We're all architects and victims of our age. Credit: David Paul Morris/Getty Images

January 18, 2021   6 mins

The literature of the future, Lytton Strachey wrote to Virginia Woolf in 1912, “Will be amazing. At last it’ll tell the truth and be indecent, and amusing, and romantic.” At last! Stachey prophecised, and his words must find a place on the list of great comical predictions. While countless wonderful books have been published since 1912, who matched Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy, or Conrad? But Strachey was a puerile man who mistook the indecent for the profound.

Puerile as he was, he was witty and audacious. Eminent Victorians, his most famous book, might have been unfair to its subjects but it was entertaining and original, and tore through staid post-Edwardian propriety. Bertrand Russell, who was in prison for his pacifist activities when he read the book, wrote to a friend that he had been laughing so merrily that a warden had had to remind him that prisons were places of punishment. Strachey’s portrayal of the Victorians as being rather foolish and hypocritical helped young Britons to believe in progress more than tradition, and not to be bound by reverence for the past. As World War One thinned their ranks, the older people who had got them into such a mess seemed especially deserving of criticism.

Boomers, the debut book of the brilliant American critic and commentator Helen Andrews, takes a similar form to Eminent Victorians. Notable representatives of the titular generation, including Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin and Camille Paglia, are dissected. Like the Victorians, boomers steered the West through a time of great technological and societal change, taking in the Space Race and the internet age, as well as rock n’ roll and the sexual revolution. The history of their time, as Strachey wrote of the Victorians, could “fill innumerable volumes.” By examining certain “characteristic specimens”, however, Andrews can illuminate important tendencies.

An editor gave Andrews the idea for the book, she writes, because, “You’re like Strachey. You’re an essayist, and you’re mean.” I don’t know if “mean” is the right word but Andrews has certainly displayed lemony wit, from her early years writing at “The Cigarette Smoking Blog” to her erudite and iconoclastic essays for journals like First Things and the American Conservative, where she is now editor. You can never guess what Andrews is going to write about — it might be the suffragettes, or Zimbabwe, or the films of Paul Schrader — but you bet that it will be challenging and entertaining. No one is better placed to fuse insights with insults.

Whereas Strachey insisted that he wrote “without ulterior intentions” — in much the same style that a liar will loudly preface a mistruth with “to be honest” — Andrews is openly critical. Unlike Strachey’s subjects, her targets are less than sacred (Jobs was, perhaps, but his reputation has taken a bit of a posthumous beating). Millennials, never mind Generation Z, have not been raised to respect their elders. “Boomers” are a running joke, the target of a million irreverential memes. What Andrews hopes to accomplish, though, is not just to puncture inflated reputations but to explain where people went wrong, and how to avoid making similar mistakes.

What Andrews finds most pitiful about her subjects is the hubris of their attempts to reshape the world. In a tightly argued, cheerfully one-sided opening chapter, she suggests that their liberatory enthusiasm birthed a world of savage economic insecurity, chronic fatherlessness, pill-popping, depression and porn. Rather than being freer, Andrews maintains, many of us are inhibited by poor education, addicted to screens and immiserated by a lack of ownership. Would anybody want to argue that there is not a significant amount of truth to this?

Pop culture is one of Andrews’ biggest targets. Aaron Sorkin, she writes, saw television as a means of mass enlightenment. Camille Paglia saw pop stars and actors as being icons of a chain-breaking sexuality. Andrews, like Richard Hoggart in the innocent 1950s, sees popular culture as a stage for “mass publicists”, promoting “group individualism”. Sorkin, she writes, failed to appreciate that “pseudo-knowledge might be worse than no knowledge at all.” His characters are archetypal “upper normies”: endlessly scornful of the received wisdom of the masses and sycophantically devoted to the received wisdom of the liberal bourgeoisie. The dangers of this were easy to identify in 2020, where sophisticated opinion held that masks were comically useless in March and essential in May.

Paglia, meanwhile, waxed lyrical about the glamour of pornography as men and women scrolled mindlessly through ever more bizarre sex scenes in search of something they had not grown numb to. She celebrated the provocations of her muse, Madonna, but ended up griping about her “juvenile Instagrams [and] her trashy outfit” as the pop star followed erotically charged attention-seeking to its ignominious endgame. What is sold as freedom can become captivity.

One expects swipes at hippies in a book like this, but Andrews, cleverly, holds her fire when it comes to flower power and the Grateful Dead. It would have been easy to do a line-by-line analysis of “Imagine” but it would also have been cheap. She is far more harsh on hippie ideals infusing corporate and bureaucratic institutions. She is damning, for example, and righteously so, on how the sunny universalism of Silicon Valley has been exploited by hard-nosed Chinese nationalists. Imagine all the people, sharing all the apps. It hasn’t quite worked out. As a spicy Wall Street Journal article put it in March, “Tim Cook and Apple Bet Everything on China. Then Coronavirus Hit.”

