Baby boom... and bust
By Brendan O'Neill
Baby boomers like to trumpet their generation's achievements. But their fondness for conspicuous consumption and foreign travel has led to many a modern-day ill, from rising debt to environmental woes.
This week, former US President Bill Clinton - perhaps the archetypal baby boomer - turns 60.
With his penchant for playing sax, feeling everyone's pain, and his admission that he flirted with marijuana (without inhaling), Clinton has come to symbolise the generation born between 1946 and 1964 who shook up Western society.
Now, as the boomers become "ageing hipsters", we're constantly being reminded of their achievements.
They gave us rock 'n' roll (which might explain the recent book, Baby Boomers and Hearing Loss), mod cons, the space race, computer science, and a rebellious disregard for the stiff-upper-lipped attitudes of earlier generations.
But did the baby boomers also leave behind a negative, even destructive legacy?
With their thirst for "stuff" - bigger houses, better cars, tastier grub - did they give rise to a culture of selfish consumption?
And by challenging old-fashioned moralism, did they inadvertently nurture a climate of promiscuity - even fuelling the spread of STDs?
Children of the revolution
The term "baby boomer" refers to those born during the period of increased birth rates when economic prosperity rose in many Western countries following World War II - during the relative peace and prosperity that followed the ravages of conflict and preceded the economic downturn of the 1970s.
They're probably best known for opposing the Vietnam War, having a relaxed attitude to sex 'n' drugs, and trying out less authoritarian methods of parenting.
"I am a baby boomer, born in 1955. My generation typifies today's excessive consumption," he says.
"We live in oversized homes in the suburbs, drive an excessive number of miles to our jobs in the cities, and we go on extravagant vacations. My generation wants it all, whatever the cost."
Diuguid says his generation has a worrying "sense of entitlement".
"My parents' generation lived in the Depression; they ate sparsely and recreated spartanly. But the Boomers think they should be given everything on a platter."
This uber-consumerism has contributed to today's environmental degradation, he says, where over-use of fossil fuels and over-production of carbon seems to be heating the planet.
"In the United States, we consume a grossly disproportionate amount of the world's energy, and the planet can't sustain it. We've become dependent on fossil fuel-generated amenities. We're too busy digging our own graves to reassess our lifestyles."
Others argue that the boomers caused social breakdown, by challenging traditional roles and relationships and championing personal experimentation and sexual liberation. This, they argue, has undermined the "culture of respect" necessary to run society.
Still got it
A report published earlier this year, Difficult Times Ahead for Baby Boomers?, said they bear some responsibility for "social and moral decline". On their watch, "divorce rates have more than doubled, AIDS has overshadowed the joys of sexual liberation... and many boomers have had to battle drug and drink addiction."
Californian academic Mike Males says it's a generation facing "boomergeddon". His book of that name says Californian Boomers suffer high levels of drug abuse, imprisonment and family instability.
The British newspaper columnist Melanie Phillips says there has been a similar decline in the UK thanks to our own boomer generation (which includes Tony Blair, born 1953, and Phillips herself, born 1951).
She blames "the onslaught on the family, the dismantling of national identity and the promotion of 'victim culture'" on the fact that "the baby boomers are now in control".
Environmental degradation, social breakdown, rampant consumerism, even disease... is it any wonder that US commentator Joe Queenan (born 1950) once wrote: "If you want the God's honest truth, baby boomers are the most obnoxious people in the history of the human race."
But is this fair? Not at all, says Leonard Steinhorn, US author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy. Those who criticise boomers - "usually snarky journalists", he says - forget that they helped to make equality a reality.
"Before boomers, women were told to stay at home and wear aprons; blacks were told to stay separate and not get uppity; Jews and other minorities were told to stay inconspicuous; gays were told to stay in denial and in the closet.
"That has all changed, and these changes didn't happen on their own. They didn't happen because Samantha on Bewitched wiggled her nose. They happened because people made them happen - in their homes, communities, schools, workplaces, institutions, media."
Steinhorn doesn't buy the idea that boomers are uniquely consumerist. He points out that the "Greatest Generation" - those born between 1911 and 1924, who went on to fight in WWII and later gave birth to the boomers - were also criticised for trying to keep up with the Joneses.
"Success in the West has long been defined by material prosperity. It was that way under the Greatest Generation, and even under the great leaders of the Enlightenment."
For Frank Furedi - the British-based sociologist born in Hungary who studied in the US in the 60s - the backlash is a product of our cautious political culture.
"At times, especially in the 60s, it seemed that anything was possible. This was no doubt an illusion, but it was the kind of illusion that stimulated many of us to try to find new ways of living.
"Yes, many boomers were self-indulgent and self-obsessed, and some still refuse to accept middle-age. But this generation left very little untouched. We could learn from that climate of daring and experimentation."