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Millennials are stuck in the world boomers built

The conservative case against the baby boomers.

Pedestrians in New York City in 2011.
Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

I’m not a fan of baby boomers.

And no, it’s not really fair to paint an entire generation with the same brush, but I’m doing it anyway. If you’ve followed my work, you know I’ve been on this beat for a long time (here and here).

To my delight, another broadside against the boomers has appeared, this time from a somewhat different angle. It comes courtesy of fellow millennial Helen Andrews, a senior editor at the American Conservative, who has a new book called Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster.

As you might expect given her background, Andrews is making a specifically conservative argument, which distinguishes the book from some of the more recent additions to the anti-boomer oeuvre. And it’s especially interesting because it’s not a conventional narrative of boomer ineptitude, though there’s plenty of that in there. Instead, it’s a portrait of six prominent boomers, each of whom, in their own way, symbolizes what Andrews calls “an aspect of the Boomer tragedy.”

The people she profiles — Apple founder Steve Jobs, screenwriter/director Aaron Sorkin, economist Jeffrey Sachs, scholar Camille Paglia, civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — are all great Americans in many respects, or at least they’ve all achieved great things, but Andrews says they also represent the many contradictions of the boomer generation. The point, in other words, isn’t to condemn these people but to use them as a prism through which to explore the broader generational phenomenon.

For instance, Sharpton, she argues, symbolizes the boomer obsession with revolutionary politics but the reality of his career is much more “transactional.” Sotomayor, a hero to many liberals and a somewhat strange pick for this project, is portrayed by Andrews as representative of the tensions between boomer idealism and careerism. Sachs, meanwhile, started out as a promising anti-poverty economist but, according to Andrews, became a global celebrity whose hubris eventually made him a tool of the capitalist forces he initially opposed.

The book is modeled on the famous 1918 work Eminent Victorians, by Lytton Strachey, which mocked the triumphalism of the Victorian Era by profiling four of its “heroes.”

I spoke to Andrews about her beef, not just with boomers but also millennials, who she argues are too much like the boomers to clean up the mess they inherited. This is a winding exchange touching a ton of topics, including the role boomers played in the civil rights movement, if Steve Jobs is really a sell-out, why Aaron Sorkin’s work is uniquely annoying, and if she thinks millennials can ever escape the world boomers built for them.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You say the baby boomers are responsible “for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.” I mean, really?

Helen Andrews

Yes, I do think the boomer revolution deserves to be compared to the Protestant Reformation. The way I justify that comparison is by looking at revolutions in media. The Protestant Reformation, which led to chaos and war across Europe, was a direct consequence of the printing press, and if you believe that the advent of television and the rise of visual media is a change in the human experience on par with the advent of print, then it’s not that much of a leap to say that the boomer revolutions are equally consequential.

Sean Illing

What was so destructive about TV?

Helen Andrews

It caused people who grew up in its wake to have their minds filled with pseudo-knowledge, rather than actual knowledge. And I think the main consequence of that was the destruction of both high culture and folk or local culture, and their replacement with mass culture and pop culture.

One thing I did in the research for this book was to go back and read all of the doomsayers at the time of the TV revolution who said that raising a generation glued to their screens was going to scramble their brains and make them stupid. These were people who were dismissed at the time as snobs and doomsayers, people who just were not hip to what the kids were thinking. And at the time, there was no way to check their predictions. The only thing these doomsayers could do was to say “Wait and see.”

Well, we’ve had several decades to wait and see the consequences of the rise of visual media and the decline of print and everything that flowed out of the TV revolution. And I think most of their dire predictions have been vindicated.

Sean Illing

The impact of TV deserves its own conversation, so I’ll turn back to the book and raise what’s probably my strongest objection.

I think there’s a nostalgic account of American life before the boomers that obscures some important realities. For instance, you write that boomers inherited “social cohesion” and an “uncomplicated patriotism,” but that cohesion was built on an exclusionary society and we paid a heavy price for it. Hell, Jim Crow didn’t end until 1965. So a lot of that “patriotism” was bound up with a way of life that had to be dismantled if the country was ever going to live up to its own ideals.

