They partied and protested, then grew up to dominate America with their chutzpah and sheer numbers. Yet now, as the oldest of the baby boomers prepare to turn 60, there are glimmers of doubt within this “have it all” generation about how they will be judged by those who come next.
The ferment of the ’60s and ’70s — when boomers changed the world, or thought they did — faded long ago. Nostalgic pride in the achievements of that era now mixes with skepticism: Have the boomers collectively betrayed their youthful idealism? Have they been self-centered to the point of shortchanging their children?
Anthony DeCurtis, one of the boomers’ pre-eminent rock ’n’ roll journalists, hears the occasional barb from his creative writing students at the University of Pennsylvania and it gives him pause.
“There’s a fear that there’s going to be nothing left — that they’re going to be picking up the pieces for this six-decade party we had, cleaning up the mess,” said DeCurtis, 54. “There’s some truth to that, I guess.”
The boomers — 78 million of them born from 1946 to 1964 — are wealthier and more numerous than any generation before or since. They have controlled political power long enough to stack the financial deck in their favor.
“It’s economic and policy imperialism,” said University of Oklahoma historian Steve Gillon, 48, author of “Boomer Nation.”
“The boomers have set up institutions that will continue to benefit them, at the expense of other groups, as they grow old and live longer than any other generation,” Gillon said. “It’s spend what you want, cut your own taxes — the ultimate baby boom philosophy of ’We want to have it all.’ We’re not a generation that’s had to deal with the reality of sacrifice.”
'We were brash and bold and beautiful'
Among the boomers turning 60 next year — along with George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — is Ron Kovic, who became an anti-war activist after being paralyzed by a combat wound in Vietnam in 1968. His autobiographical book “Born on the Fourth of July” became a hit film.
Unlike some of his contemporaries, Kovic sees no reason for guilt or embarrassment as boomers take stock. “We have every reason to be proud,” he said. “We were brash and bold and beautiful.”
Now, Kovic says, his generation will revolutionize a different kind of ’60s.
“Often when people get older, they say to the younger generation, ’Well, it’s your turn now,”’ he said. “I feel very differently. Rather than just passing the torch, and saying we did our best, this generation — which dreamed such big, impossible dreams — refuses to step aside. It sees itself as part of change that it still passionately believes will occur.”
Reluctance to step aside could be a formidable phenomenon in coming years as many boomers seek self-fulfillment and civic engagement deep into old age. Listen to Dr. Terry Grossman, author of “The Baby Boomers’ Guide to Living Forever” and operator of a Denver anti-aging clinic.
“As an official member of the boomer generation, I do not believe it was intended for us to die,” said Grossman, 58. “We were special right from the get-go — dying wasn’t part of our script.”
Grossman believes medical advances that will extend lifespans by several decades are perhaps 20 years away. Boomers, he said, are turning to fitness gurus, special diets and vitamin megadoses in hopes of staving off aging long enough to benefit.
Turning a critical eye on boomers
A particularly assertive breed of boomers dominates in Washington, D.C., according to Michael Franc, who works there for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“Boomers always struck me as very self-centered and self-important, because there are so many of us,” said Franc, 48. “We’re always in the middle of the next fun moment at some everlasting party, and we’re not able to defer the gratification to tackle the long-term problems.”
Other boomers feel similar doubts about their generation’s track record — and they want their new cause to be a shot at redemption. Boomer-led initiatives such as Civic Ventures are encouraging people over 50 to consider socially productive jobs and volunteer work rather than easing into traditional “golden years” retirement.
“We’ve been killing ourselves working for hours on end for decades, caught up in the work-and-spend dynamic,” said Marc Freedman, 47, Civic Ventures’ founder.
“But there’s a chance for the boomers to reclaim their earlier legacy, and not be a drain on society,” he said. “They could have a second coming in terms of social idealism, and find ways to contribute that mean something beyond themselves.”
