son when Males came west for college, eventually became a Unitarian minister in Anaheim and an activist for the Sanctuary Movement that, in the 1980s, aided Central American war refugees.
Males had thought for years that “teenagers were so much more flexible and imaginative and humorous and easy to get along with than adults,” and that people of his generation were unfairly demonizing young people. “There are kids who really are abused and bullied, or abusers and bullies, but that might be 1%,” he says. “The rest is stuff that adults overreact to.”
As a doctoral student in the early 1990s, Males learned how easy it is to manufacture a youth “crisis.”
“Teen suicide had been the major issue in the 1980s--everybody was worried about it--and I was looking through California’s statistics, and there actually had been a decline. And I’d call experts and ask about it and they’d say, ‘Well, the reason suicide has gone up ... ‘
“Finally one organization that had noticed it asked me to come in and make a presentation, and they organized a conference. Well, four people signed up. There was just no interest. And that has been the progression since then. Naively, I believed the problem was just lack of information. But informing people was futile.”
So never mind, in other words, that the evidence shows middle-aged people to be more prone than ever before to violence, sexually transmitted disease, drug abuse, weight problems, whatever. Crime, he says, has continued to be viewed as “a young man’s game,” and AIDS as “a disease of young people,” and drug abuse as the scourge of teenagers, and weight issues as an epidemic of “childhood obesity.”
“Baby boomers are supposed to be the premier navel-gazers of our time, and yet when it comes to the big things, there’s this reaction against self-examination,” Males says. “Meanwhile, the attitude now seems so much angrier and more punitive: ‘We’re going to take money out of our schools, we’re going to elect anti-tax politicians, we’re going to institute government controls to manage kids instead of leaving it up to families, we’re going to be perfectly comfortable with the fact that kids are going to be massively in debt and far poorer than we were.
“Middle-agers now have the highest violent death rate of any age group. The typical drug addict today is a middle-aged white opiate addict. But the focus has stayed on teenagers and twenty-agers, who, by the way, at least have economic explanations--they’re poorer than ever, and poorer groups have higher rates of problems. But what’s the excuse for middle-agers? They’re the richest group in society.”
Not everyone, of course, wants to rewrite the book on boomers. Some think it’s dumb to generalize about 75.8 million individuals. And while teenagers do get a bad rap, young people are hardly home free. People in their 20s, for example, are still the largest demographic for crime, drug use and a host of other social ills, such as binge drinking.
As for problems such as drug addiction persisting among middle-agers, again, critics ask, is that so surprising? All sorts of things are happening later in life than they used to, thanks to women participating more in the workforce, better birth control and longer life spans. In a time of later marriages, later childbearing, later decisions about what is or is not the right career path, might it also be reasonable to expect, say, drug addicts to recover later as well?
Even some who agree with Males on broader points draw the line at his assertion that boomers are in “crisis.” Rising rates notwithstanding, the majority of middle-aged people aren’t, in fact, criminals or AIDS patients or drug addicts or morbidly obese. Most mental health studies show midlife in general to be a relatively placid time--the “happily ever after” stage for most people. To the extent that boomers do have real troubles, they’ve had their reasons, and even this situation now doesn’t come close to the apocalypse their elders once feared.
“The baby boom generation was at the leading edge for the post-World War II era,” notes Ronald C. Kessler, a Harvard University health-care policy professor. “Society became more global, massive numbers of people went to college and moved away from their families, many lived a thousand miles or more from the childhood friends and aunts and uncles with whom they grew up. That was different, and the baby boom is the first generation that went through that. ... When you look at how they’re doing, it’s much better than people had predicted 25 years before.”
“Mike seems to say at times that it’s the adults who have the problems, not kids. But obviously that’s only half right: Both have problems, and the problems are, of course, related,” says UC Irvine criminologist Elliott Currie, whose book, “The Road to Whatever: Middle-Class Culture and the Crisis of Adolescence,” Males slammed in a recent review. “The very real fact of a lot of adult dysfunction in America doesn’t mean that kids aren’t having troubles, too.”
Nonetheless, others now seem to be asking the same sorts of questions Males is asking, with results that appear to be aimed--finally--at policy.
In 2004, the National Institute on Drug Abuse issued a special report titled, “Drug Abuse in the 21st Century: What Problems Lie Ahead for the Baby Boomers?” A 2003 issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes was devoted to HIV and AIDS in middle-aged people, which, according to one study, quintupled during the 1990s.
Will it all add up to a new view of boomers?
Maybe, says Temple University historian David Farber, though “baby boomers aren’t at the forefront as much as they think” and already are fading as players in the larger sweep of history. But even in the small sweep, the post-boomer scholars say, the record should be set straight.
“This is more,” Males says, “than a bunch of superannuated, spandex-wearing, groovy old dudes irritating their kids.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Boomers vs. Post-Boomers: A Statistical Abstract
Number of Americans in millions born during the “baby boom” between 1946 and 1964: 75.8
Year President Bill Clinton was born: 1946
Year President George W. Bush was born: 1946
Year Cher was born: 1946
Percentage of boomers who feel younger than their age: 63
Mean age they say they feel: 40
Percentage of boomers who expect to make it beyond age 70 without serious health limitations: 79
Percentage of boomers who expect to make it beyond 80 without serious health limitations: 50
Life expectancy of a U.S. resident, in years: 77.6
Percentage of American adults who are overweight or obese: 64.5.
Percentage of boomers who think they have a weight problem: 53
Percentage of boomers who consider themselves to be in very good or excellent health: 58
Percentage of American children who are overweight or obese: 16
Largest single age group for people living with HIV and AIDS in the U.S.: 35 to 54
Largest single age group for new AIDS cases: 35 to 44
Drug overdose deaths among Californians over 40, per hundred thousand, in 1990: 8.6
Drug overdose deaths among Californians over 40, per hundred thousand, in 2003: 17.3
Percentage of those who had used drugs in the past year who were 35 and older in 1979: 11.9
Percentage of those who had used drugs in the past year who were 35 and older in 2004: 34.2
Percentage of felony arrestees in California in 2004 who were 40 and older: 22
Percentage of felony arrestees in California in 2004 who were teenagers: 19.9
Percentage of baby boomers who say it’s “not really” their responsibility to let an adult child move back home: 63
Percentage of baby boomers who say it’s “not really” their responsibility to save for their children’s inheritance: 70
Percentage of baby boomers who anticipate a comfortable retirement: 55
Ranking of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in Blender magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs Since You Were Born”: 1
Ranking of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” in Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”: 58
Ranking of “The End” by The Doors in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”: 328
Ranking of “The End” by The Doors in Blender’s “50 Worst Songs Ever”: 26
Number of successive decades in which Cher had a No. 1 hit on a Billboard chart: 5
-- Shawn Hubler
Information drawn from government and nongovernment sources, including RoperASW, AARP, Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control, American Obesity Assn., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gallup Poll, 2003 HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the California Criminal Justice Statistics Center, Pew Research Center, and Blender, Rolling Stone, and Billboard magazines.