A Brief History of the Boomer Generation

(Note: This essay was written in 2009 as a WordPress “page.” It’s become buried and hard to find, so I thought it time to republish it properly as a “post,” complete with categories and tags.)

MY PARENTS were born in 1920, which seems now to be in a different historical era. They were children in the Roaring ’20s, teenagers through the Great Depression, young adults at the beginning of World War II.

They are the Greatest Generation. They put off everything to fight the war. Then the boys came home — the ones who survived — and started making up for lost time. They attended college in greater numbers than ever before, under the GI Bill, married and bought brand new ticky-tacky houses with VA loans. And they had children. Did they ever.

The Greatest Generation shared hardship, service, accomplishment, victory. Then they settled down and didn’t look back much. As they had devoted themselves to country in the 1940s, they devoted themselves to work and family in the 1950s and 1960s. They created my generation.

We’re the Baby Boomer generation. We are NOT the greatest, not even close, as Garrison Keeler wryly observed.

THINGS LOST-- AMERICA WENT FROM FAMILY DINNER TO FAST FOOD IN ONE GENERATION.  --John Hayden photo

THINGS LOST– AMERICA WENT FROM FAMILY DINNER TO FAST FOOD IN ONE GENERATION. –John Hayden photo

We have shared history from the 1950s — polio shots and “duck and cover.”  The children of the 50s and 60s grew up in the shadow of the Cold War, with an awareness of unseen nuclear danger in the world, as well as a gradual awakening to inequality in America.

Though others see us as a monolithic cohort, the Boomer generation was divided in the 1960s and early 1970s by different, even opposite experiences. Many of us went to college, and many did not. We went to Vietnam, or we opposed the war (some did both).

The country cracked apart, during the 1960s, along social and economic lines. First the Civil Rights Movement, then the Vietnam War and the Peace Movement. The divide deepened and hardened in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Make love not war. Don’t trust anyone over 30.  

English: Attorney General Kennedy and Rev. Dr....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bombing in Vietnam, violence at home. Five assassinations in the 60s.  Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X. In 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy.  (“Have you seen my old friend, Bobby?  I thought I saw him walking up over the hill, with Abraham and Martin and John.”)

KENT STATE -- Four dead in Ohio.
KENT STATE — Four dead in Ohio.

In 1970, Kent State. On campuses all over America, we had shock and horror, and tear gas.

The divide continued:  McGovern vs. NixonWatergate finished the job.

“Give peace a chance.”  But not much of a chance. John Lennon was murdered in New York in 1980.

We were idealistic and invincible. We were also sophomoric, materialistic, and later, greedy. We were NOT going to be like our parents. (Was it their greatness, their victories, their certainty, that made us so rebellious?  Why did we resent them? Why did we perceive them as empty hypocrites?)  WE would not make  THEIR mistakes. We were going to change the world. Make it better. The Age of Aquarius. We would “be forever young.” We’d “fight and never lose.”  Far out. Right on!

United States presidents, post-World War II to present:

  1. Harry Truman
  2. Dwight Eisenhower
  3. John Kennedy
  4. Lyndon Johnson
  5. Richard Nixon
  6. Jimmy Carter
  7. Ronald Reagan
  8. George Bush
  9. Bill Clinton
  10. George Bush
  11. Barack Obama

When I look at  the list of presidents, I see a line broken into two parts. Historical continuity from Truman through Nixon. A poignant, disappointing interlude with Jimmy Carter and the Iran Hostage Crisis.

And then a historic political change, led by Ronald Reagan. The Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush era.

The election of  President Barack Obama, the first black president, seems like another historic change.  Or will it be another disappointing interlude?

Our generation never quite figured out  HOW to change the world, or even agreed on what changes we wanted. We decided we didn’t want the next generation to follow the example of the hippy lifestyle, the get-high and free-love culture.

In many ways, we sold out to the “system” we had rebelled against. By the 1990s, we gave in to war with hardly a protest, in Kuwait and Iraq.

It doesn’t seem like we changed the world. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem like we grew up and took charge. In some ways, management of the economy and leadership of the nation seemed to skip over our generation.

Where did the years go?  Where did our lives go? (Where have all the flowers gone?)

Welcome to a new century. The world has turned, and it keeps turning. We’ve entered an era of worldwide economic, social, and political change. Not the Age of Aquarius, but the World Wide Web and the Global Economy. We’re old enough and experienced enough to understand that the world is not subject to our control. But we also still believe that one person can make a difference, and that two or more people working together can be a powerful force.

The Boomer generation has started turning 60 65 . . . We’re not done yet, not by a long shot . . . Some of us will raise retirement to a new level of materialism and hedonism . . .  Perhaps many of us will reclaim our youthful idealism . . .  Some may find refuge in simplicity and service.

As Robert Frost wrote, we “have miles to go before we sleep.”

— John Hayden, Sept. 2009

Trees and picnic table

DID THE PICNIC GO THE WAY OF THE FAMILY DINNER? — John Hayden photo

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4 Comments

Filed under Aging, History, Life

4 responses to “A Brief History of the Boomer Generation

  1. The first president I really remember is remember Nixon, and I think I remember Kennedy being assassinated. I was 3.

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  2. One of my earliest TV memories (other than cartoons) was Kennedy’s funeral procession. I was 5. I remember a feeling of sadness pervading the house. According to my mom, it was the only time she saw my dad cry – and he was a Republican. Political ideologies are so strident today, and we’re so acclimated to random violence, I can’t imagine something like that happening now.

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  3. @Mark and Greenpete: You guys are so young! 🙂 I’m among the oldest of the Boomer Generation, which starts with those born right after the War, 1946. You guys are among the youngest Boomers. I believe the generation runs through those born in 1962.

    All older Boomers can remember where we were when Kennedy was assassinated. I was in 10th grade, in 5th period phys ed class. We were outside doing calisthenics when the announcement came over a loud speaker on the side of the building that the President had been shot in Dallas. We didn’t yet know that he was dead.

    Transistor radios were the big new thing in 1963, and they were forbidden contraband in high school. Well, you never saw so many transistors suddenly appear from hidding places. We sat through sixth period in stunned silence, listening to scratchy reports on am radio.

    Earliest president I can remember is Eisenhower. Gen. Eisenhower won the war and then built the interstate highway system that created modern America. Eisenhower is one of the all-time greatest Americans. We trusted Eisenhower and Kennedy completely. They both had unknown private dalliances. Such “news” — much like the barely acknowledged fact that President Roosevelt was in a wheelchair — went conveniently unreported in the newspapers of the day, which included “All the news that’s fit to print.”

    In the 1950s, the complaint was that the two parties agreed on nearly everything and cooperated too much! “Simpler” is not sufficient to describe the difference between then and now.

    There never was such sadness in America. As Mary McCrory wrote of her generation of American adults: “We’ll laugh again, but we’ll never be young again.”

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  4. John, I loved this post. remembering many of your presidents, I remember well when Kennedy was shot, and the various presidents since.. I was in my teens then… I enjoyed this trip down memory lane, Sad nothing has changed as we wanted so much for Peace in our Time..

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