BEYOND THE BOOM:
New Voices on American Life, Culture, and Politics
Edited by Terry Teachout
Simon & Schuster/Poseidon Press
237 pages, $18.95
MUCH HAS been made of the behavior of the baby boom generation, those postwar children -- now adults -- born between 1946 and 1964.
So much, in fact, that the most sensible reaction to seeing the words "baby boom" in print is to let one's eyes glaze over and to quickly turn the page.
The boomers, because of their great numbers, are everywhere.
Their music has become the soundtrack of American life; it sells sneakers, lulls shoppers and, if interpreted by the appropriate string quartet, can even soothe dental patients.
The things they buy -- and oh, do they buy! -- have become the focus of Madison Avenue's existence.
Everybody wants them and their money. Consider: When a major newspaper chain recently came out with a new design, the in-house name for the effort was "Project 2 5/4 3." The numbers, naturally, stand for the age group the chain wants to attract; the boomers again.
And this: The Smithsonian Institution has opened an exhibit that commemorates the stuff of the boomers' childhood: Captain Kangaroo's uniform, a "Romper Room" diploma, a copy of Dr. Benjamin Spock's child care book, a Barbie doll and 18 years of Peanuts comic strips.
It's a case of extreme overexposure. And now, in this context, a new book of essays appears.
The collection is touted as an antidote to the idea that all baby boomers are pretty much the same: "bearded, dope-smoking Deadheads . . . grown up at last," as editor Terry Teachout describes their portrayal by the media.
The authors are a group of friends -- most of them around 30 years old -- who live in New York, a few in Washington. For several years they have met monthly to talk and argue. They are fledgling filmmakers, novelists, political consultants, free-lance writers, editors.
Politically, they are neo-conservative -- they represent the backlash among younger boomers to the tie-dyed protesters who are their older brothers and sisters.
These writers are the Reagan voters, the supply-siders, the Grenada- invasion cheerleaders. While their older siblings were campaigning for George McGovern in 1972, they were barely out of grade school.
And though they may disagree with each other on many things, there is consensus on one subject: "The political and intellectual legacies of our older brothers and sisters, the baby boomers of the '60s, were a flop, a disaster, a failure."
Their subjects are various -- the yuppie myth, house lust, the confessions of a Washington "policy wonk." Happily, there's no effort to make these pieces hang together in any artificial way.
These are smart and thoughtful people writing well on provocative topics. No problem there.
What is troubling (and boring, but that's another story) is the degree of their self-centeredness. It may be inevitable, given the attention that has always been lavished on this age group, but still distressing. When these writers look out upon the world, they see only as far as their own back yards.
It shows up in the smug tone of many of these essays. Tom Wolfe, in his introduction, hints at it. Theirs, he says, "is the view in the dawn of the morning after. . . . They have just taken a cold shower. And their thoughts are very clear, albeit with a trace of a headache, and bracing and full of the wit of those who are still young enough to be exuberant and world-weary at the same time."
Some examples tell the tale:
"Baby boomers are hungry. Hungry for status, success, babies, homes, love, marriages, communities, wrapped up in one package: a room of one's own. A single driving desire that contains all the others: house lust."
"The yuppie myth is the myth of a generation at once cynical, soulless and self-obsessed; faultlessly fashionable, yet philistine; rootless, yet appallingly attached to material goods and overpaid for not terribly useful work, much of which includes lying, cheating and writing obnoxious ad campaigns."
"I understand the older boomers not merely because I partook of their ethos but because, in 1983, I turned my back on it. I returned to college in search of a more fulfilling career, a career move that is about as baby-boomish as you can get."
Do we detect here an obsession with demographic oneness?
The book is supposed to oppose the notion that all boomers are the same. But the message it presents best is that these writers may have different politics than the '60s boomers, but they are every bit as self-absorbed.
The world, according to these essayists, revolves around their generation.
And that's something we already knew.