Way back in the 60s, the giant group of people called the boomers came of age. They were young and liberal and helped to change the world, but they were a very self-absorbed lot on the whole. They’d gotten most everything that they wanted growing up, they had nuclear families to love them and plenty of attention. But they weren’t typically taught a lot about responsibility generally and even less about responsibility to the human race. See, their parents protected them from the big bad world out there for the most part, so all they really had to focus on was themselves.
And they accomplished some amazing things when they were young and liberal and believed in freedom and liberty an the future on the moon and all those things. And then a strange thing happened. The started getting married, settling down and having children. But, fundamentally, they hadn’t changed much yet. They were still the self absorbed liberal let it fall where it may crowd for the most part. They to a huge degree abandoned their children to raise themselves in pursuit of their own careers, hobbies and personal lives. They were too busy focusing on themselves and ruling the world to have time for those pesky children the way their parents had. And so they spent less time with their families, less time bonding in their communities than their parents had.
They became the ME generation. A group of people adrift from all the communities and families and other things that had traditionally functioned to tie people together in this world from one generation to the next. They were so adrift that for the first time ever in our history, they were too busy with themselves to have kids of their own. Their children became the first generation to be smaller than the one that came before. And without those families and communities and externally focused work, they became pretty hollow inside over time.
And one day they woke up and discovered that they were hitting old age. They were in their 40s-60s and their bodies were falling apart. Their lives were for the most part meaningless. Their children didn’t know them. Their parents were dead or dying and hadn’t known them in a long time. They’d been the first generation to start to try to adapt to the frenzied information age and they failed to do so gracefully. The older they’ve gotten, the more out of control they feel, and the more they long for those things that they were too selfish to spend time on in their earlier lives.
They remember sitcoms of nuclear families who spent time together and good wholesome lives. They’d never had those things for themselves since childhood and they longed for those connections. They were failing to keep up with the world around them, their health is failing, and they are finally beginning to understand just what they lost in the selfish haze. But see, the problem with such things is that no matter how hard you try, you cannot regain the past. But that doesn’t stop the trying. They don’t have anyone personally to reach out to because their families have for the most part abandoned them as they were abandoned as children. And they long for the good old days of moral clarity and family values. But they completely lack any of the tools, personally, to have shared those things or to really help create those things today. And their still self absorbed enough that they are still for the most part not paying attention to much beyond themselves.
In them, we created an entire generation of ADDesque attention spans as they tried to keep up. The live sound bite to sound bite, sensation to sensation, never stopping to check facts outside themselves, and in a nostalgic haze for a past they’ve never had. And they have all reached the age where there is a culturally predictable resurgence of religion because finally the specter of their own mortality has reared its ugly head. But they are too selfish to effectively even do that. Self-sacrifice is something they have largely never understood and never needed to understand. Living for others is something they don’t know how to do. So they figure they attend church a few times a year and drop some money in the plate, and then go about their lives with a sort of vague sense of guilt, but not any sort of plan out of their self centered morass.
Someone runs for president who is all those things that they feel like they missed. He’s the every man, the guy that would be fun to have a beer with. He has the 50s sitcom wife and pretty young daughters, strong family ties, everything they failed to be or do. Everything their vague nostalgia feeds on. He calls himself moral and says that he wants to use compassion to set things right. He fits their every deeper desire.
Deep down these people know that this man can’t deliver for them what they could not make for themselves. Deep down their expectation is failure, but at least for a while they can watch what it should have been in their own lives. And if they vote for him, then like putting that dollar in the offering plate, they have done the tiny little bit that their selfishness will allow, appeased the guilt for a little while longer, done something moral to return to the world before they fucked it all up. They get their moment of watching when things were right all over again.
They’ve gotten old and crotchety and predictably they have swung just as extremely in the direction of conservatism and religion as they once were young and carefree and liberal. And see, there is this continued problem of their short attention span, disinterest in researching the rest of the facts, and that little detail about the fact that they were a larger group of people than the offspring they produced.
So, now we have a world in which they are passionately nostalgic, really expect no success from their leadership, aren’t for the most part paying attention to anything but the sound bites, typically do not think in the bigger picture and are too self absorbed to understand or care about liberalism, the fundamental tenet of which is care for all human beings. So Dubya makes a perfect president for these people. He’s self-absorbed, so they don’t feel too guilty by comparison. He appears to have most of what they feel like they lost from childhood and missed out on in adulthood. He doesn’t have to do anything to win their approval, and they aren’t really paying attention or listening, so they don’t really have any idea the magnitude of the monster they’ve chosen as their mascot. When he fucks it all up, well, he kinda makes them feel a little more at home inside themselves as failures.