Boomers, Andrews writes, thought that they could wield the power of their predecessors without all the nasty bits. Adventuring economists like Jeffrey Sachs, for example, believed that they could teach foreign governments how to run their countries without actually having to subordinate them. Andrews argues, however, that such meddling was not less but more hubristic and presumptuous about the world than that of honest old-fashioned imperialists. It is only a shame that the neoconservatives, who planned short, painless wars to make space for the flowering of liberal democracy and ended up with long, attritive wars making space for snake oil salesmen and ethnic strife, don’t get more of a look-in here.

Perhaps to the disappointment of Andrews’ editor, Boomers isn’t that mean. Andrews scorns Camille Paglia’s verbose sexual utopianism, for example, yet also salutes her intellect. While her chapter on Steve Jobs laments the overvaluation of the temporal, Andrews seems to quite admire him as a man. This is admirable, and makes her critiques more incisive for being so measured.

When Andrews wants to make a point, though, she makes it mercilessly. A chapter on Al Sharpton assaults the idea that “white flight” was a symptom of prejudice and leaves it twitching. Even Left-wing activists moved to the suburbs, Andrews writes, so their children “would no longer have their liberal opinions beaten out of them.”

Unlike Strachey, Andrews writes with moral seriousness and no illusions about the future. Millennials “seem intent on making the boomers’ same mistakes”, fetishising self-expression, oikophobia and iconoclasm. Nonetheless, she sympathises with their predicament, working in jobs beneath the status they would have expected from their education, and without prospects for home ownership until they have paid for that same education. One can disagree with their conclusions but one has to empathise with their discontent.

Boomers, understandably, is longer on diagnosis than prescription. Andrews defends older institutions, but many of those institutions are long dead. Modern technology does serious harm, meanwhile, but it is hard to imagine people getting rid of it.

The least we can be is honest. As this witty, truthful book makes clear, there is no sense in pretending that modern sadness is the result of too little freedom from tradition rather than perversities of technological and cultural innovation. There is no point in elevating identitarian opportunists who exploit without ameliorating demographic tensions. There is no point in blaming dysfunction in developing nations solely on the errors of colonial and not also post-colonial rule. There is no point in Big Tech issuing calls to build without more contemplation of what to build and why. Even the best treatments could be useless if a condition has been misdiagnosed, and Andrews is an excellent diagnostician.

Although all of the social ills described apply equally to Britain, it is interesting that “boomer” discourse cannot be smoothly recreated in a British context. Who would British boomers be? Pink Floyd? Monty Python? Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis? It doesn’t quite work. Hitchens actually wrote one of the earlier, funnier critiques of the boomers himself for Vanity Fair almost 25 years ago, writing: “In the therapy generation, which scripts even its own lenient satires, you are by all means allowed, if not encouraged, to feel guilty. Just as long as you don’t feel responsible.”

In truth, while boomers are often attacked in Britain over the widespread tendency to prize their pensions and unblemished view across the fields over the need for young people to have functioning institutions and affordable homes, they have not the cultural prestige of their American cousins. America, after all, was in the ascendance. It was slightly younger people — born too late for the heydays of Bob Dylan and Beatlemania but early enough to witness Bowie and the Sex Pistols — who left a boomeresque imprint on Britain with New Labour. Caustic online critics in the dark corners of Twitter have dubbed this phenomenon “Britpoppers”, and defined them as people whose political imagination never escaped 1997 and whose cultural imagination is stuck in 2012. The archetypal Britpopper hates “toffs”, “cranks” and “populists” and loves smooth-speaking managerialist, Science(TM) and a limp, Richard Curtisesque conception of British soft power.

What is the point of generational analysis? Of course, not to indict each man and woman born in a specific period. Most people who complain about “boomers” love their grandparents after all. Instead, it is to isolate styles of thinking and behaving — and, where necessary, to reject them.

Of course, everything seems clearer in retrospect — and there is a danger of this generational critique descending into a childish, screw-you-dad petulance. Millennials, such as myself, have to take some responsibility for the world as we advance into our thirties. GenZ is already TikToking their own scornful critiques of us. But being responsible means understanding one’s conditions, and who and what was responsible for them.

We are all both architects and victims of our times, shaping them and being shaped by them simultaneously. Dwelling on blame might be unhelpful. But we must still understand causes and effects.

Now, about those good-for-nothing Generation X-ers…

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written for Quillette, Areo, The Catholic Herald, The American Conservative and Arc Digital on a variety of topics including literature and politics.