"The Worst Generation"
by Paul Begala
I hate the Baby Boomers. They're the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-
interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in
American history. As they enter late middle age, the Boomers still can't grow
up. Guys who once dropped acid are now downing Viagra; women who once eschewed
lipstick are now getting liposuction.
I know it's a sin to hate, so let me put it this way: If they were animals,
they'd be a plague of locusts, devouring everything in their path and leaving
but a wasteland. If they were plants, they'd be kudzu, choking off ever other
living thing with their sheer mass. If they were artists, they'd be abstract
expressionists, interested only in the emotions of that moment -- not in the
lasting result of the creative process. If they were a baseball club, they'd be
the Florida Marlins: prefab prima donnas who bought their way to prominence,
then disbanded -- a temporary association but not a team.
Of course, it is as unfair to demonize an entire generation as it is to
characterize an entire gender or race or religion. And I don't literally mean
that everyone born between 1946 and 1964 is a selfish pig. But generations can
have a unique character that defines them, especially if they are the elites of
a generation -- those lucky few who are blessed with the money or brains or
looks or skills or education that typifies an era. Whether is was Fitzgerald and
Hemingway defining the Lost Generation of World War I and the Roaring Twenties,
or JFK and the other heroes of the World War II generation, or the high-tech
whiz kids of the post-Boomer generation, certain archetypes define certain
You know who you are. If you grew your hair and burned your draft card on campus
during the Sixties; if you toked, screwed, and boogied your way through the
Seventies; if you voted for Reagan and believed "Greed is good" in the Eighties;
and if you're trying to make up for it now by nesting as you cluck about the
collapse of "family values," you're it. If not, even if demographers call you a
Boomer, you probably hate our generation's elite as much as I do.
Let's start with the Sixties, the Boomers' dilettante ball. While a few
courageous people like John Lewis and the Freedom Riders risked their lives --
and others like Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner gave theirs
-- the civil-rights movement was led by pre-Boomers like Martin Luther King Jr.
(who would be 71 if he were alive today) and continued without strong support
from the Boomers on college campuses.
Still, I must say this: If you were one of those young people who did risk their
lives to fight racism in the Sixties, who put their bodies on the line to
register voters, who marched and sang and taught and preached against
segregation, you stand as the best refutation of my anti-Boomer tirade. In that
one moment of conscience and courage, you did more with your life than I've done
in all the moments of mine. In a generation of selfish pigs, you were saints.
But the reality is that most campuses did not become hotbeds of unrest until the
Boomers' precious butts were at risk as the Vietnam War escalated. They didn't
want to end the war because they were bothered by working-class kids being blown
apart; if they had been, they wouldn't have spat on those working-class kids
when they came home from Vietnam, or tried to make heroes out of the Communists
who were trying to kill them.
Yet as troubling as that may be, the Sixties were in many ways the Boomers'
finest moment. It was at least a fad then to pretend to care about racial
justice at home and war abroad, to speak out against pollution and prejudice.
But it was mostly just talk. As they came of age, and as idealism might have
required some real sacrifice, idealism suddenly became unfashionable.
And so the Boomers careened into the Seventies without a thought to picking up
where King and the Kennedys left off. Without a war to threaten them, their
selfishness came into full bloom. You know the results: Drug abuse, once a
boutique curse of hip musicians, became more common than the clap. And speaking
of sexually transmitted diseases, the Boomers began to fornicate with such
abandon that rabbits we asking them to cool their jets. They didn't invent sex
or drugs or rock 'n' roll, but they damned near ruined them all.
And don't give me this crap about Boomer music. The Beatles were all born before
the end of the war. So was Janis. So while the Boomers can claim they had the
good taste to listen to gifted pre-Boomers, when it came their turn to make
music, the truest expression of their generation, what did they give us?
The generation that came before the Boomers gave them Dylan. The Boomers gave us
KC and the Sunshine Band. Thanks a lot.
Unfair? Perhaps it is a bit of an overstatement. Some friends of mine have
suggested it's an outrage to ignore Baby Boomer Bruce Springsteen, for one. True
But even more than music, our remarkable economy is what drives and defines the
times we live in today. And as the generation in the economic driver's seat, the
Boomers should get the credit for building this remarkable prosperity, right?
Well, not quite. Nothing can detract from the breathtaking entrepreneurship of
Boomers like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. But what's interesting is that much of
today's prosperity owes its origins more to the high-tech young nerds of the
post-Boom generation than to the Boomers themselves. The most vital role the
Boomers have in the current economy is to sit on their brains and invest in
post-Boomer high-tech start-ups. The same folks who sponged off their parents
when they were young are now, as they age, getting rich off the industry of
their younger brothers and sisters.
Boomer political and economic values reached their most perfect expression under
pre-Boomer president Ronald Reagan in the Eighties: Screw your neighbor, lay off
the factory workers, shuffle a lot of paper, build an economy in which a few
people get the gold mine and most people get the shaft. It is telling that when
he ran for reelection, Reagan got higher support among Boomers than he did from
his fellow older Americans. Perhaps some of the Greatest Generation saw the
selfishness in Reaganism and turned away from it. And perhaps the Boomers saw
those same qualities, that savage selfishness, and embraced it.
In the long run, will it matter that one generation was so spectacularly
selfish? Maybe not. In a great karmic irony, the Worst Generation may in turn be
raising another great one. Having taught the children of the Baby Boomers off an
on for five years now, at the University of Texas at Georgetown, I find them to
be the opposite of everything I despise about their parents -- they are engaged
in their communities, spending endless hours volunteering to build housing for
the poor or to feed the homeless. They are concerned about their classmates,
having calmed down the PC mania and replaced it with a sensible sensitivity to
the feelings of others. They care about the future and are concerned about their
grandparents. They are more responsible in their private lives and more engaged
in our public life. I have no idea whether it's because of the Boomers or in
spite of them.
Greatest Generation chronicler Tom Brokaw has the difference pegged: "The World
War II generation did what was expected of them. But they never talked about it.
It was part of the Code. There's no more telling metaphor than a guy in a
football game who does what's expected of him -- makes an open-field tackle --
then gets up and dances around. When Jerry Kramer threw the block that won the
Ice Bowl in '67, he just got up and walked off the field."
That kind of self-effacing dignity is wholly alien to the Boomer elite. But when
that day comes, when they finally walk off the field -- or what's left of the
field -- a few of us who've been trailing behind them will be doing a little
dance of our own.
- Esquire, April 2000
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