The age of entitlement

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Boom! Voices of the Sixties – Personal Reflections on the ’60s and Today
By Tom Brokaw
Random House $24.95, 662 pages

Generation Ageless: How Baby Boomers Are Changing the Way We Live Today ... And They’re Just Getting Started
By J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman
Collins $24.95, 286 pages

Boom: Marketing to the Ultimate Power Consumer – The Baby-Boomer Woman
By Mary Brown and Carol Orsborn
Amacom $24, 238 pages

Chosen to address her graduating class at Wellesley College, Massachusetts in 1969, Hillary Rodham attacked “our acquisitive and competitive corporate life” and declared that hers was a generation “searching for a more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living”. That summer, thousands gathered at the Woodstock music festival to listen to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker and the Grateful Dead. It was a chaotic occasion, but happier than the events of the previous year, which had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Amid these conflicting dramas, a new order was emerging, led by the biggest, richest, most demanding generation the US had ever seen. A little over two decades after her Wellesley speech, Hillary Rodham watched her husband being sworn in as president.

Bill and Hillary Clinton were the White House’s first baby-boomer couple – representatives of the fertility leap after the second world war. In the US, the annual birth rate rose from a prewar level of well under 3 million to 3.4 million in 1946, then above 4 million, where it remained until 1964 when it fell again. It was a pattern repeated throughout much of the developed world.

As the oldest of the baby boomers enter their sixties, their values, disputes and, above all, sheer numbers are still with us. The Clintons – he with his sexual fecklessness, she with her feminist assertiveness, both with their left-inclined politics – represent much of what the baby boomers stood for, and still stand for, even if they have now embraced the acquisitive, corporate life that Hillary once excoriated.

Or at least what an influential section of them stand for. Not all baby boomers resemble the Clintons. The strength of these three books is to remind us what a diverse generation the baby boomers were and are.

Tom Brokaw’s book Boom! Voices of the Sixties, is the most evocative of the three. The tired old joke – that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there – is partially true, not because everyone was stoned, but because, as Brokaw argues, the decade began and ended later than you might think. The 1960s is shorthand for a cultural and political era that Brokaw, the former NBC news anchor, argues started with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and ended with the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974. That means that only the youngest of the baby boomers have no memory of the period. More than 30 years have passed, but it is the 1960s that defined the baby boomers – their style, their values and their music.

Brokaw’s look at baby boomers then and now reminds us what a time it was. He is a broadcaster, and some lines (“Wonderbras have replaced burned bras”) would perhaps sound better spoken. But the writing is redeemed by his intimate connection with the characters of the period and the effort that has gone into interviewing them.

Civil rights activists, pop stars, Vietnam veterans, film stars, cartoonists – they are all here. Plenty of them you will remember – Warren Beatty, Joan Baez, Don McLean. (“Bye-bye Miss American Pie / Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.” What do those lines mean? “They mean I don’t have to work any more,” McLean said.) Others you may not recall, although you will remember their words – people such as Jack Weinberg, the Berkeley student and activist, who said: “We don’t trust anyone over 30.” There was a context to that, Weinberg told Brokaw: he was responding to a reporter’s allegation that the movement was controlled by communists.

As the baby boomers came of age, deference died, authority lost its privileged position and young adults cast aside the mores of their parents, who had fought and won the second world war. The baby boomers grew up amid an affluence and certainty their elders had never known. Above all, most grew up without going to war.

There was a war, of course, one that split US society and cost 14,589 American lives in 1968 alone. But, unlike the second world war, it was not a conflict in which the whole country engaged. You could escape it with the right connections or a college deferment. Brokaw says: “In the course of writing this book, I was startled by the number of people I encountered who said, ‘I didn’t know anyone who went to Vietnam.’”

But Vietnam was a wound that still aches. Indeed, Brokaw’s message is that the cultural and political sides people took in the 1960s still divide the US today. We think of the era as a time of protests, pot and guitars set alight. We forget what a small proportion of people actually took part in the decade’s most celebrated exploits.

Karl Rove, architect of the election of George W. Bush, the second baby-boomer president, told Brokaw that the 1960s cultural revolution was only ever the project of academic and social elites. When those elites put up a presidential candidate who reflected their anti-war, anti-establishment animus – George McGovern in 1972 – he won one state, Massachusetts. Far from being a victory for the liberals and the left, the excesses of the 1960s – the trashing of university offices, the infantile brandishing of Mao’s red book – alienated many. Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 and particularly Ronald Reagan’s in 1980 heralded long periods of rightwing hegemony.

