The Trouble with Boomers

By: Joshua Glenn
June 15, 2009

The oldest Boomers turn 65 this year, and the youngest turn 56. By now, they’ve partially relinquished their collective death grip on the best jobs — though not the best lifestyles, which they’ll always enjoy. So why do we continue to live in the Boomers’ world?

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This summer, for example, we’re all required to watch blockbuster movies (Star Trek, X-Men) based on TV shows and comics originally created for the amusement of Boomer young adults. We’re also supposed to pony up the big bucks to see Boomers (Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Jimmy Buffett) and the Boomers’ idols (Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel) wheeze out their golden oldies on much-hyped tours.

Here at HILOBROW, we admire and enjoy the pioneering work and activism of a few Boomer low-, high-, no- and hilobrows, including: Neil Young, David Lynch, Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Debbie Harry, Bill Griffith, John Carpenter, Octavia Butler, David Byrne, Andy Kaufman, Jonathan Richman, Joey Ramone, Jim Jarmusch, and Larry David. Standing on the shoulders of their immediate elders, these North American and British Boomers have articulated a lucid critique of what’s wrong with western culture — and they’ve done so in forms that regular folks can appreciate. Their irony is of the fierce and politically engaged variety, and their productions are smart without being (too) pretentious.

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But the vast majority of Boomers — generally speaking, the ones who still rake in the dough every time they get out of bed — have never been so unique, bold, or talented. What do George Lucas, Michael Douglas, Don McLean, Alice Walker, Jerry Bruckheimer, Kurt Loder, Eric Clapton, Diane Keaton, Cher, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Steven Spielberg, Philip Pullman, Dave Barry, Stephen King, James Taylor, Billy Crystal, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Jay Leno, Rush Limbaugh, Brian Grazer, Robin Williams, Sting, and Thomas Friedman have in common? They’re the avatars of a middlebrow generation, one that has always insisted upon having its cake and eating it, too. They’re conservative liberals, socialist capitalists, mainstream outsiders, millionaire populists; the increasingly clownish yet supposedly stylish look of a Diane Keaton or an Elton John speaks volumes.

It gets worse. All too many of us now in our late 30s, 40s and early 50s are “Boomer-identified.” We have internalized the values of our generational oppressors. We are every bit as besotted with Bob Dylan as the Boomers were; and we’ve been trained to loathe and pity ourselves because we never did get a ’68 of our own. Nostalgic for the golden years of their own particular youth, the Boomers have mortgaged our collective future. Don’t fall into this trap, readers. Think carefully before you purchase or enjoy a Boomer-produced or -approved product.

Barack Obama: not a Boomer.
Barack Obama: not a Boomer.

How did the Boomers pull off Stockholm Syndrome on a generational scale? In an era marked by de-colonization, the Boomers were savvy, unrepentant generational colonialists. That is, their predominance is due in part to a brilliant, rapacious ability to claim cultural creatives and activists both older (Gloria Steinem, Abbie Hoffman, Eldridge Cleaver, Hunter S. Thompson, Ken Kesey, Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, Elvis, Tina Turner, George Clinton, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, The Velvet Underground, Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa) and younger (Matt Groening, Seinfeld, Elvis Costello, The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Michael Moore, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace) of whom they approve. Only recently, with the candidacy of Barack Obama, who repeatedly denied that he is now, or ever has been a Boomer, has this trend been challenged.

There must be more to Boomer hegemony than colonialism, though. This question demands immediate and prolonged investigation, lest something of a similar nature happen in the future. Never again. HiLobrow.com encourages your comments on this urgent matter.

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What do you think?

  1. I think part of it might be the sheer exuberance of the youth culture, buoyed by numbers and the politics of the day. The quality of the Boomers was their quantity combined with their age, coinciding with (caused by) unparalleled prosperity and leisure time. Time to think differently, numbers to act on it and the threat of death as a very real and immediate thing, ie the draft. Out with ossified forms, they are literally killing us! That the ‘think differently’ has been corrupted and faded and tends towards the middle is probably the fate of all things. But that kind of high energy casts long wavelengths, even when it’s a memory, or a misremembered one. Anyway. You’re right, we should not live in the shadow of anyone else’s culture, even taht of our immediate older peers. Your warning is apt – Stockholm Syndrome, my god!!!

  2. Perhaps we’re finding our way out of the boomer trance by way of the internet, which belongs to our generation. When the web gets nostalgic, it doesn’t recall the sixties–it’s more likely to look to the early mass media and the beginning of the twentieth century for the roots of its forms:

    Twitter may be the place to go looking for evidence for our sixties Stockholm Syndrome–and maybe our escape from it. Twitter belongs to people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Its culture is unique–but when tweeps imagine they’re manning barricades in Tehran, it does look like a sixties-redux desire at work.

  3. Some Boomers are even themselves tired with the Old Boom Box, their old minds craving for fresh food. Is that getting away to easily from the question ?

  4. So .. am I NOT a Boomer? I will not turn 56 this year. Could be important news for me …

  5. I’ve always thought it was simple — there were just *more* boomers, and they were a fairly homogeneous bunch. They grew up in the conformist child-centered 50s, and thus grew up as a group, and more than a little spoiled and narcissistic.

    They were the first generation with disposable income, the first that marketers could identify and target. Culture centered on them for one simple reason — that’s where the money was. And it was easy to get as long as you concentrated on the middle: the middle class, the middle brow, the middle everything except middle-aged.

    I was born in 1965. What that means is that all sorts of well-funded programs disappeared as I was growing up and the target market shrank. I think the reason we GenXers are so bitter is that so many wonderful things were held up before us and snatched away at the last minute. So many promises were just broken. It’s not possible to retain your illusions when that happens.

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