The gap between Boomers and Millennials is as wide as the one between idealism and reality, writes IPA Membership Officer Claire Peter-Budge.
Journalist and author Helen Andrews is already interesting as a self-proclaimed conservative in a very woke era, leading from the front in her role as editor of the American Conservative (co-founded by the paleoconservative and former Nixon speechwriter, Pat Buchanan). Then she gets even more interesting as—not content with taking on so-called feminists—she has written her own take on the Baby Boomers, who she says were responsible for the “most dramatic sundering of Western civilisation since the Protestant Reformation”.
She goes on to say:
… the Boomer revolution has been so comprehensive that it has become almost impossible to imagine what life was like before it. The rise of television, for example, has altered the human mind as much as the printing press did, and one of the ways it has altered it has been to make sustained concentration virtually impossible … The result has been generations of young people who lack a grounding in the basic facts of history…
This book was a lot for me to take in at once, as I—a so-called Gen Z, born post-1994—was reading a conservative Millennials’s critique of the Baby Boomers, born 1946-’64. Andrews graduated from Yale in 2008, which is why I locate her as Millennial (born 1981-’96), rather than Gen X (born 1965-’80).
Andrews, moreover, does not justify her claims with a comprehensive overview of the Boomer era. Rather, she tells the story of six figures: former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, playwright and film director Aaron Sorkin, celebrity scholar Camille Paglia, development economist Jeffrey Sachs, civil rights agitator Al Sharpton, and (in Andrews’ estimation) the dramatically underqualified Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. Of these, the most familiar for me was Aaron Sorkin, creator and lead writer of many famous movies and series; most relevantly The West Wing (1999-2006), which Andrews correctly identifies as a fantasy world in which American Democrats are always moral and idealistic (and loquacious), and Republicans are merely forces of reaction. Similarly, in The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), with Sacha Baron-Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, we are never in doubt who Sorkin thinks are the good guys. (Eddie Redmayne played the New Left leader Tom Hayden, who in a very Boomer way went on to marry ‘Hanoi Jane’ Fonda).
De-platforming, cancelling, and censoring people only fosters divisive, bigoted discourse.
Of course, this only exacerbated my chronological confusion. Why was I able to appreciate Sorkin’s contribution to popular culture? While growing up, I found myself more interested in pop culture, literature, and fashion of a bygone era, which led to a running joke among friends and family that I was not ‘of this time’. This appreciation for the products of previous generations was, I believe, one of the factors that inoculated me against this decade’s surge of wokeness. I was, for instance, dazzled by expatriate Australian Germaine Greer. She made her name with The Female Eunuch (1970), going on to become a leading voice of Feminism’s second wave and one of the great libertarian thinkers of the late-20th century. Highly articulate and born controversialist, she brought to intellectualism a rock-star quality, but then in later years she was cancelled for being that very thinker, defending the rights of women against the claims of the radical and aggressive wing of the trans movement.
Of course, de-platforming, cancelling, and censoring people only fosters divisive, bigoted discourse, because the silencing creates the notion of one’s view not being valued or legitimate, regardless of their contributions to public debate.
Reading Andrews’ book, I even found myself thinking of the line from The Breakfast Club (1985), “Are we going to turn into our parents?”. But then she herself observes:
It’s always the people who most hate the idea of turning into their parents who end up doing so. The Millennials blame the Boomers for wrecking the country, yet rather than break free from their influence, we continue seeing the world in their terms. Our social justice activities devote their lives to the same causes, with only the most minute updates in terminology but an agenda otherwise unchanged. Our rebels wear the same Che Guevara T-shirts, do the same drugs, obsess over the same music.
In 2019 Andrews published (in The New York Times, of all places) a very combative and conservative take on where the feminism and social reforms had left contemporary American women: “Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight? The American family needs defending and right now men are leading the charge.”
The American family is once again in crisis. The statistical bellwether this time is not family breakdown but failure of families to form in the first place. In 1960, 82 per cent of Americans between 25 and 34 were married. Even as late as 2000, 55 per cent were. In 2013, for the first time, a majority of that age bloc had never married, and the downward trend shows no sign of stopping.
It has been downhill since the ’70s:
When mothers started entering paid employment in large numbers in the 1970s, it led to a bidding war over middle-class amenities that left everyone paying more for the privilege of being no better off…
She takes no prisoners:
The response of the conservative establishment to this crisis has been to double down on shovelling women into the workforce.
