P.J. O'Rourke: Boomers Got It Right (Mostly)
Whatever this generation has and hasn't done, it's worked
(This article is adapted from The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way And It Wasn't My Fault and I'll Never Do It Again by P.J. O'Rourke. Published by Atlantic Monthly Press.)
The Baby Boom, of which I’m a member, took charge of America (and hence, for all intents and purposes, the world) in 1988. Everything’s all right. It turned out okay. Better than okay.
What We're Not Proud Of
There are some things the Baby Boom has done that we’re not proud of. We used up all the weird. Weird clothes, we wore them. Weird beards, we grew them. Weird words and phrases, we said them. Weird attitudes, we had them. Thus when it came time for the next generation to alarm and surprise us with their peculiarities, they were compelled to pierce their extremities and permanently ink their exposed flesh. That must have hurt. We apologize.
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Boomers also unleashed the safety hysteria on the world. I cannot get into my car without setting off a panic among admonitory bells and buzzers cautioning me to buckle this, close that, and lock the other thing.
How We Grew Up
Anyway, we grew up. We got jobs. We made money. We spent it on cocaine. Then we made money with junk bonds for leveraged buyouts. Until the LBO market collapsed and the Savings and Loan crisis happened and some of us, such as Michael Milken, had to go to jail. Then we made money in the dot.com bubble. Hope you’re not still waiting for the Webvan grocery delivery or the chew toy you ordered from Pets.com. Then we made money with subprime mortgage lending securitization and collateralized debt obligations. Sorry about the foreclosure.
But whatever it is that the Baby Boom has and hasn’t done, it’s worked.
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How Boomers Helped the World
Look at the balance sheet. The size of the world economy has more than tripled since Baby Boom students quit paying attention in Economics class. World trade has grown enormously.
I don’t want to take all the credit myself, but I did buy a cheap Indian batik bedspread after I got my first job. The per capita gross domestic product of India, in 2013 dollars, was $691 in 1972 and is $1,734 now. Then I bought some cheap Japanese stereo equipment. Japan’s per capita GDP went from $5,104 to $47,783 in the same period. Chinese electronics were even cheaper. China’s per capita GDP has gone from $724 to $6,741. And we haven’t done so badly ourselves, with U.S. per capita GDP now at $51,248.
More to the point, morally speaking, there’s the World Bank’s index of global extreme poverty. By which they do mean extreme — people living on less than $1.25 a day. In 1981, 52 percent of people in the developing world were that poor. By 2008 (the last year for which the World Bank has complete data), it was 22 percent.
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The earth’s increase in widespread well-being and decrease in widespread war couldn’t have happened without a generation of self-indulgent Americans avid for all the good things in life and disinclined to put themselves — and hence, for all intents and purposes, the world — to too much trouble.
A Few Glitches, Too
There have been some glitches in the Baby Boom’s beneficent self-indulgence, though, especially when we were young and impetuous.
The murder rate per 100,000 Americans went from 5.1 in 1960 to 10.2 in 1980 when the Baby Boom was between 16 and 34. We’ve gotten a grip on ourselves since then. The murder rate is back to where it was in the halcyon 1950s.
A more persistent problem with the Baby Boom’s beneficence is that we aren’t as good as we claim we mean to be at spreading the benefits around. Although America’s per capita wealth is 37 percent greater than it was when the boomers began their rise to national domination, 15.1 percent of American families are now living below the official federal poverty level. In 1972, the percentage was 11.9. Having 15.1 percent of the country below the poverty line is nothing to be complimented upon.
How the Experiment Turned Out
And yet we are the best generation in history. Which goes to show history stinks.
The Baby Boom was a carefully conducted scientific experiment. Take the biggest generation in the most important country, put them in excessively happy families, give them too much affection, extravagant freedom, scant responsibility, plenty of money, a modicum of peace (if they dodged the draft), a profusion of opportunity, and a collapse of traditional social standards.
You get better people. Well, not better. Taken one by one, we’re as maddeningly smug as Abel and as vile as Cain, the way people always have been. But we’re better behaved. Although better behaved isn’t the right way to put it either.
We’re willful, careless, rash, vain, indulged, and entitled — with larger than life personalities, providing the world with amusement, hearts in the right place even when our private parts aren’t, thinking noble thoughts somewhat thoughtlessly and being high-minded in a mindless sort of way.