James Harkin: The baby boomers are an inspiration to us all

This generation of seekers and idealists left no ideological stone untouched
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The Independent Online

Who else but a baby boomer could spend a whole two months celebrating their birthday? On Saturday, to a thundering display of media fireworks, former US president Bill Clinton turned 60. For the next two months, Clinton will celebrate his birthday at lavish parties thrown in his honour all around the world, a glitzy love-in which will reach its climax when the Rolling Stones play at a birthday party for him in New York.

Like Bill Clinton, many baby boomers love to party - and even more so when the party is in their own honour. The term "baby boomer" is an essentially American invention, used to describe the unusually large cohort of babies born between 1946 and 1964 and swollen by a surge of post-war optimism.

The boomers tend to think of themselves as a generation whose youthful radicalism shook the political establishment to its core and which ended up getting most of what its wanted. Clinton is the perfect archetype of the boomer with a rebellious past, and he wears the badge with pride. And so he should - after all, he dabbled in soft drugs, evaded the Vietnam draft and practised free love well into middle age.

Just recently, however, there have been signs of a backlash against all this orgy of self-congratulation. In a thud of new books, social critics of all kinds have begun to take aim at the new middle-aged, who stand accused of self-importance, self-obsession and selling out. A generation that once vowed to die before it got old has, many grumble, settled for regressing to its salad days. The neurotic attachment of baby boomers to their youth is evidenced in their cloying nostalgia - routinely stoked by advertisers and programmers - and their narcissistic enthusiasm for everything from retro design to cosmetic surgery.

In his book Rock Till You Drop, the music journalist John Strausbaugh is scathing in his dismissal of the continued weight of younger baby boomers on popular culture, and the burgeoning market for "colostomy rock": rock music, he fumes, should not be allowed to become the preserve of ageing Rolling Stones and "middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads who've brought along their wives and kids".

There is more than a little truth in all this. Transplanted into middle age, the baby boomers make excellent grumpy old men and women, blathering endlessly about their achievements and whingeing about everyone else. There is also a good deal of embroidery going on. If the boomers often give the impression that their decade was taken up with urgent political protest and love-making, there is a good chance their memory is playing tricks on them.

A survey published last month discovered that the memory of British baby boomers are fibbing about their rebellious past - of the quarter who claimed to be hippies in the Sixties, for example, only 6 per cent actually were. While Clinton might have pretended not to inhale, the sad truth is that most baby boomers pretended that they did.

But there were real achievements too. Around the world, the baby boomers disrupted the complacent status quo of the Seventies and set about trying to remake the world in their own image; and they had considerable success. In their heyday they fought against the Vietnam war, for women's rights and helped repeal segregation laws. More recently, they have stamped their own bohemian ethic on contemporary capitalism; the baby boomers are the real "No Logo" generation - most teenagers and young adults couldn't give a stuff about corporate ethics.

The challenge the youthful boomers made to the political firmament changed society irreversibly - even if those ideals turned sour, ugly and inward-looking with age. If they continue to weigh heavily upon popular culture, that is the fault of young people for not fighting hard enough for their own ideas. And if boomers weigh too heavily on politics and the voting system that is only because the younger generation harbour little sense of the power of collective organisation, and have few ideals to realise.

Despite all their flaws, the path trodden by the boomers should be an inspiration to us all about the power of ideas to incite political change. This generation of seekers and idealists left no ideological stone untouched as they powered their way through adulthood. If we are now at an impasse, living with the legacy of their embarrassing middle-aged foul-ups, it is up to the next generation to put some better ideas on the table. Happy Birthday Bill - but let's hope we don't need you when you're sixty-four.

The writer is the co-author of 'Eternal Youths: How the baby boomers are having their time again' (Demos)