Evanston RoundTable, June 27, 2019
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. To be young in the 1960s was, as Wordsworth said about another crazy era, very heaven.
Also hell. We fought with our parents, were confused about rapidly changing mores, suffered through a murderous war, witnessed terrible assassinations and felt at times like social outcasts.
Full disclosure: I’m not quite the World’s Oldest Baby Boomer. I arrived at 8 a.m. on Dec. 31, 1945. The Baby Boom, according to most definitions, includes the cohort born from 1946 to 1964. So technically I’m 18 hours too old. But believe me, that is the generation I identify with!
We were definitely not the greatest generation—we didn’t defeat the Axis and save Western democracy—but our activism and population bulge heavily influenced culture, politics and commerce.
Perhaps we were the luckiest, growing up in the richest, freest and most secure nation in history. The dollar and employment were strong. I paid just $97 a quarter for college tuition, and saved enough money to travel halfway around the world during my junior year abroad.
There were also plenty of traumas. Ours was a generation shattered by assassinations—JFK, RFK, MLK and later John Lennon—and marked by campus protests and tens of thousands of war dead.
Regarding our legacy, the jury is still out. Conservatives like George Will blame the excesses of the Sixties on Boomers “with their sense of entitlement and moral superiority.” Defenders say Boomers exposed 1950s hypocrisies, ended the Vietnam War and ushered in the civil rights and women’s movements.
Both positions are true—to a degree. But I’m less interested in debating generalities than describing what it was like as a young person to live through the era.
I vividly recall my critical turning point at a 1967 Vietnam War “teach-in” at University of Illinois at Chicago (then Circle campus) led by labor leader Sidney Lens. I walked into the lecture hall apolitical and walked out an activist. A year later I was tear gassed in Grant Park for peacefully protesting the war.
This was the era of the “generation gap.” I clashed with my father over the war, which he supported. Eventually, like most Americans, he changed his position, but it took us years to recover from the bitterness.
The trifecta of “sex, drugs and rock and roll” changed us as a generation too. The birth control pill was introduced in 1961 and set off a seismic revolution in behavior and culture. The demonizing of marijuana (only now ending) created widespread cynicism and lawlessness. We lionized Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles as cultural avatars and brilliant iconoclasts.
Mostly, we Boomers luxuriated in a time of excitement and potential—“the scent of possibilities breaking the cast of outdated thought,” as Richard Powers writes in “The Overstory.”
We felt we could change the world—and we did.