Whenever I think of the baby boomers I think of The Beatles, The Stones and Jimi Hendrix. Pop music was definitely one thing the boomers did well. But, according to the people who decide on such important matters, none of these musicians actually qualify as baby boomers. The boomer generation officially began in 1945. So, Jimi, Mick, Paul and the boys missed out. Nevertheless, I’m going to include them when I refer to “boomers”. In fact, I’m going to include all of us when referring to boomers. For the purposes of our analysis here, all the important elements of boomer culture are shared by the generations that have followed. The boomers still dominate because we are all still boomers at heart.
The Beatles, The Stones and Hendrix were a massive influence on boomer culture. So too was a man who was born a whopping 42 years too early to technically qualify as a boomer. His most influential book, however, arrived on the scene with perfect timing; 1946 to be precise. The name of the book was “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” and the author in question was Dr Benjamin Spock.
Spock was a quintessential boomer. He would later get involved in the presidential campaign for JFK and take part in the numerous protest movements of the 60s and 70s. At 84 years old he was still competing in rowing competitions. If ever there was a man who epitomised the idea of being forever young, it was Spock. In the language of this series of posts, Spock was not an elder. Like the boomers in general, he refused to even consider elderhood as an option all the way until his death. But Spock was happy to play the role that came to replace the elder in boomer culture: the expert. Specifically, he was a doctor of paediatrics with a side qualification in Freudian psychoanalysis. Of course, it had to be Freud, another matter of symbolic importance for this series of posts where we are invoking Jung.
The post war years were the golden age of Freudian psychology. Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, had become as successful in the US advertising industry as Spock was in the parental advice industry. It was the age when having your own “shrink” was the thing to do. What the Freudians were primarily concerned with was the repression of base desires by society. This was reflected in Spock’s book.
The prevailing wisdom of the pre-war years, the mindset which raised “the great generation” that stormed the beaches of Normandy, was that children needed to be given “tough love”. Their desires were unimportant. Their crying should be ignored. Feeding should be done on a military-like schedule and affection should be kept to a minimum. All very repressive from a Freudian point of view. Spock broke with this prevailing wisdom and told parents to give their children regular affection, feed them whenever they were hungry and tell them they were special. Spock’s book sold 50 million copies and was apparently second only to the bible in the US book market in the post war decades. His advice was what the parents of the boomers wanted to hear.
As so often happens, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic align in this case. Just like the parents of the boomers were going to pay attention to what their children wanted, the society of the post war years was going to be geared to giving consumers what they wanted. For every desire, the consumer society had a product and, if the desire happened to be lacking, Edward Bernays and his team were there to create it. All this was made possible by the fact that the boomers were born into the richest society the world has ever known. The USA was swimming in oil, had suffered relatively little in the wars and had been handed the keys to what was left of the British Empire after WW2. America was so rich in the post war years that it could afford to rebuild Europe while also becoming the policeman of the world. Freud served as a useful ideology for a society that had wealth to burn. There was no longer any need for the miserliness that parents of children in the great depression needed to learn.
But something more archetypal was going on. The appearance of The Child on the scene also matches with the broader historical developments at the time. The two world wars represented the end of the line for the archetype which had dominated Western culture for centuries. That archetype is The Warrior. Europeans had spent literally centuries slaughtering each other. They got pretty good at it. They got good at other things too. As Bucky Fuller noted, technological innovation occurs so rapidly during war because success actually matters (unless you give absolute power to megalomaniacs). In war, people’s lives are on the line and this creates an atmosphere of meritocracy. Whoever has the ideas that actually work will be rewarded. The same is not true for peace. Failure doesn’t matter so much during peacetime, especially when you live in the richest society the world has ever seen.
Discipline, determination and skill are the positive attributes of The Warrior and these were on ample display during what I have previously referred to as the era of Heroic Materialism, which includes the era of heroic science. The shadow side of The Warrior was also on display as seen in the pillaging and plundering of the colonial years. Another shadow attribute of The Warrior is that he brings wanton destruction. Is it a surprise that neither Hitler nor Mussolini were real military men? The latter was a journalist and political hack. The former was a failed artist, incredibly boring writer and equally unimpressive soldier. Neither displayed the positive traits of The Warrior but they sure as hell managed to embody the negative traits while they were play acting the roles that would lead to the destruction of their countries dressed as always in impeccable military outfits. In doing so, they brought the age of The Warrior to an end.
