The Aging of Aquarius

Readers will recall that it was Tom Brokaw’s great good luck as a journalist, as a reporter of news, to uncover that back in the 1930s and 1940s, a large mass of young Americans had to suffer, a) the trials and deprivations of the Great Depression, then b) fight a terrible war –a “world war” in the parlance of the time–against countries bent on global domination. Not only did Brokaw have the courage to bring to light this virtually hidden chapter of our history, but he or an associate had the marketing savvy to title the book The Greatest Generation, an irresistibly flattering phrase which sustained the book through many printings and multiple sequels. I’m not sure, but I think Brokaw meant the phrase sincerely, if not exactly scientifically. It’s not like he sat down and assigned coefficients for hardships and accomplishments, or calculated what the ratio between opportunity and outcome should be, or figured out whether one should subtract for embarrassments and shortcomings, or actually divide by them, all in an effort to come up with an equation that would yield a Greatest Generation Coefficient by which we would rank Founders and Boomers, World War II troopers and Gilded Age inventors, Civil Warriors and Manifest Destineers. No, Brokaw just grabbed a pithy, vivid title, and skipped off to the bestseller list.

Nor has Leonard Steinhorn gone the scientific route, but he certainly wants to jump into this Greatest Generation discussion. However, it’s not immediately clear where he means to land. He doesn’t seem to argue that Boomers are greater than the Greatest Generation. After all, he didn’t call his book An Even Greater Generation, with the implication that we have superseded our elders. He called it The Greater Generation, which implies that he might be satisfied coming in second to The Greatest Generation, comfortably ahead of The Great Generation, The Good Generation, and The Generation That Needed Improvement. He even starts off the book giving props to the World War II-sters. “No one should ever doubt the valor and sacrifice of the World War II generation…. This was the generation that sacrificed their bloodsuffered through the Great Depressionbravely answered the calla horrid and heroic struggle…. Normandy and Iwo Jimathey deserve every accolade they’ve been given.”

Steinhorn’s “but” is a big one, and justly aimed. He points out that the Greatest Generation came home from World War II to an America that was racially segregated, restricted by sex roles, bigoted against gays and environmentally ignorant, and that it wasn’t until the flowering of the Boomers in the sixties that progress in these areas became a reality. And in that progress, he stakes the claim for his generation’s superiority.

Steinhorn is an ardent and impassioned Boomer-booster, and in an era when liberal has become a label that even liberals wear reluctantly, he is providing a very useful service. The change in America that has accompanied this generation’s march through life has been profound, and because America changed, the world followed. For all the sideshows that encumbered the ’60s–the sex, the drugs, the music, the hair–the ultimate legacy of the period is a Great Moral Leap Forward, such that America is now more publicly committed to equal opportunity, diversity, fairness and environmental preservation than at any time in our history. And the fruits of this progress are among our country’s greatest ornaments.

But to say that these triumphs belong exclusively to the Boomer generation is to give my contemporaries more credit than is deserved. Assigning credit for historical development is a lot harder than deciding which pitcher in a ballgame deserves the win. George H.W. Bush may have been president when the Berlin Wall fell, but that doesn’t mean that he ended communism. The fact that Boomers came of age in this era of social progress doesn’t mean that they should get all the credit. For one thing, there were an awful lot of Boomers who spent the sixties surfing, listening to the Beach Boys, and limiting their participation in the events of the era to growing sideburns. There were, for that matter, even Boomers who were antagonistic to the great movements of the period –for instance, George W. Bush. In addition, a lot of the great leaders and heroes of the Boomer generation weren’t Boomers. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t a Boomer. Bob Dylan wasn’t. The Kennedys, Lenny Bruce, Barry Commoner, Ralph Nader–none of them were Boomers. And it’s not as though they were stray prophets wandering around until Boomers discovered them–they were the spear tips of large bodies of people who shared their thinking. And beyond that, lavishing credit on the Boomers undervalues the great moral struggle that our parents underwent to open their hearts and their minds, and actually change. Many Boomers accepted their politics with as much ease as it took to memorize the lyrics to “Eve of Destruction;” it was our parents, obviously with greater or lesser degrees of success, who had to overcome life-long ways of thinking to accept a black person as their neighbor, or a woman as their boss, or a gay man as their son.

Still, Boomers deserve a lot of credit, and Steinhorn does a matchless job of dishing it out. “In the 1960s,” he eloquently writes, “both Baby Boomers and Greatest Generation Americans witnessed the same society and its many flaws. One made the choice to accept and defend the status quo. The other made the choice to advance the principles of democracy, equality and freedom… to end the hypocrisy of proclaiming but not observing our national ideals, and to address the gap between the promise of American life and the reality of that life for so many Americans. The Greatest Generation deserves every bit of credit for protecting democracy when it was threatened; but Baby Boomers deserve even more credit for enriching and fulfilling its promise.”

But Steinhorn is entirely too forgiving of this generation’s shortcomings. We may have been behind the political and social fervor of the sixties, but we were also behind the narcissism of the seventies and the materialism of the eighties and after. Since the Reagan administration, when Boomers shed their shag vests and disco shoes for power suits, Boomers have enthusiastically bought into the corporate values that dominate our lives. Boomers have backed Bush, and his tax cuts, and his war (of course, we’ve also been against Bush, his tax cuts and his war–that just goes to show the poverty of making sweeping generalizations about generations.) The point is that history is an eminently forgettable subject, and if Steinhorn thinks Boomers don’t get enough credit now for making the world a fairer, more decent place, wait until the only things our sons and daughters remember us for is a whopping deficit, global warming and endless war.

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.