The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacyby Leonard Steinhorn
"Lenny Steinhorn presents compelling evidence that Boomers significantly shapedand improvedtheir times. This is a counterintuitive examination of a generation that is far more complex and far more influential than is commonly believed."
Frank Senso, former CNN Washington bureau chief
While the Greatest Generation deserves our praise for… See more details below
"Lenny Steinhorn presents compelling evidence that Boomers significantly shapedand improvedtheir times. This is a counterintuitive examination of a generation that is far more complex and far more influential than is commonly believed."
Frank Senso, former CNN Washington bureau chief
While the Greatest Generation deserves our praise for surviving the Depression and fighting in World War II, the Baby Boomers, this book argues, are in many ways as great a generationif not greaterfor how they have advanced equality and freedom at home. It's fashionable to mock Boomers as self-involved and materialistic. But what really is the true legacy of the Boomers?
To understand how Boomers have changed America, think back to the 1950sbut without the nostalgia. Women were kept at home, minorities were denied their dignity, homosexuality was a crime, and anyone who marched to a different drummer was labeled un-American and viewed as a threat.
Today we live in a far more open, inclusive, tolerant, and equal America than at any other time in our history. And that's because Baby Boomers, from the Sixties onward, have fought a great cultural war to free America from its prejudices, inequalities, and fears. The Greater Generation tells the story of this generation's accomplishmentsand finally gives Boomers their due.
"The Greater Generation reminds us that today's legacy of social justice, diversity, and individual freedom didn't just fall from the sky; it's a consequence of a hard-fought progressive struggle fought on the home front by a morally engaged American generation."
Marty Kaplan, Air America radio host and director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern Califormnia Annenberg School for Communication
- St. Martin's Press
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Read an Excerpt
Greater Generation, The
The Greater Generation
The employers will love this generation. They aren't going to press many grievances. They are going to be easy to handle.
Clark Kerr, President, University of California, 1959
There's a whole generation, with a new explanation.
Scott McKenzie, "San Francisco," 1967
No one should ever doubt the valor and sacrifice of the World War II generationthe much-celebrated Greatest Generation, as they've come to be known. This was a generation that sacrificed their blood, their lives, and their futures to defend our country against implacable enemies of freedom. They suffered through the Great Depression without ever losing faith in the promise of America, and they bravely answered the call to fight a horrid and heroic struggle against fascism, preserving democracy for generations to come. Many hopes and dreams and aspirations were left on the brutal battlefields of Normandy and Iwo Jima during World War II, and we all should be deeply grateful for their service, courage, and sacrifice. For defending American freedom, they deserve every accolade they've been given.
But history is not hagiography. As hard as this generation fought for pluralism and freedom overseas, the question is what they did with those values when they came home. So we must ask how well America was living up to its ideals in the era of Greatest Generation ascendancy. Only then, only after a candid assessment of the Greatest Generation years, can we understand how thoroughly the Baby Boom has transformed and bettered America.
So we begin with something seemingly small but symbolically big about America in the Fifties: African-American hair. To an African-American in the United States today, having straight rather than kinky hair is largely a matter of style. But for blacks in the 1950s, style was the least of theirworries. This was the era of the Greatest Generation, an era now mythologized for its values, neighborhoods, human warmth, and decency. Yet in black communities, young men and women desperate to look less black would mix together lye, potatoes, and eggs, pour it on their scalp, and brace themselves as this homemade potion burned fiery sores into their skin while it straightened their hair. Nor did blacks simply try to emulate white hair. They also bought skin bleaching creams with names like "Imperial Whitener" and "Black-No-More," all of them made with painful, corrosive chemicals that stung bitterly when applied to the skin, products that promised better looks and a lighter complexion but in truth did little more than prey on black Americans who were told day after day that their blackness made them unappealing and inferior, that the only way to feel good about themselves was to deny who they were and conform to a white standard of beauty.
In the America of the Greatest Generation, before multiculturalism and diversity affirmed the humanity and worth of non-white Americans, and before the much-maligned politically correct movement impelled our culture to change the national norm on race, it was rather routine and indeed quite acceptable for whites to place little value on the lives and aspirations of their black fellow Americans. Black World War II veterans, who risked their lives fighting the enemies of freedom, returned home and found a white society so repulsed by proximity to their blackness that they were unable to buy a house in Levittown or any other white suburb. Ten thousand blacks worked at the Ford auto plant in Dearborn, Michigan, Life magazine reported in 1957, but "not one Negro can live in Dearborn itself." White suburban communities re-zoned tracts from residential to industrial use simply to create large buffer zones between their pristine neighborhoods and black middle-class communities nearby. Believing they deserved the right to discriminate against blacks in housing would remain a majority opinion among Greatest Generation whites for at least another two decades. Of course if a black family somehow integrated and wanted to join one of the organizations at the center of white community life in the FiftiesRotary, Moose, Kiwanis, and Elks clubs, to name a fewthey would be laughed at and obviously rejected. "We're not racists, believe me," a national Elks leader said in 1971, "but we feelwe're a private organization and we have the right to admit who we want in our lodge." Most industrial unions were no better. After World War II, whites simply believed they deserved jobs over blacks.
