“I hope I die before I get old”
Well, that didn’t happen. Not for me nor for Pete Townshend, who wrote that song for The Who’s debut album released in 1965, the year I graduated from high school.
I remember the song, though I was blissfully unaware that it had been banned by the BBC. Apparently it was “insensitive to people who stutter,”
“I hope you all f-fade away (talkin’ ‘bout my generation)
Don’t try to dig what we all s-s-s-say (talkin’ ‘bout my generation)”
I was sure that Pete was a Baby Boomer, speaking on behalf of us all. In fact, I thought, The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Dylan, the Beach Boys and the Byrds were all members of my generation. They weren’t. They were all war-babies, the so-called Silent Generation. Lucky for us, they weren’t that silent.
Baby Boomers found out early, that our generation was unique. There were a lot of us. After the war, people seemed to cut loose and procreate.
Of course we didn’t know that then. I didn’t realize that I was waitlisted for the kindergarten in the basement of the Unitarian church, (public kindergarten was years away). “Nice” Mrs. Green taught forty-five kids and they hadn’t “discovered” ADHD yet.
I was born in ’47, the second year of the Baby Boom and I went half days to second grade so they could run double sessions, while they built elementary schools. I did that again at junior high and attended the first year of the expanded high school.
In high school I heard the “pig in the python” analogy. My generation was so huge that it stressed the system infrastructure at every stage like a mammal Moving through the alimentary canal of a surprised snake. They built schools for us and the SAT. College entrance was especially competitive. Summer jobs were hard to find and when we entered the workforce there were two of us for every available job. Now people in Congress want to get rid of Social Security and Medicare and the prices for health care and nursing homes are through the roof.
Did Baby Boomers invent generation names?
My parents didn’t talk about their generation by name. Dad was born in 1904, Mom 1908 and they died before Tom Brokaw started calling them the “Greatest Generation.” If they were alive when the moniker arrived, I doubt they would have used it. “Sure we survived the Depression. What choice did we have?” “Save the world from Fascism and destruction? Well everyone just pitched in. It’s what you did.”
I don’t actually know when other generations got their names, but generation naming has become a cottage industry:
- “The Greatest Generation” -born 1901-1924
- “The Silent Generation” – born 1925-1945
- “Baby Boomers” – born 1946-1964
- Generation X 1965-1979
- Millennials – born 1980-1994
- Gen Z – born 1995 – 2012
- Gen Alpha – born 2013-2025
- Gen Beta – born 2026 -?
- Gen Gamma – born?-?
It seems like we’ve moved to the Greek alphabet, but before you get too comfortable, remember that Greek is built from 24 letters, and before 1978 hurricanes only had women’s names.
The meaning of generations
A client was having intergenerational conflict. Managers, mostly men of the Greatest and Silent generations complained bitterly about “these Baby Boomers – they expect the world to be handed to them. They don’t work, don’t ‘pitch in’ or collaborate.”
Human Resources discovered a video by a Canadian social psychologist, Dr. Morris Massey, entitled “What you are is what you were when.” I watched it.
Massey’s point was that our values are largely set by the age of seven. So you can understand a generation by studying their environment from birth to seven years old.
For example, people whose early childhood was consumed by the shared US experience of World War II, will have a point of view shaped by war bonds, paper drives, rationing, fathers away at the front, Rosy-the-Riveter and everyone locked in the drive to win. Londoners who experienced the Blitz will have another point of view, as will Germans from Dresden or Japanese from Nagasaki.
What was going on in your world from birth to seven, shaped your values, your views, and your way of being in the world.
Value shaping doesn’t end at seven. Massey talked about “significant emotional events,” which might be individual like an eviction, but there are also large events that everyone alive shares the emotional impact, the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963, the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in September 2001. These high impact events often have a shortened name JFK, or 9/11 or the Blitz.
My parents lived through “The Depression.” My mother often said “It really wasn’t bad for us, not like a lot of people. We had the print shop and printed flyers and window cards for businesses. Nobody had any money, but you took ‘scrip.’ We printed for the dairy, got milk scrip that we traded for meat or vegetables, We had the Heidelberg (a four-color press) and printed movie posters. Everybody wanted movie scrip.”