You can call this a lot of things, but no way I’d call it “uncomplicated.”

Helen Andrews

Much of what you say is true. But I would counter by saying that the uncomplicated patriotism I talk about has been replaced with uncomplicated narcissism, because most people who say America pre-1965 was actually awful and not even remotely living up to its ideals go on to say that America only became a decent country once the baby boomers showed up.

And I can understand how the boomers were able to sell themselves that line, but as a millennial I had to hear it over and over again during 12 years of public school history classes. What it sounded like to me, what it still sounds like to me, is the boomers replacing worship of America with worship of themselves.

So I don’t at all see how that shift is morally attractive in any way.

Sean Illing

The narcissism point is interesting. One of my pet fascinations is the failure of the so-called countercultural revolution in the 1960s. We have very different views of what that movement originally stood for and what it might have been, but we do seem to agree that it devolved into individualism and pop psychology.

How do you explain that failure?

Helen Andrews

The answer to that question lies in why the boomers were so idealistic in the first place. The baby boomers have the characteristics that they do mainly because of their demographic heft. There were so many of them and that meant that from the moment they hit the market, advertisers courted their dollars above everybody else’s. Politicians courted their votes because there were more boomers than anybody else.

So anybody trying to sell something or make something popular catered to the boomers’ every whim. That naturally led the baby boomers to be narcissistic and to think that they were the center of the universe. And unfortunately, this coincided with a period of uncharacteristic prosperity in the United States and the rest of the western world. And so the boomers also came to believe that wealth and stability were the natural order of things.

That’s what made the boomers so careless and also so lazy. They really thought that revolution could be a matter of saying the right words. They had no sense that no good thing comes without sacrifice. That’s what made them hippies in the first place, and that’s what made them such ineffective revolutionaries in the ultimate sense.

Sean Illing

The most striking thing to me about the boomers has always been the gap between their intentions and their ultimate impact, and no one represents this as much as Steve Jobs, the subject of your first profile. He’s the entire arc of boomerness, isn’t he? A former acid-dropping hippie marries his surface-level bohemianism with unprecedented corporate ambition and then sells his products as symbols of rebellion. I mean, come on ...

Helen Andrews

Actually, I wrote that chapter intending to refute exactly the position on Steve Jobs that you have just described. I came to believe, after researching him, that his bohemianism was not superficial at all. I mean, all of that stuff — the India pilgrimage, the vegan diet, the John Lennon glasses — I don’t think it was a put-on. It genuinely shaped how he ran his business.

You have to understand what the computer industry looked like when Steve Jobs came on the scene. It was dominated by IBM, which meant in your office there would be one gigantic computer, supervised by priest-like technicians whom you would petition for computer time. And even when IBM entered the PC market, you had to take weeks of training classes before you could even begin to operate their machines.

Steve Jobs thought one person, one computer was the model because he wanted to liberate the individual. And he succeeded. And shaping the computer industry to be more individual-focused was a huge accomplishment. Not everybody could have done that, and he did it for genuinely idealistic reasons.

Now I happen to think that the ultimate consequences of that revolution have been negative, especially for millennials who are complaining about the Uber-ization of the economy and the Tinder-ization of romance, but Jobs himself was legit in a way that very few other Boomers were.

Sean Illing

The feminist scholar Camille Paglia might be the least famous subject in the book, at least among millennials. Why is she part of this story?

Helen Andrews

She represents two worlds that are crucial to the boomers and their destructiveness. The first is pop culture. Camille Paglia has throughout her career stood for the idea that pop culture is as worthy of academic study as high culture, that Madonna’s sex book is as worthy of study as Milton.

And the second world is the academy. She was a great warrior in the first round of the PC wars in the 1990s. I think she was the best of them, better even than Allan Bloom. And it’s wonderful to see her slashing attacks on the old PC pieties, but the academy has continued to degenerate and become more PC, or as we would say now, “woke,” in spite of her wonderful slashing battles.

