Timothy Noah on the Baby Boomers

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The year 1983 saw the release of The Big Chill, a film that capitalized on the early waves of baby boomer nostalgia with the story of a group of thirtysomething friends looking back upon their ’60s youth. Washington Monthly editor Timothy Noah—born on the tail end of the baby boom, which missed the sixties—took aim at the film’s smug generational narcissism, and offered a broader critique of the boomers’ middle-aged retreat from idealism.

Even those of us who weren’t invited to the party must concede that there was something unique about the sixties. The intensely felt experience of either opposing or fighting in the Vietnam War, the exuberant optimism among those who wanted to create racial and economic equality, and the general feeling of high-spirited nonconformity all served to define a group of people whose common values set them apart from and—at their best—above the narcissism and grim conformity of the 1950s and the 1970s.

But now that the sixties are over and the members of that generation are looking toward middle age, the bonds that remain among them have taken on an unattractive quality that sometimes makes me glad I wasn’t invited to the party. For too many veterans of that decade, the litmus test of political idealism—and, in a larger sense, virtue—has come to be not what you do, or even what you believe, but when you were born. In this view, the Woodstock generation doesn’t have to grapple with the issues of today’s larger political community because, unlike the benighted souls who came before and after, it earned its stripes in the political battles of the sixties. This sustains a feeling of commitment that is curiously apolitical. The idea seems to be that if the world doesn’t seem a much better place now that the college students of the sixties have assumed adult responsibilities, then, dammit, it’s the world’s fault, or perhaps the fault of adulthood itself. It certainly isn’t theirs. And if the children of the sixties don’t like the world as they now find it, then the answer the generational view sets forth is not to make it better; rather, it is to retreat to the companionship of one’s fellow thirty-five-year-olds, among whom can be found a smaller, more exclusive society where some of the old attitudes and customs still reign. As the advertisements for the movie The Big Chill put it, “In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.”

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The idea that membership in a particular age group was a precondition to enlightenment has always been one of the more unattractive doctrines of the sixties generation. During the sixties, when the object of exclusionary sentiment was the older generation, “youth culture” consciousness was but one shrill note among many more melodious ones. Now that the political turmoil has subsided, however, generational chauvinism, now directed against the young, has become practically the whole symphony.

Thus when Abbie Hoffman recently turned forty-seven, he declared that “watching college students today is about as exciting as watching TV bowling” and vowed that he would “never trust anybody under 30.” A cloying new television series, Family Ties, has appeared, presumably the brainchild of someone in his thirties, about a family where the parents are ex–flower children and their son is—you guessed it—a stuffed-shirt right-winger. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to find in any of the popular-culture depictions of the Woodstock culture grown up a sympathetic portrait of anyone under thirty, while there are plenty of damning ones. The function of this generational chauvinism against the under-thirty crowd is to provide a cover for the Woodstock generation’s own seductions during the Me Decade. Sure, we may be career oriented and narcissistic, but we’re not as bad as the kids who never got the chance to experience the fleeting brush with campus radicalism.

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The larger problem with allowing people to go strutting around saying they’re superior because they’re thirty-five is that it encourages them to regard the larger bonds of community with an informality that society can ill afford. SEC regulations may not get violated very often in the name of sixties solidarity, but the world does seem to be populated with quite a few members of the sixties generation who think there’s nothing inconsistent about being both an ex-radical and, say, a tax lawyer who now contrives to minimize the contributions of our richest citizens to the Treasury—so long as you treat your job with the proper amount of contempt. The key is to draw your real sense of worth from your membership in the Woodstock generation. The irony of this stance is that where once it sought to create a “relevant,” alternative culture, now it serves to create a deliberately irrelevant one. And where once such distinctions were made in the name of politicizing previously neutral questions, now they are made to depoliticize them.

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Where the sixties idea of community went wrong was in its failure to keep alive the idea that community should exist to make the world a better place, and not merely to reinforce already strong bonds between people of the same age. The kind of community that the Woodstock generation needs to be calling for should not be the kind of community that comes easily—where attitudes and experiences are held in common. Instead, it should be calling for the kind of community that you have to work at, forging bonds between people who grew up at different times, in different places, under different circumstances of class and race. It should be a community that is more like a neighborhood, a city, a nation, and less like a class reunion.

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From “The Big Massage,” February 1984. Timothy Noah is now a senior writer at Slate.

 
 
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