By the time I headed off to college in August 1982 — which is to say, by the time the lead-edge of Generation X (those born between 1962 and 1980) had finished high school and headed off to college — the classic rock radio format had already begun to dominate the FM dial.
We children of the Seventies, who’d grown up in the Baby Boomer’s undertow, did not recognize in this musical phenomenon any overt Boomer-centrism. Not at first. It took another pop cultural marker to crystalize the audio-generational connection: The Big Chill. This film, released in 1983, had plucked a dozen “classic” Sixties tunes for its destined-for-platinum soundtrack, and an intersectional light flipped on in my head: This is Boomer music! In their plenitude, they have now claimed it as their own. That’s why radio programmers have deployed it as a staple of classic rock formats.
You may have noticed I spend a lot of time working to distinguish my fellow GenXers from our next elders in the culture. This matters, to me, because I’m often mistaken for a Baby Boomer (born between 1943-1961), and I don’t want to be associated with this cohort that has so dominated and distorted the culture, the economy, the political landscape.
Accordingly, I’m extra inclined to notice all the different cultural markers that serve to set us part. “Sesame Street” is one such indicator: Gen X was not insignificantly shaped by this show, while Boomers were too old to partake of this PBS standard when it debuted in 1969. The Big Chill and its soundtrack represent another prominent bellwether. Indeed, Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar-winner (Best Picture, 1984) did more than cement a burgeoning radio format: It reinforced ideas Americans already held about ‘60s-era culture and student activism, while cannily updating us on what had happened to all these Boomers since.
This wasn’t the first bit of cinema to attempt this specific retrospection: John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven arguably did it first (1979), and more artfully. But The Big Chill did introduce to a far broader swath of U.S. culture the intense nostalgia Boomers still held for the 1960s — the idealism, the style of communitarianism, the capacities to make change, stop wars and pioneer a youth culture.
More pointedly, the film also posited that adult Boomers were, by the early 1980s, beginning to actively sell out and abandon those ideals, economically and politically.
Having first witnessed this massive generation of Americans transition from activist-idealists to Seventies-era truth-seeking hedonists, I already associated my next elders with self-indulgence — never with any great degree of false virtue, however. Nonetheless, as The Big Chill makes evident, Boomers already recognized this burgeoning hypocrisy in themselves. Eighties America and Reaganism were about making money. Grown-up Boomers wrestled with this market/capitalist ethos for a time: Remember the blowback Kevin Kline’s character gets for owning a business, making friends with cops and selling out to some multi-national? Lovable, non-threatening Kevin Kline!
Eventually, however, Boomers bought into naked capitalism and the politics of self-interest. Big time.
As I prepared to vote in my first presidential election, in 1984, I gathered — from contemporaneous media coverage — that the Republican Party and Ronald Reagan were counting on Boomers to secure another four years in the White House. At the time, this support of Reagan-style politics and trickle-down capitalism did strike me as brazenly hypocritical: an outright betrayal of the ideals Boomers had been touting, rather loudly, for more than a decade.
It’s fascinating to go back and read the contemporary record. Media referred to Boomers in the same way electoral strategists today speak of Millennials, many of whom are the children of Boomers. According to the Christian Science Monitor, in June 1984, “It is one of the ironies of the campaign that President Reagan, who himself is older than 70, has higher approval ratings among younger than older voters. A recent Los Angeles Times poll showed Reagan winning over [Walter] Mondale and [Gary] Hart among both groups but doing best among the eighteen- to thirty-nine-year-olds. The reason for this, GOP operatives say, is the President’s early call for social security reform.
“To benefit substantially from the baby-boomers [note the funky appellation here; references to the Boom were not yet standardized], Reagan would have to reverse voter patterns in recent elections. Fewer than half of those born since 1946 voted in the 1972, 1976, and 1980 presidential elections, according to the National Journal.”
The Monitor goes on to directly cite the National Journal story itself: “The voting numbers are gradually rising but are still short of the national average… The younger boomers (born between 1946 and ’54) are still the most unsettled group in the electorate and the least likely to vote, the magazine says. But studies indicate that they are much more conservative than slightly older college students… The National Journal quotes Lee Atwater, deputy director of the Reagan-Bush committee, as saying the baby-boomers are libertarians — economically conservative and socially liberal. That means, according to Mr. Atwater, highlighting Reagan’s economic record but not his record on social issues.”
Atwater had it right: Apolitical libertarianism appealed to Baby Boomers’ sense of entitlement and freedom. Fifteen gratuitous years of gun-loving and anti-abortion politics — all of it manufactured specifically to divide — transformed fully half of the Boom generation into social conservatives, as well. Come the 21st Century, they would form the core of the Tea Party.