A turning point for women
In some realms, boomers already take pride in what they have bequeathed. Boomer women, for example, broke into many male-dominated fields on a broad scale and expanded options for those who follow.
Susan Lapinski, editor of Working Mother magazine, cited her own two daughters, both in their 20s.
“My heart lifts when I think about them,” she said. “They see meaningful work as one of the ingredients of a happy life. They just assume their partner will be there to assist them.”
Lapinski, 47, credits the boomers with starting the process of equalizing marriage, convincing fathers to help more with household affairs and child-raising.
“Even if it’s imperfect, it’s a leap forward from the previous generation where dad went behind his newspaper after dinner and mom did all the bedtime rituals,” she said.
Some boomer parents may have taken matters too far — obsessing over their children’s education, activities and college prospects.
“Did some of us try to create trophy kids? In some families, you’d have to say yes,” Lapinski said. “In other families, though, there was a nice new emphasis on getting to know your kids, finding fun ways to spend time with them.”
Divisions over abortion, gay rights
Of course, not all boomers welcomed the women’s movement, just as the generation remains divided over abortion and gay rights.
“What the boomers did is expand the range of individual choices of how people live,” said Gillon, the historian from Oklahoma. “The division today between conservatives and liberals is really a debate over the boomers’ legacy.”
Lisa Crooms, a Howard University Law School professor, is 43 and technically a boomer, though she doesn’t feel like one. She was barely a toddler when the 1963 March on Washington inspired older black boomers.
“The group before me and the group after me clash in certain ways,” she said. “A lot of the people older than me take themselves much too seriously, a lot of the people younger than me have a sense of irreverence.”
Of boomers, she said, “Their control-freak aspect is too high. They’re going to orchestrate how the legend is written, make the history books and say no one will need to revise them afterward.”
A love affair with rock ’n’ roll
Nothing illustrates that boomer headlock on modern life quite like rock ’n’ roll.
Boomers didn’t invent the genre, but they were the fans who made it so durable. Even as music remains youth-oriented, today’s young people couldn’t escape the 60-something Rolling Stones if they wanted to; Mick Jagger and the boys are even playing the Super Bowl. Long-gone idols such as Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison remain popular both with boomers and their kids.
And wasn’t that 40-something Madonna on top of the Billboard charts with her new album?
Franc, the Heritage Foundation official, has tried to broaden his tastes, sampling new music recommended by a colleague in his 20s. “My kids don’t like that I listen to their stuff,” he said. “Their comfort level is higher when I frown at their music.”
DeCurtis, author of many memorable Rolling Stone profiles of rock stars, enjoys good camaraderie with his students at Penn and tries to stay to open to young people’s music — but he’s quick to defend the old favorites.
“The Stones are tremendous,” he said. “Someone tells me the Rolling Stones suck, they can’t play, I tell them, ’Go see the show.”’
Times have changed
But no matter how many classic rockers they see, DeCurtis and other boomers to have to admit that both the performers and the times have changed. The explosion of energy that began in the ’60s is just a memory.
“Even as a kid, there really was a sense that things were getting better and we were part of it,” DeCurtis said. “There was something about being out there protesting the war and thinking you were going to stop the government that made you grow up.”
Howard Mechanic, a former Vietnam War activist who lived as a fugitive for 28 years, fondly remembers the adrenaline rush of full-bore protest.
“Now the urgency isn’t there,” said Mechanic, 57, of Prescott, Ariz. “A lot of people in college, they haven’t had to change to be where they are. ... We had to change our lives to do what we wanted to do.”
Some boomers, like Calvin Street — a 55-year-old Naval veteran who runs an inner-city youth program in Baltimore — wonder what happened to that can-do attitude and optimism.
“When did the war on poverty end?” he asked. “Maybe things just fizzled out, and we got to the point where we said, ’Well, we didn’t change as much as we could, but it’s OK,’ and we walked away.”