Since we were born, Post-War Baby Boomers have been a giant demographic bulge working its way through the toothpaste tube of American history. All our lives, we’ve been like the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.”
My best friend, Corinna West, 37, recently asked me if the terms Boomer, and Baby Boomer, are insulting, and if we Baby Boomers call each other that. “It’s not, and we do,” I said. ”It’s only nasty if you mean it that way.”
Baby Boomer is a value-neutral word for anyone born between 1946 and 1956, when World War II ended, and veterans came home and had babies in unprecedented numbers. Few babies were born while the men were overseas, and people were tired of waiting.
Baby Boomers and Popular Culture
We dominated popular culture from birth — breakfast cereal, hula hoops. personal care products, Hollywood, and rock and roll.
In Rebel Without a Cause, and Blackboard Jungle, the teenagers were a troubled generation, not disturbed individuals, like they had been in older movies.
Movies like I Was a Teenage Werewolf with Michael Landon, and the beach blanket franchise, were for us to watch in drive-in theaters while we made out in cars.
Baby Boomer Firsts
Think of my generation’s “firsts”:
- First born into a world capable of annihilating itself.
- First TV generation. We made our parents buy the products we saw on TV.
- First generation to be called teenagers and be treated like a separate subculture and mass market. We thought of ourselves as a separate, unique culture.
- First teenagers with enough spending money to buy new 45 rpm records every week. Our music took over radio, the music industry and Top 40.
- First generation to have cars in large numbers.
- First middle class generation to use recreational drugs.
- Boomers started Gay Pride, Feminism, Mad Pride, and Black Power.
Baby Boomer Politics
Whatever is going on in the world when you first become aware of it shapes your politics permanently. The Vietnam War formed all of us.
Older Boomers have personal memories of the Southern civil rights movement, before African American Boomers from the North created Black Power, which was angrier and more alienated.
The war created class warfare between the college students and “hippies,” and blue collar workers, known as “hard hats.”
The military rigged the draft, so only poor people, minorities, and the working class got drafted. Kids whose parents could send them to college did not.
The military did not want middle class kids who questioned authority, whose parents knew how to contact their Congresspersons.
People with powerful parents or sponsors, like George W. Bush, whose father was a congressman, Vice-President Dan Quayle, whose father was the most powerful newspaper publisher in Indiana, and professional athletes, jumped to the front of waiting lists for the National Guard or military reserve. In those days, weekend warriors were never sent to Vietnam — guaranteed — the opposite of today.
Mark Kurlansky, author of The Sixties, says the American political landscape to this day was formed by how people reacted to the upheavals of 1968: the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which showed Americans watching TV that there could be no military victory there, the abrupt withdrawal of President Lyndon Johnson from politics, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, urban race riots, riots at the Democratic National Convention, campus unrest, the election of Richard Nixon.
People too young to remember the 60′s were shaped by what they thought they knew from their parents, older siblings, and the media, Kurlansky says.
In 1988, Marilyn Quayle, the smart member of Vice President Dan Quayle’s family, introduced herself and her husband to the Republican National Convention as “young people who did not protest the war.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton got her first national attention as the graduating class’s speaker at Wellesley College in 1969. She used her speech to ream the main commencement speaker, U.S. Sen. Edmund Brooke, for supporting the war.
The war created what was universally called “the generation gap,” a war fought within families, at supper tables, half cultural and half political. For the first time, a “credibility gap” opened between the people and the government.
We Baby Boomers could not keep our promise to create a different, better, more honest, less materialistic way of life than our parents. We became “Yuppies,” prosperous Young Urban Professionals, famous for our slavery to fashion and expensive, adult toys.
Now, we’re being accused of bankrupting Social Security and Medicare, and turning our college graduate children out into a world of shrinking economic opportunity, and a dying planet.
The first is an accident of our birth. The second might be our responsibility, for losing political arguments and elections to Republicans.
Achievements of the Baby Boomers
But judging from our children’s reaction in 2008 to the possibility of a woman or African American President, and their more tolerant reaction to gay marriage, civil union, and adoption, I’d argue that Boomers raised a generation less racist, misogynistic, and homophobic than our parents.
Our children are more empowered and less ashamed of who they are because gay, female, and minority Boomers, and their white middle class supporters, refused to be pushed to the background.
And my cousin’s 20-something son and his bride, born and raised in wealthy suburbs, hired an Oldies band to play Boomer music at their wedding.