Michael Wiederstein and Daniel Müller-Jentsch: The social importance of baby boomers is due not only to the significant size of their cohort but also to the fact that because of their socialization and identity, they form a rather homogeneous generation. Why is that?
Michael Hermann: Baby boomers had, and still have, a strong generational consciousness. While we look for letters to add to today’s generations—generation X or Y—baby boomers have their own specific characteristics, as well as a clear identity. They had to develop these in order to differentiate themselves from the previous generation that had experienced the war.
As baby boomers were growing up, their parents were busy reconstructing; deprivations and worries related to the war were still very much present. How did this environment affect the baby-boomer generation?
Indeed, baby boomers are a kind of pivotal generation. Their parents, the generation that experienced the war, survived two world wars and at least one severe economic crisis. These events were traumatizing. Many processes, such as the opening of society and focusing on personal fulfillment, that were already underway during the Roaring Twenties between the two wars were interrupted, even annihilated during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Without this disruption, these developments would have probably followed their natural course. However, they were obstructed and contained—until the barrier gave way in 1968. The generational gap had never run so deep as it did then. The trauma experienced during the first half of the twentieth century affected the vision that the parents of the baby boomers had of the world: they became attached to order and material possessions. The baby-boomer generation was socialized during the economic boom and in the context of postwar safety; they discovered new horizons and different ways of life! This was true for the economy, but also in politics, music, and fashion. Accrediting any innovation to youth is a baby-boomer invention—and this connotation is still true today. For example, advertisement continues to target the younger generation, just like it did in the past.
Would you agree with the theory that baby boomers were a very politicized generation? Politicized in their common journey but also due to the Cold War ideological context in which they grew up?
Absolutely, especially considering that the sixties and seventies were eras of theories and ideologies in which there were clearly only two alternative philosophies: the East and the West. Access to politics was discursive and dialectic. The experience linked to the radical views that belonged to this era had not yet disillusioned. Furthermore, the generational gap itself contributed to their politicization. Everything was politicized: from the jeans that were worn, to rock and roll and even sexuality. The relationship with their parents, whom they perceived as authoritarian, shaped the baby boomers’ political consciousness and resulted in the expression of solidarity towards oppressed people and exploited workers. Nowadays, a “generation” is no longer such an important identity vector: indeed, some parents are conservative parents, others left wing—so what?
As the friction with the parents’ generation is no longer so manifest, the concept of generation has lost some of its identification disposition. Let’s be clear: those belonging to the generation that experienced the war were not all conservative, and all baby boomers are not leftists. Nevertheless, there is a dominant storyline in both groups. Back then, even a professional soccer player would leave their hair long and wear bell bottoms, even if many of them had nothing to do with the whole political superstructure. There was a kind of generational group pressure, and as it dissipated with time, many baby boomers shifted to the right of the political spectrum. I examined this incident in a longitudinal analysis on a survey about voting. The study revealed that baby boomers clearly positioned themselves more to the left in regard to their parents but that, later, they swayed more towards the right in comparison with other cohorts. The generation that followed, to which I myself belong, categorized as the “golf generation” by Florian Illies, was initially less leftist than the previous generation and moved to the right in a less drastic manner.
So, if down the road, cohorts are no longer really linked to a generation, what has the “generational group pressure” been replaced with?
More than the generation itself, it is the environment and the personal development that shapes the political identity today. This is similar to what occurs in social classes: social class differences may continue to be established economically; however, there is little evidence of a homogeneous class consciousness as described by Karl Marx. Even if generations will always differentiate themselves from other generations, this is not enough to create a generational consciousness. This does not imply that there must necessarily be a conflict with the parents’ generation but at least the existence of a common experience. The “apprentice generation” is a term that tries to reconnect with this concept. However, it is unlikely that difficult access to first employment, experienced as a common experience, will truly create a generational identity. Current technological developments, and in particular digitization, are more likely to influence the consciousness in younger generations. This is how generations X, Y, and Z will most likely be able to find substance.
There is a theory that says that baby boomers are the last generation to have been significantly socialized through books—and politicized via traditional newspapers. Later, private television and electronic media conquered the market: both increasingly taking on the function of socialization and political communication in youth. These extensions are filled with intense political subjects—just think about media resonance and fake news.
Baby boomers are the last “book generation,” but they are also the first to have benefitted from a vast expansion in education since 1945, and despite any cultural pessimism, this expansion continues to this day. Compared to their parents and grandparents, they are significantly educated and have developed a great intellectual assurance. In this respect too, they are a pivotal generation. At the time, it was fashionable to open your mind to abstract theories and to burden yourself with heavy books; this is no longer the case today. Baby boomers certainly inherited, and partly adopted, the rigor and discipline that was characteristic of the generation that experienced the war, but they did not apply this to all the aspects of their life. From there on, personal development started to be more important than politics. The so-called new social movements were generally created separately from existing structures, which were perceived as restrictive. Baby boomers can therefore also be considered as the first fully individualist generation.
What are the consequences today?