Not even success, not even fulfillment of the American Dream, could shield black Americans from white society's loathing in the era of the Greatest Generation. When baseball great Willie Mays moved with his Giants team from New York to San Francisco, no one would sell him a house until the mayor got involved, and then Mays was told how grateful he should be to the people of San Francisco. "What do I have to thank you forfor letting me spend forty thousand dollars?" asked Mays. But at least he didn't move to Boston, where the Red Sox manager in 1959 said, "There'll be no niggers on this ball club as long as I have anything to do with it." Or at least he didn't play professional basketball, where there was an unwritten rule limiting the number of blacks who could play on the court at the same time. And most of these incidents took place in the North, which was supposed to be more enlightened. As for the raw and pervasive bigotry in the South, it can be summed up by the white southerner who cavalierly asked why there was so much fuss about a lynched black teen found in a river, noting matter-of-factly, "The river's full of dead niggers."
Greatest Generation whites so dehumanized their black fellow citizens that large majorities felt completely comfortable telling pollsters well into the 1960s that blacks smell bad, laugh a lot, and are less intelligent than whites. Most appalling to whites of this era was any form of physical contact with blacks. When white singer Petula Clark quite innocently put her hand on Harry Belafonte's arm during a televised music special, whitesparticularly throughout the Southdeluged local stations with complaints. But incidental touch was nothing compared to the visceral disgust that almost all whites felt toward intimate contact with blacks. In a 1958 Gallup poll, 94 percent of whites said they disapproved of marriages between "whites and non-whites," and as late as the 1980s large majorities of Greatest Generation whites would continue to express quite openly the feeling that a white would never want to marry a black. Even indirect intimate contact with blacks repulsed most Greatest Generation whites, which a 1971 Harris poll found when it asked whether "self-respectingmen would want to marry a girl they knew had been fooling around with people of a different race." Those who dared to cross the color line were met with abhorrence and rejection, such as a white actress and her interracial daughter who were handed a petition demanding that they move from their Manhattan apartment building. As Newsweek put it in 1963, "the greater the suggestion of physical contact, the greater the white antipathyand even revulsion." So demoralizing and oppressive was this Greatest Generation culture to blacks that the most common signs at civil rights marches referred not to legislation or politics but to an affirmation of human dignity, with the simple words I AM A MAN. Many light-skinned blacks, those with no need to burn their skin with bleaching cream, simply tired of pleading for their humanity and gave up altogether by passing for white and cutting off all ties with their darker-skinned relatives, sadly internalizing white America's loathing.
This contemptible cultural norm was not limited to race. Mainstream disdain for anything that didn't conform to white, Christian, crew-cut standards defined America in the Greatest Generation era. Pluralism was honored in name only. On the eve of World War II, as Hitler was herding Jews into ghettoes, a Roper poll for Fortune magazine found a majority of Americans supporting restrictions to keep Jews from "mingling socially where they are not wanted," and during the war Franklin Roosevelt chose not to welcome large numbers of Jewish refugees from Europe or to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz for fear that Americans would resent fighting a war to save the Jews. Such overt bigotry became politically incorrect after the Holocaust, but the attitudes and practices remained for much of the Greatest Generation era. Ivy League schools maintained Jewish quotas, and even after they relented, Harvard's application material sent a clear message to high-school students with names like Schwartz or Spielberg by asking if they were related to a long list of people with Anglo names like Whiting and Eliot, a practice that lasted into the Seventies. For many Jews, the goal was to remain inconspicuous, not to stand out or call attention to themselves, to acquiesce even when the state forced their kids to read Biblical verses in the public schools. Some tried fitting in by putting up Christmas trees. Others, in a Jewish version of blacks passing for white, tried to deny their heritage and conform by fixing their nosesand anglicizing their names, changing from Alvin Schneir, say, to Alan Stone, or Betty Perske to Lauren Bacall, or Bernard Schwartz to Tony Curtis. But even then acceptance was conditional. Many homes came with restrictive covenants prohibiting sales to Jews and blacks, and even when the courts struck these down the practice remained. For Jewish newlyweds looking for a honeymoon perch, resorts politely but firmly requested a letter from the couple's "minister."
