Finding Your Target

Well that last post generated a lot of heat, both pro and con. I think that the point I was leading towards got a little lost in the shuffle, but it sure was interesting to see the split within the Boomers reflected in the contents, which gets at the way I look at the generational divide.

One of the issues that I think Ginny was hinting around (I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I think she’ll correct me if I’m wrong) is that the Boomers are not homogenous in any way shape or form. No generation is. A lot of the vitriol directed at the Boomers (including my own) is really not deserved by an awful large percentage of that group. As I said, the Boomer scientists (and some of the middle managers) I work with are not in the way – they are some of the best of what that generation has to offer. What no one asked about the “goals” survey was – what were the demographics? Were the respondents upper-middle and upper class kids in the 1960s, the very same ones who threatened to change the world? Or were the respondents mostly working class kids who went to, or were at risk to going to, SEA? The inward looking goals, the desire to travel after a lifetime of manual labor, might not sound so bad to Gen X ears coming out of the latter.

That is what I was getting at when I referenced segments (in the marketing sense – people who behave in a similar fashion) in the last post. I have a theory – untested, but perhaps testable – that there are pretty much the same segments in every generation. If you look at the Rogues Gallery on the left-hand side of Boomer Deathwatch, Mr. Dillinger of the Chicago 8 was not of the Boomers – he was part of that earlier generation of radicals whose activities paved the way for the Boomer social movements. I saw this meeting of the minds up close once when I went to an Arlo Guthrie concert as a teenager. Pete Seeger was also headlining. The crowd was about half aging Boomer Hippies coming to see Arlo (or more accurately coming to hear Alice’s Restaurant) and half geriatric radicals coming to see Pete. Same segment, two different generations.

I think that the segments in each generation are about the same proportion of the population. The difference from generation to generation is which segment sits at the locus of power. As I commented in my posts about stupidity, there is a large segment of the human race that really just goes with the flow – for want of a better term, the rent-seekers. So the character of a generation seems to be set by the people who grab the reigns of power in during the heyday of that generation and cause this amorphous middle segment to ooze in their general direction. As one late-stage Boomer put it:

Of course, it is as unfair to demonize an entire generation as it is to characterize an entire gender or race or religion. And I don’t literally mean that everyone born between 1946 and 1964 is a selfish pig. But generations can have a unique character that defines them, especially if they are the elites of a generation — those lucky few who are blessed with the money or brains or looks or skills or education that typifies an era. Whether is was Fitzgerald and Hemingway defining the Lost Generation of World War I and the Roaring Twenties, or JFK and the other heroes of the World War II generation, or the high-tech whiz kids of the post-Boomer generation, certain archetypes define certain times.

You know who you are. If you grew your hair and burned your draft card on campus during the Sixties; if you toked, screwed, and boogied your way through the Seventies; if you voted for Reagan and believed “Greed is good” in the Eighties; and if you’re trying to make up for it now by nesting as you cluck about the collapse of “family values,” you’re it. If not, even if demographers call you a Boomer, you probably hate our generation’s elite as much as I do.

For the Boomers, this leadership in the heyday of their youth took the form of an upper-middle and upper class youth rebellion against the middle class values of their day, so long as one belonged to the club. Boomer Deathwatch again:

Why, if it was all about gender and race and sexual orientation, did it seem like class – who had the money and political pull, who didn’t, and how they recognized each other – was still the real issue at hand. And why, as a white, working-class kid born too late for the boom, did it seem like I was always just on the outside of it all?

Or, as Ken, another late stage Boomer put it:

When I was in college, I noticed that the lefties/socialists (absolutely, uniformly, to a one, upper-middle-class white brats going to school on daddy’s dime) never seemed to bitch about “the rich”. They ALWAYS bitched about the WHITE MIDDLE CLASS MALES™. Whether they were complaining about tax cuts, class privileges, affirmative action, the homeless population, war, peace, oppression, suppression, depression, or even just the heartbreak of psoriasis, the great bogeyman was always WHITE MIDDLE CLASS MALES™.

So a lot of what we associate with Boomers as a generation is actually just the most powerful and vocal segment, along with its hangers-on. Bilwick started asking the right question:

It’s interesting to me, as a Boomer (b. 1950; biggest influence: Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett; most profound traumatic childhood moment: Davy dying at the Alamo in Episode Three), how the perception here seems to be that the Boomers are politically mostly left-wing. Do we know that’s true?

