On Life in the Shadow of the Boomers

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Ideology, which was once the road to action, has become a dead end.

—Daniel Bell (1960)

Yuval Levin’s 2017 book Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism has several interesting passages inside it, but none so interesting as Levin’s meditation on the generational frame that clouds the modern mind. Levin maintains that 21st century Americans largely understand the last decades of the 20th century, and the first decades of the 21st, through the eyes of the Boomers. Many of the associations we have with various decades (say, the fifties with innocence and social conformity, or the sixties with explosive youthful energy), says Levin, had more to do with the life-stage in which Boomer’s experienced these decades than anything objective about the decades themselves:

Because they were born into a postwar economic expansion, they have been an exceptionally middle-class generation, targeted as consumers from birth. Producers and advertisers have flattered this generation for decades in an effort to shape their tastes and win their dollars. And the boomers’ economic power has only increased with time as they have grown older and wealthier. Today, baby boomers possess about half the consumer purchasing power of the American economy, and roughly three-quarters of all personal financial assets, although they are only about one-quarter of the population. All of this has also made the baby boomers an unusually self-aware generation. Bombarded from childhood with cultural messages about the promise and potential of their own cohort, they have conceived of themselves as a coherent group to a greater degree than any generation of Americans before them.

Since the middle of the twentieth century they have not only shaped the course of American life through their preferences and choices but also defined the nation’s self-understanding. Indeed, the baby boomers now utterly dominate our understanding of America’s postwar history, and in a very peculiar way. To see how, let us consider an average baby boomer: an American born in, say, 1950, who has spent his life comfortably in the broad middle class. This person experienced the 1950s as a child, and so remembers that era, through those innocent eyes, as a simple time of stability and wholesome values in which all things seemed possible.

By the mid-1960s, he was a teenager, and he recalls that time through a lens of youthful rebellion and growing cultural awareness—a period of idealism and promise. The music was great, the future was bright, but there were also great problems to tackle in the world, and he had the confidence of a teenager that his generation could do it right. In the 1970s, as a twenty-something entering the workforce and the adult world, he found that confidence shaken. Youthful idealism gave way to some cynicism about the potential for change, recreational drugs served more for distraction than inspiration, everything was unsettled, and the future seemed ominous and ambiguous. His recollection of that decade is drenched in cold sweat.

In the 1980s, in his thirties, he was settling down. His work likely fell into a manageable groove, he was building a family, and concerns about car loans, dentist bills, and the mortgage largely replaced an ambition to transform the world. This was the time when he first began to understand his parents, and he started to value stability, low taxes, and low crime. He looks back on that era as the onset of real adulthood. By the 1990s, in his forties, he was comfortable and confident, building wealth and stability. He worried that his kids were slackers and that the culture was corrupting them, and he began to be concerned about his own health and witness as fifty approached. But on the whole, our baby boomer enjoyed his forties—it was finally his generation’s chance to be in charge, and it looked to be working out.

As the twenty-first century dawned, our boomer turned fifty. He was still at the peak of his powers (and earnings), but he gradually began to peer over the hill toward old age. He started the decade with great confidence, but found it ultimately to be filled with unexpected dangers and unfamiliar forces. The world was becoming less and less his own, and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that he might be past his prime. He turned sixty-five in the middle of this decade, and in the midst of uncertainty and instability. Health and retirement now became prime concerns for him. The culture started to seem a little bewildering, and the economy seemed awfully insecure. He was not without hope. Indeed, in some respects, his outlook on the future has been improving a little is he contemplates retirement. He doesn’t exactly admire his children (that so-called “Generation X”), but they have exceeded his expectations, and his grandchildren (the youngest Millennials and those younger still) seem genuinely promising and special. As he contemplates their future, he does worry that they will be denied the extraordinary blend of circumstances that defined the world of his youth.

The economy, politics, and the culture just don’t work the way they used to, and frankly, it is difficult for him to imagine America two or three decades from now. He rebelled against the world he knew as a young man, but now it stands revealed to him as a paradise lost. How can it be regained? This portrait of changing attitudes is, of course, stylized for effect. But it offers the broad contours of how people tend to look at their world in different stages of life, and it shows how Americans (and, crucially, not just the boomers) tend to understand each of the past seven decades of our national life. This is no coincidence. We see our recent history through the boomers’ eyes. Were the 1950s really simple and wholesome? Were the 1960s really idealistic and rebellious? Were the 1970s aimless and anxious? Did we find our footing in the 1980s? Become comfortable and confident in the 1990s? Or more fearful and disoriented over the past decade and a half? As we shall see in the coming chapters, the answer in each case is not simply yes or no. But it is hard to deny that we all frequently view the postwar era in this way—through the lens of the boomer experience.

