Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about generations: Millennials, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and so on. People like to identify themselves with generations, and others with generations, too. “As a Millennial, I feel that . . .” “As a Boomer, you obviously think that . . .”
“Shut the f*** up, Boomer!” people will say to me on Twitter. (Not all tweeters are fans, I regret to say.) According to some tables, I am part of the Baby Boom generation, and according to others, I am part of Gen X. A committee should get together and tell me, once and for all, who I am and how to be.
A slogan has spread like wildfire in recent weeks: “Okay, Boomer,” often written “ok boomer.” It is a putdown of older people by younger people. It is basically a sarcastic “Whatever you say, Gramps.”
A video from the New Zealand parliament went viral. A member, Chlöe Swarbrick, was giving a speech on climate change and was heckled by another member (as happens in parliaments). Swarbrick said, “Okay, Boomer,” and moved on. This gibe was thought to be a great triumph, a “sick burn,” as they say.
It was funny, in my opinion. But Swarbrick went on to say — in her discussion of climate change — “Slogans are easy.” I found this, too, funny, in light of her prior use of one of the hottest, easiest slogans of the moment.
In my experience, people are people, regardless of their birthday: kind and mean; smart and less so; noble and venal; liberal and conservative; and so on and so forth. I was talking about this with Professor Barbara J. Fields, the historian at Columbia University, who said, “The habit of generational generalization shares a fallacious premise with astrology without the entertainment value.”
Ha, yes. Years ago, a young woman asked me when my birthday was. When I told her, she said, “Ooh, you’re on the cusp!” That told her a lot about me, apparently. Evidently, I am on the “cusp” between two zodiacal signs, Scorpio and Sagittarius.
(Come to think of it, I have often felt that I am on the cusp of something without actually getting there.)
It is true, of course, that people can have things in common, owing to their generation — don’t let me tell you otherwise. People in my grandparents’ generation were not great complainers. They had come through the Great Depression and World War II. They thought that people in my generation were soft and whiny.
And yet, every generation has its variety. In a 1998 book, the journalist Tom Brokaw dubbed the World War II generation the “Greatest Generation.” They were great, no doubt. But there were obviously plenty of SOBs among them. And there are plenty of stoical types in my generation.
The other day, a reader sent me a nice note, in which he said, “I think we’re about the same age, so your cultural, political, and historical references are my lingua franca, too.” I know what he means. We probably watched the same movies, listened to the same songs, liked the same girls — movie and TV stars, I mean. Molly Ringwald, Lea Thompson, Mary Stuart Masterson. Now you’re really ringing my chimes.
At work once, I needed an example of a starlet — a young beauty — and named Drew Barrymore. A younger colleague of mine reacted as though I had said “Lillian Gish.” (Incidentally, I once met a man who had received an autograph from the great lady, who was born in 1893. She put it in rhyme: “With every good wish, Lillian Gish.”)
I would not make too much of these cultural totems, though. I often use the example of Michael Moore, the left-wing documentarian. Bear with me for a second.
People will say to me, “Of course you think the way you do, you’re a white male.” And then I’ll draw on Moore (for which I am grateful to him). He and I are white and male, if that’s your thing. We’re about the same age — which could be your thing, too. We grew up about an hour apart, in Michigan. I’m sure we watched the same TV shows, ate the same food, spoke the same slang. I bet he liked Molly Ringwald, too.
He often wears a Detroit Tiger cap. I am a hard-bitten, from-the-cradle Tiger fan.
So what? Michael Moore and I are night and day, in our politics, principles, values — things that matter a lot. Probably a lot more than Vernor’s (which is a soft drink from Detroit).
In my circles — conservative ones — there is much scorn for “coastal elites” and much celebration of the Midwest, with its “heartland” values. Ay, caramba. My fellow Midwesterners are always bragging about how virtuous they are. I always say, “They must not consider humility a virtue.” We’re like everyone else: saintly, polite, self-sacrificing; sinful, rude, selfish. We are people, God help us.
The rich are people too. I discovered this, as I moved about in life. I had been led to believe that they were shallow and vain — capable of talking about nothing except their domestic servants and their acquisitions. This is nuts. Some of them are shallow and vain, sure. (Plenty of poor people are shallow and vain, too.) But many of them are deep and ever mindful of others.
