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April 10, 2004

Boomers and the '70s

Dear Friedrich --

Technically speaking, you and I are Boomers. Yet have you ever really felt like a Boomer? I haven't. We may have watched the TV shows, listened to the music, and grown the hair. But we came along five to ten years after the kids who established the standard Boomer image.

The media-cartoon Boomer, of course, got high at Woodstock; occupied the Dean's office; spent a few years on a commune while using Mom and Dad's credit card to pay the bills; snagged a fabulous job -- and ever since, he/she has been waxing nostalgic about the great old days while bleeding the country dry. According to the conventional wisdom of young people today, it's thanks to the Boomers that the country has a huge debt burden; that Social Security and health care are looming disasters; that AIDS occurred and families disintegrated; that the country is saddled with identity politics, and with a tangle of social programs that continue to backfire ...

OK, sure: there's a lot of truth to that image. My complaint is simply that you and I (and our friends and classmates) weren't those Boomers. We might have been -- god knows we were idiots in our own right. But we were different Boomers; we simply didn't have the chance to be that kind of idiot. Even at the time, we were aware of being the younger siblings of a bunch of grandstanding showoffs. I remember that cracking irreverent jokes about puffed-up older Boomers was one of our Boomer crowd's standard pasttimes.

By the time you and I got to college, the party was already over. We'd arrived!!! -- only to be stuck cleaning up the debris that had been left behind. The older Boomers had had the fun of setting off bombs. They'd destroyed, among other things, education -- and we had to make what we could out of the rubble.

When we arrived at college, the last of the hippies were seniors; when we left college, the first of the Charlie Sheen/Emilio Estevez "Wall Street" crowd were freshmen. And when we emerged into the work world -- I was about to type "were spat out into the work world" -- the American economy was in the worst shape it had been in since the Great Depression. (It was in far worse shape than it is today.) Our cohort may have had its own little pop-cult glory moment with punk, but we quickly receded back into the shadows, never to be heard from again.

No one will pay attention to my complaint -- and why should they? The media image of the self-satisfied, ponytailed Boomer is too satisfying. A few times, when I've been among young people who were bitching about what a hash the Boomers have made of the country, I've pointed out that you and I were making those very same complaints back in '74 -- and that what the older Boomers had wrought wasn't a big mystery even then. Needless to say, the younger people merely looked at me in annoyance. I'd interrupted their fun. I'd disrupted a narrative they love re-telling -- about their discovery of the awfulness of "the Boomers" -- and they wanted to get back to the fun of re-telling it.

The reason the hash the older Boomers had made of the country was so apparent to us was that we were living in it -- it was called "the '70s." What a dismal, flattened-out, dreary decade. So I've been mystified too by the nostalgia some young people have for "the '70s." (What do they actually know about the '70s? And where and how did they form their ideas about it? They seem, in any case, to love their image of the '70s.) Many young people seem convinced that the '70s were one long blast -- a campy, coked-up package a-brim with silly fashions, silly music, and casual sex. What a hoot!!!

Well, there was all that, sure. But but but ... There was a lot else too, and much of it was kinda depressing.

I've been moved to go to the trouble of typing these musings out because I've just been through the '60s and the '70s sections of Timothy Taylor's economic history of America in the 20th century. Boy, do the facts Taylor lines up bring those decades back.

I scribbled down a few of Taylor's facts about the '70s:

  • America lost in Vietnam.

  • There was a dramatic productivity and wage growth slowdown. From WWII until 1973, wage and productivity growth averaged 2.8% per year. After '73, it averaged between .5% and 1%.

  • During the '70s, there were not just one but two major recessions.

  • OPEC hiked oil prices, and the oil shock occurred.

  • Detroit produced its most awful cars ever, got whipsawed by the oil shock, and lost a huge amount of market share to Japan.

  • "Stagflation" arrived. What was stagflation? Well, until the '70s economists assumed that if unemployment went up, inflation came down, and vice versa -- it just had to happen that way. But in the '70s, unemploment and inflation rose together; no one could figure out how to fix this, let alone how it was possible. By the early 1980s, inflation and unemployment were both over 10%.

  • Nixon -- a conservative Republican -- imposed price controls.

  • The country was full of angry, political women; divorce became much more common.

  • Cities continued to crumble. In 1975, New York City declared bankruptcy. (A personal note: I moved to the city in the late '70s. The place was in terrible shape. It had a "Blade Runner"-ish, eve-of-destruction glamor that could thrill a young person. But it was clear even to idiot me that respectable people and money were fleeing the city. And for good reason: I remember one garbage strike when trash was piled waist-high along the curb for entire blocks. Crime and poverty were awful. In my first five years here, I was attacked, I was mugged, and I was pickpocketed twice.)

