Universal Translator

Saturday, November 12, 2011

America and the Baby Boomers

November is a wonderful time to be living on the southeastern coast of North Carolina and – if I squint just right – I can see that I am lucky to be living where I am right now.

My home suffered some major damage when Hurricane Irene came ashore a few months ago and, since then, the dogs and I have been living in my parents’ former home on the mainland.  This house is slowly being renovated and, while that is going on, they themselves are living in a smallish condo in the next town over.  So, for now, the dogs and I are in a fairly large place that squats right on the Intracoastal.

The house’s living area is found on the second and third floors, so there is sufficient height to look out over the Intracoastal across the marsh islands and beyond to where the inlet empties into the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the island where my own place is.  On cool but sunny November mornings like today’s you can watch the rising sun light up the mirror-like water and see flocks of geese glide by.  From time to time pods of dolphin break the water’s surface, and pleasure boats heading south for the winter glide past the large bay windows.  It is extremely beautiful and very peaceful.

I woke up early this morning and took the dogs for their walk, and then spent the first few hours curled up in a chair surfing the web, sipping coffee and watching the sun rise.  One of the nice things about this time of year is that you don’t feel guilty for being lazy, hanging around in sweatpants and a sleeping shirt and luxuriously doing nothing.  During the heat of summer there is always a niggling thought in the back of one’s head that the sun is up, the beach is beckoning, and it is past time to get a move on already.  But in the coolness of fall there is nothing like that.  Life slows down a bit and the days just unspool by themselves.

So whilst enjoying my coffee and letting the day unspool, I decided to put some music on.  I had a playlist in mind, but when I turned on the iPod I found it already cued up for America’s Greatest HitsAmerica is something of a guilty pleasure for me.  I know they’re not hip or cool, but when the mood is right I enjoy listening to these old songs.  So I went with it, hit play, and settled back in my chair.

And as it turned out, this wasn’t a bad choice.  All these old pop songs from the early and mid-70s are well-known clichés, and comforting for that fact alone.  And for me . . . well, these were the songs that were hits when I was a very, very young child – less than 10 – and in my memory they are part of the soundtrack of The Summers of My Childhood.  When these songs pop up I start having flashbacks to the camping park by the water where I spent summers, where I started exploring the wonderful mystery that is the World of Girls, and where I first came to grips with the idea of mortality.

(Oh yeah . . . I remember exactly where I was and how I learned for the first time that everybody dies, and exactly what it is death means.  I remember thinking very hard about how I should deal with this knowledge, and I still remember the solution that I came up with that day.)

And while sitting in my chair, borne back on a pleasant sea of nostalgia and reflecting on all this, I started thinking about what it was like in our country when America was recording these songs and what it was we all thought the future promised for us back then.  That reminded me of a favorite theory that I’ve had about the Baby Boomers and recent American history, which I thought I’d share here.

* * *

My theory – and I readily admit that I have made absolutely no effort to compile evidence or data to support this theory – is that the majority of our post-WWII cultural history is explained by simple demographics.  More precisely, I suspect that the Baby Boomer generation has so overwhelmingly dominated all other American age cohorts that when we speak of what “America” is doing or how “America” feels, we might as well just cut out the euphemisms and simply ask what the Boomers feel and think about things.  The past 50 years of American culture really represent nothing more than the inevitable aging of a single generation.

My thumbnail sketch of Boomer/American history would look like this:

1946 – 1964:  Baby Boomers are born, but are infants and have almost no effect on American culture.

1965 – 1975:  The period we think of, erroneously, as “The Sixties.”  At the very beginning of this period the oldest of the Boomers were only 20 and the youngest were still infants.  Generalizing outrageously, let’s say that the Boomers throughout these ten years were in their teens and early 20s:  idealistic, enthusiastic, energetic and untried.  There was an unjust war to fight and an unjust society to reform and, in their adolescence, the Boomers thought they were up to the task.

1973 – 1980:  A little bit of overlap with the last decade, but roughly the period we think of as “The Seventies.”  During the 70s the Boomers were in their mid- to late-20s, and the Vietnam War was ending/was over.  They were still amazingly young, energetic and horny, and helped usher in the Sexual Revolution, Swingers Clubs, and relaxed attitudes toward recreational drug use.  The social consciousness of their younger years was largely pushed aside so they could indulge themselves partying.  They were young, but growing into adulthood.  In their exuberant, callow, and largely unchecked youth they afflicted the United States with disco.

1980 – 1990:  Now our timeline more closely aligns with formal decades.  The oldest of the Boomers were in their mid-30s when Reagan took office, and the rest of the Boomers weren’t too far behind.  By now they had grown up quite a bit, most had started families, and the responsibility of providing for their children and saving for the future had cut down on the nights they could spend at the discotheque.  Suddenly life wasn’t about idealism or about partying, but about getting ahead and how “Greed is Good.”  It was time to get serious about Life, dammit, and that means getting a job and making as much money as possible.  Cocaine – the drug of choice during the Boomers’ disco party/sexual revolution only a decade ago – was now reviled as the scourge of Miami Vice, the downfall of Tony Montoya, and we were told to shut up and listen when Nancy told us to Just Say No.

If the Boomers weren’t going to party anymore, then nobody was going to party.

1990 – 2000:  The oldest Boomers were now in their mid-40s when the 1990s began, the rest of their cohort was not far behind them, and – as always - the nation reflected their age.  After turning to Reaganism a decade before, the Boomers had been rewarded with lower taxes and a better quality of life; it would take them another two decades to figure out that their quality of life was largely a conjuration of credit. 

