Boomer Century

PrintPrintEmailEmail

To conservatives, on the other hand, the generation embodies the evils of secular liberalism. In Slouching Towards Gomorrah , Robert Bork credits the pampered baby-boom generation with virtually every insidious social trend in recent American history. “The dual forces of radical egalitarianism … and radical individualism (the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification),” explains the book’s back cover, have “undermined our culture, our intellect, and our morality.”

Of course, traditionalists don’t have to look far to make their case. Boomers are certainly more tolerant than their parents of looser personal mores. In 1983, 44 percent of them approved of cohabitation outside marriage, 29 percent supported legalizing marijuana, and 37 percent endorsed casual sex. Whereas only a quarter of Americans approved of premarital sex in the 1950s, by the 1970s that figure had climbed to three-quarters.

More recently, boomers from left and right have begun weaving a third critique. In an effort of historical revision that comes close to self-flagellation, they have begun to worship their parents’ generation. That the “GI Generation” has become “the Greatest Generation” is evident everywhere—in popular television series like “Band of Brothers,” in films like Saving Private Ryan , and in official tributes, such as the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. Offered by the children of G.I. Joe and Rosie the Riveter, these accolades carry an implicit message: Try as we may, we will simply never measure up to our parents’ self-sacrificing greatness.

The problem with all these critiques is that they ignore both the creative use to which the generation has sometimes put its terrific sense of entitlement and the continuities between sixties idealism and eighties excess.

These students ultimately compelled the nation to confront inequities “the Greatest Generation” hadn’t.

In February 1960, when four black college students staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, sparking a national campaign and inaugurating a decade of youth-driven political activism, they were doing nothing so much as demanding access to the same entitlements that other children of the postwar era claimed as their American birthright. A sympathetic advertisement appearing in three Atlanta newspapers in March 1960 hit the nail on the head when it explained “the meaning of the sit-down protests that are sweeping this nation”: “Today’s youth will not sit by submissively, while being denied all of the rights, privileges, and joys of life.” Raised on the same television advertisements and political rhetoric as their white peers, young black Americans were determined to get their piece of satisfaction.

In a country where happiness and dignity were so inextricably bound up with the individual’s right to enjoy the blessings of the national wealth, this argument resonated. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr., the father of young baby boomers of his own, drove home this point. He spoke of finding your “tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.”

The legions of junior high and high school students who heeded his call in Birmingham—who filled the jails, attended the prayer meetings, and drove King himself to embrace more radical tactics and demands—ultimately compelled the nation to confront long-standing inequities that “the Greatest Generation” had been content to ignore.

They were the shock troops of the 1960s rights revolution. Like their white peers, these boomer kids had seen an average of 500 hours of television advertisements by the age of 6 and over 300,000 commercials by the age of 21. (King’s daughter had clearly seen an ad for Funtown.)

In the aftermath of the Newark riots of 1967, the black poet Amiri Baraka told a state investigatory commission that the “poorest black man in Newark, in America, knows how white people live. We have television sets; we see movies. We see the fantasy and the reality of white America every day.” The schism between fantasy and reality could inspire a truly creative tension.

And so it went for other boomers as well. Young black activists influenced women, gays and lesbians, students, welfare recipients, Latinos, and American Indians to appreciate the gap between America’s lofty democratic promise and its imperfect reality, and to work to narrow that gap.

By the 1970s boomer rights activists forced changes in credit laws, so that married women could have their own credit cards, and pushed for the enactment of Title IX, which broke down gender barriers in education and athletics. In forcing a new liberalization of sex and romance, they insisted on everyone’s right to satisfaction and self-realization—not just married couples but also unmarried partners, no matter what their sexual orientation. They played an instrumental role in bringing down a U.S. President, Lyndon Johnson, and in making the Vietnam War increasingly untenable for his successor, Richard Nixon.

In other words, the generation raised on Spock, television, and abundance put its sense of privilege and entitlement to work for the better good. Today most scholars agree that the boomers will leave their children and grandchildren a country that’s a little more just, a little more humane, and a little more inclusive than the one they inherited from their parents.