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“The Greatest Generation” and “Baby Boomers” aren’t the same cohort, but don’t tell that to the latter group. Journalist and satirist P.J. O’Rourke takes on “the generation that never grew up” – his own – in his latest book. In a year that promises a plethora of 50th anniversary celebrations of pop culture moments fueled by Boomers remembering when, we talk with O’Rourke about nostalgia, retirement and the legacy the group will leave behind.
- P. J. O'Rourke journalist, satirist and author, "The Baby Boom: How it Got that Way ... And It Wasn’t My Fault ... And I’ll Never Do It Again"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from THE BABY BOOM © 2014 by P. J. O’Rourke; reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove/Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Their numbers, large, 75 million strong. That's more than the population of France, Italy or Canada. And they're all here, account for a quarter of the U.S. population, members of a generation that, by the sounds of it, literally exploded onto the scene. I'm speaking, of course, of the baby boom. A generation that has, for better or worse, changed the way we grow up, chart our careers and, now -- with 10,000 of them hitting retirement age daily -- changing what it means to age in our society.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to talk about the hallmarks and likely legacies of his brethren, is P. J. O'Rourke. He's a journalist, satirist and author of 17 books, the latest of which is "The Baby Boom" subtitled, "How It Got That Way...And It Wasn't My Fault...And I'll Never Do It Again." He's also a contributing editor of the Weekly Standard, H.L. Mencken fellow at the Cato Institute, a member of the editorial board of world affairs and a regular panelist on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." P. J. O'Rourke, good to see you again.
MR. P. J. O'ROURKEGood to be here. Good to be here.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments of P. J., call us at 800-433-8850. Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you think we make too much of our generational affiliations? Tell us why or why not. You can also shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. P. J., depending on who you ask, you're apt to get a variety of answers, so I'd like to know, what characteristics for you define our generation of baby boomers?
O'ROURKEWell, it's one word, self. As a matter of fact, you could probably take that one word, attach a hyphen to it and then put any other word that's in the dictionary on the other side of the hyphen. The baby boom's very much -- we were an unusual generation, I mean in terms of world history, that -- we were born into a place and time of relative prosperity, relative peace and enormous security and stability. The most powerful country in the world undergoing its strongest period of growth, a great deal of stability in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II.
O'ROURKEOur parents stayed married, something that must seem ancient and strange.
NNAMDIYeah, one of the surprising facts that I discovered from reading your book was right after World War II, the incomes of our parents in general increased by about $10,000 a year. So we -- our generation was born into a greater degree of stability overall.
O'ROURKEWe were rich as heck -- again, by world historical standards. You know, I mean it was a very modest kind of rich. You know, it was a three bedroom, one bath, party phone, you know, one car kind of rich. But, yes, one of the interesting pieces of research, when I was doing this book, which is not a book about research, it's a book about being funny. But nonetheless, I wanted it funny with a little substance. I took the -- what I could find of the figures of median income for the baby boomers and median income for the greatest generation, for the parents of the baby boomers.
O'ROURKEAnd I found out, if you wanted to point to one difference between the baby boom and their parents, it's 10,000 -- $10,000 adjusted for inflation. That is how much higher the median income of American families was during the early years of the baby boom versus during the childhood of the greatest generation. Now that's median, that's not average, which can be skewed by numbers at the top and the bottom. Median is half of the -- and I happened to grow up in a median-income family -- so half of the families were richer than we were, half of them were poorer than we were.
O'ROURKE$10,000 -- and not only is it $10,000, but it's $10,000 during a period of steady economic growth, almost uninterrupted from the end of the war in 1946 till the Arab Embargo. When you...
O'ROURKEOh, when you go back and look at the greatest generation's childhood, their median income went up, it went down in a sharp but short depression at the early '20s, it went way up in the late '20s, it went way down with the Great Depression. So not only did we have $10,000 more family income, we had a kind of stability that our parents had never known.
NNAMDIWhich is why members of this generation -- who we'll break down even more in a little while -- could harbor the notion of getting into a car with no specific destination in mind.
O'ROURKEAnd just go. Just go. That was -- that was our motto, yeah. I mean, we turned 16, not only was there a car for us to drive, but like, you know, our parents would be, Well, where are you going? You know, and we go, Hey, hey, where are we going? We're going. The important isn't where. The important part is going.
NNAMDIIt's the journey...
O'ROURKEIt's the journey, it's not the destination.
NNAMDI...not the destination. To further define this generation, which officially spans 18 years, '46 through '64, you have distinguished divisions of freshman through seniors. Please explain.
O'ROURKEWell, I was trying, you know, when you're dealing with 75 million people from a variety of different backgrounds, you got to sort them out somehow. You can't, I mean, this whole book, of course, is an exercise in gross over-generalization. I mean, you know that.
O'ROURKEBut I mean, still, you can only go so far when you're talking about 75 million people. So I figured I had to sort them out. Well, sorting them out by gender or race or ethnicity or religion, you know, that would be so contrary to baby boom's sensibilities. It would offend baby boom's sensitivities. Sorting them out by place and region: we're a generation that moved around too much for that really to work. So I thought, Well, we are the generation that never grew up. So let's sort them by high school class.
O'ROURKEHigh school class, we'll have senior baby boomers, junior baby boomers, sophomores and freshmen. Well, I was born in 1947. I'm a senior baby boomer. We were born right after the war and we were on the bow wave of the baby boom voyage of exploration. And yet, at the same time, of course, we were kind of closely tethered to the prior generation, the greatest generation. We were kind of in their wake at the same time we were on the bow. So we ended up getting kind of keel hauled, dragged under the hull. We wound up a little soggy and shaken.
O'ROURKEAnd I -- I guess the easy way to explain this would be to say that both Hilary Clinton and Cheech, of Cheech and Chong, are senior baby boomers.
O'ROURKEThen you have the sophomores. They're even wilder than the -- or I mean the juniors. Juniors born in the early '50s, they're even wilder. They're the barefoot street urchins in Haight-Ashbury, you know? And they're -- but they're also, they found some shoes and made their way to Silicon Valley, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, were born in 1955. They're juniors. And so they're a little more transformative and a little crazier acting. Then you get to the sophomores, born in the late '50s. They're a little more cautious.
O'ROURKEThey take the whole sex, drugs and rock and roll, yeah, they're good with that. And they're good with the deep philosophical underpinnings thereof. But they've seen enough of the baby boom -- the older baby boomers in action to realize that what works in general, doesn't always work when the bond sets fire to the beanbag chair.
O'ROURKEAnd then you have the freshmen, and they were born in the early '60s. And they just take the whole baby boom for granted. They think that's the way the world has always been.
O'ROURKEAnd they don't know that there's some other kind of world. They're like fish born into a -- well, let's just say that the trademark quality of the baby boom has been BS and the freshmen were sort of born into the BS and they don't know there's any dry land out there. So they're like fish born into an ocean of BS. Yeah, so they -- yeah, for them, it's -- like, I talk to my wife, who's a freshman baby boomer, and she say, "Hey, I never understood about the Vietnam War," she said. "I just thought it was something that was just on TV all the time for no reason that I could figure out, like Ed McMahon, you know."
O'ROURKEAnd, of course, all sorts of things that are visceral...
O'ROURKE...for me. You know, the Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam...
NNAMDIThese were TV experiences for her.
O'ROURKE...they're TV experiences for her. The assassination of President Kennedy, the assassination of Martin Luther King, all these things that had a visceral affect on the older baby boomers, are kind of historical artifacts for the freshmen baby boomers.
NNAMDITwo things come to mind. One of them is that I know at least a couple of people who are baby boomers who have children who are baby boomers. They are seniors and they have children who are freshmen.
O'ROURKEThe generation is big enough.
O'ROURKEYeah. Yeah. Sometimes that's an oopsy.
NNAMDIYeah, exactly. Right.
O'ROURKEBut there are, of course, people born in 1946 who had kids by the time -- 1964.
NNAMDIAnd people have not, of that generation, especially who are not seniors or juniors, wouldn't understand what you mean when you say the deep philosophical underpinnings of the sex, drugs and rock and roll.
O'ROURKEHey, we weren't just having fun. We had all sorts of elaborate justifications for the fun we were having, you know?
NNAMDIYou were thinking...
O'ROURKEThis is weird, we took this stuff very seriously.
NNAMDIWe were deep, as the saying goes.
O'ROURKEWe were deep. We were.
NNAMDIWe're talking with P. J. O'Rourke. He is a journalist, satirist and author of 17 books. The latest book is called "The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way...And It Wasn't My Fault...And I'll Never Do It Again." We're inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. If you're a boomer, tell us what the designation means to you. If you're not a member of the baby boom generation, what's your overall impression of it? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. You know that if the boomers have one great, collective enemy, it's boredom.
NNAMDIAnd it's a generation that really never had to be bored growing up alongside TV. How does your generation watch TV? And how does it continue to influence what everyone else watches?
O'ROURKEIt isn't, of course, to unify. One of the things that interests me about the baby boom, got me to write about them, was that we might be the last really unitary generation that the world ever sees -- certainly the last prosperous unitary. I'm sure the Nomads of the Kalahari are kind of a unitary generation. But we -- there's a whole bunch of us and we all watched the same television, because there were only three channels. In fact, when -- I remember when we got our first television, which was to watch the election of -- election battle between Eisenhower and Stevenson in 1952.