The boomers’ self-image casts a giant shadow over our politics, and it means we are inclined to look backward to find our prime. More liberal-leaning boomers miss the idealism of the flower of their youth, while more conservative ones, as might be expected, are more inclined to miss the stability and confidence of early middle age—so the Left yearns for the 1960s and the Right for the 1980s. But both are telling the same story: a boomer’s story of the America they have known. The trouble is that it is not only the boomers themselves who think this way about America, but all of us, especially in politics. We really have almost no self-understanding of our country in the years since World War II that is not in some fundamental way a baby-boomer narrative. [1]

When I first read this passage in 2018 I experienced it as a sort of revelation that suddenly unlocked many mysteries then turning in my mind.

To start with: The 1950s did not seem like an age of innocent idyll or bland conformity to the adults who lived through it. It was a decade when intellectual life was still attempting to come to terms with the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. Consider a few famous book titles:  Orwell’s 1984 (published 1949), Hersey’s The Wall (1950), Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Chambers’ Witness (1952), Miller’s The Crucible (1953), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1957), and Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) were all intensely preoccupied with the weaknesses of liberalism and the allure of totalitarian solutions.  For every optimistic summons to Tomorrowland, there was a Lionel Trilling, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Richard Hofstadter ready to declare Zion forever out of reach, hamstrung by the irony and tragedy of the American condition. Nor was it the wholesome era of memory. An age we associate with childlike obedience saw its children as anything but obedient—witness the anxiety of the age in films like The Wild One (1953), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Blackboard Jungle (1955). This age of innocence saw the inaugural issue of Playboy, the books Lolita (1955) and Peyton Pace (1956) hitting the New York Times Fiction best seller list, the Kinsey reports topping the Non-fiction best seller list, and Little Richard inaugurating rock ‘n roll with the lyrics

Good Golly Miss Molly, sure like to ball
When you’re rocking and rolling
Can’t hear your mama call.

And that is all without considering a lost war in Korea, the tension of the larger Cold War, and the tumult of the Civil Rights revolution. We may think of the 1950s as an age of conformity, purity, and stability, but those who lived through it as adults experienced it as an age of fragmentation, permissiveness, and shattered innocence.[2]

Levin explains why our perception of the era differs so much from the perceptions of the adults who lived through it. We see it as an age of innocence because we see it through the eyes of the Boomers, who experienced this age as children. But his account also helps explain something else—that odd feeling I have whenever I watch Youtube clips of a show like What’s My Line. Though products of American pop culture, those shows seem like relics from alien world, an antique past more different in manners and morals from the America of 2020 than many foreign lands today. However, this eerie feeling of an alien world does not descend upon me when I see a television show from the 1970s. The past may be a different country, the border line is not crossed until we hit 1965.

This observation is not mine alone. In his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became Victims of Our Own Success, Ross Douthat describes it as a more general feeling, a feeling expressed in many corners on the 30 year anniversary of the 1985 blockbuster Back to the Future. The plot of that film revolves around a contemporary teenager whisked back via time machine to the high school of his parents, 30 years earlier. When the film’s anniversary hit in 2015, many commented that the same plot could not work today. The 1980s simply seemed far too similar to the 2010s for the juxtaposition to entertain. Douthat explains why this might be so:

A small case study: in the original Back to the Future, Marty McFly invaded his father’s sleep dressed as “Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan.” The joke was that the pop culture of the 1960s and 1970s could be passed off as a genuine alien visitation because it would seem so strange to the ears of a 1950s teen. But thirty years after 1985, the year’s biggest blockbuster was a Star Wars movie about Darth Vader’s grandkid… which was directed by a filmmaker, J. J. Abrams, who was coming off rebooting Star Trek… which was part of a wider cinematic landscape dominated by “presold” comic-book properties developed when the baby boomers were young. A Martina McFly visiting the Reagan-era past from the late 2010s wouldn’t have a Vader/ Vulcan prank to play, because her pop culture and her parents’ pop culture are strikingly the same….