And more than that, it’s not just colleges that have become more left-wing, it’s that college itself has become more and more central. More and more people are going to college, which is bad for the country and for the people who enroll in college and then don’t finish, or the people who enroll in college, get their degrees, and then don’t get jobs that require college degrees. It’s just bad all around that college has become so central and the answer to everybody’s life course.

And that was something the boomers did. They were the generation that first decided everybody needs to go to college, and college is something not for a minority of the population, but for everybody.

Sean Illing

So you think it would be better if fewer Americans were able to attend college?

Helen Andrews

Yes, because it’s a massive waste of money that does not confer actual benefits to the people who pay for it. What a college degree represents today could be, and not so long ago was, taught in high schools, so we are wasting people’s time, valuable years of their lives, prolonging adolescence.

Sean Illing

Hard to leave that point about college dangling, but I don’t want to derail the conversation too much, so I’ll stay on the tracks. Why didn’t you choose a conservative boomer to profile? Why not Newt Gingrich or someone like Rush Limbaugh?

Helen Andrews

I did have some conservatives on my short list. But eventually I decided that while not every boomer is progressive, the boomer legacy is a progressive one. I ran into the same difficulty in trying to choose a faith leader, because religion is important to me and to people in general and society. So it would have been nice if I could have picked a boomer reverend or priest or religious notable, but every time I drafted a list of them I couldn’t find somebody who was important or influential enough, which is indicative in itself.

Sean Illing

Why Aaron Sorkin?

Helen Andrews

I was attracted to the irony at the center of Aaron Sorkin’s career. Everybody loves his show about politics, The West Wing, even though politics is a subject Sorkin knows nothing about, by his own admission. As he told every interviewer when The West Wing was on the air, he was a musical theater major.

Politics is not his field. But when he tried making shows about the television industry, which is a subject he does know and care deeply about, everybody hated them. The idealism of Studio 60 was real. The idealism of The West Wing was fake. His boomer audience preferred the fake idealism. That’s tragic to me. It also suggests some of the ways that boomer idealism, more broadly, is often just a pose.

Also, you can’t understand the Democrats working in DC today if you don’t get that a lot of them are West Wing superfans.

Sean Illing

I guess after all that boomer hate, we have to say something about millennials. To be honest, I can’t tell if you have more sympathy or disdain for your generation —

Helen Andrews

Yeah, it’s the latter. There were early readers of this manuscript whose feedback was that for a book about how terrible the boomers are, you sure seem to spend a lot of time bashing millennials. And I guess my response to that is that millennials are the children of the boomers. We’re taught by the boomers. So it’s only natural that we should imitate them.

But it’s worse when we do it, not just because it’s unoriginal and repetitive and derivative, but because the boomers could get away with it and we can’t. We’re not going to graduate to that kind of prosperity, so we should stop trying to imitate them.

Sean Illing

To be fair, millennials inherited the mess boomers left behind. Given the blows they’ve endured — the forever wars, the Great Recession, a once-in-a-century plague — how much blame can we really place at their feet?

Helen Andrews

This isn’t a book about blame. Millennials are the way we are because of boomers, and the world we inherited is broken because of what the boomers did, but at a certain point you have to stop blaming your parents and also stop blaming yourself, and just say, where do we go from here? The boomers were dealt an easy hand, millennials were dealt a difficult hand. That’s not fair. Okay. Now what? An honest reckoning with the boomers’ legacy for me is about moving forward.

Sean Illing

So we agree that millennials are still largely stuck in the world boomers created — the same language, the same ideas (with slight modifications), the same paradigms, the same art. Do you see any potential for breaking out of this cultural morass?

Helen Andrews

If there’s hope, it lies with Gen X. They are the last people with any memory, any foot in the pre-boomer world. The boomers were not Gen X’s parents and they weren’t Gen X’s teachers, and that keeps them anchored and gives them some spark of life. The boomers, by clogging up the career pipeline, have refused to get off the stage and give Gen X its moment. So even though Gen X is aging now, we still have not yet seen all that they can do. We have not seen a world run by Gen X-ers.

Hopefully, the boomers will make a graceful exit and we can start seeing that soon, but if that doesn’t work, then we are monumentally screwed.

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