Boomer breakout?

Croc_10 Boomers have reached middle age, and they are well settled there.  The question is whether they will remain so.  Will Boomers breakout?

the run up to the present condition:

There are some 72 million "Baby Boomers," people born after World War II and before 1964.  Coming of age in the late 1960s, they were skeptical of their parent’s values.  Many of them engaged in political and cultural experiment.  They were egalitarian, cooperative, spiritually experimental, counter-cultural and restless.

In the 1978 film Animal House John Belushi seized the guitar held by a folkie Stephen Bishop and smashed it against the wall.  This felt to some like
a final repudiation of the values of the 60s.  Boomers were primed for a new stylistic signature. 

By mid-decade they were calling themselves "preppies" and "yuppies." Now defined by a more conventional frame of mind, boomers embraced an aggressive individualism, upward mobility, career orientation, status competition, all of this given the patina of an "old money" symbolism.

The Preppie-Yuppie arc took roughly 10 years.  Tom Wolfe was there at the beginning with The Right Stuff, a book that restored certain values.  And he was there at the end, with the publication of The Bonfires of the Vanities, a novel that declared the bankruptcy of the trend.

1978  Animal House
1979  The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe
1980  The Preppy Handbook, Lisa Birnbach
1880  Free To Choose, Milton and Rose Friedman
1982  Family Ties and the unexpected celebrity of Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton
1982  In search of excellence, Tom Peters
1987  Wall Street
1987  The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

The Preppie-Yuppie trend may have come and gone, but it left a lasting impression on Boomers.  The rest of the world might move on to new cultural developments (alternative music, rave cultures, digital communities), but boomers, apparently, were set for life.  They would wear those Polo ponies to the grave.

The Boomer aesthetic was old money, as served up by the likes of Ralph Lauren, Restoration Hardware, BMW, Land’s End, Rolex, Cole Hahn.  Boomers had a fashion. Just as plainly, the fashion had them.  Together, the demographic group and their cultural envelope were mutually presupposing.  Boomers were fixed in place.

Or are they?  I guess the developmental literature says that the older someone is, the less likely they are to embrace any kind of change, social or stylistic.  If we were in a cynical frame of mind, we might resort to the old chestnut that says "prisoners learn to love their cells."  And this psychological truism is accompanied by a sociological one that say that the public world has a way of acting upon us, so that eventually choices take on the weight of necessity.  Anthropologists might say that as we age, we loose our cultural elasticity.  It just gets harder to imagine alternatives, and harder still to act on them.  In any case, the social sciences, I think, agree.  As we age, rigidity overtakes us.  Familiarity grows more important.  Stasis wins out.  (Perhaps that’s stasis will  out.)

But boomers are famous for making their own way.  Once the stereotypes of age begin to interfere with their self regard and social mobility, they can be relied to react badly.  The spirit of contrariness will galvanize them and they will insist once more on their much prized rights of self authorship. 

Are there stirrings?  Yes, there are stirrings.  The Bobo phenomenon spotted by David Brooks shows a certain restlessness, a willingness perhaps to participate in the 1990s moment, or just to throw off the deep conventionality of Yuppie orthodoxy.  There are Pirate watches.  There are BMW with their new wicked styling.  There are hints.  But every signal is surrounded by noise, and we would be wrong to take noise as evidence of a new signal in the works.  It’s just noise!

So, here we are.  Boomers, will they were embrace their preppie/yuppie bourgeois concept indefinitely? Or is there one more stylistic (and some other) revolt waiting in the wings?


Brooks, David. 2000. Bobos in Paradise: The new upper class and how they got there. New York: Simon & Schuster.

15 thoughts on “Boomer breakout?

  1. Virginia Postrel

    The Baby Boomers include people born between (say) 1958 and 1964, who did *not* come of age in the 1960s but, rather, in the 1970s and even the early 1980s. We’re the ones who went to Animal House. Michael J. Fox is from this cohort.

  2. jkh

    i think there are even rumors that the “official sloane rangers handbook” parr, 1983 is being reprinted.

    three years ago we started a club and shop – “the chelsea farmers club” – in berlin which is completely targeted at bobos (if one wants to say so –
    – but of course it was not targeted at all – we just did what we felt was right at that time – and now the shop is beginning to really run well.

    there is something very playful about bringing the BOhemia into the BOurgeois (and vice versa).

    it is a light-hearted way of looking at yourself and at the world. it is also a nice and playful way of crafting and celebrating identity.

    i am quite confident that this trend is here to stay for a while. BOBO – the restaurant -in nyc is a big hit. so is the tailor lord willy,s (have a look at the website – it is well worthwhile)

    why do i think the trend is going to stay:
    a) because i love it
    b) because experiencing the turn of the millennium also brought a sense and taste for classy splendor and cheerful celebration into everybody’s lives
    c) because prince william and especially prince harry will be able to motivate the next generation. – lady diana was not bad as a style icon and fashion influencer… but wait for her sons! that is going to be – that is already – a totally different story…

