P.J. O’Rourke talks Baby Boom, Gen Y, & what (maybe) lies ahead
Fifteen books, countless articles, and a few British Airways ads later, and “the most quoted living man in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations” (thank me later, P.J.) has still somehow not run short on humor.
66-year-old P.J. O’Rourke, political satirist, journalist, and author of (most recently) The Baby Boom, How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again), sat down with your correspondent to discuss his generation, my generation, and the American way.
I thank Mr. O’Rourke for his eye-opening book, one that accounts for the behavior and eccentricities of all the adults in my life who had a hand in raising me. I tell the author that I plan to make all my fellow millennials read The Baby Boom so they understand our parents’ generation. P.J. laughs and suggests an alternative subtitle of “Field Guide to Your Folks.”
O’ROURKE: I think there probably is something to that. I think millennials in general are puzzled by, “Where’d these people come from, what’s up with them?”
HE: You write in your book that the Baby Boom is:
…the biggest generation in the most important country, put…in excessively happy families, given too much attention, extravagant freedom, scant responsibility, plenty of money, a modicum of peace, and a profusion of opportunity…
This sounds ideal. Yet your book also describes a lot of foolishness resulting from the Baby Boom generation, as well as a lot of apparent vapidness in adulthood. So, where did you, or your parents, go wrong?
O’ROURKE: I’m not sure we went wrong. I think that you may be misled by the amount of complaining we do. The amount of complaining we do has to do with first, we belong to the first generation that wasn’t ashamed to publicly complain; the Greatest Generation did a lot of complaining also, but you had to get drunk with them before it came out.
We have used that privilege to the absolute maximum. I think, for the most part, we have led happier lives [and] been more likely to do the things that we wanted to do than our parents or any generation before us. We haven’t, perhaps, achieved noble things like winning WWII, [but] that’s partly a result of there being no WWII to win, and of course that’s partly a result of us not allowing a WWII to happen, or starting one.
I think we’ve turned out OK. Whiny, but OK. You shouldn’t be deceived by our constant complaining into thinking that we were less happy than prior generations. I think the Baby Boom has enjoyed itself, maybe sometimes a little too much, and we’re continuing to enjoy ourselves, maybe a little too much.
HE: I see a lot of similarities between your generation and mine. You talk about complaining, well now we have Facebook and Twitter where it’s not only OK to complain, it’s expected…
O’ROURKE: It’s obligatory!
HE: Exactly! And you talk about being easily distracted. We now have iPhones, iPads, and everything else. Do you think the current generation will end up just like the Baby Boom, will we learn from the Baby Boomers’ mistakes, or will we be even worse?
O’ROURKE: I do think there are tremendous similarities between the Baby Boom and following generations. Who’s even heard the term ‘generation gap,’ who’s used that in years? And for good reason it’s not used. I think you have learned from our mistakes. I think it’s a little early to tell yet, but I have a feeling that Generation X, Y, Z, whatever, that people who are younger than the Baby Boom are going to be more cautious, sexually, more sensible in their experimenting with drugs, less given to fads and oddities, less likely to move to the Yukon and attempt to start a frozen commune.
I think your generation has already learned quite a bit from the mistakes of the Baby Boom, but I think the generations are a lot alike, and they are really able to talk to each other. We thought there was a wall of separation between the Squaresville Greatest Generation and us. When I started to examine this for my book I started to realize that wasn’t really true ─ that our parents were much more like us than we thought.
But our parents were much more inhibited about being like us. They thought like us in many, many ways, and had feelings like we did, but they were inhibited in expressing those feelings, or felt that it was too dangerous or too much bother or something. But I really just don’t think there’s that same division between generations and it is my hope that there never will be again.
HE: What inspired you to write this book?
O’ROURKE: The time was right. 2014’s the year that the youngest Baby Boomers turn 50. The subject had been on my mind for a while, [and] the subject and the time seemed to come together.
HE: Could you offer us some P.J. O’Rourke parenting advice?
O’ROURKE: Yeah, but you’d be sorry!
HE: You have three children, right? And a teenage daughter? So you’re earning your Purgatory Points here, I think…
O’ROURKE: Two! Two teenage daughters, 16 and 13.
Leave all major decisions to your spouse. [That’s] my main advice and it’s just not to men! Women can benefit from this too.
HE: Is there a contrast maybe between something your parents did that backfired, or something you learned from them in raising your own kids?
O’ROURKE: My wife and I both come from Irish families. In both of our families, the main mode of communication was teasing. We tease our kids a lot, too, and it’s effective, because it’s a way of giving praise without over-praising a kid, giving criticism without making it too heavy-handed.
Teasing and a sense of humor, if you can develop that in your kids, and if you can exercise it with the kids, just makes for a pleasanter atmosphere. They say you have the choice of, if you’re Irish, two kinds of families: the teasing kind and the hitting kind. You want the teasing kind.
HE: Or both…
O’Rourke: Well there is that. That does happen. They tease before six and hit afterward.
HE: Well speaking of humor, would you say that either American culture, or, at least, politics, is less funny now? You wrote Parliament of Whores in 1991, do you think things are less humorous or more grave now?
O’ROURKE: No, not at all. I think that humor has become a principle means of communication among Americans about politics. Do the politicians themselves have less sense of humor? Mmmm, yeah. But then politicians are the kind of people who take themselves very seriously anyway.
Politics is perhaps more polarized than it was when I wrote Parliament of Whores almost a quarter of a century ago. But it comes and goes. It’s not nearly as polarized as it was during the Watergate era. And 1861, that was polarizing. That’s the gold standard. We’re nowhere near that.