O'ROURKEAnd at that time, in Toledo, Ohio, there was one station. Dad wouldn't put an antenna on the roof. He thought they were ugly. Got one station. I'd watch anything. I'd watch "Mass for Shut-ins," you know. I'd watch "The Farm Report." I'd watch the test pattern. And we listened to the same radio stations.
O'ROURKEThere might have been a little variation regionally or ethnically. But basically there were three AM stations playing the same pop hits. And in the place where I grew up, Motown was next town up the -- I grew up in Toledo, Ohio. Motown was in Detroit. Everything from Motown was broadcast on CKLW, the great big station in Windsor, Canada. And so we were all totally listening to that. Everybody was listening to the same songs.
O'ROURKEAnd, of course, there was no Internet, no way -- if you were the one kid, you know -- the one kid, as far as you know, in the entire world interested in dressing up sheep in fashion clothing or something, I don't know -- you had no way to reach out and find out that there were other kids who were also interested in doing this. You just got shoved into your locker a lot.
NNAMDIYeah, social networks were limited to the people who you actually come into contact with on a daily basis. But you mentioned earlier the senior freshman relationship. I think that's what Elaine in Fairfax, Va. wants to talk about. Elaine...
NNAMDI...you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELAINEHi. P. J., it was kind of interesting to hear that you're the senior. I'm the senior in my marriage. My husband is the freshman. I was born in...
O'ROURKEYour husband's the freshman.
ELAINE...I was born in '47 and he was born in '64.
O'ROURKEThey're a little clueless, aren't they? I mean, we love them, but they're a little clueless.
ELAINEWell, I have the advantage that he understands a lot more about me than I did about him. He has brothers and sisters that were born in '47 and '49.
O'ROURKEYeah, so he knows the program, yeah.
ELAINEHe knows it, but he understands my music. He has kept me up with the music of today. I grew up with a manual type...
O'ROURKEBoy, that's -- yeah, that's more than I can do.
ELAINEYeah, I grew up with a manual typewriter. He has kept me up with the IT and the computers and everything. But it's been very interesting. I'm on Social Security, he's doing AARP next year, so...
O'ROURKEHey, you got to love AARP. I just wrote a piece actually about the baby boom for their magazine and my editor, who is the same guy who had been my editor when I worked for Rolling Stone.
NNAMDIOh, good grief.
O'ROURKEWe get a few rueful laughs about that, Bob Love, great guy. Anyway, you know, that wasn't the military, that wasn't the CIA that found Osama bin Laden. He turned 50. The AARP tracked him down.
NNAMDIWherever you are...
O'ROURKEWherever you are.
NNAMDI...they will find you.
ELAINEThey will find you. He's going through, oh my god I'm going to be 50. And I said, that's all right, honey, I'll be 70 in three-and-a-half years.
O'ROURKEYeah, 50 -- 50 sounds to me like the sweet bird of youth anymore.
NNAMDIYes, it's so attractive. Elaine, thank you very much for your call. On to Tony in Washington, D.C. Tony, your turn.
TONYThanks for having me.
TONYIt was -- how are you? You know, it was scary. I saw you on TV yesterday and I recall meeting you at a -- you were working for National Lampoon at the time. And you were speaking...
O'ROURKEOh my gosh.
TONY...you were speaking at a convention that was for high school kids publishing yearbooks.
O'ROURKEYou're exactly right because we did a yearbook parody at the National Lampoon, which I think stands up pretty well to this day. And the people who -- Hunter Publishing I believe their name was, they thought this was so funny that they would invite the art director for this project and me, who had been one of the editors with Doug Kenny -- they would invite us down every year. We must've gone for about four or five years to talk to you guys, the high school kids, about how not to do a high school yearbook.
O'ROURKEDo you remember that one slide we showed with the freshman? It was like, you know, big pictures for the seniors, smaller pictures for the juniors, little pictures for sophomores. And then we had one page where all the freshmen are packed onto one page, each photograph being about an eighth of an inch by an eighth of an inch, you know, with all their names, you know, jumbled at the bottom. And we would always show that.
TONYYou kind of started my career early on and now 30 years later you're talking about the freshman part of the class, the whole baby boom. And I feel like I've lived with it with you through your writing...
O'ROURKEYou have. You have. And I appreciate that. Not many other people have been willing to put up with it.
NNAMDITony, thank you very much for your call.
TONYThanks a lot.
