P. J. O’Rourke on the Baby Boom Generation

In a career spanning four decades and counting, P. J. O’Rourke has written twenty books on subjects as diverse as the antics of Congress (Parliament of Whores), economic development (Eat the Rich), U.S. foreign policy (Peace Kills), and civil turmoil in the world’s hotspots (Holidays in Hell).

On February 13, the humorist and Founding Member of the Independent Institute’s Board of Advisors delighted an overflow crowd at our Oakland, Calif., headquarters with witty insights drawn from his latest book, The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way . . . And It Wasn’t My Fault . . . And I’ll Never Do It Again.

What sets apart the Baby Boomers from other age groups in American history? It’s true that the 75 million born in the United States from 1946 through 1964 reflect the post-war spike in birth rates. It’s also true that they became famous for challenging parental authority and other institutions. But a diagnosis of “demographics and defiance” misses the heart of the matter.

The fundamental defining characteristic of Baby Boomers, according to O’Rourke, is their emphasis on personal identity, an often reckless passion that gave him plenty of material to poke fun at.

“We are the generation who created the self, made the firmament of the self, divided the light of the self from darkness of the self, and said: ‘Let there be self.’. . . [But] this is not to say we’re a selfish generation,” O’Rourke said. In fact, Baby Boomers often have wildly opposing views on ethics, psychology, and politics while still sharing an obsession with self-discovery.

One source of differences among the Baby Boomers is age cohort. O’Rourke likened them to a school with four class levels.

  • Seniors. Those born in the late 1940s often rebelled the most against their parents’ values and societal norms. This class level includes Hillary Clinton as well as Cheech and Chong, but a typical member is sort of an average of them, O’Rourke said.
  • Juniors. By the time those born in the early to middle 1950s came of age, their parents had thrown in the towel, having been worn down by shouting matches with the older siblings. Consequently, the Juniors often indulged their whims and vices with fewer hindrances—although some eventually cleaned up their act and became Silicon Valley’s early innovators.
  • Sophomores. The Baby Boom ethos had permeated society by the time those born in the late 1950s reached adolescence. Although the Sophomores “gladly accepted” the spirit of their predecessors, they were often more cautious, having witnessed casualties of libertine hedonism. “Some even sneaked off and got MBAs,” O’Rourke added.
  • Freshmen. Those born in the early 1960s especially interest O’Rourke because they were too young to have visceral feelings about the Vietnam War and other events that shaped the Baby Boom. “Feminism had gone from a pressing social issue to Maude, a TV comedy show that their parents liked,” he said. “And Martin Luther King was a day off from work.”

The Freshmen treated many upheavals as background noise to tune out. This explains why Barack Obama’s membership in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church had no media traction: The media realized that Obama just wasn’t paying attention when his pastor spouted outrageous opinions and conspiracy theories.

O’Rourke concluded by predicting that the Baby Boom ethos will engulf the entire world, bringing benefits such as fewer totalitarian movements and costs such as a narcissistic global culture. Wars will continue to be fought, but massive conventional wars that rely on draftees will become a thing of the past. Why? Because, O’Rourke said, “everyone will have a letter from his doctor about how he’s allergic to camouflage.”

* * *

Video, Audio and Transcript: P.J. O’Rourke “Talkin’ ’Bout His Generation” (Oakland, Calif., 2/13/14)

[This post is an expanded version of an item that appeared in the April 15, 2014, issue of The Lighthouse. For a free subscription to this weekly newsletter, please enter your email address here.]

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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