One of the reasons that we continue to associate that stereotype with the Boomers is that the rich kids with the silly ideas also have the most access to the media, and perpetuate the stereotype with their yammering. Jim Bennett was right on the money:

It’s also useful to remember that many perceptions of past generational experiences are based on film and television products from those eras — but those films and television programs were often wildly inaccurate and unrepresentational at the time they were made.

I can say that the “slacker” label handed to my generation was pretty wildly inaccurate as far as my friends and I were concerned. Out of my close circle of high school friends, two went to medical school and now practice in my home county, one became a biochemist, two are teachers, one enlisted in the Air Force and now runs his own business, one enlisted in the Army – won a Bronze Star in Gulf War I – and is now an E-8 or E-9 (he last told me that his goal is to be Sgt. Major of the Army), and three (two enlisted, one officer) went into the Marines – one of them now finishing his career as a Master Sergeant after a tour in Iraq. Hardly slackers.

One of the big eye openers for me as a (highly) opinionated scientist when I first started studying marketing and consumer behavior was just how much we humans selectively perceive. We pick up on examples that re-enforce our preconceived notions and ignore conflicting data. Scientists are trained not to do this in their field of expertise, and then mistakenly believe that this skill automatically transfers to other areas of their lives. It does not. Scientists are some of the worst offenders of selective perception in society at large. Since they tend to dismiss areas of study outside their own as unimportant, they tend not to look too hard at their own assumptions in other fields of endeavor. They also tend to wildly overuse Occam’s razor on complex phenomena, forgetting that the blasted thing has two edges and no handle.

Perceptions of the prime Boomer generation by late Boomers and Gen Xers tend to be highly selective. I’ll give you an example. I was in the Mall the other week. I was dressed in my normal business casual – slacks and a short sleeve button down shirt. I happened to glance over at a guy about 70 or 75 years old. He was dressed almost the same as I, save for a baseball cap that proclaimed that he was a veteran of Chosin. Holy cow. I gave him a smile and a nod. Walking up the stairs between us was a guy about 55 or 60. Receding gray hair worn long and in a pony tail wearing shorts, a tie-died Grateful Dead t-shirt with the colorful dancing bears (one of whom was toking on a bong), and socks with sandals (for which he should be whipped with lederhosen daily). The image of two adults two generations apart looking at an overgrown child with gray hair between us has stuck in my mind for over a week. I’m sure that I saw numerous other Boomers that day, but it’s the bozo that sticks in my mind. Selective perception.

A lot of what we think the Boonmers are depends on the segment of Boomers we interact with. If you were to trace my perceptions of the Boomers over time, you would see a dramatic alteration in my attitude. When I was a kid, a lot of the people my father worked with were helicopter pilots. In the mid-to-late 1970s, a civilian-trained rotor wing pilot had very little chance of finding work – there were just too many ex-military warrant officers with thousands of hours of flying time in the most extreme conditions imaginable in the job market. At age 5 or 6, I thought that all the Boomers served in the military – heck I thought most of ‘em flew helicopters. As I hit high school and got exposed to the liberal side of the Boomers, my opinion of them began to slip. My high school World History teacher was a liberal Boomer. He used to complain that our generation did not question things as much as his did. Yet he had not read many of the major source books for his subject matter (he’d never read The Prince!), which I had done. I began to question just how much thought the Boomers really put into their rebellions. Then I hit college, and the Boomer and pre-Boomer scientists I learned from seemed pretty much the same kind of people as I was – or were people whom I was aspiring to imitate – so I didn’t think much about generational differences.

Now, out in the work force, I’m exposed to the great rent-seeking amorphous middle segment of the Boomers, and I don’t like it much at all. I turn down solicitations of business all the time from Boomer middle managers were downsized and became consultants. Most of the time, it’s pretty apparent why these bozos were downsized. I also deal with the huge HR departments and the touchy-feely organizational behavior types and the legions of management consultants that the Boomers spawned. An awful lot of money gets wasted by Corporate America on these tools, funded mostly by Boomer middle managers, and people who do real work despise them:

The contempt that most of the scientific staff has for “modern management techniques” is hard to underestimate. Problem is, we’re used to having to prove our hypotheses, and show data (with appropriate controls, yet) in support of them. But I’ve suspected for years that most of the management fads that sweep through the world have nothing to back them up at all, and this suspicion has been confirmed by an article by Matthew Stewart in the latest Atlantic (subscriber-only) called “The Management Myth”.