And then we have their children. Those children have always felt like they didn’t belong and so there are a number of them who have turned to religion as well as a means of finding an anchor in the storm, but in the end they are without much hope for themselves or their future, and so they expect little as results either. Wish for them, yes, but you must fundamentally have hope in order to use that hope to truly fight, truly put yourself in the line of fire to change things. It takes really believing in the future to convince someone to lay down in front of the bull dozer.
Kerry ran a campaign for my generation. It was one in which he cared too much about ethics and not enough about audience. It was one where he appealed to sanity, modernity, intelligence, the future and hope. He tried to sling dung as little as possible. He avoided the sound bite.
But there is still that one little problem that there are still more of them than those that follow of legal voting age. Far too many more of them when you add in those older than them who are also living in their own state of nostalgia. People keep saying that we can reach out to those folks and make them see, but I think they don’t understand what that would take. They don’t understand what that would look like.
These people are still drinking from a fire hose. They don’t have time or interest in stopping to listen. You can’t just talk to them and explain away their nostalgia for what they never had. You can’t talk to them and make them feel more important, more successful, more moral than they are. You can’t just make the difficult realities go away for them and make the right thing comfortable.
But you can play by their rules. You can fight in their game, in billions of sound bites, in nostalgia and morality and religion. You can give them what they want to hear and then do whatever you want to because they will not be paying attention and they will not expect success. But that means that we, the younger and more liberal of the world will need to unite far enough that we can support a candidate who understands which audience can win, and then does the right thing after the fact. Kerry failed because he appealed to us, played by our rules. But appealing to us will not win an election until we can out-number them.
So, the choice, really, is yours. You can get behind an actor who will do what we need done, you can wait till we can win in numbers alone, or you can take on tactics so loud that it will break them out of their self absorbed stupor. The choice, really is yours. But in the mean time, while the talk of educating and activism sounds good, remember your audience and be realistic about your goals and the unlikelihood that reason will have any effect as it doesn’t happen in ten second sensational sound bites and it doesn’t answer their needs, their fears and their failures. It just makes us feel reasonable and intelligent and good. Clinton and Bush both understood that the fears of the masses still must be played upon to get themselves elected. No one gave him credit for that. People pissed and moaned about his willingness to sacrifice the gays and lesbians, but if you paid attention, his policy didn’t reflect all of his words, just as Bush’s does not. That leaves a bad taste in your mouth, yes, but he did what had to be done. Kerry was too ethical a person to win with the boomers, ever. That was his failure, one of strength of ethics and our demand that we choose a leader for the Democratic party unwilling to say whatever it takes to get the job done and then do what is the right thing once he has it. That was Clinton’s charisma with the boomers. That was the slightly smarmy thing that left a bad taste in your mouth, but it was also absolutely necessary to his success.
[Editor's note: If it wasn't clear, this entire post is about stereotypes. It is about the demographics of a group as a whole, not any single member thereof. No one fits all of the stereotypes. None of the boomers fit the me generation stereotype and better than I fit the Generation X stereotypes. I don't wear goth gear and I have never been quite as disenfranchised than most, for example, but it is important to understand sociological group dynamics, just as much as individual motivators and there are a huge number of people who have missed the overall pattern about which I am speaking. I have many delightful liberal friends in their 50s. I know a great number of very cool people in every age bracket who break the rules including at least one feisty little old woman in her 70-80s who is perhaps the strongest anti-bush fanatic among my friends. Every conversation with her ends up at "We have got to get him out of there somehow!" Because the stereotype applies to you as a part of a set of characteristics that make up the whole, doesn't mean that you are the stereotype, but it also doesn't mean that the stereotype is useless.]
[Editor's note part 2: While I understand that not all of you are like this and that none of you are all of the things that make up a stereotype, I would like to make it clear that I did not come up with this stereotype. My description of the me generation and their general selfishness and moral confusion has been written about many many times in a whole variety of places. I am restating it here to an audience who seems not to read words of generational sociology and cultural analysis, not inventing the wheel. I understand that almost anyone of the me generation reading the above would react with strong feelings of "Hey! I'm not like that!" in just the same way that I react with "Hey! I'm not like that!" when I read things about Generation Xers who steal in the form trading product, because they couldn't care less about their employers or their profit margins, I react with a jolt of "Hey! I have never been without ethics or respect even if it has rarely been returned!" You really don't need to tell me that you are not like all of this, and you really don't need to tell me I really just hate all the boomers, unless it makes you feel better to do so. I know the former and the latter is irrelevant to me because this isn't offered as my personal opinion of the boomers in toto, but rather as a conglomeration of the writing of a fair number of sociologists, cultural commentators and anthropologists. Feel free if you like, but know that I will agree with you when you scream "Hey, I'm not like that!" which is likely to sort of take the wind out of your sails.]