  3. jkh

    take the turn of the millennium add 911 and you almost have a harry potter style setting. add to this exotic locations, global communication, regionalism, individualization, the so-called rise of the creative class and a tremendous variety in artifacts (watches, fashion styles, furniture styles… etc etc (artifact-wise we are really in a golden age right now – which kind of mirrors the diminishing species on our planet in reverse – absolutely incredible! – sad days for zoologist – hey days for sociologist))… that all together creates quite quirky and exuberant mix.
    plus the art world is in total excess – both on the buyer’s, the creator’s and the critic’s side; – and it is vastly growing, claiming more territory every day , getting more people interested…

    that – to my concern – is a ittle bit the fibre parts of our world are made of right now. – the bobo trend is going to stay for a while.

  4. jkh

    guess the ever expanding art world is really one of the strongest drivers here.
    it is the natural place where BOurgeoisie marries BOhemia.

  5. Peter

    A friend tells me that the male restroom of the Philosophy Department at the University of Texas, Austin, had some graffiti which said:

    “Subvert the dominant paradigm!”

    Underneath, in another hand, was written,

    “What if that is the dominant paradigm?”

    The boomer dilemma in a nutshell!

  6. jkh


    there was a very interesting remark by peter aspden (art critic at the ft)

    “(It)has been a key characteristic of 21st-century art forms, to reinvigorate themselves continually, widening their gene pools to embrace alien cells.”

    this now one can read opposed to the logic of 20th century art (which in a way was developing much more vertically) where a new art form emerged mostly as counter-statement to a previous one.

  7. Jo Paoletti

    Well, of course there are limitations to all this boomer stereotyping. Does it need to be said that much of what is written about boomers is actually about upper-class, white folks? Back when “yuppie” was a current label, I adopted the label “ohho” — for old hippie homeowner. Being an academic (genteel middle-class) with a blue-collar spouse (carpenter, and not the rich contractor type), I find little in common with my generational kindred beyond a fondness for Motown and the ability to recite commercials from the 60s. It’s all too easy.

  8. Mary W

    Well, FWIW, my own bet on the next phase of Boomerdom will be transforming the current model of old age and retirement. (More Magazine is a recent interesting addition to the media space in this area). IME it’ll be a combination of things:

    1) remaining youthful, well preserved, sexy. Increasing popularity of medical treatments for the older cohort, both to alleviate real medical conditions (joint replacements etc) and purely cosmetic needs (face lifts etc).

    2) “leaving a legacy” — the next chapter of life, mentoring younger people, “meaningful” second careers, etc.

    3) pursuing behaviors formerly labeled as “for younger people only”: playing extreme sports, starting new businesses, getting drunk in public, etc.

    (that last relates to a personal peeve of mine: I’m annoyed at how many “nice” ie expensive restaurants in my neighborhood are becoming dominated by a bar crowd of noisy drunks in their late 40s-50s, swilling $12 cocktails and braying like donkeys. When I spend $50+ pp on a meal, I expect a relatively well-behaved environment, and it’s becoming less the case. It’s like a retirees’ frat party; the same people from Animal House, just 30 yrs older. And because they’re spending $$$ and there’s a lot of them, the restaurants hesitate to do anything to rein them in. Ah, life in the shadow of the boomers…)

  9. pnautilus

    One word: Harley. Watch the Harley sales curves over the last ten years. Sharp uptake by baby boomers until about 2 years ago, when the trend and subversion became a bit too prominent (a la the dominant paradigm), sales began to slow. It seems as though boomers were caught between the need to rebel and the need to be America’s new old money elite.

  10. bjk

    Animal House was about and written by pre-boomers. Chris Morris was born in 1942. Check out the fraternity picture.

    “I still wanted to tell the world what those patrician kids (and some not so patrician) were doing, back there before Kennedy got shot and the world changed.”

    In fact most of the famous boomers are pre-boomers.

  11. bjk

    Animal House was about and written by pre-boomers. Chris Morris was born in 1942. Check out the fraternity picture.

    “I still wanted to tell the world what those patrician kids (and some not so patrician) were doing, back there before Kennedy got shot and the world changed.”

    In fact most of the famous boomers are pre-boomers.

  12. bjk

    Animal House was about and written by pre-boomers. Chris Morris was born in 1942. Check out the fraternity picture.

    “I still wanted to tell the world what those patrician kids (and some not so patrician) were doing, back there before Kennedy got shot and the world changed.”

    In fact most of the famous boomers are pre-boomers.

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