Like Thomas Piketty’s 2013 must-read (or must-pretend-to-have-read) tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Bruce Cannon Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths proceeds from a deceptively simple premise: that the gains made by the American middle class in the period after the world wars of the previous century were a fluke. Where Piketty’s argument merged the economic and historical, arguing that the baby boomers’ relative wealth and class mobility was the product of economic growth and the rate of capital return reaching a rare equilibrium, Gibney views the belle époque of boomerism through the lens of psychopathology.
Simply: Boomers are sociopaths. They’re antisocial and unburdened by conscience. They squander prosperity, ravage the land of wealth and salt the earth so that the seeds of some future fortune may never again find purchase. As Gibney – a prominent venture capitalist and sometimes-writer – lays it out, his book’s driving thesis “is that America’s present dilemma resulted substantially and directly from choices made by the baby boomers.”
What’s remarkable about Gibney’s thesis is not how contentious it seems. (Indeed, that the book is being so deliberately situated as “controversial” in press and promotional materials is easily the most obnoxious thing about it.) What’s truly astounding is that, by all appearances, Gibney isn’t being rhetorical. He’s not saying, “The baby boomer generation behaves as if they are sociopaths, or in a way that recalls clinical definitions of sociopathy.” He’s being literal. He makes extensive recourse to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) as a way of driving home his argument that baby boomers are, every last one of them, genuine sociopaths. Don’t trust anyone over 52.
To make his case, Gibney looks at various ways in which boomers, “the Herods of the New Jerusalem,” have mortgaged the future for their own short-term gain. Sociopathic boomers are, for example, to blame for climate change, because “they are just not empathetic or forward thinking.” (That American environmentalist poster boy Al Gore is a boomer doesn’t faze Gibney much.) In another early example, he develops the idea that boomers cultivated ruthless skills of “hypertechnical compliance and regulatory machination” by skilfully learning to avoid military service in the Vietnam War, using a young Bill Clinton’s dextrous ducking and weaving through draft deferments as the definitive example. He also states that spiked divorce rates among the generation fit sociopathic patterns: “relationships impulsively entered and dissolved, preference trumping duty.” It is unclear if Gibney believes that it is somehow more noble (or dutiful) to risk one’s life in a meaningless proxy war or slug out a miserable marriage.
The book feels most useful as a forceful, polemical riposte to a decade’s worth of risible (but mostly just boring) op-eds about millennials being lazy, narcissistic, unmotivated and blasé. Many boomers act as if their children just aren’t trying hard enough – as if there were a box of money sitting on the coffee table but millennials are too sluggish to roll over, grab it and invest it prudently in some modest bonds.
Such blame-shifting fails to account for what Gibney calls the American economy’s new normal: “low growth, hollow employment, mounting inequality and, on the present course, very little to look forward to.” As his data show, boomer wealth and prosperity was largely funded by debt and driven by consumerism, which has led to slowed GDP growth, narrowing employment opportunities and diminished expectations for future generations. More than this, wealth and power remains concentrated among boomers who refuse to cede controls. (Millennials often joke that they’re waiting for older professionals in their field to die so they may finally get gainful full-time work. Except … it’s not really a joke.) It all amounts to the “enrichment of the old at the expense of the young.”
A Generation of Sociopaths is, no doubt, a damning, searingly relevant indictment. But it’s tripped up by a number of glaring flaws in Gibney’s analysis. The first reveals itself in his book’s oxymoronic title. Because if, as the DSM-IV definition the author cites extensively, sociopaths are inherently egocentric, individualistic and unfeeling toward the needs of others, then how could they meaningfully comprise a functional, ruling power bloc? It would, to nip one of Gibney’s jokes, be like asking anarchists to form a police constabulary. The author squares this with some wonky tautological thinking, writing that despite their self-interested sociopathy, boomers are “similarly situated” in the sense of being “all about the same age.” So, yes, this generation of sociopaths may be composed of sociopaths. But they are also a generation, and so possess “generational unity.” For all its ostensible semantic clarity, it is nonetheless argumentatively unconvincing.
Most patently fallacious of all is Gibney’s deterministic application of the term “sociopath.” It would be one thing if his book examined the economic and political legacy of the baby boomers to conclude that the generation has consistently expressed sociopathic tendencies. Instead, Gibney proceeds from this as a premise, reverse-engineering various examples to “prove” it.
In his 2011 journey through the global mental health industry, The Psychopath Test author Jon Ronson repeatedly submits himself to guidelines defining psychopathy, finding occasions in which his behaviour fits the clinical definition. But the point is not that Ronson is actually a psychopath. It’s that all manner of slightly antisocial, or even plain innocuous behaviour, can be wrenched and wriggled to fit some pre-existing criteria. It’s a textbook example of confirmation bias, and it’s something A Generation of Sociopaths repeatedly – and indeed, structurally – lapses into.
Thing is: Gibney’s analysis itself doesn’t seem altogether wrong. It’s certainly exhaustively detailed, even if it’s screechingly argued. But this needling desire to seem provocative, edgy and “controversial” makes it seem almost frivolous (and again: very annoying). He seems as interested in proving his case as he is in crudely doodling devil horns on the beaming image of the prototypical, progressive baby boomer. Given the current politics of resentment, one wonders how useful the widening of intergenerational divides really is. Millennials may not be the downtrodden, unmotivated couch potatoes baby boomers paint them to be. But neither do they possess the necessary revolutionary energy to defenestrate their parents or drag them head first to the guillotine.
Against such apathy, and such despairingly harsh realities, the current generation may find cold solace in a satirical, typically prescient 2013 op-ed headline from the Onion, signed by the most perverse, howlingly conspicuous avatar of boomer narcissism, sociopathy and cripplingly myopic short-sightedness, Donald Trump: “When You’re Feeling Low, Just Remember I’ll Be Dead In About 15 Or 20 Years.”
John Semley is a frequent contributor to Globe Books.Report Typo/Error
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