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Noted philosopher and Spinal Tap frontman David St. Hubbins once observed that only a fine line exists between clever and stupid. So it is with reality and delusion. For example, common sense tells us Baby Boomers largely squandered their chance to improve the world, their potential first wasted on spliffs and 'shrooms, then on chakras and Botox. But a few weeks ago, shunning veracity, PBS presented The Boomer Century: 19462046. Billed as a documentary, it wove a narrative that hewed closer to mythology, depicting the Me Generation as mankind's gift to its own.
Aired on KQED and across the country, the two-hour apologia purported to trace both the past and future of Boomers. Yet while This Is Spinal Tap thrust mockumentary into the lexicon almost a quarter-century ago, it took The Boomer Century to reveal the word's hidden meaning: a genuinely earnest production that mocks the intellect of anyone who knows better.
The brainchild of its host, Ken Dychtwald, a San Francisco author and gerontologist, the program began by exalting the early years of the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. Archival video showed how their idealism inspired the feisty youngsters to torch buildings and sit in the lotus position. In on-screen interviews, an array of aging Boomer luminaries Erica Jong, Rob Reiner, Oliver Stone affirmed that their generation ranks as the finest to grace Earth. Or at least to practice est.
The look back provided a glimpse of the 1960s and '70s through rose-tinted revisionism. We learned that Boomers deserve nearly all the credit for every major sociopolitical advance of the last 60 years, ranging from women's lib and civil rights to the anti-war and green movements. Indeed, the lone event for which they stoop to recognize another generation's role is their birth, an admission of mortality that sent many of them into therapy.
The Boomer Century's second half explored what awaits the generation that, after lopping off its ponytail and donning a tie, hopped in its Volvo, picked up the kids from private school, and headed home to a gated community. Fortunately for his fellow Boomers, Dychtwald delivered a soothing prognosis for their Maalox years: "Increasingly liberated from parenting and full-time work, we'll be free to seek out new experiences and adventures." So long, pesky kids! Across the screen flashed images of gray-haired men playing football and driving race cars, proving once again that while a human be-in happens only once, hedonism lasts forever.
His own hair thick and brown, Dychtwald cut a figure of tanned, toned virility, matching the vigor of his message. Likewise, reflecting Boomers' penchant for denial, he closed the program by suggesting they may finally shed their lifelong vanity and coalesce into the We Generation. With "more time, money, and, hopefully, wisdom to contribute than any generation before us," he declared, together they might solve the planet's biggest crises, whether AIDS in the Third World or global warming.
In other words, we're doomed.
Sound cynical? Call it a conditioned response to the hubris of a generation that would attach its name to an entire century. Dychtwald's optimism aside, if the last three decades portend the next three, his brethren will find their inner altruist around the time Eminem covers "Kumbaya." In truth, as they approach Social Security age, Boomers appear most concerned with reminding us they've never loved anything so much as themselves. They stand hunched over not because of arthritis or back pain; they're gazing at their navels.
Since last year, when the oldest among them started turning 60, Boomerganda has blitzed the country. A mix of self-promotion and historical fantasy, this pro-Boomer hype recasts them as The Greater Generation, to borrow the humble title of a recent book touted as a "defense of the Baby Boom legacy." On TV and Web sites, in news articles and windy tomes, generational shills aver that the nation rode the Boomer rebellion into an enlightened age, freed at last from the tyranny of Pat Boone.
But as sure as Woodstock's free love gave way to Altamont's bloodshed, the promise of Boomers succumbed long ago to egotism. Beneath the middle-class nostalgia lies an American dystopia of their making, a state of disgrace now laid bare by social critics and the online hordes.
Boomers traded tree-hugging for money-grubbing and unraveled the social welfare net. Their refusal to reform Social Security and Medicare threatens to bankrupt federal coffers, while their talk of "reinventing" retirement conceals the bleak fact that almost half of them can't afford to quit working, thanks to deficient savings. Their budget woes derive, in part, from checkbook parenting, an indulgent manner of child-rearing that has yielded a cultural anomaly once thought impossible a generation of young adults more narcissistic than Boomers.
Not that Mom and Dad would utter a mea culpa for their blunders, either as parents or as members of the generation that popularized the Smothers brothers, bad credit, and wife-swapping. After all, it's the Boomer century. We just curse at it.
State Senate leader Don Perata proposed a ballot initiative last month demanding removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Explaining his rationale, the Oakland Democrat evoked the blood spilled by his generation during an earlier war of choice. "A lot of us Baby Boomers, we've been here before," he said at a press conference. "We lost our moral center in this country because of what happened in Vietnam. I'll be damned if I'm going to let that happen again."