What this created was what we might call an archetypal vacuum. But before a new archetype can manifest, there is a process of development to go through and that is where The Child archetype enters the picture. In this series of posts we have differentiated between two subtypes of The Child: The Innocent and The Orphan. The qualities of The Innocent map exactly onto the consumer society that took place in the USA in the post war years. They map exactly onto the ideology of Dr Spock and Edward Bernays. We can rightfully call the post war years the years of The Innocent. It was this society that the boomers grew up in and would later come of age in. It was a society informed by Freud, driven by advertising and the needs of consumer capitalism. It was a society that promised to give the boomers whatever they wanted.
The fascinating thing about the boomer generation is that their archetypal development matches almost precisely with the demographic and historical facts. The end of world war two represented a hard break from the past. Everybody wanted to make sure something like that didn’t happen again and so everybody was happy to accept radical changes which, almost by definition, were a break with the past. The attitude of starting fresh was in the air and, combined with the enormous growth in the economy, it led to a feeling that anything was possible. The psychological traits on display were all exactly what we expect in The Innocent: optimism, faith and hope. But we also know that the child cannot stay innocent forever. Eventually, the child must become The Orphan and undertake the difficult transition to adulthood. The boomers had their own idea of what this meant. They dismissed the wisdom of elders and the expectations of society. They did not want to become soldiers or obedient workers in the economy. They wanted to be individuals. The ethos at play was one of self-creation. The boomers themselves took on the task of asking “what do I want to do with my life” and “what sort of society do we want to create”. They explicitly rejected any infringement on their right to answer these questions for themselves independently of societal expectations. The boomers wanted to create their own identity.
We are still living under this ethic today. The desire to choose your own gender or your own pronouns is the logical extension of the notion of self-creation. Of course, the other side of the coin is that you are expecting society to recognise whatever identity you choose. That was true of the boomers back in the 60s and 70s and it’s still true today. The boomers grew up in a world where their parents indulged them. Capitalist consumer society indulged them. Even the political class had to indulge them when they were old enough to vote. Demographics demanded it.
But we can already see the problem with this based on the analysis of The Orphan archetype in past posts. The boomer’s attitude was the rejection of The Orphan’s mission. The Orphan does not choose its own destiny. It is offered the chance to initiate into a metaphysics of meaning by an Elder. Everything about the boomers is a rejection of this archetypal scenario. The boomers were at war with the elders of western society. While partaking of their free college educations, they were introduced to Marxism, feminism, post modernism, post colonialism; a veritable smorgasbord of criticism. Another way to look at it was the “experts” (in this case, university professors) were stepping in to fill the role of the elder. Just like the boomer parents turned to Dr Spock for parenting advice rather than their own parents, so the boomers turned to their professors to fill the role of the elder.
Dr Spock and other experts made an awful lot of money out of the deal. That was one problem. Real elders work for free. Another big difference between an elder and an expert is that an elder is training you up with the notion that you will graduate into adulthood/selfhood and be self sufficient, at least in spiritual terms. The expert is doing no such thing. They will always be the expert and you will always be the consumer. There is no way to graduate from consumer to expert. The best you can hope for is to be an expert yourself in some other domain. By swapping out the elder for the expert, the boomers unwittingly ensured they could not fulfil the archetypal mission of The Orphan. They ensured they could not become independent even though it was independence, or at least individuality, that they sought.
Where the story gets even more interesting, however, is that the boomers were nevertheless confronted with a Call to Adventure to fulfil the role of The Orphan. The high point was the late 60s: the summer of love, Woodstock and the Moon Landing; the time when anything seemed possible. It was immediately followed by the oil shock of the early 70s at a time when, demographically, the boomers were coming of age. Archetypally, reality can no longer be ignored. The Orphan must face the real world. In this case, it was the reality that the consumer society, the years of endless growth and getting whatever you wanted appeared to had come to an end. The economy did not bounce back in the years after the initial oil shock. In fact, it did something the experts said could never happen: it went into stagflation. An endless period of expert-driven prosperity seemed to be over. The Orphan’s task presented to the boomers was clear. Deal with your pain. Learn to see reality for what it is rather than what you want it to be. Learn to grow up and find your way in the world. All that was missing was an Elder to provide counsel. And then Jimmy Carter got elected.
It’s a surreal experience to go back and watch or read some of Carter’s speeches in light of the fantasy world that modern politics has become. The Biden administration’s plan to solve the current oil problem is apparently to get everybody to just go and buy an electric car, as if the average American has a spare $50k lying around and as if there’s enough electric cars even if they did. By contrast, Jimmy Carter laid it all out in brutal detail. He told Americans there was not just an oil crisis, there was a crisis of confidence. He actually said it was a spiritual crisis (which fits perfectly with The Orphan’s story).
“We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose”.
Carter told Americans they had become dependent on foreign oil and the only way out was to live within their means. He advised sacrifice and thrift, conservation instead of consumption.
