BOOMER, GEN X, MILLENNIAL, Gen Z, zoomer: age-based cohorts in America are capricious designations that no one should take seriously. And yet it often seems like everyone does.
In some ways, this comes as no surprise: group belonging is an ancient human instinct. Total resistance to group identities, even those based on criteria as circumstantial as one’s birth year, is mere misanthropy. Just as important are the provenance of these categories: generational cohorts were the invention of advertising agencies, and they continue to be reinforced by a barrage of ads and ad-adjacent clickbait.
Until a postwar baby boom begat the generation now named for it, Americans did not think of themselves as belonging to population segments organized by birth year. In this sense, the baby boomers were pioneers: theirs was the first branded generation. It would not be until later that the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation would receive their names, post facto.
Boomers were the first generational cohort to grow up alongside a television, and for that reason, the first whose childhood and adolescent development was powerfully shaped by that technology and by the saturation of audiovisual advertising it enabled. The effects of this experiment, according to the conservative intellectual and columnist Helen Andrews, have not been salubrious. In Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster (2021), Andrews sets out to demolish the reputation of the baby boomers as a peace and freedom–loving generation that fought for justice and changed America for the better.
Except, of course, she’s already too late. By 2021, we hardly need a 200-page book to argue that boomers are a bunch of privileged blowhards when a simple tweet will do. The collective rage of millions of so-called millennials and Gen-Z Americans — really, most anyone under 50 — has coalesced into a 10-character catchphrase that condenses our envy of the boomers’ privileges and our contempt for their hypocrisy: OK, Boomer. The expression has already become a cliché, which is why Andrews ups the ante: “The baby boomers,” she proclaims, “have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.” Initially, I read this as attention-seeking hyperbole: succulent bait for reviewers, but a joke on anyone who took it seriously. But by the time I finished Andrews’s witty and entertaining book, I was quite convinced that she means what she says.
Boomers is structured around short profiles of six baby boomers notable for their achievements — and, in Andrews’s judgment, for their crass ambition and phony idealism. She profiles, in turn, the deeds of technologist Steve Jobs (b. 1955), director and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (b. 1961), development economist Jeffrey Sachs (b. 1954), literary and cultural critic Camille Paglia (b. 1947), the Reverend Al Sharpton (b. 1954), and Justice Sonia Sotomayor (b. 1954). Despite their individual successes, these exemplars are, for Andrews, typical of their generation for their ruinous effect on their respective professions: “In all the fields touched by the six boomers profiled here — technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics, law — what they passed on to their children was worse than what they inherited.” Taking these six and their careers as emblematic of a broader generational malaise might seem to run the risk of prosecuting collective guilt by association, but Andrews aims to do just that.
It isn’t long, however, before Andrews loses sight of her mark. On page four of the introductory chapter, where Andrews enumerates the principal charges of her generational indictment, she writes:
For all their claims to be women’s greatest liberators, it would be hard to convince an impartial observer that boomer feminism has left women better off when one in five white women are on antidepressants. Feminism, for the boomers, mostly meant channeling women into paid employment on an unprecedented scale. Women have always worked, but never in American history did women outnumber men in the labor force until January 2020. Boomers promised that employment was the only way for women to be fulfilled and independent, when any socialist could have told them that there is no one more dependent than a wage worker.
The diatribe against “1970s feminism” that follows will remind some readers of Christopher Lasch’s searing assessments of second-wave feminism and its relationship to depressed wages, and to what he perceived as the decline of family and community relationships in the United States. Though it effectively exiled him from the left, Lasch’s critique of what might now be called neoliberal feminism raised questions that remain pertinent today. Whereas Lasch attributed the demise of meaningful civic life to a culture of narcissism that distracted the left from material objectives, Andrews lays the blame for this social calamity at the feet of the two women she identifies as its intellectual authors: Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. But in doing so, she has not exactly fortified her thesis: neither Friedan (1921–2006) nor Steinem (b. 1934) is a boomer.
Andrews’s oversight here is really more of an overreach: she has conflated an 18-year generational cohort with something on the scale of an historical period, and professional-managerial class boomers with their entire generation. There is a reason for this confusion: Andrews has modeled her project on Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, a book of essays on noted Victorians who, Strachey endeavored to show, were not as great as they were commonly thought to be. Strachey’s aim was to destroy once and for all the sentimental notion that superior restraint and decorum set the Victorians apart from their immediate forebears — and more certainly from their decadent progeny. Andrews similarly hopes to dismantle any remaining belief in the boomers’ self-mythologizing as a generation of emancipated rebels.
“The Victorians had less influence on the world when Strachey was done with them,” Andrews writes in her introduction. “To do the same for the boomers was so obviously a good idea.” While this is indeed an excellent idea from the standpoint of a marketing department, it has seduced Andrews into making simplistic historical judgments — such as attributing 70 years of social transformation to the hubris of the baby boomers. So when she criticizes the boomers for having a bias for “methods of advertising over the methods of persuasion,” as a result of their indoctrination by the ad industry, the critique seems more than a little hypocritical.
