This Op Ed in the Washington Post has been percolating inside my brain for a couple weeks. Its author is Leonard Steinhorn. He is the author of a recent book titled, The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy. Steinhorn does not discount the value of my parent’s generation, which met the challenge of World War II. However, Steinhorn does try to cut the baby boomers a bit of slack by suggesting we have done much to change the world for the better.
Supposedly, we baby boomers are narcissistic and overindulgent. We cannot manage a checkbook, live on debt and obstinately expect that we can withdraw more from life than we put in. We are told by many even in our own generation that our values are shallow and wishy washy. We are so tolerant that we have no standards, and as a consequence our society has lost its moral footing. While there are elements of truth to these characterizations, those that make them paint with too broad a brush.
It is a stereotype to suggest that all, or even most of us baby boomers, fit into this model. For every peace loving, longhaired, bell-bottom wearing radical in the 1960s, there were at least twice as many of my generation more comfortable emulating Mom and Dad. These baby boomers did not make much press because, as always, news follows those who are change agents, not those who are content to live out modest lives in relative obscurity. There were plenty of these types where I lived in upstate New York. Arguably, I was one of them. I scorned the bell-bottoms, long hair and the love beads. I liked classical music and my taste in rock and roll music was eclectic. I had little respect for the many stoned hypocrites that populated the peace movement. Most were more interested in getting high and getting laid than truly changing the world. I gave the many vocal radicals and anarchists wide berth. Mostly I wanted nothing to do with them.
Arguably, many in my generation who did try to change the world were woefully misguided. Instead of being leaders, most followed the pack. “I am a non-conformanist, just like all my friends,” summarized many of my feelings at the time. How can you claim to be different when you look like all your counterculture friends? What really is the difference between a group of hippies and a bunch of Valley Girls? Like many teenagers, we followed dubious role models simply because they were not like Mom and Dad.
On the other hand, it is fair to say that the world we inherited left something to be desired. For someone like myself born at the peak of the baby boom (1957), I could not remember a time when our soldiers were not bogged down in the painful and seemingly endless war in Vietnam. It was the youngest members of my generation that paid the price for our mistake there. Unlike the World War II generation though, our conflict in Vietnam spoke to a larger truth: real life was morally ambiguous. Moreover, our parents were overall not terribly tolerant types. Most teenage girls growing up had the expectation that their career was to be a mother and a housewife. Our surreal world was stereotyped for us during prime time. TV shows were invariably inoffensive and saccharine. It attempted to mask an ugliness to our world that was blindingly obvious to us, but which our parents kept trying to sweep under the rug. These issues included rampant discrimination against women and minorities, unchecked pollution, injustice and needless war mongering. Our childhood also included heaping doses of rigid conformity with little in the way of accompanying explanations beyond, “Because I said so!” This could easily be followed by a belt on your backside if you pressed your case.
Perhaps this was the way that generations had always been raised in the past. Perhaps necessity had required it until my generation. While our methods often left something to be desired, we were largely successful in drawing society’s attention to its own gross hypocrisies. We asserted that America could be a much better society than it was, fully embracing both equal opportunity, equal justice and maximizing human potential. We also quickly realized it would not happen unless we pushed very hard. What was unique about my generation is that we rose to this challenge.
Now clearly we broke many eggs remaking America. Our goals were laudable but many of our tactics sucked. College campuses were occasionally taken over by radicals. Cities burned. Many of us ended up addicted to drugs and with morals resembling alley cats. Along the way though many good things also happened. We ended the war in Vietnam, empowered women and minorities, discovered we were capable of real brotherly love, embraced nonviolence, cherished diversity and worked hard to ensure that the least among us could rise out of poverty. While we currently obsess over global warming, at least our air and water are now relatively clean. Prior to the 1970s, industry was free to dump as much toxic pollutants into our air and streams as they wished. The earth was our garbage can, rather than our garden. We did much to change this.
In short, my generation was a necessary change agent that called out for America to fully live up to its ideals. Yet for this, we are frequently pilloried. Perhaps our children are not as morally grounded as our parents were, but at least they are not Stepford children. Our lives may feel much more complex than our parents’, but they have the potential to be much richer and more expansive lives too. I still embrace most of these values. Respect for my planet has become integrated into all my life’s actions, from recycling, to avoiding dangerous fertilizers, to driving a hybrid, to having only one child. Because of the positive values of my generation, I am not head of the house. My wife and I are equal partners. I was as likely to give our daughter a meal or change her poopy diapers as my wife. Unlike my parent’s generation, our friends include openly gay and lesbian people. I am grateful to have them in my life, and shudder to think about how less rich our lives would be without them.
For us, living the American dream is not about a owning a mini-Monticello in the suburbs with a couple SUVs in the driveway. It is about taking delight in the rich diversity of people and cultures around us while being open to new ideas and exploring new paths of thought and action. I understand and am grateful to my parent’s generation for ensuring that we did not grow up in a tyranny. However, in some ways their sacrifice would have been in vain if their children had not leveraged their hard work so that America could more closely model its stated values. My generation’s accomplishment, as Steinhorn alludes, was to make a giant step toward fully enabling this dream. It was not a perfect realization. I am hopeful though that Generations X and Y will note that while our work is not yet fully accomplished, they will exercise their energy to keep moving humanity forward.