NNAMDIAnd you can give us a call, 800-433-8850. We're going to take a short break but when we come back, we'll be resuming this conversation with P.J. O'Rourke about his latest book. It's called "The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way...And it Wasn't My Fault…And I'll Never Do it Again." You can shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Where do you see boomers having the most influence, at work, in retirement, in their youth, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with P. J. O'Rourke. His latest book is called "The Baby Boom: How it Got That Way...And It Wasn't My Fault...And I'll Never Do it Again." You can call us at 800-433-8850. We got a Tweet from Nichole, P. J., saying, "Baby boomers seem really self-obsessed. It's still all about them." See, as you point out early in this book, baby boomers do not look at self. Baby boomers do not regard self. Baby boomers do not think about self. Baby boomers...
O'ROURKE...are self. We are the self. Before us, self was without form and void, like our parents and their dumpy clothes and vague ideas. Yeah, we were the generation and I think again this goes back to our relative privilege, relative stability, the fact that we were relatively speaking spoiled brats. We got to be ourselves in a way that no prior generation ever had. Every prior generation -- median ordinary people of every prior generation had pressing issues, getting enough food, staying alive, fighting wars, all this kind of stuff, migrating from one country to another.
O'ROURKEAnd the baby boom, like I say in the book, I said, lots of generations had too many problems. We're the first generation to have too many answers. So we -- you know, when people have this kind of luxury, yeah, they do become self involved. And is that like a bad thing? Yeah, in a certain way it is. But on the other hand it kind of keeps us out of certain kind of mass movements. Like it's very hard to imagine the baby boom being fascist or Nazis or old fashioned Stalinist communists because you can't get us to march in lock step on anything.
NNAMDINothing at all. A lot of what we're seeing on TV lately are 50th anniversary documentaries and specials, events ranging from the aforementioned JFK's assassination to the Beatles coming to America or being looked back on. What do you make of this generation's affinity for nostalgia?
O'ROURKEWell, I think you get a lot of nostalgia every time you're in a quickly changing world. I think Nostalgia -- my grandmother who was born on a farm in 1880's, 1887, I don't think my -- well, what she would remember was lack of indoor plumbing. Now, I mean, I don't think you have a lot of nostalgia for that. But when the world starts to change quickly, you know, the word Nostalgia -- I never heard the word nostalgia until the 1960s, also a time of rapid change.
O'ROURKEAnd nostalgia became kind of a byword in the '60s as things were -- and things are changing very fast right now, so I think the nostalgia -- if you combined effect, you've got a very large number of people that are aging, a very fast-changing world. And the fact that all the business executives at these studios, television and movie studios are all baby boomers, you -- naturally you're going to get way too much nostalgia.
NNAMDIAfter a recent 50th anniversary piece on the Beetles performance here in Washington that ran in the Washington Post, a letter to the editor was published that read in essence, boomers and millennials should stop thinking about themselves so much. Signed Gen X. A piece in Philadelphia Magazine, late last year, outlined the five reasons boomers are, quoting here, "our worst generation is the sheer size of the generation." What is it that inspires so much malice at times about the baby boom generation, or is it something else besides malice?
O'ROURKEWell, I think it's actually perfectly understandable. If I were a member of a younger generation, I'd be mad too. And, you know, part of it, you know, as I always say about everything to do with the baby boom, it's not our fault. We've got an excuse for everything. In this case it really isn't.
O'ROURKEThere's a demographic problem. Almost all the developed countries in the world are facing this, and some of the not-so-developed countries, which is that there was a huge boom in babies after World War II. There's a frontloaded generation. Over the years all these countries have passed a lot of social benefit programs. It wasn't the baby boom who passed those programs. Social Security was passed back in the days of FDR, Medicare was passed during the Lyndon Johnson Administration.
O'ROURKEBut these social benefits programs, which are often particularly generous to older people like myself, when you have a very large number of older people in your society and a relatively small number of younger working people, it's going to cost those younger working people a fortune to pay for my pension and my medical care. And it's just an accident of demography. It's not anybody's fault, but can I blame the younger generations for being furious at the baby boom for, like, eating their wallets?
NNAMDIThink of how much it costs to go to college these days. This week NPR's been running a series on the cost of college. You know that greater access to a college education is one of the hallmarks of your generation...
NNAMDI...as the ones that come behind you struggle to pay for it.
O'ROURKENow, that phenomenon I don't understand, I got to say. And I don't think this has anything to do with generations. I mean, how did college go from being -- I mean, I had to really -- my family was broke and my mom wasn't in very good health, my dad was dead. And we really had to scrape and scramble to send me to college. And the tuition was $600 a semester. Now I know we got to adjust that for inflation but, come on, you know, this isn't that long ago.
O'ROURKESix-hundred dollars a semester. I could go to college full time -- you know, not working except in the summers -- go to college full time boarding, OA school for 2 grand a year -- a school year all in, everything, including my pocket money. And so, you know, what with one thing or another, a little bit of scholarship, a little -- my working in the summer, you know, a little bit of scraping the bottom of the barrel with the household budget, we managed it. We managed it for three kids. How the heck does somebody do that today?