Carter’s diagnosis of the problem was spot on. Unfortunately for him, politicians do not make good elders for the simple reason that the elder’s job is to deliver what seems like bad news and that tends not to work in democratic politics where the public sells its vote to the highest bidder. Elderhood doesn’t scale. You need to have a personal relationship with an Elder. That’s why in Orphan stories the Elder and the group which The Orphan is invited to join are always a small number. Interestingly, this message was present in the culture of the US at the time of Carter; think Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful. The ideas were there. What was missing, according to our archetypal analysis, were the elders. The Orphan needs the stern voice of wisdom to guide them to the correct path. Jimmy Carter tried to provide it but he was voted out for a man who provided the exact opposite. The boomers had a choice to face reality and they voted for an actor instead.
So, the boomers didn’t accept the call to adventure. What happens when The Orphan refuses its archetypal mission to come of age? They lapse back into the negative traits of The Child: denial, obliviousness, instant gratification. The boom years of the 80s provided the illusion of a return to consumer society. But we just need to look to practically any indicator of (real) economic health to know it wasn’t true.
It is not a surprise that from the late 70s onward we have seen the increasing worsening of the economic situation in the US. The consumer society was kept going by an input of oil from the North Sea and Alaskan fields. It was kept going by shipping jobs to foreign countries with no labour, safety or environmental standards. It was kept going by loading up the next generation with massive student debts and bailing out bankers after the GFC. All through this time the boomers kept believing in the myth of progress, kept believing that the expert-driven consumer society of their childhood was the sine qua non of civilisation.
Just before he died, Dr Spock released an updated version of his book where he recommended that all children take a vegan diet from age two onwards, something practically no pediatrician would recommend. Spock had also gotten himself into trouble a few decades earlier by recommending parents not put their children to sleep on their backs. It later was shown by research that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was far more likely in children sleeping on their stomachs. The problem for Spock and other experts is the idea that there is a one size fits all approach to matters that are intrinsically complex. That was always the problem with the boomer’s notion of putting their faith in the experts. There is no single diet that is right for everybody just like there is no single right way to raise a child. There are only rules of thumb and the requirement to work out what’s best for yourself. A true elder knows that and it’s part of the reason why there must be a personal relationship between the elder and The Orphan.
For boomers like Dr Spock, it seems that success went to their heads and they felt confident to make claims that they should never have made. The desire to give every single person on the planet a vaccine for a respiratory virus is just another expression of this excessive pride. It’s the shadow side of boomer culture. On the one side, hubris. On the other side, obliviousness and denial. These traits have only gotten worse after the boomers failed The Orphan’s task in the late 70s.
The obliviousness and denial of The Child can be seen right now in the fact that 30 years after Jimmy Carter’s warnings about energy, we can no longer even admit the problem that faces us. As another oil shock appears on the horizon, the debate is no longer about a choice between dependence on oil and living within our means but between two equally invalid ways of keeping consumer society going. There is the camp that thinks solar panels and wind turbines will save the day and there’s the camp that thinks burning more fossil fuels will save the day. Both are delusional. In Carter’s words: “Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.”
The boomers, including all the generations since, will go down as the greatest squanderers in world history. But the archetypal failure of the boomers is the failure of The Orphan to individuate. In this case, the cause of the failure is very specific. It’s the rejection of elders. This is why I consider Stephen Jenkinson’s work to be highly relevant because he is a boomer who has self-identified as an elder. For boomer culture, that’s about as close as you can get to heresy. Jenkinson shares my love of etymology and right at the end of his book, fittingly titled Come of Age: the case for elderhood in a time of trouble, he gives a poetic reading of the old meaning of the word “catastrophe” as follows:
“That rope or road that was fashioned for you in the Time Before, by those you will not meet, to give you a way of going down against your plans and good sense, to give you a way down and into the Mysteries of this life, the Mysteries granted you would not choose for yourself, that would yet make of you a human worthy of those coming after.”
This could serve as a description of the task of The Orphan. But it’s also true of the task of the elder. Both are required to come of age. In the former case, you metamorphise from childhood into adulthood. In the latter case, you metamorphise from adulthood into elderhood. That’s why Elders and Orphans are natural allies. They both must accept a difficult pathway that is “against your plans and good sense”. It is a humbling experience but the alternative is worse: dissociation, denial, obliviousness.
Catastrophe and apocalypse. That seems to be right where we are headed at the moment. But this need not necessarily manifest in the material world. It may be that the catastrophe and apocalypse that we need to go through is spiritual. We could be facing a new beginning in a far deeper sense than just a generational passing of the baton. We’ll be exploring what that means in the next post.
All posts in this series: