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Howard Anglin: Boomers aren’t innocent, but the prosecution’s case is weak

Commentary

As a divorced, childless, middle-aged drifter, I owe an obvious debt to the voluptuous narcissism of the baby boom generation, but they won’t get any thanks from me.

Call me ungrateful but, like most sensible people, I despise the idealism of the 1960s almost as much as the degeneracy of the 1970s and the materialism of the 1980s that followed. If you want the full case for the prosecution, however, I’ll refer you to Helen Andrews recent book Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster. It is an entertaining bill of indictment on behalf of her fellow millennials against the generation she quite reasonably blames for bankrupting America, morally and literally.

Boomers was apparently inspired by Lytton Strachey’s slim, epoch-unmaking tract, Eminent Victorians, but the parallels are mostly superficial. While Strachey’s essays were waspish, gossipy, and (it must be said) often untrue, Andrews treats her targets with a deference that often seems like grudging admiration. With the exception of Sonia Sotomayor, who is deservingly savaged, and Jeffrey Sachs, who comes across as a thin-skinned jerk, I doubt the rest of her subjects — Steve Jobs, Aaron Sorkin, Camille Paglia, and Al Sharpton — would read their portraits with much chagrin, let alone shame. Fortunately, Andrews more than compensates for this personal courtesy with her assault on the broader social themes each represents. Like Strachey, her style is urbane and aphoristic, but her judgments are damning.

Are they fair? I’m tempted to say it doesn’t matter. Being venomously unfair didn’t hurt Strachey’s book. When Bertrand Russell read Eminent Victorians in Brixton Prison, he apparently laughed so loudly and often that the warden had to remind him “that prison was a place of punishment.”

I laughed at Boomers too, and nodded along with Andrews argument page by page, but I closed the book with the uneasy feeling that maybe I’d had it wrong all along. Maybe because Andrews doesn’t embellish the evidence, as Strachey did, it doesn’t quite add up. The boomers are certainly not innocent, but of what, exactly, are they guilty? Are they just historical patsies?

This certainly isn’t Andrews’ view. From start to finish, Boomers musters biographical, anecdotal, and statistical evidence to support its case, but the parts are more convincing than the whole. For one thing, it is unfair to pin collective guilt on a group so diverse that the oldest lived through the Korean War while the youngest experienced the war via M*A*S*H. For another, as a famous boomer once protested, they didn’t start the fire: they were just following trends already well-advanced by the time they came of age.

This is a criticism that Andrews seems to have anticipated, but doesn’t bother to refute. In her chapter on Sharpton, she describes the boomers’ “overwhelming rebuttal” to criticism of their generation: “Whatever else we may be guilty of, they say, we did civil rights.” Well, no, as Andrews rightly points out, they didn’t. The heavy lifting of the civil rights movement was done by an earlier generation: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X were both born in the 1920s, Rosa Parks was born before World War I, and not a single member of Congress who voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a boomer.

Andrews doesn’t extend this observation to other fields, but doing so shows that civil rights is not the boomers’ only case of stolen valour. Take music and culture: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsburg, and all of the Beatles were pre-boomers. Protest? Women’s Lib? Happenings? Psychedelia? Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale were all born in the 1930s, as were Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem; all of the Diggers were pre-boomers, and Timothy Leary was born in 1920. The boomers may have travelled to the beat of a different drum (music and lyrics by pre-boomer Michael Nesmith), but they followed a well-worn path.

The boomers are just not easy scapegoats for our cultural decline over the last half century.

Despite Andrews’ commitment to her overall case, it is undermined by the six biographical sketches. Either none of her exemplars are typical boomers, which would be an odd coincidence, or the boomers are just not easy scapegoats for our cultural decline over the last half century.

Steve Jobs, for example, emerges as the most admirable of the cast of Apple. In Andrews’ telling, “the biggest difference between Jobs and his fellow boomers comes down to this: they were institution destroyers, and he was an institution builder.” He also kept pornography out of the App Store, fought offshoring manufacturing to China, and resisted politicizing the company. Silicon Valley may have a lot to answer for, but it’s not clear that Jobs does. And if, as Andrews says, Jobs’ vision was captured by the 1997 Apple ad that praised “[T]he crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers,” then he can hardly be blamed for today’s corporate culture in which misfits, rebels, and troublemakers are ruthlessly purged from tech companies. Just ask James Damore.

Like Jobs, Al Sharpton is less a boomer than an American archetype, a hustler in a long tradition of savvy ward-healers and machine politics. George Plunkitt would have recognized him immediately, and probably hired him. Andrews is rightly scathing about the hijacking of the civil rights movement by self-promoters, an amoral corporate culture, and the Democratic Party, but it is hard to blame Sharpton when, as Andrews tells us, he was just following in the footsteps of his boyhood idol, the even more shamelessly corrupt Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

If Sharpton is a throwback, Aaron Sorkin comes across as downright reactionary. One can’t help but cheer his disdain for internet journalism and his nostalgia for an era of news before TikTok and Twitter, when the full weight of the Sunday New York Times mattered. Sorkin’s apparent sin was that he taught “a generation of Washingtonians that they were capable of running the country from eighteen acres on Pennsylvania Avenue.” Maybe, but it’s not as though the hubristic young staffers of Obama’s White House needed much encouragement. And if there is a president who embodies his generation’s slide from idealism into hedonism, it’s not the fictional Jed Bartlet, it’s all too flesh and blood Bill Clinton.

