Does the Boom Generation Need to Redeem Itself?

Leonard Steinhorn, in his book The Greater Generation, proves how our legacy speaks for itself...

Aside from the tragic name of our generation (can we rebrand as Generation B?)  - which evokes either sonic booms, what babies do in their nappies, or was said to them when they fell - there are a considerable amount of specious and far too casual assaults leveled at us - who we are, and who we were.

Naturally, we are easy targets.  We set ourselves up for that, not merely by some outrageous behavior in our heyday, but as well by proclaiming our superiority to all the generations that preceded us. So sue us for being cool.  And that is what many in the media have been doing for the past decade. Boomer-bashing. Boomers are brats - narcissistic, preening, hedonistic arch-consumers hell bent on living so long that they’ll bankrupt their own children as they continue to explore their daemons.

Well I too might be a boomer basher, since I would be woefully envious that I didn’t come from the most amazing generation that had ever been produced on this planet. No seriously, we are an imperfect lot, to be sure. But - and this is a big but - we have engendered some truly profound and lasting changes in the civilization into which we were born.  America in the 50‘s and 60‘s, heavily in denial about the evil fruits of their chauvinistic, militaristic, repressive and repressed, biased approach to life, had been drifting toward an abyss. It was up to our generation to blast apart the lemmingish group-think that led us there, to pull us back from the brink.

We did some major hauling, caterwauling and cavorting all the way.  And now we have a highly articulate champion in Leonard Steinhorn, Professor of communications at American University and specialist in American history and culture. Of all the books I’ve read about our legacy, “The Greater Generation” is the most thoroughly researched, exhaustively documented and compelling argument as to why we need to be vindicated from the stereotyping slanders of our detractors.  

We were not merely a generation of idealists and rabble rousers, but committed activists who altered the course of the dreadnought of American culture. We fought battles on every front. As Steinhorn enumerates: “Diversity, feminism, multiculturalism, privacy, equal rights, individualism, transparency, social responsibility, political correctness - in our food fight culture they’ve become sound bites almost devoid of meaning, sneered at by some, affirmed by others, all caught up in the politics of memory.” And yet the evidence of change is apparent in each of these arenas.

Steinhorn does a masterful job contrasting the Greatest Generation - the war heroes and stoic defenders of liberty, the titans of industry - with its offspring. We never fought the good fight, were alienated by the fight we were forced to undertake in Vietnam, and so appear to our detractors as pale pretenders to any legitimacy as patriots. Instead we were lazy, godless punks, rebelling against all that was good and true. And yet Steinhorn points out that it was our staunch commitment to the true meaning of freedom that engendered the enormous cultural revolution in whose afterglow we now bask. 

“There may be nothing Homeric or visually compelling about bringing democracy to the workplace or effecting equality at home or ending the shame minorities feel simply for sounding or looking different, but these and other changes spawned by the Baby Boom are so far-reaching and fundamental that they will transform how Americans live in ways no war or New Deal ever could accomplish.”

Depending on the year of your birth, your earliest memories would include the puzzling role of your mother, brilliant, sassy, dynamic and caged in the kitchen in her apron. So entrenched (and convenient) was the received wisdom about the role of women that, for many, those ambitions lay dormant, as women could hardly formulate the context in which to experience their desires or formulate their ambitions to be fully fledged individuals. (It is interesting to note that during WWII, American women handled almost every conceivable job in every sector, from farming to business to heavy industry.  Women were soldering and assembling huge aircraft and their engines, for god’s sakes!  But when the soldiers returned home, women were dismissed from almost every job they’d so eagerly and patriotically undertaken and exiled again to the nursery.) But consider those Mama’s today - running corporations, starting small businesses... Men too have broadened their horizons - unchaining their identities and finding widely divergent means to express them.

Another sector Steinhorn examines is the realm of business, where again he finds we cut a wide swath into the future, citing numerous other authors whose books “...describe how Boomer values of personal freedom and participatory democracy have filtered through-out our economic institutions. Just look at some of the core tenets our our high-tech economy - work is personal, break the rules, create networks not hierarchies - and the Boomer pedigree becomes clear...”  

Naturally our mission of remodeling the culture was undertaken with some disruptive techniques, the most positive of which was our usage of the media. (Of course now the term ‘disruptive’ is considered an ultra-cool descriptor of any new technology or methodology.)  Yes, we were in fact the ‘first mass media generation.’ The cyborg appendages that were our transistor radios proved to be tools of subversion as rock n roll helped forge the groundswell of Youth Culture.  And TV, unintentionally, radicalized us as well. For myself, seeing the Vietnam war packaged in between ads for Winstons and Maalox, was a profound statement of what level of disconnection and surreality we inhabited in our living rooms. In print, magazines like Ramparts, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones and the Whole Earth catalog served to forge a sense of a unified identity.  

Updating to 2006, when the book was published, Steinhorn claims that the US, despite the rattling swords of diehard conservatives, is in fact becoming more liberal. Does that remain true in 2013 or are we sliding back in time? Abortion rights are always imperiled. The environment is still on the rack... But we did re-elect Obama. And even the most adamant Republicans are realizing that they’re wasting precious social capital on their increasingly unpopular stance about gay marriage. Steinhorn notes that when surveys are analyzed to factor out Americans born before 1929 and even before 1943, results skew in a socially less conservative direction. 

Whether you agree that every major turn of conscience during the 20th century sprang from our muckraking and storming of the citadel, I personally found myself surprised and impressed by the vast array of paradigm shifts Steinhorn marshalls into the camp under our rainbow flag. I felt a growing surge of pride as I realized how much our generation’s sturm und drang, the enormous emotional energy we dedicated to the project, and our fervent ideals actually liberated us from the antiquated norms of our parents.

The message of The Greater Generation is, for me at least, that we are a generation of passion, of beliefs, of vision, of action. And we must remain so.  Especially during these times in which anomie and complacency threaten progress. Steinhorn’s book is a fascinating history of an America cultivated by our generation’s accomplishments.  I do feel vindicated and I do feel invigorated by a new awareness of what can be done with that phenomenal rambunctious energy that is ours. Carpe Diem.

Ellary Eddy, Editor