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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Boomers, Zoomers and consumers

I had a teacher in high school who loved to demonstrate that history has a tendency of repeating itself. He reveled in the fact that he could harken back to a forgotten Roman poet’s decrying of the youth to illustrate that generational conflicts are part and parcel of society, of our very human nature.

History is abound with countless accounts from statesmen, philosophers, etc., condemning the free-spirited, debased, unthinking youth for squandering their opportunities and ignoring the aged wisdom. And, with equal strength, the “rebellious” youth protesting their unfeeling, lapsed parents as a concept has permeated through all media, whether that be ancient pornographic graffiti or pop culture, high school dramas. Our own age appears to have fostered another strong generational conflict between both the Baby Boomers (albeit a misnomer for most parents today) and Generation Z’s Zoomers. 

Boomers and Zoomers, through the eyes of each generation, are seen as diatomic on not only social and political issues, but also through their different levels of tech literacy. Boomers, seen through the eyes of Zoomers, are out-of-touch with the instantaneous nature of the internet to a cultural and almost existential fault, as well as degenerative and ignorant in their views on LGBT+ rights and climate change. Zoomers, on the other hand, are seen as “addicted” to their smartphones, incapable of engaging in complex discourse, and are to follow in the footsteps of the “lazy millennial” after college. Yet, through all of this generational conflict and divide, there exists a striking parallel between the two generations and, frankly, all generations of the United States that have followed the post-war economic boom of the 1950s. 

Scholars and the like tend to ascribe an almost scientific approach to the historical notion that generations are separate and distinct, as exemplified by William Strauss and Neil Howe’s “four-fold cycle” argument utilizing the same logic as Oswald Spencer’s flawed teleological narrative of the doomed west, when, it is so, that a revolutionary zeal inhabits the collective mind of all youth, and slowly peters out with age. While ideals with no coherent end may be a force in the process of social change or ideological change, it is the incessant relationship

between the consumer and their material sense of living in the United States that safeguards and directs their perspectives and their actions. 

Zoomers are quick to locate and enact many forms of separation between themselves and the abstract notion of the “Karen” through the reductive, yet totalizing expression “OK Boomer,” without recognizing that our own persistent technophilia is possibly one of the most “Boomer” inclinations we continue to hold onto. Moreover, Zoomers are quick to scoff at one of history’s most radical generations, without realizing that their very own revolutionary zeal and egalitarian ideals may also too fizzle out once the hard-pressed strangleholds of corporate capitalism, hyper-consumerism, and the hardest of all, raising children, shine brightly. 

The Boomers were nurtured and molded under an era of unprecedented economic, material and technological prosperity. While the Marshall Plan gave assistance to war-torn Europe and further extended the U.S.’ economic policy, at home, the United States created a nearly-full workforce that was capable of experiencing the formerly luxurious products now made universally available and cheap through advances in technology. What was once a symbol for the rich and industrious now became a mainstay for most households, a necessity for the novel way of living. Not only do we see advances in and solidifications of domestic technologies such as the microwave and the refrigerator, but we also see crucial developments in transportation, with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, housing, with the passage of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, and, ultimately, for the sake of this argument, extraordinary advances in media, both through the television, the strengthening of FM radio and the eventual computer. 

While still relishing in the convenience of being able to individually traverse the American landscape and eat a quick meal, the Boomers began to endure a sense of disillusionment with how things were done, initiated through the strong rhetoric of the New Left and the Beat Generation, the perils and frustrations of the Vietnam War, the rise of various Civil Rights groups and a compelling sense that the older generations just didn’t get it. What coincided with these national movements was a strengthening of the college campus as a place for activism. The rise of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) with over 300 college chapters as well as other student-led organizations with a desire for sit-ins, protests, marches and the like which turned militant from time to time riled the revolutionary zeal of the youth, escalating with the Democratic Convention of 1968 and the Kent State shootings of 1970. Upon first glance, the Boomers appeared a rebellious force hellbent on taking down hierarchy through honesty and reform, or tearing the whole thing down; nevertheless, that is only half the picture of the Boomers.

The Boomers were also the first generation to endure true consumer culture on a mass scale. As Jackson Lears illustrates in his book “Fables of Abundance,” “the melding of intimacy and publicity, mass psychology and market research, sealed the systematic containment of the carnivalesque in a new and “scientific” package.” The Boomers, albeit a revolutionary generation, consumed the revolutionary advertising mechanisms of the 1960s, brought about through the likes of George Lois, credited with creating the “Big Idea” to spread brands and Doyle Dane Bernbach, a New York agency that gave advertising some wit and some humor. The sophistication brought about through novel advertising techniques that capitalized on the quirk and individuality of the new youth was further cultivated through the novel medium of television, expanding the viewership and age demographic to most of society. The Boomers were hard-pressed to find a political and economic vision for themselves, when advertisements sought not only to create desire but to control it, and when a materialist worldview continued to generate the next novel thing. What followed for Boomers was a process that many are familiar with; faith in deregulation and the slashing of government spending that many associate with Reaganomics, a rise in consumer spending and a fervent belief that Silicon Valley will lead us to unregistered levels of comfort, ease and well-being. 

So, that leaves us with the Zoomers, a generation that has endured yet another elevation of sophistication in the art of advertising, and an even more unchecked, implicit belief that one finds solace and fulfillment through one’s acquisition of stuff. For while we continued to be reared by the television in the early 2000s, it did not take long for the Zoomers to be handed an object, a smartphone or a computer, with access to the internet. 

The creation of the internet and, more specifically, Web 2.0 provided advertisers with an all-seeing-and-knowing tool capable of reaching and targeting consumers in a continuous fashion, with, of course, the aid of advertising machines, the first and most powerful of which being Google. Not only were advertisers able to reach their desired audience, of course being impressionable youth, but they were able to purchase specific points of data about our sensational desires and aesthetic, personal interests, and utilize our very own quippy and ironic style of communication to “talk” to us. Gone are the days of surveys and demographics, asan advertiser can now find what makes each soul in their own right tick and even engender a particular way to tick; gone are the days of shopping malls, as you can now easily purchase a product on the internet that has been designed and marketed for you.

The troublesome aspect of this is that the Zoomers are a generation that has been skillfully orchestrated to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors. We, too, care about political disenfranchisement, economic inequality, human autonomy and climate change; nevertheless, no generation has produced as much waste through consumption, has been so compelled to consume and be affirmed in their consumption patterns and has been so removed from their relationship to the material world. No generation has been as easily convinced into accepting the status quo of how a medium like the internet ought to function in an unregulated marketplace, to a point where I am left to wonder: how will aging – the historical predisposition to hardening views and stiffening actions – fare for us? What changes to the world will we make when we have become so embedded in the materialist structures of our day? What will happen when we have inherited so much from the generations before us? 

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