Blogs > Cliopatria > Leonard Steinhorn: Baby Boomers ... Why They're the Greater Generation

Jan 6, 2006 12:53 am

Leonard Steinhorn: Baby Boomers ... Why They're the Greater Generation

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication at American University in Washington, DC. He is the author of the newly published book, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy.

He was interviewed by HNN's Rick Shenkman at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association on January 5, 2006.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Tim Matthewson - 3/8/2006

Remember, Hillary and Bill and George and Rush are all Boomers.

Tim Matthewson - 3/8/2006

A generation is not a very useful anayltical tool. It has all the sophistication of a meat axe, but it has none of the precision. I hope that the commentators above know what they are talking about, but after reading said comments, I've not got any idea who or what you are talking about. Said generational talk is about as useful as the discussions of the Red States and the Blue Stations, ideas which the press has finally decided to abandone. As much as I enjoyed reading Steinhorn's book, and appreciate his defense of the boomers, I believe that concepts like the Boomers and Greatest Generation should be abandoned for more precise concepts.

the blue nomad - 1/9/2006

I believe the boomer political legacy will rest on some combination of the following:

1) the successful promotion of democracy in the Arab-Muslim world, with the Arab world becoming perhaps something like a democratic, postmodern version of its premodern Ottoman self, with weak central governance, stronger local governance, and open borders

2) tax reform replacing the current, regressive and byzantine system with a simple, progressive consumption tax

3) a new energy infrastructure combining nuclear, clean coal, and renewable power

4) campaign finance reform requiring both corporations and public employee unions to receive shareholder and member permission before donating to political campaigns

5) a national health insurance system introducing market forces instead of rationing

6) a Constutitional Amendment guaranteeing a right-to-privacy

7) criminal justice reform ending the death penalty, mandatory minimums, and three-strikes laws

8) political reform devolving far more power to states and localities not simply for more political, economic, and cultural self-determination but in the recognition that in the post-Cold War world localism is a better buffer against the threat of periodic regional and global systems failure than central governments

9) repeal of the bankruptcy bill and new overtime rules

10) a progressive school voucher system

11) reforms to the international system making political and economic institutions more accountable to those they serve

the blue nomad - 1/9/2006

I would add (just in case it needs to be said) that boomers may share some collective characteristics and experiences but in the end they like every generation are a collection of individuals. They invlude one of my two parents, many of my teachers, and mentors, coaches, doctors, and professors. They're not some kind of cartoon tribe that can be roundly reduced to a simply sociological formula, and they are many of my favorite people.

It is too early to judge their legacy, especially with respect to policymaking. Much of the past twenty-five years has been a period of combined economic and cultural laissez faire rivaled in the last century only by the 1920s. It has been a frivolous time, a mean time, when little was possible.

The power of the boomers in Washington and state capitals is peaking, and they will be judged I believe in this regard by that they do or do not do in the coming years, rather than what they have done. To render any final conclusions today is like judging FDR and Hoover's generation in 1931 (or thereabouts), when they would have left us little more than prohibition, mean-spirited criminal justice policies, and a crashed, ponsi scheme economy.

But won't someone just admit that claiming one's own generation is "the greatest" (I'm not sure any generation is greatest) is slightly presumptuous?

the blue nomad - 1/8/2006

"Just ignore the racial segregation, the sexual inequality, the anti-Semitism, the unethical political system, the prudish values, and the exclusive society this "greatest generation" had a great deal of responsibility for. "

The great achievements of the boomers are economic and cultural. Unless there is a significant course correction in the coming years, and I believe that is quite possible, their political legacy will be a more dubious one.

As I said, the Civil Rights movement was brought to full fruition by the Silent generation (born between the mid twenties and early forties). The bulk of the leadership as well as the bulk of the foot soldiers were Silents.

On almost every policy front, the boomer political elite of both parties has distinguished itself by its reactionary tendencies. Taxation has grown less progressive since the boomers came to power. Job security has declined, and a greater burden of risk has been further shifted to the middle class. Criminal justice policy has not been so regressive since the 1920s, and spending has arguably never been more reckless.

About the only issue or set of issues boomers have so far contributed a genuinely progressive legacy is gay rights, but in much the same way that many of the reactionary policy trends (on economic matters, criminal justice, etc) began with the GIs and Silents so did the modern gay rights movement. The first gay elected official - Harvey Milk - was a Silent, and the first gay rights initiatives were passed by Silent-dominated city councils.

Look: the younger generations are not especially obsessed with the narcissistic tendencies of the boomer generation; we could care less. What the bulk of us want is a new fair deal for the middle and working class of all generations, and for our political elite to stop dicking around with marginal nonsense (as in cultural warfare) and get to work building a legacy worthy of their noble pretensions.

Ryan Portillo - 1/8/2006

According to the title of your post, you’ve given the Boomers a dark legacy. Period. Well, I suppose you’re qualified. Just ignore the racial segregation, the sexual inequality, the anti-Semitism, the unethical political system, the prudish values, and the exclusive society this "greatest generation" had a great deal of responsibility for. Almost sounds like we’ve come full circle today.

And "As young adults, boomers went on the greatest crime spree in American history." What an amazing statement.

Nice pen name. Isn’t the "blue nomad" the costume of a comic book hero?

the blue nomad - 1/6/2006

#1) I don't want to diminish the courage and accomplishments of boomers, anymore than we should look two-dimensionally at the legacy of the GI generation (which is not wholly positive; they selfishly transferred a great deal of wealth to themselves in their middle and later years, and had in some collective way a nagging sense of entitlement), but the GI generation you'll note never characterized itself as "the greatest generation."

2) Certainly some boomers protested the Vietnam War, but the boomers as a whole have supported every major war in the past forty years (including Vietnam) to a greater extent than any other generation alive at the time, even while opposing the Vietnam-era draft to a greater extent than any other generation alive at the time.

3) Some boomers did fight for free speech, the restoration of civil liberties, and cultural liberalization, but the counter-reformation was also led by boomers, and as they entered midlife boomers were on the vanguard of pressing for warning labels on "indecent" rock n roll and rap records, stiffer penalties for broadcast indecency, curbs on abortion rights and gay rights, etc.

3) The boomer political elite did not initiate the degredation of our political culture and near-total corruption of the system by corporate and public employee union dollars, but they are the generation that brought these bad tendencies to full fruition. The White House and Congress have not been so owned by special interests in decades. And it was a member of the interwar "silent" generation John McCain most responsible for attempting to reform the system, not the boomers.

4) Likewise, the boomers had little to do with the Civil Rights Movement (MLK, and most of the other prominent figures were silents). And boomers had much less to do with many of the progressive legislative accomplishments of the 1960s and 1970s than the GIs and Silents. Ralph Nader was a Silent, as were most of the founders of the environment movement, and the legislators responsible for the Church Committee.

5) Silents were also the originators of the 1960s counterculture, and responsible for much of the great popular culture of the time. Dylan and most of the Beatles were Silents. A majority of the best films of the so-called New Hollywood (in the late 1960s and 1970s) were written, and produced by Silents. Polanski, Allen, Scorcese, Coppola, Robert Towne, Mike Nichols and Robert Evans were among the many Silent giants of the era.

After being granted enormous creative freedom in both the music industry and Hollywood, the boomers turned the entertainment industry into a marketing industrial complex where the cult of the blockbuster prevailed. The boomer-invented committee system replaced the creative anarchy of the late 60s and 70s, and in music acts were no longer given three or four records to fail before being dropped. For the boomer suits, the bottom line was the bottom line.

This forced many generation x filmmakers and acts to work outside the system, starting their own labels and production companies, and taking on far more risk themselves. Even the best generation x acts who remained within the corporate system were exploited by the boomer elite in a way that artists had not been writ large for decades.

6) As young adults, boomers went on the greatest crime spree in American history, and were the beneficiaries of the soft-on-crime policies of the 1960s and 1970s. As boomers have aged, the crime rate in that age group has risen.

The crime rate among young people began to fall as soon as the first generation xers began to come of age, but generation x was treated to a boomer-led crackdown on crime beginning in the 1980s.

7) Test scores and academic performance fell as the boomers were growing up, and began to rise again as soon as the first generation xers entered school (despite the fact that the schools of xers were being defunded by the tax revolts of the 1970s, and that boomers were implicated in those revolts). It was not xers who had "put a nation at risk" but the boomers before them.

8) There can be little doubt that boomers have had less economic security than their Silent and GI elders, but they were the principal beneficiaries of one of the longest economic expansions in American history. Boomers were able to get in on the ground floor of the "long boom" of the 1980s and 1990s. They were also the principal beneficiaries of the tax cuts of recent decades.

They will in turn leave generations x and y a hollowed out economy, a staggering burden of debt (the medicare costs for boomers are expected to run into the tens of trillions), a crumbling infrastructure, and a constellation of policies hostile to the interests of the American middle and working class.

9) In academe, the "liberal" boomer elite has progressively chipped away at tenure, and fought attempts at unionization by adjuncts and TAs. More than half of professors today are adjuncts, and no small numbers of those are paid substandard wages, have limited job security, and benefits.

10) Public policy has not been so hostile to the interests of the American middle and working class in a number of decades, and it is arguably worse today in any number of ways than under Hebert Hoover; the boomers, you'll note, still dominate the Washington elite. Even Democrats in Congress helped to give the repellant bankruptcy bill a veto-proof majority.

11) The most under-appreciated generation of the twentieth century is for certain not the boomers (whose self-regard will put them in the spotlight for decades to come, whether they deserve it or not) but either the Silents or the Losts. I've mentioned some of the contributions of the Silent generation, but the Losts (born in the 1880s and 1890s) were a deeply self-sacrificing generation.

They suffered the worst brunt of the Great Depression, and paid exorbinant taxes for the war efforts. Many of them died in poverty ("the Other America" was primarily about the Losts). They were the policy architects of the New Deal (FDR was not a Lost, but his policy people were to a great extent), World War Two, and the post-war economic and international order. Truman and Ike were both Losts. They were also the greatest literary and visual arts generation in American history.

12) The boomers still have a window to redeem their legacy, and demonstrate that they some regard for the national interest, and a fair deal for all generations, but that window is closing, and from the sound of this book it doesn't even seem that some boomers are willing to acknowledge what they have and haven't done for the country.