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The Boomer Buster

Who is Mike Males, and why is he saying those awful things about people of a certain age?

January 22, 2006|Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a Times staff writer

Mike males is talking about his generation. They think they're going to live forever, he's complaining. They're in unbelievable denial about their vulnerability. Look at the numbers: dying of drug overdoses in this state at more than twice the rate documented in 1990. Fastest-growing age group for felony and violent felony arrests in California. Biggest demographic for HIV and AIDS cases. One in three not just overweight but obese.

He sets aside the pile of papers he is grading in his apartment near UC Santa Cruz, where he teaches. The street below bustles with young people, but they're not the issue--teenagers' markers of trouble have been declining for decades.

"No one wants to hear it," says Males, a gray-bearded sociologist whose latest project is a book tentatively titled "Boomergeddon," "but we're having a lot of problems with the middle-aged."

Males has been talking this way for a long time, and he's right on at least one count: The public hasn't always been listening. Ten years ago, when news magazines and academics were warning that a generation of "super-predator," "time bomb" adolescents were shooting up schools and risking their lives with unprotected sex and hard drugs, Males, then a graduate student at UC Irvine, fact-checked some of those assumptions and wrote "The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents" (Common Courage Press). The 1996 book, dense and jammed with statistics, was prescient in its examination of the ways in which adult interest groups had exaggerated the problems of young people while ignoring or minimizing comparable dysfunction among themselves.

The book made a splash, but adult crackdowns on kids continued. Males pressed his point with more books, including "Framing Youth: Ten Myths About the Next Generation," and "Kids & Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth." Government statistics and other scholars confirmed his story: In measure after measure, problems among teens were declining, but problems among their baby-boom parents were another matter. Policymakers all but ignored the information.

So Males has decided it's time for a full reassessment of boomers.

As it turns out, this time he's not so alone.

For the past half century, the lives of the baby boomers have been coalescing into a shared legend: Once upon a time, a Generation was born.

Its members became wildly well-educated and turned "sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll" into a mass motto. Then they left all that behind to form a lot of blended, two-income, exceptionally health-conscious households. Then they became inordinately conscientious parents, rethinking whole aspects of child-rearing, but in a good way. Now they're safely ensconced in midlife and expecting to live past 100, with no worries save for the ever higher cost of seeing the Rolling Stones.

Of course, serious people (boomers included) know that narrative to be silly and a far cry from the whole truth. But at the shallow mass level, it has more or less prevailed. Americans may carp about boomers--their self-absorption, their permissiveness, their obsessions with spirituality and fitness, their balsamic vinegar fetishes--but it has been a fond kind of carping. Headlines don't warn of looming "boomer crises." Cultural critics take it for granted that the Beatles were timeless and the Sixties were of profound importance. Policymakers don't commission special reports on crime and substance abuse among middle-agers.

Part of this may be because boomers are by now too tired at the end of the day to watch "Law & Order," let alone rob banks to support their drug habits. But part also may be because about 75.8 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964, and for some time now their views have dominated the culture. Boomers populate the media, fill the church pews, run the corporations, rule the market and, for the past two administrations, have sat in the Oval Office. As with all parties in power, they reign over conventional wisdom. Or, as a boomer might put it, they control the horizontal and the vertical.

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