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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Boomers, an indictment? 

This guest column is brought to you by a long time Durham resident and UNC graduate. At this point, it is a couple of years old. The critique offered of the Baby Boom generation feels fascinatingly prescient. In their insubstantiality, their "navel gazing" as the author puts it, did the Boomers allow this current economic malaise to happen on their watch? Is this what came of the flower-children, who gave it up and went to Wall Street, Washington D.C. and the endless little boxes of suburbia? Our guest columnist, a Boomer himself, and a Durhamanian through and through, trod no such path. Here he offers an eyes wide open look.

It's endemic: Boomers age and they go nostalgic. They’re beyond being self-consciously retro, it's an entire generation that has just crested middle aged, like a piece of just turned over-ripe fruit, sweeter than it should be with a slight aftertaste that says it's too late. Somewhere, resident in the gut, is the sense of the long slide into old age, where there's no longer an active attempt to stay young; they’ve been lapped once too often in that race. Rather the focus is on arm-chaired memories that evoke their experience of youth - unadulterated nostalgia.

The Marketeers have donned their Mousketeer ears and invited Boomers to rejoin the club. It pervades current marketing - we've entered the Post Greatest Generation nod to our WWII elders and established a new benchmark for what is regressively relevant. A recent article in Newsweek, I believe, noted that certain car designs (like the Chrysler PT Cruiser) drawing on themes from the fifties and targeted for young first-time car buyers, find Boomers as their demographic, and the younger set, seeing this, flees. Television ads take on the patina of a faded photograph with images that evoke the late forties through the fifties. The current equivalent of the Lawrence Welk and Art Linkletter TV shows is Garrison Keeler’s Prairie Home Companion, doing one better by leapfrogging backward over television to the era of radio. Along with a number of other shows, it is a mix of self-conscious and self-parodying that ends up ultimately sincere (sincerity being the starting and end points for Lawrence and Art,) lulling the listener with a wink to go ahead and indulge its desire for just above average wholesome Midwestern corniness.

Go ahead.

After all it's what most of the white middle class and its aspirants fed on growing up (And now grown and comfortably set, comes another iteration: The Martha Stewart School of Nostalgia, that combines stereotypical notions from Boomer childhood of what it took to live the hunt country life combined with a wash of wholesome domesticity). There are countless cultural markers offering Boomers a palliative as they lull themselves into feeling better about life. Like it or not, this tendency was insinuated early into their consciousness, became a sleeper and at the right time, when they sensed mortality, with less to come than has been done, with a weariness that goes with over 30-40 years of irony, relativism, postwhatever, the pace race, a generation's proclivity for navel gazing, and increasing contrasts between their self image and the mirror held up by their grown children, they quietly yearn for simplicity and find a short cut through the kitchen door into the backyard of their youth.


It makes their children roll their eyes, if not render them irrelevant. Boomers have not only become their parents, they secretly hope to become their grandparents. For it's their grand and great grandparents who long ago gave up any illusion about their time in the sun running things; they’ve lived through their nostalgia and are about as clear-eyed as one can get, where the most press their kind receive comes from the obituaries, reverently intoned by Boomer journalists outlining the long-past outstanding career of some pioneer who just died. Here the elders outlive their contemporary Immortals – their heroes. Hence to them the deaths of their peers speak to their imminent mortality as a simple fact, if it isn't already manifest in their own list of aliments and diminished strength. For Boomers the deaths of their elders speak to their own march to the front line with no buffer, no parent to offer the illusion of protection from death. Here the flat world theory holds: one definitely sails over the edge into oblivion. So they regress and look for rituals and symbols that immerse them in their youth, a final dream before they're forced to wake up. And if not awake then looking to the past allows them to back into their future, while casting a quick quiet dispirited glance over their shoulder at what’s to come.

Hence, their children rightly believe their parents are out of touch with the present much less some sense of ever expanding opportunity that is the basis for their reality. Boomers’ fond memories from thirty to forty years ago are the equivalent for their parents’ own sense of World War I and the Depression – it does not register viscerally no matter how well films and books portray what happened between World War II and the Seventies: It only matters to the Boomers. What more can I say…

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