Peggy Noonan is speculatin’ :

The baby boomers who for 40 years, from 1968 through 2008, did the grunt work of the great abundance—work was always a long-haul trip for them, they were the first in the office in 1975 and are the last to leave the office to this day—know the era they built is over, that something new is beginning, something more subdued and altogether more mysterious. The old markers of success—money, status, power—will not quite apply as they have. They watch and work as the future emerges.

[ . . . ] The New York of the years 1750 to 2008—a city that existed for money and for all the arts and delights and beauties money brings—is for the first time going to struggle with questions about its reason for being. This will cause profound dislocations. For a good while the young will continue to flock in, for cheaper rents. Artists will still want to gather with artists—you cannot pick up the Metropolitan Museum and put it in Alma, Mich. But there will be a certain diminution in the assumption of superiority on which New York has long run, and been allowed, by America, to run.

[ . . . ] More families will have to live together. More people will drink more regularly. Secret smoking will make a comeback as part of a return to simple pleasures. People will slow down. Mainstream religion will come back. Walker Percy again: Bland affluence breeds fundamentalism. Bland affluence is over.


It’s hard not to read this as a story about the past, present, and future of mainline Protestantism. Although of course it’s about much more than that besides, as they came of age, the Boomers invested that infamous (post-) Protestant work ethic with a spirit that now seems like some kind of toll which was paid on our road to perdition. Alas, that road was supposed to lead us away from certain intractable (or ‘divisive’) problems we shared. David Brooks has done a real service in showing over a period of years how the bobo cult of ‘solutions for modern living’ amounted to the proposition that the bobo lifestyle itself was the solution. And today we are beginning to recognize the contours of an issue that only now has started to look like a problem and judgment as well: the bobo self, carefully calibrated in its psychological economy to balance the transactive packets of meaning and meaninglessness in everyday life (work, family, kids, status, divorce, visitation, personal finance, me time, aging, health-conscious indulgences, extreme recreation, sex, etc.), is the one self these days that appears increasingly unaffordable .

But the younger generations, meanwhile, have been determining on their own how to walk the self-realization line on a shoestring. A life of meaning — even fugitive meaning — turns out to be possible even when doga (rhymes with yoga) is unaffordable. Even for hip lefties like n + 1’s Keith Gessen , rugrats may once again be a more affordable, more valuable investment than puppies. Somewhere out there is a stat waiting to be compiled on freely chosen downward mobility — something you see quite a bit of in urban areas that attract suburban refugee kids who’re more in flight from the maintenance costs of bobodom than anything sprawly or alienating about the ‘burbs. The effort is not worth it: bringing us back to Noonan. I’d like to think she’s right that the kind of cultural turn she describes will lead us into a better-knit, more improvised, less fetishistic American life. But I suspect it’ll also lead us into a more frayed, more ramshackle, and scuzzier life, too — more low-rent and low-budget in every meaning of those loaded terms: Walker Percy and American Apparel. The question is how susceptible are these opposing paths to experimental attempts at therapeutic reconciliation — something cheap and popular enough today that there’s little prospect it’ll be shed in the march toward skinnier times.

Articles by James Poulos

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