Camille Paglia squandering her brilliance on pop culture is more illustrative of a generational problem — the expense of talent in a waste of shame is boomer academia in action — but the progressive drift in education began not in the 1970s but almost a century earlier with John Dewey. The fact that, according to a telling anecdote, most of her students can’t identify Moses can’t be blamed on Paglia, whose own works bristle with classical references.

No, after some reflection, I’m not prepared to blame the boomers for the state of our society, at least not entirely. Andrews may be right that they “inherited prosperity, social cohesion, and functioning institutions” and “passed on debt, inequality, moribund churches, and a broken democracy,” but that’s not the full story. If we step back and look at their place in the longer sweep of the 20th century, that social cohesion was already unravelling and those institutions were visibly crumbling well on their way to dysfunction by 1968, when the oldest boomers cast their first presidential ballots.

I began Boomers expecting to jeer along with Andrews — which, to be clear, I did, lustily — but I ended it rethinking the boomers’ place in history. They were heirs to a dwindling fortune and did nothing to rebuild it, just as we are doing nothing with our even smaller inheritance. Boomers makes a spirited case against the titular generation, but on the charge of “promising freedom and delivering disaster,” I’m afraid that I can only convict them, and by extension us, as accessories after the fact.

Veronica Green: Gender analysis should go beyond the prototypical Liberal woman

Commentary

There is a conventional narrative of a “professional woman” that has informed the Canadian definition of success and in turn shaped most of the current Liberal government’s female-focused public policy.

It goes like this: a young woman graduates university, climbs the professional ladder in a relatively short period of time, pauses briefly to have children in her mid-20s, achieves professional success just shy of 50, and retires at about 70-years-old. She is of course in a committed relationship, most likely to man, and lives a 15-minute drive from her parents.

She certainly exists and she may align with the Liberal worldview, but not all women fit this mould and not all women are Liberal.

In 2015, when Justin Trudeau stood with 15 men and 15 women on either side of him to reveal his gender equal cabinet, I was encouraged. But in the past six years, my feminist credo, and that of my prime minister, has been challenged. We have both been confronted by the realities of what it means to be a woman in the workplace.

Trudeau’s government has used a gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) framework in policymaking, which assesses how women, men, and non-binary people experience programs, policies, and initiatives. GBA+ is sensible — policymakers ought to consider the people they are making the policy for — but the problem is that women (and men for that matter) are not a monolithic group.

For example, the government’s promised $30 billion national daycare system is admirable in its approach, but the policy does not address the many women who do shift work, have multiple jobs, or simply work long hours.

Following COVID-19, policymakers can no longer afford to apply GBA+ to individual policymaking and be satisfied that they have checked the “woman” box. To achieve a #FeministRecovery and improve gender-equality in the workplace long-term, the Trudeau government needs to make a genuine commitment to rooting their policy-making in the real-world experiences of different Canadian women. 

It would be disappointing if the pro-female progress fell victim to the ‘spend now, cut later’ doctrine.

There are a couple of examples in Budget 2021 where the Liberals almost get this right.

First is the proposal that Crown corporations be required to implement gender and diversity reporting starting in 2022. The disclosure of public data and key metrics can hold companies accountable and enable young women to make informed decisions about where they want to work. Recent public reporting of gender metrics has led to real culture change at one major Toronto law firm.

This transparency in the workplace should be non-negotiable and the mandate should extend to the private sector. For example, the government plans to spend $80 million over three years to help teach kids to code. I like to imagine that one day my future daughter will be able to code — but it would be even better if she could look forward to employment with confidence, knowing her prospective employer has historically promoted both men and women at an equal clip. 

The second area of achievement is procurement. To increase diversity in procurement, Budget 2021 proposes to leverage supplier diversity opportunities through domestic procurement, running competitions from equity-deserving groups. Mandating that women-owned companies be part of Canada’s procurement process or that companies seeking government RFPs achieve and report their workplace’s gender-diversity are two ways the government can build a more inclusive economy by design. 

While both programs are not shout-from-the-rooftop “Re-elect me!” policies, they are meaningful ways to address the realities that professional women face. There is little accountability or incentive for companies to address gender inequality and the companies women own are least likely to receive government contracts. These policies have potential to address systemic gender inequalities in the workplace and to make a real difference for women long-term. 

Increasingly, my peers and I look to our employers to support our life decisions, seeking work at companies and organizations that purport to not only have generous maternity and paternity leaves, but that also offer childcare support and fertility treatments such as egg-freezing as part of corporate benefit plans. Allowing women to plan and have “control” over the biological clock empowers them to have children without having to take a foot off the professional ladder.

There is no doubt the Liberal government continues to own the feminist narrative in comparison to their political counterparts. In Budget 2021, supports for women extended beyond the workplace and include important funding for the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy, a National Institute for Women’s Health Research, access to reproductive health care information and services, and funding for a National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. Neatly, each of these policies favour women most significantly on the GBA+summary chart.

There is over $100-billion in new spending in Budget 2021 and Trudeau’s promise to run deficits is one he has kept. It would be disappointing if the prime minister underestimated the political cost of borrowing and the pro-female progress made in the budget fell victim to the “spend now, cut later” doctrine.

That said, if an opposition party, like Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives, moved away from conventional narratives to create policies that acknowledge and empower women to make choices that work for their own professional trajectories — reordering conventional rungs or hitting pause on traditional trajectories — there might just be a path to the ever-needed women’s vote.

Letting women know that the government has included gender equality by design and acknowledging new realities in policy is paramount. Canada’s future prosperity and competitiveness depends on encouraging young women to redefine the arc of a successful career and enabling them to take control of their professional trajectory, whether they conform to the prototypical Liberal image or not.