The Collapse of Demographic Determinism
Touching on each of the three writers reveals more about the critic than the writers. This critic is fed up with the Body Boomers talking about themselves, particularly since this is the second to last Presidential election which will be about the Baby Boom, the next one will be as well. He's also tired of an idea that can be called "demographic determinism." That is, ones fortunes are largely about clashes of people born at the right moment or right time.
However selling demographic determinism is at a fever pitch right now, precisely because the great synchronizing events of that created the Body Boom generation are breaking up. The reason for this quick literary survey is was motivated in no small part because the three writers show one of the first break up moments of the body boom: 1967-1972. This was the moment which divided the body boom into early and late: those who were not part of it, whose friends did not go to Vietnam, who were not on college campuses, who were not blindsided by the force of the late 1960's as a cultural moment – the time when sound went Stereo, and Television went Color, and Cinema went realist – parse differently from those who were there, or were rocked by it in their formative intellectual moment.
The three authors are part of the people cut off on the island of the Body Boom, they morally parse as Boomers, but they do not culturally parse as boomers, because by the time they had reached their formative intellectual moment, after Watergate, the ground had shifted underneath them, Pop and Post-Modernism were the establishment, and the era of limited possibility was dawning. America, and Europe, were treading to conservative ground.
However, as an Xer, they are all Body Boomers, in that their obsessions with the personal is political thesis, mark them as being people who are still grappling with the Post-Modern and Pop problems. The Post-Modern problem is the problem of abundance, and particularly abundance of information. In an era without canon, without a scarce source of knowledge, how is knowledge anchored? The answer, which marks the pop era, is the game itself. The game. The game. The game. That's Jacques. But it is also Milton, who posits that control of the money supply itself is enough to guide the economy.
The fight then becomes about the game itself, what is allowable, what is not, and what modes of combat are allowed. This is not an Xer obsession, in that for us, games are frames, and largely given, one can only shop for the game one likes the best. The "Democratic Spirit" of Wallace, is really the play in the sandbox of the body boom: the game, itself, is elementary school, where there are too few teachers, and too many children. X grows up differently, there are too many institutions, and too few people.
This island, which cries "can't we all just get along?" is part of the body boomer continent, and it has one most influential resident: President Barack Obama.
On the other side, however, there is another major dividing line: the boomers who got out before 2008, when they could sell their economic home, the one in the high earning area, for peak price, and move to bonds – and those that did not. This divide is particularly apparent when you look at net wealth cohorts: people above this divide have seen their net wealths, on median, climb. Those below it have, as a group, taken the second largest hit to net wealth in Post-War history.
The non-demographic divide of the baby boom is visible in every Presidential electoral map: the conservative part, the part that helped make "The Ballad of the Green Berets" the number one song of 1967, and the metropolitian technocratic part, which is not all that liberal economically, but is liberal socially.
The power of demographic determinism has, in fact, peaked, and it looks better precisely because almost all of it is in the rear view mirror, and because we are faced in politics with a three way divide. The silents want a depression to make their money more powerful: money having higher buying power is deflation, and the cult of deflationism is rampant among them. The body boomers, particularly those on the back half, need to tax the millenials to make it out. That is what the ACA, aka the health care act is: taxing the millenials to pay for the late body boomers to get to medicare. It isn't universal health care, unless passing a law requiring everyone to buy a house is universal home ownership. The third part is the millenial/X mass. The Republicans, being the party of the silents, need the Xers, if nothing else to run for office. Look at the Tea Party candidates, like Ryan. They are Xers.
This cluster makes up Generation #fail, a group of three generations in order that are focused on their fortunes, as generations, without the smallest scrap of forward thinking. If you look at it, the Xers should not be in favor of conservative policies: they are a small cohort, and after a short period of discomfort, will be able to ride the millennium generation all the way to the grave. The late Boomers shouldn't be engaging in crass generational warfare, precisely because very soon the American population pyramid will normalize, and as Millennials become family people, they will be seen as a plague of locusts. The silents, with a self-image as the abused and forgotten generation, should not be collapsing the economy precisely when they are about to be completely dependent on living on its surplus.
If you don't see the divide, let me lay a simple chart for you, of Presidential and Vice Presidential Candidates.
John Kerry: December 11, 1943
William Jefferson Clinton: August 19, 1946
George W. Bush: July 6, 1946
Albert Gore: March 31, 1948
Mitt Romney: March 12, 1947
Dan Quayle: February 4, 1947
That's right, for 16 years America was under two Presidents that were born 44 days apart, and the Republicans are now running a man who is less than a year younger than the two of them.
Let's take the silents:
Jack Kemp: July 13, 1935
Dick Cheney: January 30, 1941
Joe Lieberman: February 24, 1942
Two of these, are close to the gang of 6, Kerry being closer to the cluster around Dick, than around Bill.
