Baby Boomers caused great harm

A-generation-of-SociopathsJust at the zenith of their political, cultural and social influence, it has become fashionable to turn a corrosive eye on the Baby Boomers, that huge generational cohort born somewhere between the final years of the Second World War and the beginning of Beatlemania outside of Britain. Keep in mind that very little of this is self-critical; the generation preceding the Boomers is far too old and diminished to raise anything like an audible protest, so most of the complaint is coming from Generation X – the hangdog cohort once dubbed the “Baby Bust” and perceived as the generational equivalent of the sludgy tailings issuing from a drained pipeline – and the Millennials who were described as the Boomers’ “echo,” familiarly known to the Boomers as “our kids.”

A typical Millennial criticism of the Boomer legacy was published in the National Post this spring. Sabrina Maddeaux begins a defense of her cohort by first recalling the many waves of invaders who sacked Rome over a millennia, and then shifting her focus tightly on the “bloated, all-consuming generation” born in the “devil-spawning era between 1946 and 1964,” who’ve described her peers as spoiled, feckless, lazy, shallow and entitled.

“Many of the qualities they find most reprehensible in this younger generation are actually the direct repercussions of their own actions,” Maddeaux writes. “If Millennials are truly as awful as they’re made out to be, we only have Boomers to thank for raising and nurturing such a Frankenstein generation.”

It comes across almost as damning a self-criticism – the author doesn’t bother refuting the stereotypes of her generation – as it is an attack on the moms and dads who did such a poor job preparing them for adult life, while making sure that the kids would enjoy few, if any, of the competitive advantages they enjoyed when they’d left school, nearly thirty years before.

Over a decade ago I briefly ran a blog with my friend Kathy Shaidle, linking and commenting on stories about how Boomers were wrecking the economy as much as they’d warped culture and society. It would be much easier to do today, and now a fellow Gen-Xer – venture capitalist Bruce Cannon Gibney – has written a whole book on the subject.

A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity in the title, and Gibney doesn’t retreat from his premise over its four hundred or so pages. As a generational cohort, the Boomers fit the profile of a sociopath as laid out in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V): They’re egocentric, concerned almost entirely with their own needs and immediate personal gratification, unconcerned with the feelings of needs of others except where they can exploit them to their own ends, and given to irresponsible and impulsive behaviour acted upon with deceit and callousness.

Gibney uses the terms Boomer and sociopath interchangeably, and lays out how the unique circumstances of their upbringing – born into the most prosperous and comfortable period in American history, and raised by parents who indulged them with the memories of their own anxious, privation-filled childhoods in mind – meant that they were on a collision course with history and political opportunity the moment they began coming of age en masse in the ‘70s.

He doesn’t lack for evidence. The Vietnam War became a political issue only when Boomers had to fight it, rose to a national obsession when they could no longer get easy deferrals from the draft, then slid from view when America began its withdrawal. Abortion as birth control peaked and then fell with Boomers in their sexual prime, as did multiple divorces, and the health care system – technically a pyramid scheme even when it worked – will probably collapse when Boomers finally retire and insist on the sort of life-lengthening treatments they took for granted when they caused a spike in the rates of venereal disease and hepatitis. As a tech-obsessed libertarian, Gibney isn’t too fussed with morality, but if there’s a moral to his story it’s that the Boomers choose badly, and often.

Their own personal mythology might have been forged in the social turmoil of the late ‘60s, but they learned how to bully and manipulate their prerogatives to the front of the queue in the decade that followed, during a period of political disillusionment (Watergate) and unprecedented economic dysfunction (stagflation, the oil crisis.) By the ‘90s and the watershed presidency of Bill Clinton, they were in the ascendancy, and are likely to remain so well past the quarter-century footprint of a generation, thanks partly to the anemic political and demographic presence of Generation X, their own tendency to defer retirement, and the emotional and economic hobbling of their own children, as catalogued by Millennials like Sabrina Maddeaux.

Gibney describes how so many circumstances of their time only smoothed the sociopathic transformation of the world around them, like the U.S. abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, Nixon’s expansion of government and deregulation under Reagan. It’s a compelling narrative, but you have this nagging feeling that Gibney is focusing too much of his enmity at the Boomers who, after all, simply dealt with the policies they were bequeathed, and not at the members of the Greatest Generation who, in the full flush of maturity, began dismantling the old system that had done so well for them.

My own misgivings with Gibney’s argument peaked whenever he talked about climate change and our imperative to deal with it, which he says was just another bit of business deferred and ignored – like infrastructure investment and scientific R&D – by the Boomer ascendancy. Whatever your opinion on climate change, I find it hard to believe that the generation that went “back to the land,” made recycling an urban sacrament, turned Earth Day into a month of primary school indoctrination and lionized an obvious huckster like Al Gore is in fact a stealth cohort of climate deniers happy to poison the seas that they’re surveying from a Royal Caribbean senior’s cruise.

He does not ignore Gore’s glaring hypocrisy, both when he was a pork-barreling congressman getting kickbacks from oilman Armand Hammer and after he reinvented himself as a media-hungry environmental champion. He extends that to Gore’s generation as a sociopathic whole, though, which is convenient to his thesis but smacks of overgeneralization.

There are other wild inconsistencies to Gibney’s argument, like how the Boomers, as economically, socially and culturally middle class as a generation has ever been, have encouraged policies that have been devastating for the middle class. Mere hypocrisy or sociopathy isn’t enough to explain such perfidy or self-sabotage, and it makes his argument ultimately seem less like analysis and more like a grudge. As someone with a long habit of impugning Boomer motives and methods, Gibney managed a rare feat with his book by losing me along the way.

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