Still the depression had an impact. We children made fun of Mom saving string and folding aluminum foil for reuse. For two weeks in late May our counter had vases full of smelly water from Mother’s Day flowers. :”Don’t throw that out! I’m saving it to water the plants. In Central Florida you couldn’t trust the water would be on and you wouldn’t waste water on plants.”
“Don’t waste it” was such a watch-word in our house that I still grow science experiments in the refrigerator. My wife asks “Can I chuck this now or shall I put it in Tupperware to throw next week?”
Other Generational Influences
Siblings’ values – My older sisters’ stories about wartime rationing led to what my wife calls my “cheap days.”. My youngest daughter is technically a millennial, but identifies as Gen X because of her older brother and sister.
Social class – when I was growing up all Americans called themselves “middle class.” That was nonsense, of course, but unifying in some ways. As I grew I became more aware that some people had more money than me. I’ve met some people who aren’t really aware that some people have less than they do.
I talked with a colleague, who got his first job at twenty-six, about “Rich Dad-Poor Dad” by Robert Kiyosaki. I found Kiyosaki’s points enlightening. He called them “statements of the blindingly obvious.”
Geography – even in the same country we grow up with different values. These days in the US we notice the differences between rural and city, mid-west and coasts, etc. Some of those values differences are due to sheer population numbers or the kind of work that people do. We call these political differences, but they come from local geography.
My Boomer experience
First let me apologize to everyone who isn’t a Baby Boomer. As I said, we grew up as a generation impressed by our uniqueness. We think we had the best music, best cars, best dances, etc. There is a reason that subsequent generations say to us “OK, Boomer!?”
Second, let me qualify that my Boomer experience is white, “middle class,” American, in fact, New Englander, “Suburban” experience. I don’t speak for people of color or international background or anyone with substantially more or less money than my family had. My kids grew up in the city and so I know that urban experience is different.
And finally, I’m a guy. I don’t apologize for my gender, but I do understand that straight male experience is not universal.
Here are some generational markers that shaped me:
- There were kids everywhere. We went outside to play and rarely lacked for playmates. Pick-up games of anything were the norm. I’m still blown away by the concept of a “play date.”
- We were outside a lot. It was usual to leave the house on a Saturday, eat lunch at a friend’s house and be called home for dinner with a whistle, a bugle or a bell.
- Wheels ruled – we did walk a lot and run a lot, but after age six or seven everybody rode bikes. They could be old battered cruisers or sleek Raleigh three-speeds. I pre-date banana seats and wheelies, but we rode everywhere. At sixteen though, cars relegated bikes to the garage. Fins and V8s were exciting beyond reason and what other generation had Drive-In movies?
- Everything was competitive. When I tell people younger than me that I didn’t make Little League, I face incredulity. “Everyone makes Little League.” Nope there were tryouts. And no participation trophies.
- TV was a shared experience. There were only three channels. There were kids programs in the afternoon, cartoons on Saturday morning and a horse opera (Davy Crocket, Maverick, Bonanza, Cheyenne, Lone Ranger ) every night. Parents watched Ed Sullivan, My Little Margie, Red Skelton, Danny Thomas and Lawrence Welk. And the whole family watched Leave it to Beaver, Twilight Zone, Lucy and the Honeymooners.
- Patriotism was a real thing we all shared. We were the post war generation. America had won the war. We didn’t know how much the Soviets contributed and at what cost. We believed in the moral rectitude of America. Maybe that began to erode with the anxiety of the Cold War, “hiding under our desks in an air raid drill,” and dinner table conversation about “the bomb.” But before that, before, McCarthy, JFK, Civil Rights, Silent Spring, Vietnam and Watergate, we believed in America. We espoused the idea of America, free enterprise and free speech, a democratic republic, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” I still do.
Yeah, we Boomers didn’t live up to our uniqueness. We fell for the same lies, destroyed the environment, and ate ourselves to diabetes and heart disease, but my generation disappoints me most when I hear Baby Boomers complain about Millennials:
“They expect the world to be handed to them. They don’t work, don’t “pitch in” or collaborate.”
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