For nearly seven years now, I have been using this space to develop the generational theories of the late Bill Strauss and Neil Howe as they relate to our current history. Perhaps the most important single post I made in all that time appeared exactly two years ago, on July 5, 2010, when I first argued that our current crisis, to begin with, had started in 2001, not 2007; that George W. Bush had been the transformative President of our era; and that we would not experience another New Deal or a significant rebirth of civic virtue. The outcome of our crisis, in short, would be similar to, albeit many times less violent than, that of the Civil War and Reconstruction. A year ago I updated that post on July 9.
Meanwhile I have been intermittently addressing a related, and even deeper issue regarding the role of the Boom generation in all this. Left-wing Boomers--a description of many of my friends--are still inordinately proud of the personal liberation brought about by the 1960s, especially as it has affected women and gays. (Some would also take credit for progress among black Americans, but as I have pointed out many times, the key steps in that process occurred before Boomers took over.) Certainly the social changes of the last four decades promoted greater emotional freedom, which I support, and greater opportunities for members of those groups, provided that they belong to the middle class. But what none of my friends want to admit is that there might be some connection between that emphasis on personal freedom in the social and sexual spheres and the untrammeled economic freedom, the relentless pursuit of profit, which, under Boomer leadership, has replaced a thriving industrial economy with an empire of finance capital that constantly looks for new ways to employ as few people--and especially as few Americans--as possible. That is, really, characteristic of Boomers--one aspect of their individualism is the belief, shared by almost all of them, that he or she personally represents the best of our generation.
When I encounter a new idea, I never waste any energy worrying about who is going to like it and who isn't. I was so stunned, and so excited, when I first began reading Generations in, I think 1995, that for several nights I had trouble sleeping. Ever since then I have been spreading the gospel, inspiring some people--especially younger ones--while making many of my elders and contemporaries scratch their heads. (I am often surprised by the negative reaction of those over 70 because it is the generational dynamic, I am sure, that has destroyed the values and the world in which they grew up.) But the theory has never come close to becoming mainstream. Today is a special day, because some one did independently get the fundamental point that I in particular have been arguing--on the op-ed page on the New York Times. Kurt Andersen doesn't seem to have read Strauss and Howe, but--he got it. And in recognition, I'm going to quote his op-ed in full.
The Downside of Liberty
By KURT ANDERSEN
THIS spring I was on a panel at the Woodstock Writers Festival. An audience member asked a question: Why had the revolution dreamed up in the late 1960s mostly been won on the social and cultural fronts — women’s rights, gay rights, black president, ecology, sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — but lost in the economic realm, with old-school free-market ideas gaining traction all the time?
There was a long pause. People shrugged and sighed. I had an epiphany, which I offered, bumming out everybody in the room.
What has happened politically, economically, culturally and socially since the sea change of the late ’60s isn’t contradictory or incongruous. It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for businesspeople and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.
From the beginning, the American idea embodied a tension between radical individualism and the demands of the commonweal. The document we’re celebrating today says in its second line that axiomatic human rights include “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — individualism in a nutshell. But the Declaration’s author was not a greed-is-good guy: “Self-love,” Jefferson wrote to a friend 38 years after the Declaration, “is no part of morality. Indeed it is exactly its counterpart. It is the sole antagonist of virtue leading us constantly by our propensities to self-gratification in violation of our moral duties to others.”
Periodically Americans have gone overboard indulging our propensities to self-gratification — during the 1840s, during the Gilded Age, and again in the Roaring Twenties. Yet each time, thanks to economic crises and reassertions of moral disapproval, a rough equilibrium between individualism and the civic good was restored.
Consider America during the two decades after World War II. Stereotypically but also in fact, the conformist pressures of bourgeois social norms were powerful. To dress or speak or live life in unorthodox, extravagantly individualist ways required real gumption. Yet just as beatniks were rare and freakish, so were proudly money-mad Ayn Randian millionaires. My conservative Republican father thought marginal income tax rates of 91 percent were unfairly high, but he and his friends never dreamed of suggesting they be reduced below, say, 50 percent. Sex outside marriage was shameful, beards and divorce were outré — but so were boasting of one’s wealth and blaming unfortunates for their hard luck. When I was growing up in Omaha, rich people who could afford to build palatial houses did not and wouldn’t dream of paying themselves 200 or 400 times what they paid their employees. Greed as well as homosexuality was a love that dared not speak its name.
But then came the late 1960s, and over the next two decades American individualism was fully unleashed. A kind of tacit grand bargain was forged between the counterculture and the establishment, between the forever-young and the moneyed.
Going forward, the youthful masses of every age would be permitted as never before to indulge their self-expressive and hedonistic impulses. But capitalists in return would be unshackled as well, free to indulge their own animal spirits with fewer and fewer fetters in the forms of regulation, taxes or social opprobrium.
“Do your own thing” is not so different than “every man for himself.” If it feels good, do it, whether that means smoking weed and watching porn and never wearing a necktie, retiring at 50 with a six-figure public pension and refusing modest gun regulation, or moving your factories overseas and letting commercial banks become financial speculators. The self-absorbed “Me” Decade, having expanded during the ’80s and ’90s from personal life to encompass the political economy, will soon be the “Me” Half-Century.
People on the political right have blamed the late ’60s for what they loathe about contemporary life — anything-goes sexuality, cultural coarseness, multiculturalism. And people on the left buy into that, seeing only the ’60s legacies of freedom that they define as progress. But what the left and right respectively love and hate are mostly flip sides of the same libertarian coin minted around 1967. Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.
In that letter from 1814, Jefferson wrote that our tendencies toward selfishness where liberty and our pursuit of happiness lead us require “correctives which are supplied by education” and by “the moralist, the preacher, and legislator.”
On this Independence Day, I’m doing my small preacherly bit.
The reference to Jefferson is apt, because he belonged to the Republican generation, the Hero generation most parallel to the GIs who did so much to create the world of the 1950s and 1960s, and whose values are still very apparent in films like Twelve Angry Men, Good Night and Good Luck, and even in the Hal Holbrooke character Lou in Wall Street. Six years after the letter Andersen quotes, Jefferson in the wake of the controversy over the Missouri Compromise lamented that the work of his generation was evidently going to be cast away by impetuous youth. That drama has been replayed in our own time.
Kurt Andersen is finding this morning, I feel sure, that very few of his contemporaries want to see this on the op-ed page of the New York Times. (He's a Boomer, by the way, born in 1954.) But he is right, and if serious history can revive in the next 30 years or so, the questions that he and I have raised will provide the raw material for some remarkable new books and approaches and, perhaps, change the way that new generations view the past.