This isn’t to say that Andrews’s scorn for the boomers is unwarranted. “The main result of the boomers’ involvement in politics,” she writes, “has been the destruction of the Left,” even as they “refuse to admit they have sold out.” The boomers, she claims, “took what was supposed to be the most effective mechanism in history for guarding the rights of the disadvantaged, the left-wing parties of the Western democracies, and seized them for the wealthy and privileged.” This might be a provocative statement to make among the centrist liberals who make up the professional-managerial class, but disdain for Clintonism places Andrews in good company on the left: it is a view shared by anti-identitarian socialists on the so-called Dirtbag or “brocialist” left. The boomers took the benefits of a robustly unionized workforce and publicly financed American university system but voted in their own self-interest, delivering diminished opportunities, hollowed institutions, and unconscionable debt to their progeny.
Andrews considers these failures the results of a generation that continues to wrap itself in the mantle of idealism even as it tenaciously defends its material interests. To be sure, her analysis of Jobs’s utopian capitalism, Sachs’s neocolonial humanitarianism, Sharpton’s social-justice shakedowns, and Sotomayor’s self-regarding jurisprudence are damning for the ways they expose the arrogance and hypocrisy of her subjects. She is at her most compelling when tracing how each of her six boomers rose to prominence by hitching their wagons to specific social trends and fashionable beliefs. For Jobs, this was the idea that everyone deserves to be, or at least feel, creative. Sachs exported the boomers’ high-handed humanitarianism to foreign contexts he knew little about, leaving havoc in his wake. Sharpton understood that among liberals, boomer narcissism included the need to be perceived as having “high-status views on race” — something that could be bought and sold through transactions with his association. (The nationally famous DEI grifter Robin DiAngelo, born 1956, might have made an even better illustration of this point.)
But are these trends particular to the boomers, or has their prevalence merely coincided with boomer lifespans? Andrews chronicles Sotomayor’s ascent to power alongside the rise of an entire subsector of the legal profession, one that would fundamentally change the national understanding of justice: public interest law. She means to show that “activist” liberal Justices like those on the Warren Court were fundamentally antidemocratic in their tendency to issue sweeping rulings that effectively made national policy from the bench. Why should so much power, she asks, be vested in nine unelected officials, over whom the public has no control? After decades of conservative rulings by the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts, increasing numbers of those on the left are inclined to agree: the stakes of Supreme Court nominations have become unduly high due to the politicization of the judiciary. This process of degradation, Andrews asserts, is one that started on the left.
Sotomayor is presented, in this context, as a creature of our corroded legal system, zealous in her enthusiasm to overturn any precedent that impedes the realization of her personal vision for the way America ought to be. This portrait of judicial arrogance is complemented by a barbed biographical sketch of the justice, one that exposes her obnoxious self-importance and propensity for bullying her opponents. But if such a Justice and her cavalier attitude toward the law are the results of the baleful influence of public interest law, then how, even going by Andrews’s own account, are the boomers the ones to blame? No one on the Warren Court was a born after 1917.
The chapter on Camille Paglia is where Andrews comes closest to proving a more defensible, secondary thesis of the book: “Looking closely at these six,” she writes in the book’s introductory chapter, “I realized just how often the boomers were their own first victims.” Paglia, one of the 20th century’s last public intellectuals, is no longer a household name. She is still writing, but she no longer commands the audience she possessed in the 1990s, when she made appearances on late-night TV and was profiled in Vanity Fair. For much of that decade, Paglia was everywhere. Today, despite the renewed relevance of her 1990 masterpiece, Sexual Personae, for conversations on queer and trans reinterpretations of gender during a period of imperial decadence, no one seems to read or discuss her work anymore. Andrews explains that this is due in large measure to the triumph of cultural studies over the sort of rigorous literary scholarship on which Paglia built the foundation of her career. Ironically, Andrews points out, Paglia perhaps did more than anyone else to legitimate the low standards of cultural studies scholarship that she often decries — she was on the front lines of validating it in the public square through her swashbuckling essays on Hollywood and Madonna.
Here again, Andrews’s argument recalls Lasch’s laments about the decline of standards and expectations in secondary and college education. But while Lasch remained resigned, if emphatic, in his withering analysis, Andrews has a tendency toward the glib and jejune, her sarcasm sometimes collapsing into unintentional self-parody: “As a woman, if I had been born in another century,” she writes, resuming Lasch’s critique, “my schooling might well have stopped at age twelve. On the other hand, in this age I attended some of the best schools in the world until I was twenty-one and still didn’t receive an education that those benighted eras would have considered standard. Is this necessarily an improvement?” Yes, it is, and questioning it makes Andrews sound incredibly daft. After all, it’s not as though anything were stopping her from pursuing a monastic life of the mind instead of churning out political punditry for right-of-center magazines.
I do not mean to disparage Andrews’s columns: she is a capable writer of penetrating insight. Her essay on shame culture is one of the most compassionate and thoughtful meditations on internet shaming to be published thus far. Likewise, her essay “The New Ruling Class,” on the rise of the meritocracy, is one of the shrewdest analyses of contemporary culture that I’ve yet read. In their scope, rigor, and depth of research, her essays sometimes recall the finest work of first-rate cultural historians such as Lasch and T. J. Jackson Lears — but her unduly confident contrarianism more closely resembles the bathos of late-career Christopher Hitchens. Andrews will no doubt be gratified by the comparisons to Hitchens and particularly to Lasch — whose name, quite curiously, appears nowhere in her text. If I insist too much on the comparison, it is mainly because she has already demonstrated that she can meet a higher standard than the one she meets in Boomers.