The Baby Boom by PJ O'Rourke, book review: 'Rash, vain' and ruling the world


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According to PJ O'Rourke's "rhapsody" on the baby boom, anyone born between 1946 and 1964 is a "Baby Boomer". Or, more precisely, anyone born in that era in America can be properly termed a baby boomer – some 75 million heterogeneous beings. The phrase is about much more than demographics and the bulge in the birth rate following the defeat of Nazism.

As O'Rourke writes in his introduction for British readers; "Post-war experience in America was very different from post-war experience in a place where war, in fact, occurred. That is, we had the 'post-' and you had the war." But O'Rourke's generation did have Vietnam, a decade-long agony that affected every family in America, and a constant presence in this part-memoir, part-essay. We did not, of course, and my exposure to Vietnam, growing up in the Midlands, consisted of a single piece of graffiti which read: "HANG JOHNSON". I could only think it referred to Mr Johnson, a caretaker at school, rather than, as I realised years later, Lyndon B Johnson. That was the limit of my 'nam trauma.

So this is a slice of Americana, a sketch of the generation that has governed America (Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama being boomers, with a second President Clinton on the way?), and poked its nose – and its drones – into everybody's business.

It is best approached as a work of anthropology, a study, though avowedly not a serious one, of a weird land with weird people doing weird things. Such as the 14-year old O'Rourke who stops at a gas station in Alabama in 1959 and finds a water fountain labelled "colored": "I had no idea what 'colored' could have to do with a drinking fountain. Colored water? Bad idea..."

Peering at the boomers through a miasma of smoke from the inevitable joint, O'Rourke is better at polemic than anecdote, and this conclusion is the writer at his lapidary best: "The Baby Boom was a carefully conducted scientific experiment. The empirical results are us. Take the biggest generation in the most important country, put them in excessively happy families, give them too much affection, extravagant freedom, scant responsibility, plenty of money, a modicum of peace (if they dodged the draft), a profusion of opportunity and a collapse in traditional social standards."

What do you get? "Wilful, careless, rash, vain, indulged, and entitled people." Yep, he's talking about my generation.