Besides all the uproar of May ‘68, it is individualism that is at the heart of what baby boomers transmitted to the next generations. It was already at this time that commenced what has now given rise to the militia crisis: the love of order and the sense of duty, characteristic of their parents’ generation, were disqualified to the rank of secondary virtues. However, the trust in the ability to have personal discernment has been maintained. But, instead of just manners and morals, we must now discern between good and bad consumption, differentiate good and bad sources of information, and make a distinction between tabloids and press quality.
Because the baby-boomer generation was so politicized, socialized through writings, and well educated, it also had the capacity to engage in more intricate topics and to handle ambitious political debates. It was able to bring about a democratic state and to maintain its dynamism. Does this representation of baby boomers allow us to consider them as an exemplary political generation?
Yes, it could. But we should not idealize this generation by saying that it is the last one to have a clear judgement, nor that after them only arbitrariness will reign. Why? Baby boomers were definitely not intimidated by abstract systems, nor by more complex thinking fields. Purely focusing on theoretical rigor and ideological purity undermined their capacity for self-critical reflection and open observation—and this happened on both sides of the political spectrum. Some supported Mao, and others, General Pinochet. This generation always wanted to be right: until the 1980s, each group was convinced that they were on the right track—and that all the others were amiss.
As adults, after a youth marked by ideology and rebellion, baby boomers started a long journey through institutions. Today, they occupy key positions in the economy, politics, and society. In this sense, they found their way back into their parents’ system, which they remodeled and developed without completely abandoning it. Now, as they gradually stop working, how will we manage this intellectual and organizational complexity?
As a matter of fact, the future generations tend to lose the desire to deal with the complexity of the system. Anything that cannot be summarized in a simple storytelling is increasingly deemed impossible to convey. Nowadays, politics seems to be more and more considered as a subdiscipline of communication. We can reproach many things about the baby-boomer generation, but it really did try to improve the system. Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, and Tony Blair, typical representatives of this generation, were ready to risk breaking away from their own base in order to move their reform ideas forward. They had also, long since, disengaged themselves from the old ideological corset.
The younger generations grew up with the omnipresence of Internet, social media, and smartphone apps. Things that require more than two minutes of attention no longer stand a chance. What are the impacts on the political discourse and formation of the public opinion—particularly in a direct democracy like in Switzerland?
I do perceive evident challenges for our political system. This new generation seems to continually be less interested by what is happening in the political “machinery.” The main question in no longer how to identify which reforms should be put in place but rather how we can attain a suitable political sale or capitalize. The job is more about communication and public relations than about formulating laws and legislating. Those who consider politics more as a legal and technical profession remain in associations or the administration. This is one of the causes responsible for the rebirth of populism. Indeed, through the reinterpretation of politics as an act of communication, the perceived truth is as legitimate as truth based on facts.
Are you saying that the freethinking individual of the X or Y generation is disorientated as he or she walks through the aisles of ideas and concepts of life?
There is an extraordinary plurality today that was simply inconceivable just a generation ago. Baby boomers fought for liberty, overture, and prosperity. During their youth, these principles were only abstract ideas; today they have become an omnipresent reality. The utopia of “soon everything will be accessible and you will be able to do it all” was very present both among liberals and socialists. They wanted to concretize the ideas that lay on the horizon. Where did this optimistic construction of the future go? In short, the progressive narrative is: they dwindled. I believe that this contributes to maintaining a sort of political disorientation in today’s youth.
What are the consequences for our system of values?
Here we can make a perfect comparison: for baby boomers, economic prosperity was obvious, and prosperity was a given; they might even have taken it for granted. My generation, as all the following generations, has taken the rule of law, separation of powers, and democracy in a similar way, as a given. What represented a bitterly fought victory for the older generation is something that has always existed for the younger generation. Those who have not experienced totalitarianism may not appreciate the strength and meaning of a liberal social order and a liberal rule of law in the same way. The generation who experienced the war witnessed the limits of humanity, baby boomers, the limitations of materialism, and we now perceive the constraints of democracy. Too many have forgotten what totalitarianism is and how dangerous it can be.
Wouldn’t that precisely be the baby boomers’ responsibility, to raise awareness?
This is the problem: baby boomers ventured out of a continued period of security and stability; they tested new things and were themselves bewildered by the forces they unbound. They put themselves in a situation of uncertainty with regard to a rapid globalization and flourishing openness. Nevertheless, many of them are not ready to pay the price today. This is also why they have become more conservative with time…
Which again, gives space to an emancipation potential for the younger generation, no?
The younger generations are definitely more open in that sense and find radical change to be less problematic—as we can observe with Brexit or Donald Trump’s election. As an optimist, I would say that we currently find ourselves in a phase where various generations, with different motivations, experiment with the importance of democracy, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. These experiments and endangerments steer us towards a greater awareness of what we have and what we can lose. Democracies sometimes need challenges and counter-projects. If we had to learn any lesson from the recent past, it would be that that this process has a long-term stabilizing effect.