  • The '70s brought the end of stable exchange rates, and made the country much more vulnerable to the world economy.

  • There was a general sense that the U.S. was losing control of its destiny.

  • There was serious talk around about how the country simply had no choice but to accept a third-rate status. America's time was said to be past.

Ah, how I yearn for the glorious days of our idealistic youth ... Oh, wait, no: that's the older Boomers who got to be glorious and idealistic, etc. You and I? The street sweepers who followed the parade.

IMHO, this Timothy Taylor lecture series is, like all his others, essential reading. Er, listening. You can buy it, or any of Taylor's other lecture series, here.



posted by Michael at April 10, 2004


Disillusionment and the stark reality of life killed the boomers. A few of us seem to be able to hang onto the better parts of that tumultuous time; human rights and a reverence for nature, champions of the underdogs, and let us not forget - awesome musicians!

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on April 10, 2004 1:11 PM

I'm technically a boomer , too, but I was a bit behind you---I went from 9 to 19 in '70's. Odd to have your expectations set in that decade, although I was too young to know to blame it on the older Boomers. Think about trying to become a young woman in an era that threw both Steinem and Suzanne Somers at you. Streisand and Olivia Newton-John. Confusing it was. By the time I was in my twenties, people were blaming it on the Older Boomers, though--my era of Boomer blames ALL of you who came before!!---I remember a friend saying "The tail end of the Baby Boom takes it in the shorts again."

But, see, I was part of the "yuppie" era in the Reagan years, and I thought we supposedly ruined the country by buying too many pasta makers from "Sharper Image" or something. Although, I acknowledge, not only did you guys have to go through a lousy economy and No Woodstock--oh yes, and Angry Women, although you are forgetting the ultimate throwback of the era, the Farrah poster--but you had to wear sevenites fashions, which may be the unkindest cut of all! Except maybe the music. I remember being in highschool, and a local radio station was running a countdown to "The Greatest Rock 'n Roll Song of All Time" voted on by the fans. Know what came in Number One? "Kung Fu Fighting

Posted by: annette on April 10, 2004 2:07 PM

I am puzzled by this post. It's meant to be a satire? Yes? About people complaining?

Then, how old are you guys? I would have thought my own age -- 56 -- but from what you write, you must be much younger. (Or much older.)

Also, are you serious in blaming the economic ills of the nation in the 70s on older boomers -- people who were in their mid-twenties? people who were struggling to get their first jobs and hardly in control of the economy? Surely you jest.

Class of '67
(And proud of it, though why one should be "proud" of something so totally out of one's control such as one's year of birth is a good question.)

Posted by: David Sucher on April 10, 2004 2:15 PM

Pattie -- In the tradition of Boomers aging embarrassingly, I'm thinking of taking up guitar!

Annette -- That's hilarious, I had no idea you young Boomers looked at even us not-at-the-peak Boomers that way. Boomer resentment of other Boomers -- the great unwritten story.

David -- You really didn't know younger boomers, let alone today's 20-somethings, looked at you cusp-of-it-Boomers in anything but a purely-admiring way? How very ... '60s of you.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2004 5:36 PM

Michael, it never even crossed my mind. :)
And the very thought simultaneously tickles and puzzles me. I mean, without us, where would you be?!

Posted by: David Sucher on April 10, 2004 8:57 PM

"David -- You really didn't know younger boomers, let alone today's 20-somethings, looked at you cusp-of-it-Boomers in anything but a purely-admiring way? How very ... '60s of you."

Well. All misty-eyed or something. Class of '68, and don't feel very admirable. Blue-collar, upper mid-west, most of my friends saw one year of Vietnam. Came back and got stoned. Admirable? Feel lucky I survived.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 10, 2004 9:04 PM

Actually, cultural history like this always raises a question in my mind: are we really being fair about who was in charge and calling the shots vs. who was simply 'enduring' an era? As best I can tell, members of the 'Greatest Generation'--those who fought but didn't plan WWII--were in charge during the 1970s. And, um, they clearly didn't do such a great job of it. Whereas, in the Greatest Generation's youth things were run by a bunch of guys who were born in the 1880s (and who delivered a more impressive performance, I might add.) So maybe the older Baby Boomers are getting a bit of a bum rap here, as they were hardly in positions of authority until the 1980s (and things have gone along fairly smoothly since then.) Nonetheless, they did (and do) seem to think the world had been created for their explicit let's abuse them anyway!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 10, 2004 9:22 PM

Well, if the Chief Boomers are going to take credit for the '60s, it seems to me they're also going to have to accept a little responsibility for the '70s too ....

