What 1969 Retrospectives Get Wrong About Baby Boomers and the SixtiesRoundup
tags: 1960s, baby boomers, The Sixties, 1969
Louis Menand has contributed to The New Yorker since 1991 and has been a staff writer since 2001. His book “The Metaphysical Club” was awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history and the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians. He was an associate editor at The New Republic from 1986 to 1987, an editor at The New Yorker from 1992 to 1993, and a contributing editor at The New York Review of Books from 1994 to 2001. He is the Lee Simpkins Family Professor of Arts and Sciences and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of English at Harvard University. In 2016, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama.
Thankfully, we are within sight of the end of the fiftieth anniversaries of things that happened in the nineteen-sixties. What’s left is mostly stuff that no one wants to remember: the Days of Rage, Nixon’s Silent Majority speech, the death of Jack Kerouac, and Altamont—although these will probably not pass entirely without mention.
One reason to feel glad to be nearly done with this round of fiftieths is that we will no longer be subjected, constantly, to generalizations about the baby-boom generation. There are many canards about that generation, but the most persistent is that the boomers were central to the social and cultural events of the nineteen-sixties. Apart from being alive, baby boomers had almost nothing to do with the nineteen-sixties.
The math is not that hard. The boom began in July, 1946, when live births in the United States jumped to two hundred and eighty-six thousand, and it did not end until December, 1964, when three hundred and thirty-one thousand babies were born. That’s eighteen years and approximately seventy-six million people. It does not make a lot of sense to try to generalize about seventy-six million people. The expectations and potential life paths of Americans born in 1946 were completely different from the expectations and life paths of Americans born in 1964. One cohort entered the workforce in a growing economy, the other in a recession. One cohort had Elvis Presley to look forward to; the other had him to look back on. Male forty-sixers had to register for the draft, something people born in 1964 never had to worry about.
The boomers get tied to the sixties because they are assumed to have created a culture of liberal permissiveness, and because they were utopians—political idealists, social activists, counterculturalists. In fact, it is almost impossible to name a single person born after 1945 who played any kind of role in the civil-rights movement, Students for a Democratic Society, the New Left, the antiwar movement, or the Black Panthers during the nineteen-sixties. Those movements were all started by older, usually much older, people.
The baby boomers obviously played no substantive role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act, or in the decisions of the Warren Court, which are the most important political accomplishments of the decade. Nor were they responsible for the women’s movement or gay liberation. Betty Friedan was born in 1921, Gloria Steinem in 1934. The person conventionally credited with setting off the Stonewall riots, Stormé DeLarverie, was born in 1920.