I had a sneaking suspicion that my baby boom generation had peaked, but now I guess it’s official.
The Pew Research Center reports that the baby boomers will cease to be America’s largest generation sometime this year. Our numbers, it seems, finally will be surpassed by the young-adult “millennials.”
The younger cohort’s population continues to grow with immigrant arrivals, the report explains, while boomers’ ranks have started being thinned by, well, departures.
This definitive transition into elderhood could prove rocky for the boomers. Every other phase of life has. And besides, we boomers, I think it’s safe to say, are one of those generations that in its day was inordinately proud of its youthfulness — particularly skeptical that our elders could really understand “today’s world.”
But this sense of the older generation’s irrelevance “is not a conviction that strengthens with the years,” as Chesterton put it.
What’s ironic is that the media’s relentless commemoration of the events of the boomers’ youth in the 1960s — especially as the 50th anniversaries of those events come along now in rapid succession — may provide an indirect mechanism by which aging boomers can impart a surprising kind of sage wisdom to younger generations.
Keeping things in perspective has never really been a ’60s generation specialty. But remembering the ’60s — including the era’s chaos, violence, bitter divisions and existential fears — may prove something of an antidote to today’s dark mood.
An apocalyptic gloom sometimes seems to hang over much of today’s public discourse and popular culture, a perception of unprecedented crisis in every direction — from the economy and mounting inequality, to the environment and climate change, to foreign affairs and the terror threat (among others), to a sense that America has never been so politically divided and paralyzed. It’s easy to find voices declaring that one or more of today’s dangers imperil our very way of life as never before.
Maybe they do. Civilizations do crumble. Today’s troubles need urgent attention.
And yet, it’s also true that crises come and crises go, or sometimes simply linger as a civilization muddles through. Looking back can be a reminder of that.
We’ve already been through the 50th anniversaries of the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the escalation of the Vietnam War through the corrupted Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and multiple episodes of violence connected with the civil-rights movement. Those episodes included the famous 1965 march in Selma, Ala., dramatized in this year’s much-discussed film.
There is much more to come as the golden anniversaries continue. Before this year is out, for example, we’ll be reminded of the 1965 assassination of black nationalist leader Malcolm X in New York and of a race riot in the Watts district of Los Angeles later that year that became the first of so many riots of various kinds in that period. Some were connected to the war and some to racial tensions, and some would be triggered by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968.
It’s true that we’ve also already marked happier 50th anniversaries — of King’s “I Have a Dream” moment at the 1963 March on Washington, the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act a year later, the early milestone achievements of the space program and more. Those are the sorts of recollections that tempt one to remember the ’60s as a more hopeful time than today, when America at least still thought it could overcome its problems, could overcome anything once it made up its mind.
But before one goes too far with the impression of more optimism in the country in 1965, the 50th anniversary of a telling piece of pop culture reveals evidence of another trend in the national mood back then. For 1965 brought release of a hit song rarely heard today despite the popularity of “golden oldies. “ It was called “Eve of Destruction.”
Protest singer Barry McGuire reached the top of the charts with “Eve,” a growling laundry list of fears and dissatisfactions. It started with anguish over wars and conflicts (“The eastern world, it is exploding/even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’ ”) that sound strangely like ones we still face today. And it dwelled on the special fear of nuclear war that haunted that era (“there’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave”).
McGuire’s song even seemed to protest the gridlock-causing U.S. Senate filibuster (“handful of senators don’t pass legislation”), while it lamented the slow pace of progress on civil rights (“marches alone can’t bring integration/take a look around to Selma, Alabama”).
But the unsettling part of the song — unsettling at least, the way I remember it, for a 13-year-old — was the refrain, which ridiculed the naiveté of any listeners who “take a look around” (“it’s bound to scare ya, boy”) but still “don’t believe/we’re on the eve/of destruction.”
I’ve noted before that when one takes a look around today, it’s hard to miss signs of ’60s ideas coming to fruition — in the advance of gay rights, say, and efforts to legalize marijuana, and ambivalence about America’s leadership role in the world, especially as regards its military might. For better or worse, boomer attitudes seem to have had an influence.
Could the apocalyptic streak in American culture and politics today also be, partly, a generational creation? A member of the suspect generation may be the least able to judge.
But as America’s now-second-largest cohort continues to look back on past glories, struggles and adventures, it’s at least worth noticing that grave problems really are nothing new — yet “destruction” could still be a ways off.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.