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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 August 2006, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
Baby boom... and bust
By Brendan O'Neill

Baby boom... and bust
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.

Large detached houses in Surrey
A house in the (almost) country
But they're also, says US newspaper columnist Lewis W Diuguid, the "greediest generation".

"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."

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

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.

Lap dancing impresario Peter Stringfellow and employees
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."

Material world

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.

It seemed that anything was possible - no doubt an illusion, but it stimulated many of us to try to find new ways of living
Frank Furedi on the 1960s
"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."


Some of your comments on this story:

It's both a privilege and a duty to rebel against, criticise, or overturn the society formed by the previous generation. We did it, and now our children are doing it. It's quite amusing for me now, as an ex-rebel Boomer, to catch myself grumbling about "kids today". I may not like some of the things they do, but I recognise that they are almost trapped in a cycle and have to do these things. The next generation will, just like we did, both solve some problems we created, and in turn create new ones for their children to solve. And so it goes on...
Robert Agasucci, London, UK

They didn't cause the spread of STIs - you have only to look at the prevalence of STIs in previous generations to realise that; they didn't destroy the "traditional family" - you have only to chart the multiplicity of family structures we've run through in any era to see that. Every generation is charged with being morally inferior to its forebears and descendants, but the big problem for baby boomers is that they and their children have, en masse, continue to participate in environmentally catastrophic behaviour even with decades of warning. In other words, they've behaved like ordinary humans: refusing to put the brakes on until it's too late.
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK

I would like to say that most of the aggro I face in life is down to the 'baby-boomers'. Our government led by them has frittered away their pensions fund leaving my generation (18-40) to pay for it and ours. In work, their contract rights are so much better that it's a case of "dead man's shoes" stifling creativity and innovation. Socially, they failed to sort it inner-city deprivation, alienated youth and now extremeism. Politically, their student ideals of socialism and leftism are a busted flush. Globally, they have done very little to ease poverty and recently are hellbent on making war.
Mike, London, UK

The article is incorrect to state that the babyboomers gave us rock 'n' roll. Most would have been small children or yet unborn in the early 1950s when rock 'n' roll started.
Mike Skidmore, St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Babyboomers - you've used up all the oil, grown rich on massive house price rises, enjoyed final salary pension schemes, your shares have gone through the roof, gave yourselves double digit pay rises in the 70's whilst the real value of your mortgage debt went through the floor, you've polluted the environment and when it all hits the fan, you'll be dead. Great, thanks.
Simon, London

I just wonder where those of us that followed, Generation X, are in all this. I don't see any sudden anti-consumptionist rebellion, if anything we're worse. Perhaps it's nothing to do with generation and everything to do with the rampant rise of capitalism in the 20th century?
Kevin T, Cornwall

We boomers feel so so lucky, to be born after the war, to have the advantages of free university education, good employment opportunities, the comforts of modern living, better healthcare thanks to the postwar Labour govt, and for we women - the PILL! The greatest emancipation device ever invented. Our generation have had time and leisure to get involved with changing the attitudes of society, its been a good time, an exciting time to be alive!
Lyn , Warrington, UK

Boomers voted for low tax while earning,but now insist on growing freebies from the state as they get older. They got free education but insist that the next generation pay for it. They celebrated their houses growing in value while the price made it harder for young people to buy. They bought all the decent council houses at a discount. Selfish ? Wherever did you get that idea?
Peter, Stonehaven, Scotland, UK

Absolutely! The consumerist, the 'greed' generation, the 'I'm alright Jack' generation - and most of them don't even know it. All those 60s rockers and free-lovers will soon be seen as intolerably smug by the generation below them who have been priced out of England.
Rolf Jordan, Wirral, UK

My father was a baby boomer, and grew up in post war austerity. (He doesn't eat chocolate or sweets becuase there were none when he was a chile). He wore a jacket and tie when he was a student in the early 60s, and then wore a bowler hat when he started work in 1963. Maybe because he grew up in Glasgow, where the 60s arrived in around 1971. (The 60s have been described as a great time for around 2,000 people, the rest were working and raising their children.) Son't belive all this baby boomer idea, it is an American import, like most media-promoted social trends.
Richard, Edinburgh, UK

Babyboomers are responsible for a lot of today's issues and yet my generation, who are trying to fix the legacy of problems won't recive a state pension, even though we have paid in all our lives as the baby boomers have emptied the pot. We will work longer hours, we won't recive the same treatment, our contracts are worse, we receive higher insurance quotes and THEN you ask the young to respect there elders? What exactly have they got to respect you for?
arran