Since the Baby Boom got its hands on mass media [with] …people like Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, and Saturday Night Live itself, of course…I think America has a much better sense of humor [about politics.] Chris Rock had…the funniest thing during the last presidential campaign, a wonderful routine about, “You want a white president? You got the whitest guy in the White House right now,” and he had this whole thing about how white “Barry” Obama is. He says, just start with his name, “Barry.” It’s like the third whitest name in the world. After maybe, Wayne, you know.
HE: What are things you miss from your childhood? Things that have been completely lost?
O’ROURKE: I think the Baby Boom does have a tendency to get its nose in everything. The Greatest Generation had a better tendency to leave people alone. Of course, they also had a better tendency to hate everybody’s guts. We’ve created a somewhat over-controlling [environment], like the helicopter parent thing. Partly that’s just because we’re a generation that never grew up, so we knew what the kids were thinking…
HE: And you still do!
O’Rourke: We still do! So of course we were helicopter parents. But I blame that a little bit on the kids, too. After all, it takes two for the helicopter-parenting relationship. And my generation would have shot that helicopter down.
HE: That’s my opinion. I think my generation is one of the lamest ever. At least you guys would rebel, do things that were fun and dangerous. My generation is used to being taken care of our whole lives. I think if we wanted to rebel, we wouldn’t really know how…
O’ROURKE: Oh, I don’t know. Early days yet. One of the reasons I think I could write a book about the Baby Boom was that we’re old enough; we can tell who we turned out to be. You can’t tell who you’ve turned out to be yet. Not only don’t you don’t know how you’ll face challenges, you don’t know what the challenges are going to be. One challenge is going to be having a lot of very old Baby Boomers on your hands.
The other thing is we scared ourselves a little bit with all our daring when we saw the results of our uncontrolled behavior, the drug addiction, the sexually transmitted diseases, the broken marriages, the children growing up with only one parent, and that parent may not be all there…we scared ourselves a little bit and it caused a conservative turn in society.
I don’t mean this conservative in any way political, but it just caused society to be more safety conscience, to be more cautious. And I’m sorry that we did that, but at least somebody went and did this social experiment and so now your generation knows better than to think you can just do anything and have no consequences whatsoever. You’re much more aware of consequences than we were.
HE: Well thanks for getting that all out of the way for us.
O’ROURKE: Well, the behavior of people who really don’t seem to worry about consequences at all–it can be sort of very charming and amusing, from a distance, so that the way John Belushi acted can be wonderful, but it didn’t turn out that well for John, did it? Or for the people immediately around him.
HE: Have we lost our independent spirit? Isn’t is natural for young people to be more libertarian?
O’ROURKE: Everybody by turns has libertarian impulses, “leave me alone,” and statist impulses, “please take care of me,” and anarchist moments, “the whole system is rigged, they’re all a bunch of bums.” I am surprised that the Baby Boom didn’t turn out to be more politically libertarian. I think it has a little bit to do with the fact that we’re not great with responsibility. If you’re looking for great traits of the Baby Boom, responsibility wouldn’t even get on the list. Part of libertarianism is, of course, individual freedom, but it’s also individual responsibility. We tend to wave that off.
HE: Do you think that we are ever going to recover from the Obama Administration and the current political climate? Are you optimistic or are we doomed? Do you foresee a great revolution of secessionism or something fun like that…?
O’ROURKE: No, no I don’t think so. I think that almost all the Western Democracies, and by Western Democracies I’m casting my net quite wide to include places like Japan, all the mature democracies are having some of the same problems that we have, some of them have it much worse (Greece), which is we have voted ourselves a set of social benefits that we can’t pay for, or can’t figure out how to pay for. Or when we do pay for them, the social cost is huge, tremendous baseline unemployment. I mean just a huge, latent– people who aren’t working; people who aren’t part of the labor force.
High taxes and fees and so forth, and of course the demographic shift effect, that birth rates have gone down, leaving a fewer number of young people to take care of a larger number of old people. There’s no easy way out of this.
On the other hand, it’s not something that leads to a brink, to a cliff, it’s not something that’s going to make the world end. It’s not going to cause a WWI, it’s not going to cause a WWII, it’s certainly not going to cause the world to be destroyed by atomic weapons.
So, the fixes will be painful, the fixes will be slow, the fixes will be inadequate, but I think we’ll muddle through this pretty well, and I think we’ll have learned a lesson, a lesson that may take 30 or 40 years to apply that I don’t expect to see in my lifetime. But, I think we’ve learned a basic lesson about a government promising too much and interfering too much in the lives and responsibilities of its individual citizens, and we’ll come out the other end of this with painful trimmings to these social programs and, I’m hoping, with a better sense of what the Catholic Church calls “subsidiarity.” That good should be done by the first proximate people. If someone needs help, the first people should be family, and then immediate community─ neighbors, and then local government, then state government, then federal government ─ only as a very last resort. I think we’re going to emerge from all this with a better sense of that, or it is my hope, at least.
But no, I’m not full of doom and gloom. We’ve faced bigger problems, and gotten through them.
HE: Do you have any final words of wisdom for the current generation?
O’ROURKE: No, I don’t! I honestly think you’re already there. I think that the good side of the Baby Boom, the emotional warmth, the good-heartedness, the inclusion of other people, the desire to not only be happy but for other people to be happy too, I think that has made itself evident. The excesses of the Baby Boom are also plenty evident. You don’t really need to be reminded of them, and I think as far as I can tell younger people have taken their lesson from these things.
Teresa Mull is the managing editor of Human Events.