Boomer Century

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For boomer children, this cornucopia translated into billions of dollars’ worth of Hula-Hoops, Davy Crockett raccoon-skin hats, Hopalong Cassidy six-shooters, bicycles and tricycles, Slinkys, Silly Putty, and skateboards (and, in California, the shining lure of Disneyland). The writer Joyce Maynard remembered that when the Barbie doll made its debut in 1959, her world changed “like a cloudburst, without preparation. Barbie wasn’t just a toy, but a way of living that moved us suddenly from tea parties to dates with Ken at the soda shoppe.” Relatively speaking, to grow up a middleclass American kid in the 1950s meant wanting for nothing.

It also meant television. in just four years, between 1948 and 1952, the number of American households with TV sets jumped from 172,000 to 15.3 million. T. S. Eliot observed that television was “a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome,” but for the millions of children raised on it, the new device offered up endless hours of entertainment in the form of family sitcoms like “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Leave It to Beaver,” all of which idealized the carefree, child-centered world of suburban America.

More popular still were the Westerns: “Gunsmoke,” “Wyatt Earp,” “Bonanza,” “The Texan,” “Wagon Train,” “Cheyenne,” “The Rifleman,” “The Outcasts,” “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” “Have Gun, Will Travel.” Together, these serial epics captured close to half of America’s weekly television audience and, by the end of the decade, constituted 7 of the 11 most popular shows on the small screen. The programs mythologized the rugged individualism and physical strength of the American frontiersman, who tamed both his enemy (the Indian or outlaw standing in for the Soviet menace) and the natural environment. It was a genre well suited for a country confident of its ability to reach the stars, vanquish disease, and collapse the limits of time and space.

Complementing this message of abundance and conquest were new vogues in child rearing and pedagogy rooted in John Dewey’s ideas about the merits of progressive education. They entered the mainstream in 1946, when Benjamin Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care . His book instructed the parents of the baby-boom generation to go light on punishment and heavy on reason and persuasion, and to bear in mind that their daughters’ and sons’ happiness was the paramount objective of child rearing. If Johnny steals someone’s toy, don’t hit him. Explain that stealing is wrong, and buy him the toy that he coveted. If Suzie misbehaves at the dinner table, don’t worry. Table manners are overrated.

Spock was enormously influential. A study conducted in 1961 revealed that two-thirds of new mothers surveyed had read his book. He made permissive or child-centered parenting mandatory for millions of new postwar middle-class families. By the mid-1950s his message was routinely echoed in the pages of Parents magazine and found confirmation in countless sociological studies.

A 1961 study revealed that two-thirds of all new mothers surveyed had read Dr. Spock.

In later years critics would decry the effects of progressive child rearing, some of them crediting it with an entire generation’s egotism. The iconoclastic historian Richard Hofstadter worried that America would be overrun by the “overvalued child.” Writing of the typical GI generation mother, the novelist Lisa Alther lamented: “If anything had been drummed into her in years of motherhood, it was that you mustn’t squelch the young. It might squelch their precious development. Never mind about your own development.”

Hyperbole aside, millions of boomers did grow up in prosperous, nurturing homes in which children formed the core of the family. Raised amid plenty, taught to value their needs and satisfy their wants, and imbued with a sense of national greatness and purpose, it would have been odd had they not entered young adulthood with at least some sense of entitlement.

In 1956, noting the connection between post-war vogues in Freudian analysis and progressive child rearing, the literary critic Alfred Kazin was bemused by the national “insistence on individual fulfillment, satisfaction and happiness.” Years later the pollster Daniel Yankelovich observed that grown boomers, instead of asking themselves, “Will I be able to make a living?,” as their parents, raised in the Depression years, often did, were more prone to wonder, “How can I find self-fulfillment?”

No american generation has been so intensely studied, so widely celebrated, and so roundly condemned as this one. Out of the cacophony of analysis, two standard criticisms—one from the left, the other from the right—stand out.

For contemporary liberals, popular films like The Big Chill and television series like “thirtysomething” follow a familiar narrative line in which idealistic, socially committed children of the sixties grow into self-centered, blandly acquisitive adults. In the words of the former sixties activist Todd Gitlin, by the 1980s a generation that once raged against “banality, irrelevance, and all the ugliness which conspire to dwarf or extinguish the human personality” had graduated from “ J’accuse to Jacuzzi.”

Even when television boomers retained their fundamental goodness—think, for instance, of Michael J. Fox’s parents, Elise and Steven Keaton, in the popular 1980s sitcom “Family Ties”—they remained painfully conscious of their generation’s potential drift toward self-absorption.