Boomers' Newest Fad: Self-Loathing
by Alex Kuczynski New York Times Service
Tuesday, August 7, 2001
At the Big Five-Oh, the Woodstock Generation Changes Its Tune
NEW YORK -- Joe Queenan is 50 years old and sorely ashamed of it.
"I loathe my generation," he said last week. "We became culturally frozen
in time at a very early age and continue to think of ourselves as
trailblazers. It's completely pathetic."
A writer who contributes frequently to GQ and Forbes magazines, Mr.
Queenan's latest book, "Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History
of the Baby Boomer Generation," chronicles the cultural irrelevance of his
generation, which is - at least to Mr. Queenan - a whiny, narcissistic
bunch of paunchy, corporatized losers.
And he is not alone in his distaste.
A body of literature, call it boomer bashing, has emerged in American
popular writing. As the 80 million Americans of the post-World War II
generation have begun to slip en masse over the dreaded benchmark known as
the big five-oh, a squadron of journalists, editors and authors are
questioning the abilities and pointing out the failures of the Woodstock
generation. Because most of those doing the criticizing are boomers
themselves, the bashing has a distinct whiff of boomer self-loathing.
This year also saw the publication of "What If Boomers Can't Retire? How to
Build Real Security, Not Phantom Wealth," by Thornton Parker, which
criticized the generation's reliance on the stock market as a kind of
phantom wealth that eventually could derail the entire American economy. Pow!
David Brooks's excoriation of yuppie boomers, "Bobos in Paradise:
The New Upper Class and How They Got There," stayed on best-seller lists
last year for four months, urging boomers to recognize themselves as
hypocritical sellouts. Blam! There was Marty Asher's darkly comic novel,
"The Boomer," which opens with the birth of a baby boomer and, after
describing a lifetime of excruciating banality, ends in "a small, tidy
cemetery with a view of the ocean." Ooof!
In June of last year, Time magazine published an article called "Twilight
of the Boomers" in which Daniel Okrent described the boomers as preening,
And that was the nice part.
He then slammed his readers. "If you're like the overwhelming majority of
boomers, your career has hit a brick wall, you haven't saved enough, your
pension is underfunded, your health is deteriorating, even the medical
advances that will probably extend your life will, in an especially cruel
paradox, probably mean that later life will be meaner and more spartan."
Boomers are pretty much fatuous, self-important and lazy, said Mr. Okrent,
53, and that's why they arouse so much resentment from Americans in their
20s and 30s.
"There is so, so much to loathe about the boomers," Mr. Okrent said,
speaking by telephone from his vacation home on Cape Cod, doing his own
boomer best to arouse envy. "And there is this sudden spate of attention to
boomers because they have finally reached real age. They used to think they
would be young forever and now they know they will not."
We all thought that we were special, ones-of-a-kind, Mr. Okrent said. But
we were "just another generation."
Really? Even with the Vietnam War, Woodstock, Kent State?
"We were powerful in numbers and we had something to react against," he
said. "That was the virtue of the Vietnam War. It gave us direction."
While the boomer-bashers are happily skewering the generation, there also
are boomer apologists. Priscilla Painton, an assistant managing editor at
Time magazine, supervised the recent Time cover story "Do Kids Have Too
Much Power?" She said Time's boomer readers are always hungry for more
information about whether they are raising their kids to be spoiled brats.
"And we came to the conclusion that these kids are turning out to be one of
the healthiest generations, so maybe there is no blame to lay on the
boomers," Ms. Painton said.
Susan Faludi's most recent book, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American
Man," advanced the theory that the male boomers, especially those born
immediately after World War II, were warped emotionally by their fathers,
those cold and patriarchal men who taught their sons that power - not the
nurturing of family or community - was the only goal worthy of male
aspiration. So for that set of male boomers, their stunted self-absorption
was not their fault, but that of their fathers.
Betsy Carter, editor-in-chief of My Generation, the boomer magazine
published by AARP, the retired persons' association, said boomer-bashing
literature was the outgrowth of unprecedented navel-gazing.
"You have never had a group that is so primed to be analytical and examine
themselves," she said. "And we're also the first generation to be so vocal
and so public about our failures and our misgivings."
Ms. Carter, 56, said that boomers' eagerness to talk about themselves also
may be the reason that other generations - even other boomers - are sick of
it. "We tell everybody everything," she said. "We can yak and yak and yak."
It was that endless yakking and the admiration of bad taste as if it were
good taste that Mr. Queenan said were his inspirations for "Balsamic Dreams."
"When soft rock hit in the early 1970s, I think people just thought the
generation was taking a nap," he said. "In reality, we were going to sleep.
We never woke up again."
That soporific cultural stupor is why Sylvester Stallone is a highly paid
movie star, Mr. Queenan said, and why Andrea Bocelli has become a cultural
staple when he should really be accorded the status of, say, Zamfir master
of the pan flute.
"That wasn't the way it was supposed to play out. We weren't all supposed
to buy the same foods, watch the same movies, listen to the same music,"
Mr. Queenan said. "Does every boomer have to go to the same four towns in
Northern Italy? Has any boomer ever gone to Southern Italy? Say, Sicily?"
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