The Games of Their Lives

Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.

It might not have been the most profound statement of the meaning of existence, but it fit on a bumper sticker, the medium in which the intellectual history of the baby boomers is mostly written. It neatly expressed the midlife surrender of idealism (see Make love, not war) to which every generation of revolutionaries succumbs, and also the competitive spirit that overtook the boomers as they dropped out of their communes and lost interest in Eastern religions. If you wanted to know where you stood in life, you didn't need to look into your soul, just your closet.

When the first of some 78 million boomers squirmed into the world at the start of 1946, the flag dropped on a lifelong race for the goodies that the most prosperous society in the history of the world would shower on its members. Was this an effect of living under the threat of nuclear war, when existence might be cut short without even the courtesy of a draft notice? Or was competition driven by the expansion of cultural and social horizons that created first the aspiration, and then the disillusioning realization that we can't all be Mouseketeers—or, later on, get into the best law or medical schools? Or perhaps it was simple demographics—the pressure of belonging to a cohort of newborns 3.4 million strong, a jump of nearly 25 percent from the baby crop of a year earlier? The boomers constitute a demographic bulge that as it moves down the decades has been likened to a pig in a python. And now they're reaching the narrow part of the snake.

So there have been winners and losers along the way, but for better or worse, they haven't always been the same people. The measure of success has evolved, often in unexpected directions. The aspirations of the pioneering boomers were less materialistic than experiential—a euphemism for another bumper-sticker epigram, Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. Rock stars were the … well, rock stars of the 1960s, whose romantic aura was transferred in some measure onto every lonely geek who could hammer out a few chords on an electric guitar. Too bad, then, that so many of them died young. By the same token, boomers' early adventures in sexual libertinism and psychedelics are sometimes looked back on with as much embarrassment as nostalgia. Even those who don't particularly regret what they did in the 1960s and '70s have come to recognize that it was largely about self-indulgence masquerading as revolution; magic mushrooms didn't do anything to feed the poor. The quest for sensuous gratification has long since shifted its focus to products like artisanal cheese and single-malt Scotch, an intoxicant with the paradoxical virtue of being too expensive to foster dissolution. The energy that boomers formerly invested in sex has been diverted into aerobics and yoga, and the most-sought-after high is the gentle wash of endorphins that runners achieve after enough revolutions of the treadmill. Among the vanguard of boomers the race is not only to the swift; laurels also go to those still jogging on their first pair of knees.

Most boomers counted themselves winners if they managed, by luck or machination, to stay out of the Army; the ones who "lost" the draft lottery in the early 1970s got sent to fight in Vietnam. Of 1,000 men who graduated in my class at an Ivy League college, there must have been at least a few who saw combat in Southeast Asia, although I can't think of a single one among the ones I know—including those who actually supported the war while they were safely protected by student deferments, and several who went on to become prominent hawks in recent Republican administrations. But there has been a reaction to that, too, going by the term "warrior envy." Some who didn't serve now regret having missed a quintessential rite of passage, or feel guilty about dodging their burden of sacrifice. They half-wish they had enlisted, or are secretly jealous of those who did, at least the ones who came home alive and in one piece.

Whoever dies with the most toys, wins. For a time it seemed as if the dollar bill ought to carry that slogan, because so much of the American economy was based on its sentiment. Boomers filled their garages with snowmobiles and Jet Skis, their closets with calfskin boots, $1,500 suits and entire wardrobes just for the gym. Kitchens were equipped with glass-fronted refrigerators as big as elevators and six-burner ranges that put out BTUs like a jet plane. Then they moved on to new houses, twice as big. Real estate for most of the last 20 years has been the ultimate boomer toy—a signifier of success, a showcase for good taste and discernment, and a perpetual-motion machine of portfolio appreciation.

And now we're seeing where that idea has led us, and the Zeitgeist is shifting again. The avant-garde of boomers is frantically trying to whittle down its carbon footprint, trading in its bloodcurdling cavalry of Hummers for hybrids whose bumpers bear the disingenuous boast MY OTHER CAR IS A BICYCLE. The winners count themselves fortunate to keep their cholesterol under 200 and their IRAs in six figures, to run the last leg of their race in the company of people who love them and at peace with whatever God they believe in. Whoever dies with the most toys, wins? Only someone who never expects to die could possibly believe it.