Finally, ignoring GI Generation Dole, and Bush I:
John Edwards: June 10, 1953
Barack Obama: August 4, 1961
Sarah Palin: February 11, 1964
Paul Ryan: January 29, 1970
That's correct, the cohort born in the 1950's will not elect a US President in all likelihood, as electoral power has already shifted past them, they had only one person even nominated for either slot, the now disgraced John Edwards. Only one person from the 1930's was even nominated for either top spot. The early silents will be virtually shut out of the Presidential game. A 13 year period supplied 10 of 13 individuals nominated for the highest office since 1992, and two years saw 5 that governed for 16 years. But likely, they have one more chance, 2016 might see one last late boomer, or 1950's member. That's the pinnacle of demographic determinism.
The Three Body Boomer Presidents: Clinton, Bush II, Obama, have a long gap between them. For all that we talk about Boomers, much of the generation will not have a member nominated for President or Vice-President, where as 6 of the late silents, early boomers will have been nominated. This is the past that shows the power of demographic determinism, but not in the way one might loosely first expect: instead of having a great wave of boomerocracy, we have some fairly particular blocks which are not generationally determined. Cheney, the most powerful Vice-President in American history, to the point where he was often referred to as "the Prime Minister," was closer to George W Bush in age, than his successor, and was not a boomer.
But this is illusory and starts to break down on examination, the reason there are these clusters is not accidental, nor a product of waves. Look at the cluster of Boomer candidates, mixed in with late silents. These are not large cohorts, and not the result of a wave of people coming to consciousness under peer leaders, these are the results of pivots in society, events such as World War II, which are not demographic determinism, producing people who are in a position to take the new economic or social territory. Hence some of the smallest cohorts: because by 1961 the boom is sliding down, and Palin is on the cusp of the bust, as well as the 1940's births, dominated a half-generation of Presidential nominees in America. Note how after this tight pivot, there is a wide scatter to either side. We have in two Presidential elections seen more demographic variety than was the focus of four before.
More over, by taking people into school at the same time, giving them a lock step education, rights and responsibilities at certain times, 16, 18, 21, 22, 25, 63, 65, we are inserting synchronizations to drive, drink, die in war, retire. It is not that the world is governed by a demographic clock, though this is not to discount demographics, but that we govern the world by it.
Now what does this have to do with three late boomer authors?
The three picked each other: they are peers and competitors, clustered not because there is some magical moment in the late 1950's and early 1960's births, but who competed at the same times in their lives, were of the same age working the same general niches. They knew each other because they were born close in age, and thus create an artificial outline of a moment that wasn't. They made themselves part of the same moment, by talking about each other. In the same way, Clinton and Gore were peer competitors, as were Reagan and George W. Bush, as were Dole and George W. Bush. They weren't in place because of an inevitable demographic moment, they bound themselves together and cleared the space around them first.
To say, then, that Wallace, Franzen, and Ellis come from some special moment is like noticing that the team ahead at the end of regulation time in a game tends to be declared the winner. We set the clock, it did not set us. This will get more ragged over time. This essay, and myriad others, are synchronized by an event, the publication of a biography, and that by an event, a suicide. These are not demographic realities, but individual ones.
So what is left here? Having spent a good deal of time using a generational lens, the essay is now undercutting it. Wallace's upbringing, Franzen's upbringing, are, in the long term, details. The food fight driven by their need to make a living now. 50 years from now, these factors splay. Franzen and Ellis are both still writing, they may well be remembered for a book they have not even started yet. Wallace is done, but he finished himself.
Soon we will be stripped of the demographic synchronization that has ruled mindsets for 70 some years as the Second World War, and to a large extent, the first half of the 20th century struggle against totalitarianism, ended. Much of the present synchronization is by another artificial set of numbers: when we let people retire. The ACA is created by the existence of virtually universal care at a certain point, and chaotic anti-care below it. These aren't signals in the life cycle of a fly, but our own decisions to draw lines.
Wallace's personal problems will, in the end, throw a sidelight on his work, but we will read Infinite Jest against that background for its own virtuosity, based on the correspondences to that time. There will always people willing to sell their souls for their addictions, as in Less than Zero. While a particular moment may have moved the author to write it, empty consumption wasn't invented in California in the 1970's.
In the end, as tempting as demographic determinism is, because the Body Boomers are the most craven and tiresome generation since at least Louis XVI, the reality in policy is that these demographic moves are counter-productive. The Xer alliance with the silents will destroy them, because the Xers need a bubbly boom economy now in the last 20 years of their working life, because they have no savings. The Boomers have already fatally wounded themselves, by consciously bending their own children over the table and raping them of their youths.
In the end, the full life cycle most work, and robbing one part of it to pay others, is a dead end. We won't see this, because the Silents and Boomers have been fighting a generational war for 60 years, and will never stop, because it is what they have become. Their dysfunctional relationship will continue to dominate politics, until the oil runs out, a number that is not set by graduation, matriculation, or celebration, but by the remorseless logic of a wider world whose generations are not linearly related to our own.
America is about to hit the wider world, and find out that our generational divides, like our racial ones, are parochial nonsense.