Will the Boomers make the '90s the Didactic Decade?

MIKE LITTWIN

February 19, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Decades refuse to come neatly wrapped. They're not like us -- slaves to some calendar. As an example, the '50s -- our longest decade -- began immediately after World War II and didn't end until Kennedy was killed. That was an 18-year decade.

The '80s began boldly with Reagan and Al Franken and slunk from sight along with Bush and Millie. Dead at age 12.

Clinton's election marked the beginning of the '90s. The decade is your basic unwritten page. We've got a lot of blanks to fill in. All we know so far is that it won't be the Zoe Baird Decade.

Defining a decade is a good little game. You can play along, postwar version.

The '50s were: When the American Century Took Hold and Everyone Moved to the Suburbs in Search of the Good Life, Which Was Everywhere You Looked, Including Your Fallout Shelter.

The '60s (1964-72): When Sex, Drugs, Nixon, Race, Vietnam, Revolution and Rock and Roll Killed Off Ozzie and Harriet.

The '70s (1973-80): When America Rested Up From the '60s, Disco Style.

The '80s: When It Was Good To Be a Business Major, an Army Major or a Domo (Major) and Bad for Just About Everyone Else.

The '90s?

We have what might be our first clue from Clinton's speech to Congress the other night. If he has his way, the '90s will be the decade When America Finally Got Serious.

Did you see Clinton?

He was serious. He was very serious. When the Republicans hooted him, he lectured them on the seriousness of the moment. His message was basically this: The party's over and somebody's gotta clean up, and, folks, it looks like we're the only ones left.

Does the tone of his speech surprise you? It shocks me.

Let's think about this for a minute. The party gets started after Ronald Reagan becomes the feel-good president. Reagan says it's morning in America, meaning we've got all night to party. His motto: Cut taxes, take the money and buy all the beer you can carry.

He was our grandfather. And suddenly Granddad was saying to stay out as late as we wanted.

OK, so we partied for 12 years -- not that everyone was invited; mostly it was guys with MBAs and expensive haircuts -- until the money ran out and they took our credit cards away.

Now, the Baby Boomers get in and say no more fun.

We'll go over this once more: The children of the '60s -- who gave us drugs, tie-dye and Jim Morrison -- are not only in charge, they're all of a sudden the voices of responsibility.

Hey, when the Baby Boomers play grown-up, they play GROWN-UP. With a vengeance.

You have to picture it. This is Mick Jagger saying the party's over.

Yeah, and they had to close down Woodstock because it was too muddy. Tune in, turn on, raise taxes?

Now, I know you're saying this is just Bill Clinton, the policy wonk, who didn't inhale, and wasn't Jimmy Carter just as big a downer as this guy. Well, he was. But it didn't take. Now, it isn't just Clinton. It's everyone. It's like that commercial on MTV when the fortysomething parent explains to his teen-age kid: We used up all the fun.

I was reading in Atlantic -- a magazine for smart people my wife bought me in the hope it would rub off -- that there's a reverse generation gap. It says the twentysomethings hate the fortysomethings. I don't see how that's possible. Who gave them "Stairway to Heaven"?

The magazine also pointed out that Boomers are actually neo-puritans. Atlantic is right on this one, of course. Told you, it was for smart people.

The Boomers have always been great moralizers. From Day One, when their parents began to raise them on Dr. Spock, the Boomers were sure they knew better than anyone else. They started lecturing in the '60s -- "Hey, hey, LBJ/How many kids did you kill today?" -- and haven't stopped.

And so, there Clinton was the other night, in front of everyone, willing to take this huge political risk by telling people what they should do to save themselves. If he's right, and if he can persuade Congress that he's right, he's got a chance to be the greatest president since FDR. He's also got a chance to be Jimmy Carter.

In either case, he'll be out selling his program in a great propaganda blitz. Nothing's really changed. It's still the loudest generation.

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