O'ROURKEBut I'm afraid that's above my pay grade in terms of knowledge of why college, adjusted for inflation, has become so insanely expensive.
NNAMDIOn to Brian in Crofton, Md. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHi, P.J., fellow Toledoan.
O'ROURKEOh, you are. Well, the other mistake at the other end of the lake, right?
BRIANParkside and Door.
O'ROURKEOh, excellent. I know right where you grew up.
BRIANYeah, I've had some better times. Anyway, I was born in '46 and I just want to mention what a kick I would get reading the yearbook spoof and the newspaper spoof when I recognize so many Toledo locales by the street addresses for the fake ads...
O'ROURKEWe use Toledo as the -- to give the other listeners a little catch-up here -- when we did the high school yearbook parody back in 1974 at the National Lampoon and then later a newspaper parody, we used Toledo, Ohio as the basis. We called it Dacron, Ohio.
BRIANYes, I remember.
O'ROURKEBut we wanted an obscure Ohio city, not too big, not too small. So we used Toledo. And as the model of the high school in the high school yearbook parody we used DeVilbiss where I went. Where'd you go?
O'ROURKEYou went to Central.
O'ROURKECentral Catholic. They were our big football rivals.
O'ROURKEDeVilbiss Tigers and Central Catholic Fighting Irish, even though they were mostly Polish.
BRIANWell, I was -- or am.
O'ROURKEWell, I could tell from your address, you know.
BRIANGosh darn it, I didn't think it would show. But I also -- I loved the spoof of the blade -- the Toledo blade. And under the headline when the blade writes one of America's great newspapers when the Dacron newspaper just read, one of America's newspapers.
O'ROURKEOne of America's newspapers. We called it -- for the newspaper parody we called it the Dacron Republican Democrat, you know, because it was a town that used to have two newspapers, the Republican and the Democrat. They merged.
BRIANYeah, yeah, well, the other thing I just want to say about nostalgia. I don't think that we boomers originated it. I can recall so many times going to sort of pop concerts and all this and with all the World War II songs that were constantly being played, I think there's a generation that beat -- ahead of us that beat us to nostalgia.
O'ROURKEYou know, that is completely true. Like so many things, one of the themes of my book is that many, many things that people peg to the baby boom is actually the baby boom acting out the thoughts and feelings of the greatest generation, because we could. They were busy with the depression and the war and starting young families and so on. And nostalgia, exactly right, they were incredibly nostalgic for World War II. Can you imagine being nostalgic for World War II?
O'ROURKEI guess but, I mean, you know, it was like...
NNAMDIIt brought people together. They had a common cause. There was a certain kind of unity.
O'ROURKEThey got shot and killed.
NNAMDIWell, that too.
O'ROURKEYeah, that, too, but yeah, you're right. You know, I mean, it was like -- it was something that -- where they all felt they were in it together. And plus it was -- at the time they were having their nostalgia for World War II, it was a fast-changing world that left them a little confused and a little uncertain. And they looked back on that, well at least we knew what we were doing. We were fighting Nazis, you know.
NNAMDIWe read a lot of stories about boomers and millenniums being at odds in the workplace. But is it true, in a way, that the very boomers who are struggling with millennials made those millennials who they are?
O'ROURKEOh, literally. Literally.
O'ROURKEI've got a daughter -- two daughters that are millennials. And the -- I don't see really that the generations get along poorly. We don't have anything -- I don't see it in other people's houses and we don't have it in our house, anything like the huge fights over the dinner table that were going on back in the '60s when I was growing up. Huge fights, you know, fights about the war, of course, about civil rights, about women's rights. There would be screaming matches, you know.
O'ROURKEAnd, you know, if somebody didn't stomp away from the table and slamming a door, it just wasn't dinner at my house, you know. We just didn't -- it was years before I was able to eat without somebody stomping away from the table and slamming a door, it was so common. We don't get that. You know, there's a little bit of mutual puzzlement. I don't get it with the millennials and the tattoos and the piercings, you know. And the millennials, you know, definitely...
NNAMDIBut you do point out in this book that those tattoos and piercings were the almost necessary extremes to which they had to go after the weirdness of the baby boom generation.
O'ROURKEKojo, absolutely. We -- it's sort of the right, maybe even the duty of every generation of adolescents to act up and upset their parents. I mean, we have records of this going back to ancient Rome. You know, the young people today wearing their togas too short, you know, whatever it was.
NNAMDITo lay pants on the ground.
O'ROURKEYeah, right. Pampered and spoiled. And, you know, they hardly even bother to go to the coliseum and watch gladiators go at each other anymore. Who knows what's the matter with them. So, you know, when it came time -- so every generation has to be weird and upset their parents. And when the generation after us came time for them to be adolescents and weird and upset their parents, they found out that the previous generation, baby boom, we used up all the weird.
O'ROURKEWeird things, we said it. Weird hair, we wore it. Weird beards, we had them. You know, weird thoughts, we thought them. Weird stuff, we smoked it, you know. I mean, it was -- and all the weird had been used up and so the poor kids said to go get pierced and tattooed in order to be weird. And that must've hurt and I apologize.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here's Kirk in LaPlata, Md. Kirk, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIRKHi, P. J. Thanks very much for taking my call, Kojo. I was born in the last few months of '49. My folks split up when I was six weeks old, so my mom moved from Illinois back to D.C. So for the first six weeks of my life I averaged 45 miles a day, which explains a lot.
O'ROURKEThat's actually right up there with the café standards the president wants to impose.
KIRKP. J., I wanted to tell you how much of a laugh I got from the yearbook Lampoon. I remember reading some of the gag names...
KIRK...under the team pictures. And one of them I didn't get. It was Theophilus which is an ancient word -- ancient name meaning lover of god. Theophilus Punofall. (sp?)
O'ROURKEOkay. Let me say it slowly. The awful-est pun of all.
KIRKRight. It's rattled around in my head for at least five, maybe ten years. And one day driving along I finally got it and I laughed out loud.
NNAMDIHow many years did it take you, Kirk?
KIRKOh, at least five and maybe seven or eight.
O'ROURKEI can't lay claim to that one. That was a standing joke at the Harvard Lampoon. I certainly did not go to Harvard but some of the guys who started the National Lampoon did. And that was always their ultimate putdown for anybody who was doing puns, was that pun name. So that has -- I think that goes -- that joke goes back to a time when college students actually studied Greek. So that may be a really old one.
KIRKLate in the second millennium.
NNAMDIKirk, thank you so much for your call. Of course, the baby boom generation was not all about having fun. The generation that took to the streets to march for civil rights and against the Vietnam War might wonder what has become of that tradition. Why do you think we've not seen such kind of widespread movements in recent decades? And do you think social media means that we're unlikely to see that again?
O'ROURKENo, not at all. I think that -- well, first place, baby boomers got to be very careful about laying claim to too much. We were not behind the civil rights movement. That was older people.
NNAMDIAs a matter of fact the -- my parents' generation and mine was why do you young people want to be so militant? Wasn't the civil right generation good enough for you? Why do you want black power now?
O'ROURKEThat's right. That's right. Our, you know, the black power movement that came after the civil rights movement was a little more morally, you know, complex, let's say.
O'ROURKEWe certainly didn't invent the peace demonstration, either. We were very against the war in Vietnam, but there was a little moral complexity to that. It was a draft and we were getting out of the draft, which meant somebody else had to go. You know, something I felt a -- I mean, I got out of the draft. And I've felt a little uncomfortable about it ever since -- or not ever since. It took about 10, 15 years for it to dawn on me that my behavior was a little morally dubious.
O'ROURKEI just thought I was bravely not killing, you know, those -- our friends, the Viet Cong. It turned out to be a little bit more complicated than that. And even things like sexual equality, I mean, Gloria Steinem was born in the 1930s, not the 1940s or '50s. Or gay rights, even that was pioneered by people older than the baby boom. But we went out into the streets -- and the reason people don't do it so much anymore, we had a couple of things that were really wrong in this country. Just plain wrong.
O'ROURKEThe racism of an American society, which had been mitigated by the time we were adolescents, but it was still there. And that was just wrong, you know. That was a -- I mean no pun, but it was a black and white issue, you know. War in Vietnam, I don't know if you could qualify it as being quite so obviously wrong, but it was pretty obviously stupid. And so it was easy to go and protest against that. A lot of the things that we have now, like the ins and outs of Obamacare, it's like -- or for that matter Wall Street…
NNAMDIOr for that matter Syria, or for that matter…
O'ROURKEOr Syria, it's complicated. How do you get out -- it’s not so easy to get out on one side of these things. Anybody who thinks about them or looks at them hard, realizes, ooh, this is a multifaceted issue. And, you know, some people are a little more right I think and some people are a little more wrong, but everybody's got, like, a little bit of right and a little -- this is really hard to come up with a "Ho-Ho-Ho Ho Chi Minh," you know. Or, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"
O'ROURKELife's complicated. Now, we have an unfortunate situation in the future where something is actually wrong, really actually and obviously wrong. And I believe Americans will come out in the streets and protest against that, if and when that happens.
NNAMDIHere's Suzanne, in Springfield, Va. Suzanne, your turn.
SUZANNEHello, do you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we hear you every well.