So what have the 1960s left us? Advances for black Americans and for women, for a start: the Democratic presidential showdown between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, another baby boomer, would have been unthinkable without the 1960s. Women now account for half or more of the students in American medical and law schools. The 1960s also left a less happy legacy: broken families, and children shuttling between parents. Between 1965 and 1975, American divorce rates doubled. The ending of marriages in the hope of finding contentment alone or with someone else is the most baleful consequence of the 1960s’ central notion: that nothing should stand in the way of our own happiness.

The Clintons kept their marriage together, in spite of everything, but they exemplify their generation in their overwhelming sense of entitlement, evident in their disbelief at Hillary’s setbacks in her struggle to win the Democratic presidential nomination. Freed by prosperity from the sacrifices their parents had to make, baby boomers “felt no corresponding need to sacrifice their own interests and desires nor any need to accept conformity or limitations. Instead, they championed a new notion: that of an unfettered, indulgent, absorbed, celebratory self,” say J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman in Generation Ageless.

Smith and Clurman are president and senior partner respectively of Yankelovich, the market research company that claims to have invented the term “baby boomer”. Their book begins with the sort of toe-curling thanks to colleagues that perfectly illustrates that absorbed, celebratory self (”You guys make us smarter and keep us honest”) but ends up being a very useful piece of work, particularly in its exploration of the way today’s grown-up baby boomers differ from previous generations: their refusal to grow old gracefully and, indeed, their conviction that they are not growing old at all.

They certainly have no plans to make way for anyone else. As Generation Ageless says, these are people who, their entire lives, have “revelled in the attention like babies at bath-time”. Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1978, can wait.

The baby boomers will not retire, or not in the way we understand the term. They may leave their current employers, or stop going into the office every day. But repeated surveys show that the overwhelming majority plan to carry on working, either from home, or part-time, or by putting together a portfolio of voluntary and paid jobs. Many cannot afford to retire anyway. In spite of the prosperous times they have enjoyed, baby boomers have not saved much.

They will also remain crucial to anyone selling anything. Their numbers will see to that. Generation Ageless quotes figures from the US Census Bureau, which in 2004 predicted that the number of Americans aged 55 and over would grow by more than 45 per cent between 2005 and 2020, while the number of 25-to-40-year-olds would grow by only 5.6 per cent. By 2001, Generation Ageless reports, consumers aged 45 and older accounted for 52 per cent of total US consumer spending. By 2010, spending by consumers over 40 will dwarf that of those under 40 by $1,000bn.

Yet marketers seem strangely reluctant to respond to these numbers. Television advertisers pay 30 per cent more to reach a prime-time audience aged 34 to 49 than for an audience aged 55 or older. Why? Boom: Marketing to the Ultimate Power Consumer – the Baby-Boomer Woman, gives one answer: marketers are young. More likely is that we are so used to the historic pattern of the old dying off and their place being taken by their children that we cannot get used to the old living, and spending, for so long.

Baby boomers may not, however, live as long as they expect. Soft living has made many fat. In one of the essays that make up much of this book, William Novelli, chief executive of Aarp, the US organisation for the over-50s, estimates that 60 per cent of baby boomers are not getting enough exercise. “Obesity is threatening to reverse much of the longevity gains made in the last few years,” he says.

But however long baby-boomer men live, women are expected to live six to nine years longer, enriched by inheritances from both their parents and husbands. Marketers not only ignore baby boomers; they also ignore the women who decide where the family money goes. Women, according to this book, make 80 per cent of home improvement decisions, account for 65 per cent of all new cars sold, and strongly influence 92 per cent of family holiday decisions.

All these are American figures. All three are American books. Fair enough: the US is a huge country and the books address their home market. But they are remarkably insular all the same. You would not guess that there were other dramas in 1968. Paris and Prague barely rate a mention. Several of Brokaw’s interviewees go to England to study; he doesn’t ask how the experience changed them. Generation Ageless cannot venture abroad without tumbling into error. (Iain Macleod was never British prime minister; Winston Churchill led his country through one world war, not two.)

But there is plenty here for non-Americans too. First, because America’s 1960s touched us all, and second, because companies everywhere need to know what to sell to baby boomers. The answer to this is: home offices and multi-generational cruises (because baby boomers not only have to look after their parents; they also have children who refuse to grow up). Also: Viagra, easy-grip cooking utensils, higher chairs in shoe shops and cars with bigger dashboard displays, because baby boomers are getting older, whatever they think. Just don’t remind them.

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