Unsure at the beginning of the decade in which direction they should take the country, they elected a fellow Boomer to the Oval Office with a mere plurality of the vote.  But with the fall of the Soviet Union there didn’t seem to be an enemy to fight and so the Boomers spent their 40s and 50s looking for ways to make even more money.  No longer newbies in the workforce, they had had a decade or more to earn some cash and now they wanted to invest that money profitably.  By an unhappy coincidence, the American financial sector was looking for customers.

Like all first-time investors whose initial investments pan out – or like the guy who sits down at a blackjack table for the first time and ends the night $50 ahead – they thought “this is easy,” and plowed as much money as they could into tech stocks.  As they eased into their 50s they had visions of a grand and glorious retirement dancing in front of them, one that they were sure they’d reach in the next 10 years or so.

And, having seen their initial bets pay off, they didn’t much mind when Wall Street asked to be “unleashed” and they didn’t much pay attention when Wall Street was then let loose.  During the 90s many people dreamed of earning fortunes as day traders, and by the time the decade was over almost nobody had a pension – we were all now invested in 401ks.

2000 – 2010:  The collapse of the tech bubble at the end of the 90s caught a lot of Boomers by surprise, but they were still new to the ways of the Great Casino.  Most hadn’t caught on to the fact that it is impossible to beat the house and that “casino” is an ancient Etruscan word that means “money vacuum.” 

Still, the oldest Boomers began 2000 in their mid-50s.  Losing a lot of money hurt, sure, but as they inched closer and closer toward the end of life they began to fret more and more about the future.  What is this Internet? they asked each other.  Shouldn’t the “rap phase” have passed by now?  And don’t you think Pres. Bubba besmirched the hallowed Oval Office? (Conveniently forgetting, with that last one, all the nights they had so desperately wished they could have been habitués of the Studio 54 bathrooms.)

In their advancing years, the Boomers looked to stability, surety, and someone who promised to help them recoup the monies they had lost when their tech stock gambling streak went bust.  And they found what they were looking for in the dim bulb, black sheep son of the same inbred, blue-blood Prep School Dad that they had deemed unfit for the office only 8 years before.

And with the aging Boomers’ increasing insecurities now taking over, the nation was truly off to the races.  The Boomers’ pick for president promised them – even after America went “to war” – that they would be called upon to do nothing to help the war effort other than “go to the mall.”  (Which, at this point, the Boomers were planning to do three times a week anyway for their morning power walks.)  He told them that this was the best and the brightest country because they were the best and the brightest of people, and they swallowed that because – hey! – that’s what everyone had always told them . . .  every single moment of their lives.  And the dogs that had been let slipped loose on Wall Street figured out a way to make everybody feel rich again by pumping up housing prices, which made the house-owning Boomers feel good about themselves.

As they’ve gotten older the power of the Boomers’ voting bloc has only increased.  They began as the nation’s largest demographic, and in 2012 the oldest of them will be 66 years old.  The numerical superiority of the Baby Boomers is being allayed with AARP’s traditional power at the ballot box, and the rest of us are still mostly just along for the ride. 

Is it any wonder that – for three decades – America has been growing increasingly Conservative?  Conservatism doesn’t come with age because age brings wisdom, Conservatism comes with age because – for most people – age brings fear.  Fear of death, fear of the unknown, fear of the new, fear of the young.  The Boomers started getting on the downside slope of the aging curve around 1980, and our politics have reflected their increasing fear, timidity and Conservatism ever since.  It probably is not much more complicated than that.

* * *

So, sitting in my chair this morning and listening to the pop songs that I first heard around me when I was 7, I thought back to what I remembered of those days, the 1970s.  In the South where I grew up people tended to marry young, and my parents and my parents’ friends were all still young when I was old enough to start remembering pop songs.  I have a dim recollection of what it was like to hang out with these 20-something year olds back then, and what I remember was that Life was going to be a blast!  AdultWorld looked like fun.

But I’m an adult now, and it doesn’t seem as fun to me.  Sure, sure . . . a good deal of that – maybe even most of it – is because you always remember everything being better when you were a kid.  But I still think there’s more to it than misplaced nostalgia.

Every single economic and statistical data compilation shows the same thing:  economically speaking, beginning in the late 1970s the United States of America went off the rails.  Suddenly, the economic pie got bigger, but most people started getting smaller and smaller slices of that pie.

The promise of every economy, of every political system, of every nation, is that as the country gets richer we all get richer:  “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  And while I recognize that nostalgia may be coloring these remembrances, my hazy recollection of the 1970s is that back then there was still a sense that being an American meant a better life was promised for everybody.

But not anymore.  I don’t know anybody – whether in on-line fora like this one, or in Real Life – who thinks that a growing American GDP means anything to them personally.  I don’t know anybody who thinks that another free trade agreement with yet another country is going to lead to a better standard of living for actual working Americans or, indeed, do anything other than push American living standards down even further.  And I don’t know anybody who doesn’t think that they will be anything other than amazingly lucky just to tread water for the next 10 years or so whilst waiting for the next economic disaster to hit.

So, while I was sitting in my chair this morning listening to America, I began thinking that maybe one of the reasons I find these old pop chestnuts so comforting is not only because they remind me of when I was a boy, but because they also remind me of a time when America still seemed a place of hope and opportunity.

Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a country like that again?

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