The 1984 election in particular — and the 1980s in general — revealed just how quickly Boomers shed the liberal ideals they’d so forthrightly trumpeted through the previous two decades. Teach the whole world to sing? That train had left town. Baby Boomers in 1984 would vote for Ronald Reagan over Democrat Walter Mondale in nearly the same proportion as did older Americans. Think about that: a complete reversal of the societal and political dynamic we associate with the Boomer heyday, the 1960s.
Karlyn Keene, editor of the magazine Public Opinion, observed in 1988 that Baby Boomers basically divide into two groups. Roughly two-thirds were born from 1946 to 1955, the remainder from 1956 to 1962. The older group, she wrote, “developed their first thoughts of politics with Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (a book detailing the dangers of pesticide pollution), the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the riots in New York and Chicago. Then came Vietnam and Watergate. Those traumas made them a little more cynical about government and about politics, certainly, than the group that followed them.
“Right now,” Keene continued, referring to 1988, “they’re in their peak child-bearing age. They’ve got marriages, they’ve got mortgages and they’ve got kids. And those tend to be stabilizing or conservatizing influences. They still are fairly liberal to moderate on life style, but there’s a conservatism on other matters.”
This is exactly where Millennials find themselves today: peak childbearing years, new mortgages, an American Dream that appears to be dwindling. Yet these spawn of the Boom remain the most diverse, left-leaning cohort in the history of this country. Good for them. Meanwhile, Boomers have become ever more selfishly conservative. According to the Pew Research Center, in both 2015 and 2016, about three-in-ten Boomers identified as conservative Republicans – up steadily from 2000. In both years, conservative Republicans made up the largest single partisan and ideological group among Boomers.
“They became a majority of the electorate in the early Eighties, and they fully consolidated their power in Washington by January 1995. And they’ve basically been in charge ever since,” Millennial author Bruce Gibney told Vox in 2017, speaking of his book, A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America.
“The damage done to the social fabric is pretty self-evident,” Gibney continued. “I don’t want to get bogged down in an ocean of numbers and data here (that’s in the book), but think of it this way: I’m 41, and when I was born, the gross debt-to-GDP ratio was about 35 percent. It’s roughly 103 percent now — and it keeps rising. The Boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it. They habitually cut their own taxes and borrow money without any concern for future burdens. They’ve spent virtually all our money and assets on themselves and in the process have left a financial disaster for their children.
“We used to have the finest infrastructure in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers thinks there’s something like a $4 trillion deficit in infrastructure in deferred maintenance. It’s crumbling, and the Boomers have allowed it to crumble. Our public education system has steadily degraded as well, forcing middle-class students to bury themselves in debt in order to get a college education.
“Then of course there’s the issue of climate change, which they’ve done almost nothing to solve. But even if we want to be market-oriented about this, we can think of the climate as an asset, which has degraded over time thanks to the inaction and cowardice of the Boomer generation. Now, they didn’t start burning fossil fuels, but by the 1990s the science was undeniable. And what did they do? Nothing.
“Most of our problems have not been addressed because that would require higher taxes and therefore a sense of social obligation to our fellow citizens. But again, the Boomers seem to have no appreciation for social solidarity. But to answer your question more directly, the problem is that dealing with these problems has simply been irrelevant to the largest political class in the country — the Boomers. There’s nothing conspiratorial about that. Politicians respond to the most important part of the electorate, and that’s been the Boomers, for decades. And it just so happens that the Boomers are not socially inclined and have a ton of maladaptive personality characteristics.”
Most all the Gen Xers who populated boho Wesleyan University during the early Eighties loathed Ronald Reagan. Students hung him in effigy a dozen time during my four years there. We used the words “Republican” and “fascist” more or less interchangeably. At the time, deep down, we felt this language to be arch and flippant, clever and casually transgressive: No one saw Reagan and his eponymous movement as truly fascistic or authoritarian, even potentially.
Little did we know how little it would take, 30 years on, to nudge his party and its Boom-based following fully into the paranoid right-wing margin of American politics.
Classic Rock radio seemed pretty harmless at the time. Indeed, those of us who attended college in the 1980s reckoned (naively, it turned out) that eventually there would be similarly retrospective radio programming dedicated to our post-punk tastes: The Clash, Joe Jackson, Prince, The Cure, REM, etc. We’re still waiting. Apparently, there wasn’t enough money in catering to our relatively paltry demographic. Eventually we accepted the fact that the Boomer soundtrack would never go away. We’d be hearing it in supermarket aisles and at political rallies for the rest of our lives.
But you know what? One could find The Big Chill soundtrack in a whole lot of record collections at Wesleyan. What’s more, there’s not one thing wrong with Motown. I see those years leading up to November 1984 as the dying days of generational compromise and co-existence. Because, as wrong as the Boomers proved to be about so many things — bell-bottoms, disco, hedonism as virtue — the Eighties would reveal them to be just as wrong about Reagan, shoulder pads, junk bonds and no-tax pledges. Smokey Robinson’s original version of Tears of a Clown is just fine. But I’ll take the English Beat version, any day of the week.