In making sense of her analysis, I started reflecting on its themes in the context of my own life and those I know. When my mother was 16, she got her first job as a clerical assistant at the Postmaster General’s Department (Millennials: that’s Australia Post and Telstra). It was the era of Whitlam, a time of significant social reforms: policy changes that came in just as my mother was entering the workforce. The period had its challenges, culminating in a constitutional crisis that saw the Federal Labor Government sacked. The economic recession generated under the Whitlam Government was one of the worst ever experienced, and the Government’s solution was even faster growth in public service numbers.
Additionally, anti-sex discrimination legislation, while introduced, was yet to take effect leaving women in a more overtly misogynist office environment. Limitations on women ranged from the systematic–such as unequal pay and resignation upon marriage—to trivial matters like not being allowed to wear slacks or trousers in the office. For women like my mother, entering the workforce began a transition that was promising but uncertain. I asked my mother why she did it: why did she leave school so early, why did she enter the workplace, in a time of much uncertainty? For her, anything she thought was useful was not going to be found in a classroom and given that women still faced the prospect of having their employment restricted, or terminated, upon marriage, she decided she was going to work as early and for as long as possible before that day came. The irony was that her decision to work resulted in her meeting a young man named Keith, my father.
The Boomers have become the brunt of the once optimistic, now disenchanted Millennials.
Sometimes the Boomers selected by Andrews seem to serve merely as props to make wider points. Of Steve Jobs:
Jobs succeeded beyond his wildest hopes in building a lasting institution. Whether that is a reason to praise Jobs is uncertain; the very durability of his creation means that the rest of us now have to live in the world Silicon Valley made, a world that gives free rein to the Boomers’ worst vices, even the ones Jobs himself did not share.
Initially, Camille Paglia seemed a strange choice to represent the excesses of 1970s feminism. On the IPA website I found a 2017 article by Janet Albrechtsen (‘We Risk Being Remembered As The Generation That Forgot History’) describing Paglia as “a free thinker”, one who asked how it was that “women’s and gender studies departments came to be ‘frozen at a certain point of ideology in the 1970s’.” My best guess is that the choice of Paglia rather than a more obviously radical feminist is to separate Andrews’ big-C conservative views from those whose original position is more liberal. Paglia is worried that women are handing back their freedoms; Andrews is worried the promised freedom was a mirage, and the social outcomes have been disastrous. Indeed, having long praised Greer’s magnum opus, she would go on to criticise her as a drone and a victim of her own success. To take but one example where the fault line between the two would be evident, Andrews last year told the ‘Moment of Truth’ podcast that co-educational college dormitories (a demand of the Boomers) had been a disaster, and that:
… every time there’s a major progressive push, there is also a highly and generally negative sexual accompaniment to that, so the sexual revolution and the promiscuity, the rise of divorce, and then now having such a high level of assault on campuses and other areas where we’ve pushed so much for an equality and sameness between men and women that is now just leading to an utter degradation for sex and sexual intimacy.
I knew less about another of Andrew’s subjects, the development economist Jeffrey Sachs, of whom she has said:
… like a lot of great men, (Sachs) was born with enormous gifts and used them to good effect, but was then overtaken by hubris. He is a man who has claimed that if we only listen to him, we can eradicate extreme poverty. Not alleviate—eliminate—and that’s contradicting a higher authority than the Harvard economics department to say we need not always have the poor with us.
Sharpton and Sotomayor are used to illustrate the pitfalls of affirmative action and the (perhaps) peculiarly American approach to managing issues of race.
Andrews tends to present the Boomers—those born between 1946 and 1965, in an era defined by an increased birth rate—as a willfully obstinate bunch detached from the challenges of today’s generation. The gap between Boomers and Millennials is as wide as the one between idealism and reality, but even that depends on perceptions such as “my parents had it better than me” or “I have it better than my parents”. We should not disregard context, reflecting on the challenges and opportunities each generation faces. Arguably, whether it be irony or hypocrisy, each generation is not fighting for the next one’s benefit but simply trying to overcome its own challenges.
Many Millennials spend so long in tertiary institutions that they develop a chronic case of over-analysing. Higher education promotes itself as though you are gaining knowledge of the highest power, yet how many curious, open-minded students leave a lecture theatre with no more than a vague concept of the world rather than a proper understanding? This can help explain why so many feel more concerned, uncertain, and even disappointed with what they find out there, and reach the conclusion this was the world given to them by those who went before. Thus, the Boomers have become the brunt of the once optimistic, now disenchanted Millennials. My parents, on the other hand, went out into the world as soon as they could and dealt with reality.