Even the exceptions to this rule, the still-creative portions of pop cinema, are often tethered to the boomer era. When big-screen science fiction isn’t just a straight-up eighties-vintage franchise movie— a Star Wars or Star Trek or Alien or Predator— it’s usually a strange multilayered exercise in recursion, like Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner: 2049, which trades on a peculiar nostalgia for an eighties dystopia that’s tellingly more technologically proficient than our own, or Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, in which the hero’s journey of the future takes place inside a virtual world built from the pop culture that the youthful Spielberg helped create. And then there are still-stranger cases, like the succes de scandale of 2019, Todd Phillips’s Joker, which both its fans and detractors treated as something novel and radical— an upending of superhero clichés in the service of a politically engaged or politically dangerous message of despair or revolution. In reality, the movie was just a competent, handsome imitation of Scorsese’s harsh depictions of 1970s New York, embedded in the endlessly rebooting DC Extended Universe to make it marketable, linked to the problems of 2019 primarily by wishful thinking….

The reality of recurrence may be slightly harder for progressives to acknowledge than conservatives, because progressivism is more invested in its supposed position at the vanguard of cultural change, pressing boldly on to new frontiers. This makes it difficult for the left to recognize the generational recycling of its ambitions and anxieties: the fact that many progressive “breakthroughs” are just the culture cycling back to something that we did not that long ago— up to and including kick-ass female action heroes such as Wonder Woman (who followed a path blazed by Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien movies, or the robot-wrangling Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, or even the blaster-wielding Princess Leia in Star Wars forty years ago) or the African American heroes in Black Panther. (In truth, black stars were arguably more important in the years of Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor and The Cosby Show and the young Denzel Washington than in our officially representation-obsessed age.)[3]

But Douthat does not just think we are stuck recycling the pop-culture of Boomers past. He sees it too in the broader realm of social values and culture wars:

 Famous 1970s-era texts such as Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, Tom Wolfe’s essay “The ‘Me’ Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” and Robert Bellah and his coauthors’ sociology of American religion, Habits of the Heart seem entirely relevant to American culture today, whereas their equivalents from the 1950s— The Lonely Crowd, say, or The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit— feel like dispatches from a lost world. A book like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me earned frequent comparisons to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time because its indictment of American racism could have been written in 1975 as easily as in 2015. A popular problems-of-feminism Atlantic cover story such as Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” essay from 2012 could have its cultural references tweaked and be dropped into 1978 or 1994 without anyone noticing.

The same goes on on the right, where Jordan Peterson’s popular tracts against the dangers of postmodernism are fresh and shocking only if you don’t remember the 1980s; if you do, they’re mostly a reminder that it’s been almost forty years since postmodernism was actually radical and new. More generally, the conservative critique of academic liberalism was distilled in the three decades between William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale in 1955 and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in 1987, and everything in the three decades since Bloom just recycles or reiterates their points. This is somewhat defensible because the academic politics that conservatives are critiquing keep cycling through the same recurring patterns too, with the campus battles of the 1960s giving way to the PC wars of the 1980s giving way to our own social justice struggle sessions… And, of course, all of these battles are happening on the same elite campuses, the same Very Important Schools as held sway over American higher education and high culture sixty years ago. There is no list more decadent in its stagnation and repetition than the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.[4]

Douthat extends this critique to politics proper.  The white-black wage gap and residential segregation have “neither worsened nor improved” since the 1970s; the male-female wage gap has held flat since the 1980s, and public opinion on abortion “has been remarkably stable” since that same decade. Thus

Against these backdrops, the similarities between the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation fight in 1991 and the 2018 Brett Kavanaugh confirmation fight, between the current Black Lives Matter moment and the O. J. Simpson– and Rodney King– era debates about police brutality in the mid-1990s, between abortion debates in 1990 and the abortion debate today— even between the sexual scandals of Donald Trump and the sexual scandals of Bill Clinton (albeit with the parties supporting the priapist reversed)— are not coincidental. They reflect what Barzun calls the constant “deadlocks of our time”: the persistent controversies that await some new dispensation to be transcended or resolved.

That pattern extends beyond culture wars to other ideological debates in American politics, where the left-wing and right-wing coalitions have generally been locked in place since the Reagan Revolution, stalemated not only politically but also intellectually, cycling through the same domestic arguments, the same basic range of issues and ideas. The reason that American conservatives are so persistently nostalgic for the Reagan presidency, now more than thirty years gone, and the reason that liberals remain fascinated with their 1960s-era icons is that so little has changed politically since the upheavals that took place between Jack Kennedy’s assassination in ’63 and Reagan’s ’80 victory.

Or to borrow Mark Steyn’s time-travel conceit from an earlier chapter: most of today’s policy arguments, rhetorical frames, constituencies, and interests groups would all be more recognizable to a time traveler from the early 1980s than the debates of the late 1970s would have been to a voyager from the Depression era arriving in the age of Carter. The overall battle lines have shifted, mostly in the more individualistic direction: the right won some economic victories in the 1980s and 1990s, the left won some cultural victories in the 1990s and 2000s. But many, many arguments (over race, abortion, taxes, welfare) look very much as they did two generations ago.[5]

I have no quarrel with the broad contours of Douthat’s argument, and see in it an explanation for the eeriness of 1950s pop culture. Films, television shows, and advertisements from that era were neither marketed at Boomers nor created by them. It was truly a different world. Americans of our age live imprisoned in the world of the Boomers.