SUZANNEOkay. Good. Yes. I wanted, in fact, to speak to some points that just came up. And when the -- I am one of the senior baby boomer. And I, you know, when they say that we were selfish, when we were young -- even though some of the organizations and, for example, the civil rights movement had started before we got involved because we were children at the time, but we did get involved. And we did get involved in a (unintelligible). And some of us were ready to die for it. And we did. Like, we went to…
SUZANNEWe went to Greensboro and four of my friends was killed by KKK. They shoot at us.
SUZANNEWell, we didn't -- we were (unintelligible). And many of us went to jail. And although the feminist movement, the older people, the women in it were born before us, but it's us that accepted it and worked for it. And in fact, the beginning of it is '72 and we won a lot of the rights for women. We have the federal family leave now. We didn't have it then. But we worked fulltime, we raised our children without the leave for being pregnant. Like, I went to work six weeks after I had my baby.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, Suzanne. But before we do that I'll ask P. J. O'Rourke to respond…
NNAMDI…because obviously it was not a one dimensional generation.
O'ROURKEShe's totally right. She's totally right. And believe me, when I say that baby boom's very, you know, self-involved and very self-conscious, I don't mean that we were selfish. I mean, there was also a tremendous sense of community. I mean we were thinking a lot about ourselves, but not just of having more material possessions. It was also, am I morally right about this? What is the right thing for me to do? That's the way of thinking about yourself, too.
O'ROURKEAnd there was a tremendous amount of social activism and tremendous amount of self-sacrifice in the baby boom, but we paid more attention to our own feelings than prior generations had. But I don't think that we were a bad generation, as these things go.
NNAMDIGot to take that short break. Thank you so much for your call, Suzanne. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to email@example.com. What do you think the future will look like for generations that came after the boomers, especially in areas like education and retirement? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is P. J. O'Rourke. His latest book is called, "Baby Boom: How it Got That Way... And It Wasn't My Fault... And I'll Never Do It Again." P. J. O'Rourke is a journalist, satirist, and author of 17 books. Of course a lot of politicians now in office are boomers, including President Obama, who is -- as you would put it -- a freshman boomer.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Charlie, in Adams Morgan, who says, "Has Mr. O'Rourke taken a look at the current U.S. Congress, determined how many of its members are freshman, sophomore, junior and senior baby boomers and drawn any conclusions about how their ages affect their ineffectiveness?"
O'ROURKEOh, yeah. I didn't, you know, I didn't sit down and do the analysis, partly because I was writing this thing. And I was writing was a Congressional election year, so whatever my figures I came up with would be wrong by the time the book went into print. But, let's say, most of them, I mean from our president down through most of Congress, Senate's a little older. But the majority of our politicians -- Washington's very much a baby boom city.
O'ROURKEAnd, you know, one quality about the baby boom is we love to yell at each other. We love to argue, you know. It's just like typical of Congress. And, you know, what are the baby boom politics? Well, I think the easy answer is to say there aren't any. We have no idea. We've had three baby-boom presidents so far. President Clinton, President George W. Bush, and President Obama. If you map these guys out politically, they are so different from each other, you'd almost have to go to Pyongyang to find somebody who's more different from them than they are from each other.
O'ROURKENo pattern emerges, except the pattern of sort of bickering and arguing. And people say, well, we have a do-nothing, you know, kind of a deadlocked Congress. And it does look silly, especially when you consider how much government costs us every day. It does look silly to have a deadlocked Congress. But, you know, what often scares me is not so much a political deadlock, as a unified political purpose.
O'ROURKEI mean Germany wasn't in deadlock in 1939 when it marched into Poland. Japan was not in political deadlock when it bombed Pearl Harbor. Russia was not in political deadlock when it invaded Crimea. I'd rather see a certain amount of political deadlock than to see them all in lockstep headed in the wrong direction. As I remind people of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which is basically what gave President Johnson authority to do whatever he wanted in Vietnam, to escalate the war.
O'ROURKEThere were two votes against it in the Senate and none in the House. They weren't deadlocked there.
NNAMDIThat's as close to marching in lockstep in the wrong direction as you can get. First baby boomer filed for social security retirement benefits almost seven years ago. Many are now trying to reinvent the notion entirely, but you say most cannot afford it. What do you think the so-called golden years will look like for you and other members of this generation?
O'ROURKEWell, you know, I'm not so worried about me and members of my generation because we're probably going to squeak through.
NNAMDIIt's the ones coming behind.
O'ROURKEIt's the ones coming behind. And it's going to be rough. I mean, obviously, the benefits will have to be shrunk in one way or another. Either in the amount that's paid out or in the time when you can get them. I mean, which is probably realistic. Sixty-five is -- that's a retirement date that actually dates back to the first social security program under Bismarck, in Germany, in the 1880s when human lifespan was about -- male life span in Germany at that time was about 62, 63 years old.
