US & Canada

The last baby boom story ever - I hope

From left: John Boehner, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Clinton and Karl Rove
Image caption Talkin' 'bout my generation? From left: John Boehner, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Clinton and Karl Rove

Here we go again. Another round of articles about baby boomers, this one triggered by the fact that in 2011 the first of that post-war demographic bulge hit retirement age. There's even a highly-publicised novel about baby boomers, We Never Had It So Good, by Orange Prize-winner Linda Grant coming out this month.

The rush of wind you just felt going past your ear is my scream. There is only so much of this someone born in the middle of the boom can take.

We journalists can be awfully lazy and enjoy re-hashing a cliche, but this is too much. A Google search of "Boomers 65" this past week brought more than five million items.

I trace the origins of the boomer boom to the launch of USA Today in 1982. USAT's revolutionary short, pithy writing style and colourful visual lay-out was made for two things: pie chart graphs and catchwords.

The catchiest word they came up with was "boomer".

Irresistible cliche

Combine the catchword with a multi-coloured pie chart showing just how big a slice of everything people born in this 15-year cohort were consuming, and you had the beginning of an irresistible cliche.

Image caption Who is to blame for getting the boomer ball rolling?

The idea of a baby boom had been around for a long while, and The Who - with the song My Generation - had planted the notion of being part of a "generation" in the culture, but USA Today injected it with a pop culture/marketing hook that has proved irresistible to US editors for almost 30 years.

A whole realm of cultural stereotyping has been built on the notion of being part of a "generation".

Without this idea of a "Boomer Generation", it's hard to imagine the idea of the "Greatest Generation" or "Generation X" spawning their own set of cliches.

To my horror, the generation cliche has taken root in Britain. The quality papers here have taken full advantage of the boomer retirement age. During the holiday period, when staff was short and news was slow, they filled up their pages with boomer horror stories.

My confession

A member of the British Cabinet, David Willetts, nicknamed Two Brains, has even written a book that distils the essence of the cliche into its title: The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And Why They Should Give It Back.

Now, I have a confession to make. I was a single guy in New York when USA Today was launched and I quickly figured out their boomer thing.

I was unemployed at the time and used to chat young ladies up in bars by telling them I was the baby boomer correspondent of USA Today, and that I had retired because they had paid me to write all the articles in advance about how the progress of the population bulge through time would affect US society.

It was all so predictable. Boomers get married, boomers are re-shaping the housing market, boomers are having children, boomers are taking control of boardrooms, the White House etc, right up to the present storyline of boomers retiring.

You will not be surprised to hear that line of chat didn't work all that well. But you may be surprised to find out that the number of women who actually believed what I was telling them was true - for a while.

But why anyone would believe it or buy the cliche is beyond me.

Different strokes

The idea that people have something in common because they are born in the same approximate time period is akin to newspaper theories of astrology.

My wife is a Virgo. She is extraordinarily neat, well-organised and critical, just like the star-sign literature says she should be. I am also a Virgo, but I'm a slob and hopelessly disorganised, just like the star sign literature says I shouldn't be.

You can see that the same kind of mismatching when you start thinking about baby boomers and the very different lives they lead.

Here are two boomers born less than year apart - but what do Ronald Reagan's would-be assassin John Hinckley Jr and Goldman Sachs chairman Lloyd Blankfein have in common? Or Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who tried to knock off President Gerald Ford, and former Vice President Dan Quayle, similarly close in age?

Perhaps the most apposite comparison would be between Speaker of the House John Boehner and Bruce Springsteen. The speaker and the Boss were born six weeks apart, into the same social class.

Could two men have come out of that experience with more widely differing world views and ways of conducting themselves?

For an American, there is something quite dangerous in lumping everyone born between 1946 and 1960 together - and it is not just evidenced by the maniacal, anonymous postings on newspaper comment threads.

The boomer obsession takes away from accurate historical knowledge of a remarkably turbulent period in American history, one that is not focused on a single clarifying event, such as World War II, the great Depression or the Civil War.

American society is still living in the aftershocks of the social changes of the 1960s.

Our politics are sundered by arguments that can be traced back to those times.

We wilfully avoid discussing the impact that the decade of assassination, inner city rioting and dramatic social progress had on the body politic. Instead, this cliche of some unified entity called the baby boom becomes a way of avoiding memory.

Sheer coincidence

Boomers are the "Me Generation" - selfish, self-important, self-dramatising, hoovering up all available resources - to paraphrase from some of the comments in British papers in the past two weeks.

Image caption Baby boomers: Sharing nothing except an era

To all those anony-mice who post those thoughtless comments and to all those editors and reporters who perpetuate the cliche, let me close on a personal note: I started college in Ohio in the autumn of 1968.

That same fall Republican media-master Karl Rove, conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide Scooter Libby also entered university.

I'm sorry, I cannot see what our lives and world views have in common beside coincidence of birth year.

And coincidence is all those of us born after the war have in common. It's the same kind of coincidence that saw Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini born in the same 14-year period as Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill - and my impoverished, immigrant great-grandparents. What would you call that generation?

Editors, I'm begging you. Make this your New Year's Resolution: no more stories containing the word "boomer".

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