Yet Douthat veers off course when he argues that this sort generational cultural domination is a novel American experience. To portray the pre-Boomer past as a set of successive 20-year culture revolutions, Douthat must play funny with the chronology. This can be seen in the passages I’ve excerpted above but is most obvious in his discussion of literature:

 When high-end literature was being redefined by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, great novels from just 20 years earlier— Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth— seemed like relics of another age. And twenty years after Hemingway published his war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, a new war novel, Catch-22, made it seem preposterously antique.

Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a twenty-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey— both distinctions without a real difference— and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even twenty years before that seem plausibly circa 2012. [6]

There is a slight of hand in that first paragraph, which jumps from Hemingway’s first short stories (1921) to For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), written some twenty years later. Catch-22 (1961) came a full two generations after Hemingway’s first foray into war literature. Hemingway’s 1953 Nobel Prize specifically cited work he had penned ten years after he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. By the time Joseph Heller came on the scene, Hemingway and modernism had ruled America’s literary roosts for a full five decades.

Yet it was not just Hemingway. The household “high literature” poets of the 1950s (Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, E.E. Cummings, Robert Frost) were members of Hemingway’s lost generation. This was also true for leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who still ruled the world of black arts and letters.  In the 1950s, Faulkner and Salinger carried the torch of the self-consciously modernist novel, an innovation of the 1910s, forward into the second half of the 20th century; across the pond novelists like Robert Graves and “Inklings” like Lewis and Tolkien assured that artillery of Flanders Field would echo another generation longer.  The three largest circulars in America—the Luce productions Time, Life, and Fortune—were all born in the twenties or thirties, as were the slightly higher-brow but only slightly less famous Vogue and New Yorker. The monthlies Harpers and Atlantic Monthly were far older than that. But  Harpers was edited by Frederick Lewis Allen, perhaps the most popular Harpers writer of the twenties and thirties, while something similar could be said for Atlantic Monthly’s editor Edward Weeks, who began editing that flagship of American life all the way back in 1938. America’s most prominent intellectuals (think Reinhold Niebuhr and his circles) all broke their teeth writing up responses to the great ‘isms’ of the early 20th century; the European emigres (Strauss, Arendt, Marcuse, etc) then colonizing American universities fled these same ‘isms’ in Europe, and carried their old interwar quarrels with them to America.

But there is more! Douthat questions why we think post-modernism subversive so many decades after its invention; a Ross Douthat of 1959 would wonder why his fellow intellectuals still bandied about Freud as if he were a living danger. The Douthat of 2019 wonders why American political thought is stuck in the 1980s; the Douthat of 1959 would have traced the links that tie the technocratic Hooverism of the twenties with the technocratic liberalism of his own era. The Douthat of 2019 wonders why sexual ethics and fashion styles changed so drastically in the sixties and seventies but have been kept in stasis since; the Douthat of the 1950s would have marveled at the incredible changes in fashion and sentiment that occurred between 1905 and 1925 and wondered where all of the turn-of-the-century energy had disappeared to.

This Douthat would tell us how women who had worn no make up at all and five layers of dress in the 1910s wore but one or two layers of dress (and several layers of make up) in the twenties—just as their daughters would in the fifties. He would relate how after hemlines rose for a decade, they finally stabilized in the thirties—and stayed stable through 1960. Short haircuts shocked the world in 1921; how funny that they remained in vogue (if slightly different in style) in 1961.  An American from the 1955 wearing standard business attire could have walked into an office of 1925 without causing much drama; if a man of 1935 walked with his suit and hat into an office 1905 he would be received as a visitor from a different country.

My argument then, is that though “today’s policy arguments, rhetorical frames, constituencies, and interests groups would all be more recognizable to a time traveler from the early 1980s than the debates of the late 1970s would have been to a voyager from the Depression era arriving in the age of Carter,” a voyager from 1925 would have had little trouble adjusting to the issues of  1955.

Such a traveler would get why Reds caused Scares and why the United Nations brought hope. He might be surprised at the success of the Civil Rights movement or the strength of the new economic orthodoxy, but he would certainly understand both as logical developments of very familiar forces. The controversies swirling around rock’n’roll would remind him of earlier disdain for jazz; the drive towards suburban living would remind him that the first American suburbs were built in the ’20s. The election of America’s first Catholic president would recall the nomination of America’s first Catholic presidential candidate. Chicago, New York, and the Deep South were all still controlled by familiar political machines. The South was still Solid, and New England was still the heartland of the Republican vote. America’s political and economic elite were still Waspish Northeasterners. The exceptions, rising Hollywood moguls, Detroit CEOS, and Texas oilmen, all helmed industries that began their upward climb in the 1920s. Our twenties man would sympathize with a public gone crazy with consumerism. He likely shares the fifties obsession with style, glam, and smoking. The emptiness of the company man and the struggle of post war life would all make great sense to him; he would read The Lonely Crowd and watch The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and nod along. He would understand the quiet crisis in meaning 0f the 20th century American boom.

If the politicians and public intellectuals of the 1950s were a more sober and self-consciously responsible bunch than the leading lights of the twenties, this was only because they had been chastened by experience. The disillusioned and immature avant-garde of the twenties was the disillusioned and mature old guard of the fifties. Maturity had been forced on them by events, but their disillusionment had not changed. Public life still dwelt in the shadow of the Great War. No one believed that the old order that dissolved in 1914 had been reconstituted or replaced. The liberal elite felt, as they had thirty years earlier, that religious faith had been hollowed out by advances in science. That religious passion had been watered down by the demands of pluralism. That politics had been reduced to bland technocracy. That ideology was dead. That individuality was stripped away by specialization and corporate hierarchy. That booze, glamor, and dollar bills were the only salves left to the modern soul.

The terrible toll of Great Depression and a second World War had taught them to accept that deal. They would defend liberalism despite their disillusion. They would protect the standing order, no matter how hollow they believed it. The alternatives were simply too grim—and the boons of the boom were simply too great. In many ways the 1950s is what you get when you take the uneven affluence of the 1920s and extend the boom out to the rest of the country. It was the prosperous disquiet of the Jazz Age delivered to Tallahassee and Pasadena. Had there been no Depression or war, it is quite possible the youth of the ’30s would have created a counterculture to match that of the ’60s. Were the story of American culture told by that generation, perhaps we would stereotype the 1920s, not the 1950s, as America’s decade of innocence.

But we don’t see the 1920s through the eyes of its children. The story of the 1920s is told to us through the eyes of a different generation, the generation that experienced the twenties in their twenties. We see the First World War, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and Second World War largely through the experiences and stories of the Lost Generation. [7]  Our understanding of the 20th century’s first half is just as colored by that generation’s preocupations as our understanding of the century’s second half is by the Boomers’.

Not every generation is so lucky. Ross Douthat and Yuval Levin, Gen-Xers both, belong to one of the unlucky cohorts crowded out by the voices of their elders. But in this they are hardly unique. Hear the lament of Daniel Bell (b. 1919) in the 1950s, frustrated at the cultural hegemony of the generation called Lost:

 IT is DIFFICULT for me to know if I am, or am not, of the “young generation.” I came to political awareness in the Depression and joined the Young People’s Socialist League in 1932, at the precocious age of thirteen. At the age of fifteen I was writing resolutions on the “road to power.” At C.C.N.Y., in the late thirties, I was already a veteran of many factional wars. Since graduating, in 1938, I have worked for twenty years, half my life, as a writer or teacher — a respectable period, yet whenever biographical details are printed, I am, almost inescapably, referred to as a young American sociologist, or a young American writer. And so are others of my generation of the same age or slightly older. To take some random examples: Harvey Swados, now thirty-nine, is still called a promising “young” writer although he has published three novels; Richard Hofstadter, who, at the age of forty-two, has published four first-rate historical interpretations, is called a young American scholar; James Wechsler, over forty, a young editor; Saul Bellow, over forty, a young American novelist; Leslie Fiedler, aged forty-three, a young American critic; Alfred Kazin, aged forty-four, a young American critic, etc., etc

But, beyond the general change in the tone of the culture, there is a more specific reason why the college generation of “the thirties” has been, until now, at bay. This is because those who dominated “the thirties” were young themselves when they became established, and, until recently, have held major sway in the culture.

The Partisan Review, for example, is twenty-three years old, yet its editors, William Phillips and Philip Rahv, are not “old” men (say, fifty, give or take a year). Our intellectual nestors—Lionel Trilling, Sidney Hook, Edmund Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dos Passos, Newton Arvin, F. W. Dupee, James T. Farrell, Richard Wright, Max Lerner, Elliott Cohen—were in their late twenties and early thirties when they made their mark as a new generation. The reason why there has been no revolt against them, as they, in asserting a radical politics, had ousted their elders, is that they led their own “counter-revolt.” They had both Iliad and Odyssey, were iconistic and iconoclastic. They were intense, hortatory, naive, simplistic, and passionate, but, after the Moscow Trials and the Soviet-Nazi pact, disenchanted and reflective; and from them and their experiences we have inherited the key terms which dominate discourse today: irony, paradox, ambiguity, and complexity.

Curiously, though they—and we—are sadder and perhaps wiser than the first political generations of the century, we are not better or greater.[8]

They are not better or greater! How bitter! how blinded! Bell’s judgement has aged poorly. Bell identifies a handful of the thinkers and writers of the “first political generation” that he champions. John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, and Charles Beard are the only men of this handful who are remembered today.  Even they have fallen off of college syllabi, studied only by specialists in their era. And the great poets, novelists, essayists, philosophers, economists, and theologians of the Lost Generation? They are still read and treasured. They lasted. It is no accident that we remember their times through their eyes. Bell resents the misfortune of living in their shadow too much to acknowledge their greatness. But their merit was plain to see for those with open eyes.

Patterns past mirror futures coming. One suspects that the critics of future centuries will find more grace in the Boomers than Levin or Douthat grant them. But there is a happy note in repetition. If Daniel Bell could call ideology dead, politics stale, and culture stuck in 1960,  then perhaps Douthat’s repetition of these same claims marks a similar moment. As the Lost Generation faded from the scene in the 1950s, so the Boomers fade away now. Some other generation will define the terms of the 2020s: and in that reality, there is hope for renewal.

If this post on inter-generational intellectual history caught your interest, you might consider some of my older posts on similar problems: “On the Tolkienic Hero,” Book Notes: On Strategy, a History,” “On Adding Phrase to the Language,” “On Cultures That Build,” “A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture,” and “On Sparks Before the Prairie Fire.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 24-28.
[2]  A concise but convincing depiction of this is found in Brink Lindsay, Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed American Politics and Culture (New York: Hapers, 2007), 93-129. The theme is pursued at far greater length in Alan Petingy, The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), which I have not read. Jesse Walker’s review of the book (“Beyond Pleasantville,” Reason, January 2010) comments:

The trouble is, the apparently alien influences that gradually infect Pleasantville don’t hail from the future. The townspeople encounter J.D. Salinger and D.H. Lawrence, civil rights oratory and modern art; on the soundtrack, we hear the rockabilly of Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley, the jazz of Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, the soulful blues of Etta James. None of those were imported from the ’90s. All were available, and hin many cases created, in the ’50s and early ’60s, the very period that produced the sitcoms lampooned in the film. Pleasantville doesn’t contrast the repressed ’50s with the liberated ’90s. It contrasts the faux ’50s of our TV-fueled nostalgia with the social ferment that was actually taking place while those sanitized shows first aired.

Alan Petigny, a reporter turned historian who teaches at the University of Florida, examines how deep that ferment went in The Permissive Society, an important new study of the postwar period. The Truman and Eisenhower eras, he writes, were marked by “an unprecedented challenge to traditional moral restraints.” Petigny isn’t referring to a bohemian subculture or to rock ‘n’ roll rebellion: There are only a few scattered references to beatniks in this book, and its discussion of pop music devotes more space to Pat Boone than to Elvis Presley. Petigny is talking about the great American middle, whose values in areas ranging from child rearing to religious piety underwent a rapid and radical change long before the love-ins.

[3]   Ross Douthat, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 90-91, 94.

[4] ibid., 96-98.

[5] ibid., 99-100.

[6] ibid., 92.

[7] This is not even a uniquely 20th century phenomena. Why do the political struggles and passions of the 1870s, 80s, and 90s get flattened out of our historical narratives today? Why is it when we think of the Gilded Age we think not of the great partisan controversies that divided the country, but only of industrial titans, wealthy excess, grand strikes, and immigration waves? It is not because the politics of the day did not matter; to the voters and politicians of the day they mattered a lot. It is instead because our narrative of these decades is completely contorted by the generation of Progressives who swept the nation in the 1900s and 1910s. That generation justified the expansive federal programs and reforms on the grounds that the politics of decades past had been a distraction, utterly incapable of dealing with the real issues spawned by industrialization,  urbanization, and mass immigration. Those “real” issues are what the progressive generation remembered most about the era, even they were not seen as the most important issues for the majority of the people who lived through it. As with the 1950s, we understand these times through a narrow, generational lens.

[8] Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (New York: Free Press, 1960), 299-300.

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OP image is weird if it's like that in the US, most popular non-human such Christmas songs in UK are Victorian / 70s-80s.

In general, the thesis that the Baby Boom generation shapes the dominant understanding of decades seems extremely wrong. The dominant cultural image of the 1980s is Stranger Things; it's probably more accurate to suggest that understanding of periods tend to be shaped by their youth culture, than that this tracks a single cohort.

(But then I doubt the thesis generally; Millennial understandings of our current seem no better than older generations. It's understandable that younger public intellectuals want to discredit the older incumbents, but rather to take seriously as an outsider with no place in the status jockeying).


"OP image is weird if it's like that in the US," –But it is.

"The dominant cultural image of the 1980s is Stranger Things" — But that is really just a homage to 1980s films (ET, Goonies, Close Encounters, Aliens) created by boomers like Steven Speilberg!

There is something to be said about Generation X, which has been fully at the forefront of cultural production over the last 15 years, deciding to spend much of that effort rebooting franchises from their childhood or retelling comic book stories from the same era on the big screen.

Reminds me of this blog http://akinokure.blogspot.com/ a lot. He writes about cultural cycles like this. Search "disjunctive" for politics related and "refractory" for pop culture.

He talks about political cycles here http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2018/03/the-disintegration-of-gop-during-18-and.html and believes that our current Reagan era is coming to a close soon. I believe it's based on Skowronek's writings about American political cycles.

Pop culture posts are more about the general mood of music and other things, how open and energetic or closed and introspective.

"A Martina McFly visiting the Reagan-era past from the late 2010s wouldn’t have a Vader/ Vulcan prank to play, because her pop culture and her parents’ pop culture are strikingly the same…."

The Matrix, Harry Potter, Shawshank Redemption, all the Pixar movies, Jurassic Park, Pulp Fiction, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Guardians of the Galaxy (technically from the 60s but hardly anybody knew about them until 2008), Inception, The Lion King, Seinfeld, Friends, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, The Simpsons, South Park, Silence of the Lambs, Dexter, Rick and Morty, Pirates of the Caribbean…

And before you tell me that some of these borrowed heavily from older works, remember that Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek to NBC as a sci-fi version of the '50s hit show Wagon Train, while the storyline for the first Star Wars movie was largely borrowed from the 1940s serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

A quibble on an excellent piece – the passage on literature is a lengthy quotation from Kurt Anderson, not penned by Douthat himself.


That is actually a good point about Star Wars and Star Trek themselves being reimaginations of earlier serials. Harry Potter and Hunger Games are probably the only two I would include as having the same cultural profile as SW or ST, and both have a distinctly 21st century feeling to them.

@James–Thanks. Will fix

@Anon- Why do you always post this? What's the point?

On the Boomer vs. millenial/Gen Z divide, do you think these commonly talked about trends will have a big impact on 21st century pop culture and a sharp "break" with the culture of the Boomers?

– increased tech culture. In hindsight, will we see the rise of the net and social media (everyone on their phones, so much socialization going on online vs. in person, which is already something that stands out vs. 80s or 90s culture) in the 21st century as the dawn of a new age?

Will the rise of the "internet star" like youtubers and lower barriers to entry vs. in the traditional entertainment industry usher in the democratization of mass media which will in hindsight be notable?

– On a related note, the increased "nerdiness" of culture and increased competitiveness of education (increased focus on college prep, helicopter parents etc. which starts with the upper class but seems to have trickled down more and more to the common person). American culture is becoming more Japan-like or East-Asian like in school culture. Will the old pop culture depiction of nerds and jocks soon seem outdated? Will the high school slacker be less relatable as a stock character?

– younger millenial/gen z's are far more globalized — US media is still by far asymmetric worldwide in terms of influence on foreign media than vice versa but Americans are now more "aware" of the world and pertinent to your blog's topic, aware of Asia. Maybe somewhat minor examples but millenials/gen-z's are far more clued into Asian culture like anime/k-pop etc. while Boomers' exposure to non-US pop-culture influence was more trans-Atlantic ( Euro-pop like ABBA, British wave like the Beatles etc.).

What about the fact that American Gen-z's the most diverse generation, and came of age in a time period of foreign born share not seen in a century. Boomers came of age in a very homogenous, assimilationist America (though one that brought race Civil Rights, desegregation etc.). We don't have a parallel to the globalized but also diasporic mass media among Americans in the past like Black Panther/Crazy Rich Asians. Will some groups (e.g. South Asian Americans, East Asian Americans, many more Hispanics, recent African immigrants etc.) start to figure in American pop culture and be influential (the way African Americans on TV in more than just stock roles, and Jewish Americans for instance started getting much more assimilated into archetypal American pop culture in the 50s, 60s etc. and onto the late 20th century)?

