Each fall, our history teachers would begin the schoolyear promising us that when June rolled around, we’d have worked our way through the dusty decades and would be discussing current events in the context of two semesters of world history. And yet every Spring we found ourselves racing to finish World War II almost as madly as the Allies had in 1945. Any history that came after that was something we would have to discover on our own, if ever, if at all.
Fortunately in our house, there was a book by the Washington Post political cartoonist Herbert Block that collected some of his more famous pieces, and it was here that we learned what happened after VE-Day. Sort of. Like that Ike was more interested in golf than governing. Or the impact Sputnik had on America. Or how McCarthy controlled the GOP.
Or the Baby Boom.
We had never thought of the Baby Boom as a thing until we saw Herblock’s teeming schoolhouses and overflowing classrooms, filled with all the tykes the GIs and their blushing brides were generating in record numbers.
We felt sorry for those little kids, but we missed some important things. First, that they would turn into the largest demographic in America, warping and twisting the economy to meet their needs – first creating a kiddie culture, then a teen culture, then a singles culture, all the way up to the Viagra-popping, inheritance-spending, won’t-retire-yet culture of today. Second, that they’d wield the same power at the voting booth that they’d wielded at the cash register. And third, that all that attention, combined with the fierce sense of competition that was the natural outcome of their sheer numbers – would turn them into a generation of sociopaths who would, by and large, do what sociopaths do; act purely in their own self-interest to the detriment of all others.
Fortunately, none of this was lost on Bruce Cannon Gibney.
Gibney is a venture capitalist who began his career when his roommate at Stanford (Ken Howery) introduced him to Paypal, and who continued it working for Peter Thiel and funding companies like Facebook, Spotify, SpaceX, Lyft, AirBnB, and others. How any of this made him an expert on Baby Boomers is beyond us, but somehow it did, because this book, A Generation of Sociopaths is brilliant, terrifying, well-written, and should be read by everyone who wants to make sense of the past, manage the present, and survive the future.
Mr. Gibney’s fundamental thesis is this: the Baby Boomer generation has exhibited behaviour that the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the handbook used by health care professionals around the world as the authoritative guide to mental disorders) would describe as sociopathic (or as he says early in the book “There is something wrong with the Boomer and there has been for a long time.”). A look at the child-rearing theories popular at their birth indicates that they were actually raised to be this way, then they were not corrected from this path in their youth, and then as adults, they used the economy and the government (when they gained control of them) to do what sociopaths always do – change the rules to their own advantage, and to the detriment of all others. And by “others” Mr. Gibney means the generations that preceded them, and importantly, all those that followed them.
Normally we would not explain the thesis this thoroughly in the review, but we do not think Mr. Gibney will object, because the value of his book really lies in his proving it out. Any moron can claim that the baby boomers were selfish jerks. Only someone of Mr. Gibney’s ability can prove it with a thoroughness that is complete, absolute and unrelenting. Indeed the only people who could conceivably walk away from A Generation of Sociopaths without being convinced are those who routinely deny the truth of any facts, science, or reality that prohibits them from doing what they want to do. You know, sociopaths.
So, and let us be very clear about this – read Mr. Gibney’s book. It is excellent. And more than that, it is important.
But as we read it, we kept recalling an interview with David Chase where he talked about therapy, which we paraphrase this way: “There comes a point in your therapy when you realize that the reason you’re fucked up is because of your parents. And you rant and scream about them for a session or two, and then your therapist, if he or she is any good, will say to you ‘Okay, so. Do you want to go kill them?’ And generally, people are shocked and say ‘No, of course not.’ To which your therapist should say ‘Okay, well, if you don’t want to kill them, then the only other option is to accept what they’ve done and move forward.’ So you do.”
And we thought about this because in a way Gibney’s book is so convincing that at the end of it you’re left with really only those two options. Either we kill all the Baby Boomers, or we accept what they did and figure out how to move on.
And that was going to be where we ended this review. Until we realized that there’s a problem with that. A problem that Gibney doesn’t address (not that he should since it’s sort of out of the scope of his book) and that ruins our David Chase metaphor. And the problem is this:
The Baby Boomers have a legacy.
They have spent the past seventy years teaching subsequent generations that their behaviour is the path to success. That sociopathy isn’t selfishness, it’s just what you have to do to succeed. That looking out for number one, asking yourself if you’re better off today than you were four years ago, living in the now, and all the rest of it, are, you know, normal. And as a result, they have de facto trained Generation Xers, Millennials, Gen Z’s and Generation Alphas (yeah, we don’t know what those are either), to be just as damaging as they are. To play by the rules they built for their own aggrandizement.
But what they built, and rebuilt, and rebuilt, was only sustainable for themselves. It used the largesse of their parents to pay for it, and when that ran out, it mortgaged the futures of their children – confident in the knowledge that they’d be long dead by the time the bills for any of it came due. So by definition, as Gibney points out again and again, what they made could not function for future generations. It wasn’t intended to.
And yet, their successes are the modern Horatio Alger stories that we repeat to each other, glorifying the marginal accomplishments of a born-on-third-base generation whose last, worst, and most enduring legacy will be that their mania for profligacy survive them via their progeny.
Which makes that the real problem with the Baby Boomers.
So what do we do with that?
A Generation of Sociopaths by Bruce Cannon Gibney was published by Hachette Books on 06/15/2015 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).