With his 1998 book “The Greatest Generation,” Tom Brokaw celebrated the experiences and accomplishments of the Americans who came of age during the Depression and fought in large numbers during World War II. It is unusual to give so much credit to an entire generation, but few protested the label at the time, perhaps in deference to the sacrifices made by a group that went on to shepherd their nation to a position of global dominance.
Before Brokaw’s book came out, the most talked-about generation in American history was composed of the offspring of the World War II veterans: the so-called Baby Boomers. They were the first cohort to be targeted at a young age by mass marketing, growing up in an expanded middle class made possible by unprecedented national prosperity. And since they continue to represent a massive population bubble — the result of a post-war birth boom — business and popular culture continues to follow their interests and cater to their whims.
Because of this attention, the Baby Boomers have been able to define themselves and receive affirmation for their self-regard. Those of us who are younger grew up with the impression that Baby Boomers were liberators who fought for civil rights and women’s rights and against the Vietnam War. It was only later that we realized the Baby Boomers weren’t really responsible for all of that, since by definition they were born between 1946 and 1964.
The oldest Baby Boomer was 17 during the March on Washington. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were not Baby Boomers. So while there might have been some common cause, some college protesting and bra burning, the Baby Boomers mainly reaped the rewards of those who went before them. And as many Baby Boomers fought in the war (or quietly accepted it) as fought against it.
Therefore, even though many of us associate Baby Boomers with the liberal hippies we saw at Woodstock, the reality is that the generation is far more conventional, even conservative. In fact, the prevailing Baby Boomer outlook may actually be a reaction against the liberal progress of the 1960s, which helps to explain where our national politics have gone since the Baby Boomers ascended to high government offices.
A generational survey released last month by the New Politics Institute, a progressive think tank, sheds some light on the reality of Baby Boomer attitudes. After questioning a sample that was evenly divided by both party (Republican, Democrat and independent) and ideology (conservative, liberal and moderate), the researchers found that Baby Boomers “endorse government intervention to lessen economic disparities” less than the younger generations surveyed.
According to the survey, Baby Boomers endorse environmental protection “to a lesser extent than any other generation” and are “less likely than other generations to endorse increased federal spending on school construction and federal scholarships to provide post-secondary education for all qualified high school graduates.” Furthermore, they have “substantially more negative and pessimistic perceptions of the political process than any other generational grouping.”
Even when it comes to social issues and crime, the Baby Boomers defy preconceptions, supporting “traditional morality” and “strict punishment” more than other generations.
That could simply be a result of getting older. And surely there are plenty of Baby Boomers who hold more liberal views (many of whom are probably cursing this column as they read it).
But that brings us to the most important point of all. The researchers found that Baby Boomers “express greater concern than any other generational grouping with virtually every specific issue examined in the survey,” while simultaneously being “characterized by taking strong, relatively extreme positions on issues.” (Emphasis theirs.)
All of this great concern, taken to the extreme, can result in exactly the kind of fire-breathing, polarizing, zero-sum brand of politics that arrived in Washington, D.C. during the 1990s — when the Baby Boomers took over.
The overall survey also helps us understand why Bill Clinton’s presidency was not as liberal as expected, and it elevates George W. Bush to the more representative Baby Boomer.
That’s bad news for the younger generations, who are now losing the anti-poverty initiatives, environmental protections, college funding and other liberal programs that Baby Boomers benefited from. Even institutions like Social Security, Medicare and the military are being made weaker under the leadership of the Baby Boomers.
Unless things change, the legacy of the Baby Boomers will be the reversal of the progress made by the “Greatest Generation.” And that could make them known as the worst.