How will identity politics also influence pop culture, in the US, abroad in entertainment/mass media, music etc. (e.g. the argument by non-Americans like the French that US identity politics is being transplanted or exported outwards). How will racial identity and "wokeness" in the current moment influence pop culture — long-term or flash in the pan?

This and a whole bunch of other trends might change the 21st century's culture into one very different than the 20th but who knows? Maybe the differences will be overblown or more gradual than expected or even totally different from what we imagine.

@Diaspora knowledge knowledge

Re "nerdiness": On the other hand, the track our education system is currently on is clearly not sustainable.

Re "globalization": wokeness tends to interfere with any realistic portals of groups.

Also, speaking of wokeness, if it doesn't turn into a flash in the pan it's liable to destroy US pop-culture, i.e., Americans will start treating pop-culture from places that don't have these Orwellian restrictions as more interesting. Similar to the way people in the former Soviet block preferred American pop-culture to the culture their sensors permitted.

My idea is that pop culture is "woke" for a long time (Exhibit A – Star Trek). Probably because "pop culture" is largely produced by people who is a bit maladjusted in mainstream society (or where maladjusted in high school days…).


Much of the what you listed is at least twenty to twenty-five years old. A few of the ones that ended a decade ago were part of long-running series, like Harry Potter, that got their start around the turn of the millennium. I saw all the Hunger Games movies, and for that matter a few of the Twilight movies, and while they're popular, they seem more ephemera than phenomena, carried mostly by their stars and used as launch pads by them for bigger things. Dexter collapsed mid-way through after the premise wore off and hasn't been relevant in a decade, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and other "prestige TV" has only ever had niche audiences, and I say that as someone who loved The Sopranos and The Wire. TV itself tends strongly toward ephemera, the finale of M*A*S*H was a major cultural event in the early 80s but is now practically forgotten. Star Trek (and Doctor Who) is an aberration from typical TV because it is resuscitated again and again for the next generation, more akin to comic book serials than typical episodic TV programs like Full House, Friends, Cheers, or M*A*S*H. Aside from Full House, I have never seen a single episode of any of the shows I just listed, which says something about the limits of TV programs to possess cultural staying power and widespread permeation; on the other hand, the fact that I am aware of who Ross and Rachel are also says something.

I think it's going to be hard for Generation X to set any kind of cultural tone (the oldest of them are already eligible for AARP membership, so the time is already passing anyway) because they were raised in their childhood, through teens, and for some even into their 20s in what Neil Postman described as a culture that was "Amusing Ourselves To Death": passively consuming music and music videos, shopping at the mall, summer blockbusters, and high school cliques and subcultures dominated social and cultural life for Gen Xers when they were young. Fully a consumer culture. The best we got out of "adult" Gen Xers was grunge, Reality Bites, Bret Easton Ellis books, and Richard Linklater documentaries, all of these sharing a common mopiness and angst about feeling lost, directionless, upset with the hypocrisy of society, and having mental health problems, drug addictions, or self-destructive unfulfilling promiscuous sex. Gangsta rap, another Gen X phenomenon (remember that N.W.A. movie from a few years ago?), merely added sociopathic rage and hedonistic nihilism to the mix and tried to justify it with a thin veneer of social critique re: racism and inner city problems.

It makes sense why millennials will displace them easily in the culture, to the extent that they already aren't, because their vision is more sweeping and substantial than Generation X's penchant for hedonistic self-destruction and/or relentless, never-ending navel-gazing.

Hold on. The creators of Mosaic, PayPal, Amazon, Google—all Generation X. Almost the entire online world we all take for granted was launched by GenX in the prime of their youth. Facebook was created by an early millennial, sure, but the tech boom of the late 90s was at its core about the arrival of generation X as imdustrial re olutionaries. The rap on GenX that they are navel gazing nihilists is a very Boomer take.

All modern history is just a rehash of ancient Greece and Rome, plus technology.

Human nature hasn't changed all that much.

Christmas pop songs: the British canon has a somewhat wider confidence interval as well as a later mean, so as well as peaking some time in the late 70s, the right-tail runs out to 1998 to pull in Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You". Interestingly, though, it runs out there, for the excellent reason that there's enough tragedy in the world without playing Cliff Richard's "The Millennium Prayer". The canon has closed, and Mimi closed it.

(Although IIRC that was a massive hit in the US so I'm not sure how Randall derived his data set.)