Baby boomers had the advantage of free milk, vitamins and orange juice, the NHS and free university education, and they are now coming up to taking their final salary indexed linked pensions. They are now refusing to pay the taxes needed for the generation behind them to have the same. They decimated the NHS in the 1980's and they are only now willing to pay for it because they are getting old and realise they need it! What a selfish shower!
Peter Cawthron, Liverpool

Does that meant the generations to follow will revert to more 'conservative' behavior, or is the genie out of the bottle for ever? I'm a baby-boomer and while I will admit to being responsible, I refuse to feel guilty. I look at my parent's generation; the only set of retirees who will ever enjoy the benefits of final-salary-scheme pensions. Should they feel guilty and cancel their next cruise?
Nick H, South Coast, UK

I have long felt that the baby boomer generation as a group are characteristically selfish & materialistic. The author does make a good point that this generation were responsible for much liberalisation, but many of them in my experience being vehement atheists display a lack of moral values and an emotional immaturity that fails to understand the feelings of others or the consequences of thier actions.
Rob, London

Us boomers started the environmental movement, but against vested business interests it's taken time to reach popular culture, but now Tesco sells Ecover products. We started the women's movement, fought against racism and campaigned on behalf of 3rd world countries. I'm proud of our legacy.
Rob, Luton, UK

We baby boomers grew up when things were short, we didn't have much, and we worked jolly hard. I remember my 'chores' that had to be done every day! We still work hard, but our children have grown up, and, at last, we are reaping the rewards of this hard work and denial. Surely this is what our country is all about!
Grace, Surrey

It was an age of new-found freedoms after the war which everyone grasped with open arms. I sometimes wish I was born then. Everything looked so simple and care-free. If we could hark back to those days now, austere as they were and put them in today's world, I don't think it would be so bad.
Tam, Scotland

It is grossly unfair to tar this one generation with an accusation of consumerism. In fact it was the babyboomers who fostered the environmental movement we see today. It was also the first generation to hold leaders to account, with the founding of Amnesty International and other political movements.
Chris, Dorking, Surrey

They did so much and changed so much. we would merely be conservative without them but like all explorers they often took the wrong track. in terms of tollerance and diversity of thought of being they have opened up such doors! before these guys and gals got it on the traditional people , the so called "mature" ones had problems with long hair, homosexuality, women doing pretty much anything, in fact they had a problem with anyone who didn't do exactly as they were told-how mature was that!!!!
David, London

What disgusts me about the British baby boomers (Blair typical) is that they enjoyed free higher education - with a maintenance grant! - then low interest rates and house prices, easy career advancement etc. etc. - and then when they came into power they pulled the ladder up after them. The feather bedding of this 'golden generation' was of course paid for by their parents taxes, and they were too greedy and selfish to do the same for the next generation. I was born in 1955 but I'm ashamed to be described as a 'boomer'.
chris b, crewe UK

The baby boomers have had it all and want more. The problem is the debt this is creating for their children. The house price increases seen across Europe is caused by an aging population funding their relatively luxurious retirements. However, this is leaving the younger generation in debt for life and with pension schemes emptied out to pay for the current set of overly-generous promises. An economic catastrophe in the making.
Corin Yeats, London, UK

Being born in the babyboomer age - I do not consider myself as one. Life has been the necessity of practicality rather than indulgence, I was not that lucky. The worst thing that came out of this era that has affected the whole of society (global as well) is the education system. These now aging hippys were the teachers of the present generation and indoctrinated their opinionated morals into the system, yes, we are lucky to have free speech and opportunities to try and make a better life, but as usual, it is only for the favoured few, the rest of us have to pick up the pieces socially and environmentally. This isn┐t just about sex and family structures or equality, its all about GREED "I do what I want when I want and I want it all!
Carole, Hampshire, UK

I must be out of the ordinary then. I pride myself on being socially, environmentally and economically prudent with a strong sense of egalitarianism. I'd always thought this came from the attitudes forged during my youth in the late 6o's. In my view it is the post Thatcher generation that are the most self indulgent. Of course, I cant speak for what happens in America
Tony, Cambridge

How happy I am to be a babyboomer, when I contemplate the stuffy, timid, puritanical Generation Xers, whose only interests in life are mortgages and car insurance.
Alan Fisk, London, England

Born 1944 I can dimly recall some events of my booming life: the end of capital punishment; a woman's right to abortion; homosexual law reform; the Race Discrimination Act; divorce law reform; paid maternity leave; increasing educational opportunity for working class children; the end of corporal punishment in schools & prisons; the dismemberment of the British Empire; increasing home ownership; reduction in child poverty; slum clearance; Human Rights legislation; disability law reform; increase in leisure time; improved health care; Charlotte Rampling, Bob Marley, Pat Jennings, Van Morrison, Diane Keaton, Polly Toynbee. A pretty good bash at life I'd say.
John Levett, Cambridge UK




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