In fact, wealth can free you from the need of getting and let you act on a slew of charitable, intellectual, and other instincts.
Above, I mentioned Lillian Gish. She was “before my time” — and yet I know about her, and you do, too. I once had a young co-worker whom I liked to tease because he would often say, “Before my time,” as an excuse for not knowing something. It covered his embarrassment and had the added advantage of making you feel like an oldster.
So I’d tease him, play with him. “Okay, how about Napoleon? He was before your time. Ever heard of him? Beethoven? Moses?” He’d grin.
That kid taught me a fair amount of slang, which I appreciated. I like slang: new, old, or in between. For instance, I like the relatively recent word “amazeballs,” for “amazing.” (It has made it into Dictionary.com.) “That interview was absolutely amazeballs.” When I use such a word on Twitter, critics will send me a meme, which says, “How do you do, fellow kids?”
This is the one with Steve Buscemi, the actor, playing a character who, in middle age, is trying to blend into a high school.
The thing is, I’m not trying to be cool. Not trying to be “young.” When I was young, I thought that older people who did this were the most pathetic people on earth. I just like words, and the sound of them — “amazeballs,” for instance.
I also like “best bib and tucker.” Ever heard that one? My great-aunt used it: “We’re going to the ballet on Saturday? I’ll wear my best bib and tucker.” It means that you’re dressed to the nines. (Do I have to explain that one? You’re dressed up, in your finest.) Bibs and tuckers were ornamental articles of clothing in centuries past.
When people say “my generation,” I think they mean themselves and their friends, mainly. Allen Ginsberg, born in 1926, begins his poem Howl (now a classic), “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” I want to ask, does that include William F. Buckley Jr.? Jeane J. Kirkpatrick? (Michel Foucault, we might argue about.)
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Mitt Romney were born within a year and a half of one another. They all wanted to be president — one made it — but, otherwise, they have little in common. I’m sure that, in 1964, when they were 17 or 18, they saw Mary Poppins, Goldfinger, and Marnie. So?
Stick with presidential politics for a moment. In 1992, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were hot young things, so to speak. They composed the Democratic ticket, and the media made a lot of the “generational change” they were supposed to represent. The incumbent president, George H. W. Bush, would be the last president of the World War II generation, as it turned out. (The Republicans would nominate one more candidate from this generation in 1996 — Bob Dole — but he didn’t make it.)
At the GOP convention in ’92, Marilyn Quayle, wife of the vice president, addressed this issue: “Much has been said lately about the need in this country for a new generation of leadership. . . . Well, Dan and I are members of the Baby Boom generation, too. And yet our basic understanding of what constitutes good government and a good society is very different from that of the Boomers who lead the other party.”
In other words, age, shmage.
Mitt Romney is generation-minded in one good way, I think: He loathes the idea of passing crushing debt on to future generations, thinking it “immoral.” When he talks this way, people tend to nod and whistle merrily on. The New Zealander Chlöe Swarbrick thinks that she and other youngsters have a greater stake in climate change than older people because they’re the ones who will have to deal with the consequences. Okay, but, remember, Al Gore — chief of the climate warriors — was born in 1948.
Is he, too, subject to “Okay, Boomer”?
If people like me make too much of individuals, and individualism, other people, I think, make too much of the collective: class, race, generation, tribe, etc. I think of my grandmother, who had friends of all ages, and all types. The only thing they had in common was that they were her friend. Bill Buckley had a similar smorgasbord of friends — and such a bounty makes life brighter.
He liked to tell a story, which has many versions, one of which goes something like this: Two Frenchmen are at a café, smoking Gauloises. One says to the other, “Do you like the rich?” “No,” says his friend. “Well, do you like the poor?” “No.” “Do you like the young?” “No.” “Do you like the old?” “No.” “Do you like the French?” “No.” “Do you like foreigners?” “No.”
This goes on for a while, until the first man says, “Well, whom do you like?” The second one drags on his Gauloise and says, “I like my friends.”
I like mine, too — even the snarky Millennials among them. And the snarky Boomers.