- "Most Millennials definitely realize that sexual liberation was a false promise, but the tragedy is, it doesn't matter." Tweet This
- "That's the basic Millennial tragedy: we know we need to make better choices than the Boomers did, but because of the wreckage they left us, it's a lot harder for us to make those better choices, sometimes impossible." Tweet This
"Okay, Boomer" is now a meme and a gut reaction for many, but it also reflects a deeper judgment on the Boomer Generation—that it threw out a stable cultural and economic American inheritance in favor of something that might have felt good in the moment but ended up wreaking terrible effects on subsequent generations. In Helen Andrews's excellent new book, Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster, she puts it this way:
Every generation is dealt its own challenges and handles them as well as it can. The boomers were dealt an uncommonly good hand, which makes it truly incredible that they should have screwed up so badly. They inherited prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions. They passed on debt, inequality, moribund churches, and a broken democracy.
When reading Boomers, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry, as Andrews skewers eminent figures like Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Jeffrey Sachs, Camille Paglia, Al Sharpton, and Sonia Sotomayor. Whether you laugh or cry as you read, it's clear that all of this has important implications for marriage and family. I recently asked Andrews, a senior editor at The American Conservative, five questions about the book, and her answers are featured here (this interview has been lightly edited for clarity).
Michael Toscano: In Boomers, you profile six individuals whose lives you believe encapsulate how the high aspirations and idealism of the Boomer generation resulted in cultural catastrophe and hard reality, such as Steve Jobs (technology), Camille Paglia (sexual liberation), and Al Sharpton (civic protest and race). Each one of these individuals affected the family. But if you were to add a chapter on marriage and the family, who would you profile and why?
Helen Andrews: [I’d add] Andrew Sullivan. He changed the definition of family almost single-handed with his crusade for gay marriage. Also, I like to pick Boomers with a touch of irony to their stories, and in Sullivan's case, the irony is that he was persuading the gay movement to come around on bourgeois family stability at a time when bourgeois family stability itself was in steep decline. By the time gay marriage became a reality, "marriage" no longer meant anything like what it had meant when Sullivan was growing up.
Toscano: The essence of Boomerism, as you describe it, is the aspiration to achieve individual liberation and the attempt to realize it through different tools of power, such as tech, media, economics, the global market, sex, civil unrest, and litigation. Focusing on tech, your first chapter contains an interesting account of British sociologist Richard Hoggart's work on the decline of folk culture in the face of mass culture. Whereas before, the poorer classes made their own art and entertainment, mass culture turned them into consumers of entertainment. What effect do you think this has had on family life in particular?
Andrews: A good measure of the decline of folk culture is participatory singing. Music is still a part of people's lives, but now it's through buying records and going to concerts, not through getting together with friends and family and singing and dancing and playing instruments. That makes a huge difference in family life. It's nice when your Boomer dad gets his old Jethro Tull LPs out and shares with you the music he grew up with, but it just doesn't convey the same sense of inheritance and generational continuity as a father teaching his son how to play guitar or how to sing old ballads.
Toscano: The individuals you profile are all on the left politically. But I wonder about conservative expressions of this. Are there conservative boomers who might appear in a sequel to Boomers and who might they be?
Andrews: Not every Boomer was liberal, but the Boomer legacy is a liberal legacy. I just couldn't think of a conservative Boomer who was influential enough. I had the same problem coming up with a faith leader. I wanted to profile a priest or a pastor, but I couldn't think of anyone big enough—which itself says something about the Boomer generation.
Toscano: In your chapter on Camille Paglia, you critique her for being unable to grasp the devastating effects of sexual liberation on American society. Do you see trends in American society that might offer some surprising hope—signs that young people are starting to realize that they've been sold a bill of goods and that they deserve better?
Andrews: Most Millennials definitely realize that sexual liberation was a false promise, but the tragedy is, it doesn't matter. It's not going to un-invent Tinder, or abolish Pornhub, or undo the college degree explosion that tilted the dating market against educated women. That's the basic Millennial tragedy: we know we need to make better choices than the Boomers did, but because of the wreckage they left us, it's a lot harder for us to make those better choices, sometimes impossible.
Toscano: Almost two years ago now, you published a phenomenal op-ed in The New York Times, titled, "Where Are the Socially Conservative Women in This Fight?" The fight in question being the fight for the family, a battle that rages on. If you were to adopt that mantle, what would a post-boomer case for the family consist of?
Andrews: I think a lot of Millennials are already there intellectually; they just don't want to come out and say what they really feel because they've been taught that it's reactionary to want to stay home with your kids. So, it's not a matter of making any new arguments so much as it is just saying as proudly, without apology: it's okay to want babies and want to raise them yourself, and to want society to make that goal achievable for the average American.