But since the WHOLE POINT OF THIS POST is to call a little attention to the fact that many Boomers weren't and aren't standard-issue, media-cliche '60s people, isn't it interesting how the the Chief-Boomer thing is taking over the discussion?

Always seems to happen ....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2004 10:45 PM

I think the middle-of-it boomers are mad at the Chief Boomers is just because you wanted to BE the Chief Boomers and didn't get to. You're jealous coz you think they had more fun!

Posted by: annette on April 11, 2004 11:07 AM

Envy's a part of it, but just a small part, honestly, and I'm not remotely mad at them. They've always been a fact in every other Boomer's life, so it's more like a state or condition we were all born into. Or maybe better put: It's more like sharing a house with an Alpha person. I mean, what can you do about their Alpha-ness? Not much -- they aren't going to change, god knows. But at the same time it's something (semi-welcome, semi-unwelcome) to contend with. And even if you do let go of the judgment, you're still stuck contending with their Alpha-ness...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2004 12:41 PM

To change the subject slightly to the original posting's remark on 70s-nostalgia...

When I was in high school and college (1954-61) I had a "false-nostalgia" for the 1920s.

This was the Joe College / Betty Coed, frat house, sorority, Big Game football played wearing leather helmets, bootleg hooch. raccoon coats Twenties: the whole John Held shot. Actually, back in the 50s I even stumbled across of comic novel (forget title, author, etc.) that featured all this. And the main characters were--of course!-- Joe College and Betty Coed.

To get to my point, I was born 10-15 years after that era. And my faux-nostaglia was about 30 years after. Michael's post has modern kids nostalic for a time 30 years before.

Is there anything significant about 30 years? It's about one generation difference. Any thoughts?

(PS. I (Donald Pittenger) am sending this from a friend's computer. Wonder how the posting software will deal with possible name/address mismatching.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 11, 2004 1:19 PM

Ah, yiz all a buncha bloody bloomin' boomer blasters!!

Posted by: ricpic on April 11, 2004 2:03 PM

The US cultural "sixties" - the Beatles, Viet-Nam, Draft-card burning, hippies - started about mid-way through the chronolical 1960s, and began to fade in about 1975. Here are a handful of dates:

John F. Kennedy elected 1960
Beatles on Ed Sullivan 1964
US invades Viet Nam 1965
US Draft Lottery begins 1969
Janis Joplin dies 1970

The "seventies" began in about 1973, and most of us are still living them down in some form or other.

Posted by: Tommer Peterson on April 11, 2004 10:42 PM

Boomer resentment of other Boomers -- the great unwritten story.

Wait a minute, Michael -- that was the whole point of your post.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 11, 2004 11:51 PM

I was born in 1977, so thankfully I am not one of the boomers, and technically am barely an Xer. All I know is, I can always give my Boomer dad crap for voting for Carter and for making his own bell bottoms.

Course, I'll never see my social security dollars, but hey I didn't vote for Carter.

Posted by: Kevin on April 12, 2004 2:45 PM

What definitions are you guys using for the start and end of different generations? Annette called herself a boomer although she was 9 in 1970, I always thought of Generation X beginning around 1960. And I have no idea where the boundary is between Generation X and the next one -- Generation Y, the Millennial Generation, whatever you want to call it.

Has anyone read the generational theory of history by William Strauss and Neil Howe? I found it interesting, although I'm pretty skeptical that the cycles they claim to see in history are anything more than coincidence.

Posted by: Jesse M. on April 13, 2004 2:36 PM

You know, I'm in Annette's age bracket (with one year on her), but I've got one advantage -- being a hayseed. The 70s were simply awesome for us white trash. Outlaw country and southern rock were just revving up, the dope had migrated to our outposts, the chicks were ditching their bras, you could still buy a carbureted V8, and 18 was the legal drinking age. Hell, with coupla-three days of not shaving, a 14 year old could buy two sixers of Pearl with his allowance, and have a helluva weekend.

I gotta tell yall, out here in the hinters, we just didn't really notice that our elders seemed to have had more fun. In retrospect, I'm kinda jealous, of course, but that's from the comfort of my big comfy LaZBoy 25 years later.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on April 14, 2004 7:07 PM

Easy sex ... Lazing around ... Cheap dope ... Yeah, there was that "Dazed and Confused" side of '70s life too, sigh. Thanks for the corrective.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2004 4:15 PM

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