People who peddle this crap get in the way of real progress and clog up the organizational structure, and their demographics are heavily skewed to the Boomers. That colors my perception of the Boom generation. Colors it mostly black, I would say. Let’s look at an example, shall we?

Let’s look at the Boomer who spawned this rant. Now aside from the discussion on the hidden messages in water, she and her Boomer seat-mate were discussing their work as corporate life coaches. They had a new client, a Fortune 100 company that you would recognize. Their firm was using a new set of materials, and she was reading one of the new texts. The cover of the book has a picture of some dude trapped in a lightbulb, along with the following:

Quantum Shift! Coaching.


Anyone see anything wrong with that? Bueller? Shannon? Anyone? AHHHHHHHH. I realize that the Hamiltonian is not exactly as familiar to the layman as is the simple equation from the Theory of Relativity, but HΨ = EΨ is a pretty simple equation too, and the Greek letters might lend an even bigger sense of mystery to this claptrap. Is the irony of using an equation from a different theory that has not yet been completely reconciled with quantum mechanics completely lost on people? The materials within the book are no better than the cover would indicate, as far as I could tell from the conversation. Go look at the website if you don’t believe me.

I am going to make a snap judgment here. I think it’s very likely that the woman on the train is a Boomer parasite. She produces little to nothing of value, and quite possibly subtracts value from society by bothering productive people during their working hours and doing silly things and following silly fads and leaders when she’s called upon to participate in our society and democracy. Quantum Shift Coaching and the Hidden Messages in Water are just the sort of New-Agey crapfests that I associate with the Boomers. But let’s be fair. There’s a significant segment of my generation that would go for this crap, too. The junior positions in consulting firms are staffed by Gen X and Gen Y parasites. It’s just that in absolute numbers, the Boomers so dominate idiotic vocations such as life coaching that I tend to associate the evils of such activities with that generation. Selective perception of the segment. Confirmation bias.

If there hadn’t been so dang many of them relative to other generational cohorts, a lot of this youthful idiocy would have slipped into historical obscurity. And if they had not been born into a period of relative affluence, a lot of them would have shed their youthful misperceptions and become fully-fledged adults. But the economy (at first) did not demand all that much from them, and there were an awful lot of them. The Boomers are like the great Dane in the room who knocks vases off of the shelf when he wags his tail. A generational cohort bigger than either the preceding or succeeding one warps the social space-time continuum around itself. As Ilyka Damen said about mature-only communities:

You know, if you know anything about me at all, that there are few things I love better than blaming shit on Baby Boomers. But even I can’t pin this on them, or at least I wouldn’t do it as harshly as Caldwell does. It isn’t “twist[ing] all society’s institutions into the shape of [your] needs” when your demographic is that large–at that point, your demographic IS society. Why shouldn’t institutions adapt to it?

Well, why not? As I said above, while the Boomer generation is somewhat skewed left and New Agey, I’m not sure that its character is hugely different from other generations, past or present. I’m pretty sure it’s shifted a bit left of my generation, but the Boomer demographic segment is so large that its flaws tend to be written in fire on the wall rather than in the fine print of history books. And when that demographic finally comes to the end of its productive years and beginning to draw a significant degree of wealth from younger folks, the perceptions are going to get more and more selective.

8 thoughts on “Finding Your Target”

  1. Quantum Shift! Coaching.

    The funny thing is, there isn’t any such thing as a “Quantum Shift” in physics. (I googled to make sure.) It appears that somewhere along the line “Quantum Leap” hybridized with the concept of “a shift in our perceptions/attitudes/etc” to create a new phrase with no use within sciences.

    In physics, a quantum leap occurs when a subatomic particle jumps from a point in space to another without traveling through the intervening space. (Electrons in atoms move from one orbit to another in this manner.) The phenomenon makes a good analogy for a powerful surge in innovation that creates something so radically different that it appears to have no immediate predecessor. (This never really happens, by the way)

    Yet another attempt to market an idea by slapping a lab coat on it.