O'ROURKESo almost nobody promised this pension at 65 live to collect.
O'ROURKEMade it to collect it. It was nice to know that it was there if you did. And so, yeah, it's really the generations that come after and how we're going to fix this. And, you know, every single developed country, as I mentioned before, is facing this same problem. And it's going to have to be an increase in contributions, a cut in costs. The pension thing can actually be fixed. The one that's really tough is Medicare. Because pension costs rise at a fixed level.
O'ROURKEAnd medical care costs, we don't know where they're going to go because we don't know…
NNAMDIBecause as we age as a nation, we're coming to grips with how to deal or care for a population whose medical costs are growing.
O'ROURKEYes. And we don't know what new invention from the world of medicine is going -- or what new disease may cause theses costs to rise even higher than -- I mean, there's no way to predict these costs. And that's tough. And I don't understand this, a reasonably prosperous guy who's 66 and who smokes and drinks, why I don't have to pay more for my Medicare than somebody who is making minimum wage and is really fit and doesn't smoke and drink. I mean that person should -- and my father-in-law got open-heart surgery.
O'ROURKENow, look, the guy's a combat veteran, he was a career FBI agent. And he's like in his 80s. So I'm not begrudging him any of my taxpayer dollars. Still, he got a -- he's a well-off man. He became a successful business executive. And he got an open-heart operation, essentially for free.
O'ROURKENow, I don't want him to pay full ticket on that. He served his country in dangerous and low-paying jobs, but he could have kicked in three grand, you know.
NNAMDIHe could afford it.
O'ROURKEHe could afford it, yeah. So we're going to have to do some sort of means testing on this. It's going to be painful. Politically it's going to be very painful.
NNAMDIOf course there are those who we thought might never retire in every generation and who we're sorry to see go. NPR's Carl Kasell signed off on his last newscast in 2009. He's now set to fully retire, giving up his gig on "Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me."
O'ROURKEOh, I know. And I don't know how we're going to get along. You know, I'm an occasional panelist on "Wait, Wait…
O'ROURKE…Don't Tell Me." I love Carl. He lives right around the corner from where we're sitting here. And I don't know how we're getting along without him. I mean, basically, that show is just a bunch of wisecrackers, making a smart remarks, without Carl. Carl's the one that brought the gravitas, made the whole thing funny.
NNAMDIWell, we'll see how that goes. See if we can force him to not retire. Here's Steven, in Silver Spring, Md. Steven, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVENThank you very much, Kojo…
STEVEN…for taking my call. Hello. Well, I was born in 1952. And I've got to tell you, I've worked hard my whole life, so did my father. World War II, Korea, Vietnam War, had friends that were killed there. I don't see that I will ever retire. I don’t see how I can. And…
O'ROURKEYeah, tell me about it.
STEVENBut the thing that I think has damaged us psychologically, the thing that overrides everything, was the Cold War and growing up knowing that in an instant we could be vaporized in a nuclear war. And that was pounded into us. Not only in the movies that we saw at the movie theaters, but in the drills we had in school.
NNAMDIHow do you think that affected your psyche?
STEVENIt makes me very cautious about other renegade countries, I guess, that believe in a paradise in Heaven where you can blow people up and you're going to then, you know, be in paradise. It makes -- it's very -- we live in a very dangerous world.
NNAMDIIt's fascinating and we're running out of time, so I'm going to have P. J. respond how he makes that…
NNAMDI…relationship between how he felt growing up during the Cold War and how he feels about the threats that face us today.
O'ROURKEYou know, I don't -- it may have just been me. I never really took it too seriously. I sort of assumed that atomic war would kill grownups, leaving us in a kind of like a more-fun version of -- what's that -- the novel where all the kids wind up on the island?
NNAMDI"Lord of the Flies."
O'ROURKE"Lord of the Flies," yeah. Sort of a more -- me and my friends would be left in a sort of more-fun version of "Lord of the Flies." I don't know if it -- I guess it affected some people differently than others. But I don’t think we're a generation that's ever felt very mortal.
NNAMDIYeah, we didn't think we were a generation that would ever die and now some of us are apparently planning not to, therefore driving up our health costs even more.
NNAMDIP. J. O'Rourke, he's a journalist, satirist, and author of 17 books. We were talking about the latest. It's "Baby Boom: How it Got That Way... And It Wasn't My Fault… And I'll Never Do It Again." P. J. is a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, H.L. Mencken fellow at the Cato Institute, a member of the editorial board of World Affairs, and regular panelist on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." P. J., good to see you.
O'ROURKEIt's good to be here. Thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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