It’s official. In the Zeitgeist sweepstakes, my generation wins the Gold Medal for Self-Importance. The contest ended when “our” generational PBS documentary came packaged with this title: Boomer Century: 1946-2006. We’re claiming 40 years that haven’t even happened yet! By that standard, “the Greatest Generation” of World War II vets is a bunch of pikers.
I can’t blame my whole generation for the excesses of the slightly obnoxious on-air host Ken Dychtwald, or the words he spoke, scripted by Mark Harris. The program was way too white, and way too cozily suburban to encompass an entire generation. But when Eve Ensler, Rob Reiner, Julian Bond, Oliver Stone and other members of my age cohort took the screen, they almost all had something fascinating to say. For instance, in reminding us that TV wasn’t a household word when we were born (I must have been six or seven when my family first acquired one), Reiner wore that awestruck expression I associate with members of my grandparents’ generation, recounting to my child self how they had been present for the onset of cars, telephones and radio. It was interesting to try on that shoe—feeling mindblown by the progress of technology in one’s lifetime—and find that it fit. And I really enjoyed the clips from early TV series and news programs, a romp down memory lane.
And yet. “The map,” said Alfred Korzybski, the father of general semantics, “is not the territory.” But when it comes to history, even the history of the last five minutes, whomever draws the map has considerable effect on perception of the territory, and therefore considerable influence on the future. As John Berger put it so brilliantly, “The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act.” Draw the map, fill the well.
The creators of Boomer Century evidently understood this, as their map is crammed with giant signposts. For instance, they assert that the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were definitive events in my generation’s youthful disillusionment with the holders of power and the structures of authority supporting them. Surely that was true for some. But I was a junior in high school when President Kennedy was killed, and what I chiefly remember is marveling at how strongly some (by no means all) of my classmates identified with a person who seemed so distant in manner, power, wealth and situation from everyone I knew. Less than two years later, I was working as a draft counselor, helping young men who didn’t want to kill Vietnamese to find their ways past the Selective Service System.
By 1968, I felt myself to be a seasoned antiwar and anti-draft activist. For my friends and myself, the 1968 assassinations affirmed the conviction that Malcolm X had expressed a couple of weeks after JFK’s killing, calling it an example of “chickens coming home to roost.” He meant that the violence American policy had sown was now coming into deadly bloom in the sowers’ own back yards.
Now I see something true and something a little cold about my distant view of these events. The coldness, I suppose, has to do with the callus I developed at my father’s early demise; it always takes me a while to feel the full force of a death.
The something true is that coming up in the world’s richest country at its peak of prosperity created a nice, soft nest—even for many working-class kids like myself—from which to contemplate the injustice and hypocrisy of our elders. So these events, these shocking seeds of political disillusionment, were planted in soil long-prepared to receive them. By the time of JFK’s assassination in November 1963, the Port Huron Statement, the inspiring founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, had been circulating for a year and half.
The people who created Boomer Century started it in 1946, the year demographers usually choose for the birth of this cohort (the birthrate started rising around 1940 and peaked in the early sixties). So Tom Hayden, one of the chief authors of that statement, missed the mark by half a dozen years. Most of the members of the Little Rock Nine, who bravely stood against violent bigots to integrate Central High in 1957, were born in 1941. Doesn’t it seem kind of silly to assert that the assassinations of leaders, no matter how important, had a more definitive influence on my generation’s outlook than legions of activists only a few years older, in the streets and on the news everywhere?
Boomer Century‘s on-air narrator claims that baby-boomers have these four traits in common: idealism, anti-authoritarianism, embracing change and self-empowerment. I’d like to think so, but really? You mean George W. Bush, Alberto Gonzales and me? Like every generation, some of us are for the big We and some for the big Me. But I will give Ken Dychtwald this: I want his assertion to be true almost as badly as he does.
From what appeared on screen, it’s easy to deduce the filmmakers’ reasons for co-opting the next forty years. The program is framed as a challenge to my generation. Some voices rave about the possibility and delight of self-reinvention in one’s fifties and sixties. Some vignettes profile people who, having invested two or three decades in one field of endeavor, turn in middle age to social healing, volunteering, taking up a new line of work, channeling resources to worthy causes. The message is that there’s still plenty of life left in the boomers. How will we use it?
Here I agree. All statistical measures tell us that my generation is the healthiest, most active, and most determined to volunteer of any age cohort so far. What genuinely seems to set us apart from many of our forbears is the likelihood that we will remain mobile and vigorous well into our elder years, an advantage we can turn to constructive public purpose if we wish. In other words, even if only those of my generation who hold in common the values of idealism, anti-authoritarianism, embracing change and self-empowerment turn our surplus energy and creativity to setting right the errors we denounced when we were young, we could turn the world around.
And wouldn’t that be fun?