  2. We never even called it a quantum leap in Quantum Physics. I rememebr saying that an electrom moved, jumped, or was promoted to an excited state, but never “leaped”.

    How about you?

  3. But what we did talk about was a phase shift.

    The only phase shift I know of is the alignment of the peaks and troughs of two or more waves. If the peaks and troughs aline, the waves are in phase, if they don’t its out of phase. [See Wikipedia].

  4. Yeah. In laser sepctroscopy you can take a beam, split it into two, and make one pathlength longer than the other so that one beam is phase shifted relative to the other. EEs will talk about phase shifting of an AC current, too.

    Then there is the Raman Shifter that shifts wavelengths.

  5. It’s too bad that my take on “Boomers” is quite negative. I being one of them, who could know better. The point is, actually, most of my fellow Boomers —those of whom I’ve known, personally, and those I’ve been aware of (media), were or are a pain in the posterior. Essentially, not to belabor a passing criticism — self-centered, egomaniacal, twits who thought they could change the status quo. Nonsense! It remains the twisted malaise it always appeared to be.

  6. Well, I’ve got mixed feelings about this whole thing – as people always do when broad generalizations are being made about their tribe. And most of them have some truth in them. The insane “scientizing” of the humanities, which is really pop social scientizing, is absurd, pretentious and stupid. Such critics are unwilling to acknowledge that our disciplines are ways to understand human nature – since they’ve decided there are no eternals nor universals – and so they want to hobble together theories and put some kind of patina of “truth” (fact) on them by borrowing the authority of hard science. (My husband came home laughing at a presentation a few years ago: two of his colleagues donned lab coats to discuss their ersatz “science” of lit crit.)

    The fifties & sixties & early seventies have been on my mind lately: I started trying to read up on Allen Ginsberg because, frankly, I have trouble taking him seriously & yet really need to teach lit from the fifties & sixties. And he was everywhere – I don’t think I know anyone of my age or younger that didn’t see him giving at least one and generally multiple readings. And I’ve gotten through the preface to Terry H. Anderson’s The Movement & the 60’s. The prologue looks like its going to be a celebration. Maybe I’ll report on them – but I don’t know if I care a lot, so I’m not sure why you younger types should.

    What strikes me as something we took awfully seriously but has mutated into something quite different is an attitude toward mental illness – moving on from the cocktail party Freudianism of the twenties & thirties, the bizarre & pretty bad works of O’Neil & some Hitchcock and on to our immersion in that world in the fifties & sixties. That is something I’ve been trying to post about. But it seems so strange, today, I’m not sure if you later generations could understand it.

    If mediciation changed that scene, it changed others as well: the birth control pill became widely accessible in the mid-sixties & I suspect its effect was greater than either Viet Nam or Watergate. I’m not saying we handled most of this (the public or the private, the political or domestic) well – but then most of us have no imagination about unintended consequences.

    By the way, it was my impression that SAT’s peaked in the early boomer years & have been going down since then. (And teacher’s colleges were already beginning their insidious work when I was in high school, I’ll admit that.) And the average grade was a C – something I suspect many contemporary students feeling a bit disdainful of Bush’s (and Gore’s and Kerry’s) grades might remember. (And it may make some of the other guys of our generation look even better.) Grade inflation set in because of the “power of the people,” because of the draft, and because even flunking out a lot of us, the universities got big – and enlarging enrollments began to be taken for granted – and all those teachers wanted to teach mainly grad classes, who they wanted to teach freshmen.

  7. “beginning to draw a significant degree of wealth from younger folks”…when talking about intergenerational flows of wealth, one has to be careful with the accounting. When people talk about the money being “spent” on social security payments, they tend to ignore the fact that large proportions of those payments represent the capital contributed by those same recipients. If you put $5000 in a bank and take it out 10 years later, the bank doesn’t show that $5000 as an “expense” in its ledger…because it’s not one; it’s a return of capital.

    It does show the interest paid on the $5000 as an expense. And the social security payments in excess of the contributed capital really represent imputed interest on the funds contributed, which were used for government programs which otherwise would have required the issuing of formal debt, almost certainly at a higher interest rate than the imputed rate on the SS program.

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