Guest Piece by America’s History Teacher, Larry Schweikart
A new book by Helen Andrews, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster—and the accompanying review in American Greatness by Chris Buskirk is mostly an accurate snapshot of the generation that followed “the Greatest.” (https://amgreatness.com/2021/02/07/the-baby-boomers-dismal-legacy/)
There is a severe lack of context in judgments about Boomers as disasters. I have not come to praise the Boomers, but to put them in the context of their burial clothes. Without that context, one would mindlessly accept all the criticisms of the Gen-Xers and Millennials (who, so far, have shown no more ability to lead the world out of this morass than my own did).
First, it is true it’s “all about me” when it came to Boomers. The phrase in the 1960s was “if it feels good, do it.” (This was straight out of Roman Epicurean thought, which had its opposite in the Stoics: “If it feels good, don’t do it.”) Yes, much of the literature that has come out has been, as Buskirk puts it, hagigraphic. Yes, they did start celebrating themselves in college, probably with the culminating event in their lives Woodstock as opposed to America landing a man on the moon that same year. The latter was almost all the result of “The Greatest,” the former, entirely laid at the feet of Boomers who were either at the tail end of the “Greatest” or at its beginning. Of the groups that best epitomized Woodstock, think of Crosby, Stills & Nash and Jimi Hendrix. David Crosby (b. 1941), Graham Nash (1942), Steven Stills (1945), and Hendrix (1942) and you have a group who certainly had never even tasted the Great Depression. Their formative years did not start until World War II had ended. Throw in Frank Zappa (1940) and the quintuplet is complete.
Let us also remember that Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Elton John, Walter Payton, Cal Ripken, Jr., Steve Irwin, George Brett, Adrea Bocelli, Denzel Washington, Peter Jackson, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sylvester Stallone, Jair Bolsonaro, Mel Gibson, Lionel Ritchie, Jack Ma, Hank Williams, Jr, Benjamin Netanyahu, Kurt Russell and Jordan Peterson are in this group. (So are a lot of baddies I won’t mention . . . cough, cough . . . O. J. Simpson, El Chapo, Jim Carrey, Jeff Bezos, and Ted Bundy). We could put in a dozen names on each side of the ledger.
What’s interesting is that there are fewer truly great entrepreneurs or scientists in the group. This has as much to do with the structure of society since 1950 as it does with any inherent weakness in people. The fact that so many of the people who deserve notoriety in a positive sense are actors, musicians, or sports figures reflects as much that society had deemed those the best route to success from 1960 on as did did the “Greatest” with business, the military, or medicine. Yet the Boomer scientists gave us the artificial heart, the portable dialysis machine, the ambulatory infusion pump, controlled drug release technology, the universal serial bus port, rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, the music synthesizer, text-to-speech technology, the world wide web, Viagra, DNA fingerprinting, the ethernet, Foxfibre naturally colored cotton, the automated external debifrillator, and the cell phone.
Fred Smith (1944) founded Fed Ex; Robert Kiyosaki (1947) became a leading motivational speaker; Richard Branson (1950), a British businessman; Jeff Bezos founded Amazon; and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple. The fact that some of these giant companies later became quasi-monopolies or displayed characteristics incompatible with an American Republic was as much a fault of regulators (or even the public that consumed the products) as the creators themselves. After all, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller would have ridden the trusts as far as they could until stopped.
Second, there were powerful forces at work in America in the 1950s that shaped most of the Boomers as they entered college. And more of them entered college than any other previous generations. As the river of Boomers washed ashore on campuses in 1961-62, it was met by two other equally powerful steams. One was the massive influx of cash into colleges and universities due to the 1957-instigated reaction to the USSR’s Sputnik satellite. That money was meant for science and math, but once funds enter a university, they spread to the area of greatest power, namely the Humanities. (Americans, in their wisdom, had concluded that it was absolutely critical to teach everyone how to write well, speak well, and know their history.) At that same time, however, the wave of students and wave of money met a third tributary flowing the same direction, a newly-unleashed population of leftist professors who had been banned during the McCarthy era but, in the post-McCarthy backlash, were not only tolerated but welcomed on campus.
These “three streams” that converged, as Michael Allen and I wrote in A Patriot’s History of the United States, meant that more kids than ever would be coming out of school with degrees in something less likely to actually manufacture or produce anything and much more likely to emerge with an attitude somewhat hostile to the idea of America itself. A resulting shift away from invention, science, math, industry, and production and into arts, music, sports, finance, insurance, and writing led to the relative poor comparison to the “Titans of Prosperity” who led the phenomenal growth of the late 1800s. That is to say, it’s not all on the Boomers: they worked within the system they had, which was created by the “Greatest” in hopes of sparing Boomers from the hard life the “Greatest” faced.
All of which brings me to the constant comparison with the “Greatest”: yes, the “Greatest” generation did win World War II and Korea. Did they really have an alternative? But consider that in doing so, they were required by the government to adopt certain lifestyles that without war it’s unlikely they would have chosen. For example, the Second World War forced Americans (both in the armed forces and civilians at home) to save at unprecedented levels. There was nothing to spend money on because of rationing and because the government had shut down production of all but war-related goods. For more than four years, Americans saved their paychecks in the most remarkable forced-savings burst in American history. When they emerged from the war, they let loose with a frenzy of home buying and auto purchases. At the same time, young men were required to adopt “manly” and traditional roles as protectors, heroes, providers, and producers. Again, there was no alternative. The process involving male development—manly, masculine developmen—was not optional. Thus those who wax romantic about the “Greatest” need to ask, “Would they have been so great if it were not forced on them?” And, “would other generations rise to the occasion if such were forced on them?”
Andrews’ book is the equivalent of Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals (1988) that dissected many of the leading thinkers of the pre-modern era, mostly in a negative context. Johnson apparently felt so badly about how he assessed genius (even malevolent) that he followed up with a much more positive work, Creators (2006). While Buskirk and Andrews lament the “spend, spend, spend” mentality, they seem to ignore the fact that to spend, spend, spend you have to make, make, make. Home prices (and Boomer wealth) rose, yes, in part to loose federal regulations but to a far greater degree because Boomers (thanks to the auto) were far more mobile than any previous generation and because they literally bought into the American dream of home ownership.
Finally, before bashing Boomers, one might ask: what the hell have the Gen-Xers, the Millennials, and the iGeners done to improve things? The Millennials’ view is that of “social justice” through group action—but not real individual sacrifice. About the only Greenie I can think of who actually lived his ideology was Ed Begley, Jr. who composted and lived “small.” Millennials and a handful of Gen-Xers had their hands on the levers of government and the machinery of regulation for years, yet under their watch not only did the housing boom turn into a collapse in 2007-08, but their regulations largely caused it. Their do-good environmental restrictions have resulted in more people dying due to lack of energy and fewer people crawling out of poverty—all so they can feel like they “made a difference.”
Sorry. Don’t rag on Boomers to me. I am one. Mike Allen and I made our contribution with A Patriot’s History of the United States. What did you do, little Millennial?
Larry Schweikart is the co-author with Michael Allen of the New York Times #1 bestseller, A Patriot’s History of the United States, is the author of Reagan: The American President, and created the Wild World of History curriculum website with full curricula for U.S. and World history including teacher guides, student workbooks, maps/answer keys, maps/images, and video lessons accompanying every unit (www.wildworldofhistory.com).
That is all.
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