Obama Boomers vs. Springsteen Boomers
Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-g-generation — and why we need to redraw the boundary lines
Has every American been getting promoted tweets in their feed every day, day after day, for the podcast conversations between Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen? Or do those ads just go to the 15 million or so of us Twitter users born in the mid-1950s, give or take a decade? I feel targeted.
The title put me off — Renegades: Born in the USA is such a total artifact of self-flattering, self-parodying boomerism. However, I like Springsteen and I really like Obama, so I listened to the first episode, and then the second, and just now the third. They’re… okay. But when I discovered that those are the first three of eight, I sighed.
Spotify describes the subject of the second episode as “the uncomfortable conversations we need to have” about race and racism, but my problem so far has been that their conversations about everything seem way too comfortable. It may be that the nature of their relationship is exactly wrong to enrapture the rest of us for hour after hour: too much friendship for interesting pushback and impertinence but not an intimate enough friendship for interesting pushback and impertinence.
What they did get me thinking about, though, is the concept of generations, the idea that everyone born within our existing prefabricated 16- to 18-year periods naturally constitute a meaningful cultural cohort.
Obama introduces the series by referring to the obvious differences in their backgrounds — Black versus white, cosmopolitan middle class versus parochial working class, Hawaii versus Jersey. But a salient difference I haven’t heard them discuss is when each was born, 1961 versus 1949.
The narrator of my novel True Believers, born in 1949, says that her brother, born seven years later, “has never considered himself a baby boomer. Our experiences were so different, he thinks, because I’d been old enough to know the world as it was in the 1950s and early ’60s, before everything changed, whereas he was still a child when the late ’60s arrived. By the time he got to high school and college in the ’70s,” her generation “had already cowed the grown-ups into doing away with all the old-fashioned codes of behavior.” Not surprisingly, I agree with her younger brother on this.
Across the board, I feel more cultural affinity with older members of the next generation down than with the older members of the generation I was assigned at birth. I was always a much bigger fan of Talking Heads and Nirvana than I ever was of The Beach Boys or the Stones or the Dead, more of Tarantino than Coppola, more of Letterman than Johnny Carson. Gen X stereotypically consists of eye-rolling skeptics and iconoclasts and ironists; I co-founded Spy in the late 1980s, a magazine driven by entertaining skepticism, iconoclasm, and irony, among whose most devoted readers (and staff members) were Gen Xers in their teens and twenties.
In fact, I think a more culturally coherent generation consists of people born between 1953 and 1970. The men were never at risk of being drafted to serve in Vietnam. The women were never without the Pill and only the oldest ever denied legal abortion or the equality guarantees of Title IX. Television (although not color television) was ubiquitous when we arrived, but we grew up without the internet. Rock was fully industrialized before we got to high school, but none of us were really old enough to go to Woodstock, hip-hop was new when we were all still young, Nirvana appeared when we were adults but not yet middle-aged. We were the last-born generation of Americans to have lived in a reasonably fair economic system and graduate from college largely free of debt. It’s a generation, by the way, that has produced only a single president, Obama, because it doesn’t include the four who were born between 1942 and 1946.
So where does this revised taxonomy leave the elder boomers, such as my three siblings? You could reconstitute them as their own little super-special 1946-to-1952 cohort. Or, probably better, define another new generation by combining them with the people born just before them— that is, for instance, with the non-boomers Bob Dylan, the Beatles, all the original Stones, Cream, The Band, Sly Stone, Janis, Jimi, Hunter Thompson, Abbie Hoffman, Ken Kesey, and on and on, practically every cultural god of the boomer youthquake. It would be the generation born between 1935 and 1952, people who were children during the Great Depression and/or World War II (and the Korean War), and the back-to-normal victory lap right after the great tribulations.
So where do I get off redrawing these well-established lines? Because cultural generations have always been defined this way, media constructs by writers with a take. The Lost Generation was Ernest Hemingway quoting Gertrude Stein in a 1926 novel. The Silent Generation is a TIME magazine product from 1951. Journalists started calling people baby boomers in the 1970s. Generation X was a 1991 novel. Millennial was coined by a couple of writers in 1987. And once all those other generations had their author-created, culture-industry-certified names, the people of my parents’ generation finally got one that stuck, The Greatest Generation, when they were in their seventies and eighties.
What to call my own redefined generation, Americans now between 50 and 68? The Postmods? The Last Hurrahs? Come to think of it, I should delegate that task because it’s plainly not my forte. About 23 years ago, when my friend Tom Brokaw asked me to read the manuscript of his forthcoming book about the people who fought World War II when they were young, my one big suggestion was that he reconsider the overreaching title — greatest, really?