Volumes have been written about the over-analyzed baby boomer generation. Questions now are being asked whether boomers have been good or bad for America. Have we made a contribution or not? Part of the answer, of course, could be “who cares?!” But that does not quell the satire of P. J. O’Rourke.
The Baby Boom, that largest of American generations, is a bundle of contradictions. Its signal characteristics are self-absorption and short attention spans, but also tolerance, nonviolence, a tendency toward political engagement (for better or worse) and, best of all, stability and optimism — qualities that have shaped contemporary American culture in equal measure.
So says the satirist and political writer P.J. O’Rourke. His simultaneously hilarious and brainy new book, “The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way,” holds a cracked magnifying glass up to the generation of Americans born between the end of World War II and the early 1960s. Sifting through demographic and economic data and combining the results with generous portions of personal memories, O’Rourke finds much to deplore in the boomer character, but even more to cherish and celebrate.
O’Rourke at age 66 is a boomer. Among his many interests, he is a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard and a frequent panelist on the Chicago-based NPR radio quiz show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.”
O’Rourke was interviewed by phone from his home in rural New England by Chicago-based Printers Row. Here is an excerpt:
Q: The Baby Boom got started, I gather, at the end of World War II, when the servicemen came home from the war and got busy in the bedroom.
A: Absolutely, but they got busy in court, too. The divorce rate in 1946 was higher than it ever had been and as high as it ever would be until the ’70s. The reason was that prior relationships had not endured the strain of war. When somebody came back from a three-year stint overseas and found he had a 2-year-old kid (laughs).
My own dad was separated before the war. He and my mother would have married immediately after the war except for, ah, he had to get divorced first. And then there was a two-year lag before I came along. And I actually think that partly explains why the peak Baby Boom birth year is 1947, not 1946.
Q: You acknowledge in the book that there are risks in making what you call “generational generalizations,” but you spend a lot of time doing just that. Maybe you could tick off your biggest generalizations about the baby boomers. From reading the book, I’m guessing the first would be self-absorption.
A: No, the first characteristic I would ascribe to the Baby Boom is one of stability and optimism. This was especially true with the older cohort of the boomers, the kids who were born, say, from ’46 through the late ’50s. They were born mostly into two-parent families. The nation’s economy was on a very steady rise. By the middle ’50s, the median family income in the United States had increased by about $10,000 from the median average between the two world wars.
Now, do I think the baby boomers tend to be self-absorbed? I do. Does growing up in stable, prosperous, optimistic circumstances lead to self-absorption? That’s a nice question, but I don’t think I try to go deep enough in the book to answer it.
I think it would be easier for me to list the generalizations that I make — and you can’t do a book like this, especially one that tries to be funny, without making some generalizations — that I had some discomfort with. I tried to address medians — where half of the country was this way and the other half was that way — but that doesn’t speak to minorities.
Q: So the surprise for some readers will be that you do see some upside in the Baby Boom in terms of the way it shaped the culture we now have.
A: Yes, by and large it’s been positive. Whether the Baby Boom’s effect on politics has been positive is maybe not so clear. The baby boomers’ politics have covered a wide band of silliness, from the Weather Underground to the Timothy McVeigh types. The great majority of us are well in the middle of that spectrum, but still, there’s been both leftie silliness and right-wing silliness. There’s also been a kind of general enthusiasm for politics that you don’t get out of the Greatest Generation, who are much more inclined to say, “Ah, they’re all bums!”
Q: And do you, as a boomer yourself, have a tendency toward navel-gazing?
A: Ah, well, my navel is of course more prominent than it used to be (laughs), although nowadays I guess one gets to gaze at the top of it. (More laughter.) I’d say I’m probably about average in that respect, although as you know, writing for a living is a somewhat lonely and self-absorbed enterprise — as opposed to selling cars, which is what my dad and granddad did.
[Source: Printers Row.]