Nor was ethnicity the sole determinant of what constituted a real American. "There were communities," wrote historian Geoffrey Perrett in his book about America in the Fifties, "where simply to wear a beard was to excite suspicion; a bearded stranger would be asked by the local police for identification." Indeed suspicion and intolerance of anyone different pervaded America in the Greatest Generation era. Senator Joseph McCarthy was ranked among the top ten most admired Americans in the early Fifties, and the chill of McCarthyism transcended politics and reached into every corner of American life. On college campuses, professors who dared to question the status quo were hounded, harassed, and sometimes fired. A 1954 poll found that only 12 percent of Americans favored allowing an atheist to teach in a college or university, and 60 percent said they wouldn't allow someone to make a speech in their community against churches and religion. It's not that Americans were overly devout, as Will Herberg observed in his 1955 study of religion in America, ProtestantCatholicJew, pointing out that more than half of all Americans couldn't name a single one of the first four Gospels. It's just that being religious and joining a church, Herberg explained, was a way to conform, to fit in the peer group, "almost automatic as an obvious social requirement, like entertaining or culture." Those who chose not to join were ostracized and disdained.
Life at the office was no different. Men climbing the corporate ladder were expected to act and dress a certain waythe proverbial man in the gray flannel suitand company culture revolved around slavish obedience to the boss's will. In the regimented office of the Greatest Generation, a bell rang for coffee break, and clerks were prohibited from using the bathroom without permission. To get ahead, men needed a docile, cheerful wife to adorn them at company events and to entertain higher-ups with highball parties at home. A man's entire identity and social standing revolvedaround his stature at work, and heaven forbid he socialized with anyone below his level. As William H. Whyte pointed out in his classic book on Fifties culture, The Organization Man, it was the yes-manno women allowed, of coursewho got ahead, and questioning authority was a fast track to unemployment. Employers used personality tests to root out nonconforming employees, and success, according to Whyte, meant giving "the most conventional, run-of-the-mill, pedestrian answer possible." When in doubt, Whyte advised, tell them that you loved your father and mother, but your father a little more, that you don't care much for books or music, and that you love your wife and children but don't let them get in the way of company work. "Check out the norms and you will find that the advice is not flippant," added Whyte, who had analyzed these tests. You need to observe these rules "to get a high score."
Few paid a steeper price for this culture of conformity than gay and lesbian Americans, the most reviled and vilified of all groups during the Greatest Generation era, perhaps even more so than Communists, and unfortunately there was no politically correct shield to protect them. Many simply led a double life, full of lies, self-loathing, and secret indulgencesnot unlike the blacks who passed for whites. Americans were unabashed in their hatred of homosexuals, calling them perverts and deviants, even sociopaths and psychopaths. So shamed were Greatest Generation parents with homosexual children that some committed their kids involuntarily to psychiatric hospitals, where psychiatrists were known to recommend such therapies as electric shock, induced vomiting, hormone injections, and even, in rare cases, frontal lobotomies. Universities expelled gay students and faculty, employers fired gay workers, and Congress acted to eradicate gays from government service"One homosexual can pollute a government office," a 1950 Senate committee concluded. Across the country cities passed laws to prohibit gays from congregating in public places, as Miami did by arresting any bar owner who would "knowingly allow two or more persons who are homosexuals, lesbians, or perverts to congregate or remain in his place of business." In 1955, police in Boise, Idaho, interrogated fourteen hundred suspected gays and coerced them into naming others, and in 1958, Florida officials began a five-year investigation into homosexual influence at the University of Florida, grillingmore than three hundred faculty and staff who were accused of homosexuality. America's revulsion toward gays reached so deep that women could face arrest for wearing men's clothing or looking too "mannish." New York police were known to arrest women wearing trousers unless they were also wearing at least three other pieces of women's clothing. In 1953, the Miami Beach police chief announced proudly that his officers would "harass those men who affect female mannerisms in public places and let them know in no uncertain terms that they are unwelcome on Miami Beach." So toxic was homosexuality that The New York Times routinely used the word "perverts" to describe homosexuals, writing in 1963 about how the "condition can be prevented or cured," and as late as 1969 Los Angeles Times refused to allow the word "homosexual" in its advertising. For years Gallup even avoided asking questions about gays for fear of arousing controversy. It was an attitude that Greatest Generation Americans would cling to for many years, finding even indirect contact with homosexuality repulsive, with substantial majorities well into the 1980s supporting a ban on library books with gay themes and opposing homosexuals teaching in college.
Today, with our sepia-toned recollections of the Greatest Generation age, we remember happy families and cheerful wives gazing worshipfully at their husbands, a generation of June Cleavers content with their role as domestic providers and ego massagers for their hard-working men. But again, the reality belies the nostalgia. For large numbers of American women back then, domestic bliss was really a domestic prison. Confined to the home and the role of supporting spouse, women had little choice but to swallow their frustrations, keep smiling, and make the best of it. Yet frustrated they were. The culture made clear that women should not have independent lives and thoughts of their ownand did everything to enforce it. So the frustration lay buried, unspoken, what the author Betty Friedan called "the problem that has no name stirring in the minds of so many American women." These were the Greatest Generation yearsthe years before feminism.
In a 1957 study by the University of Michigan, an astonishing 80 percent of adults said that a woman must be sick, neurotic, or immoral to remain unmarried. Indeed any form of female independence was greetedwith hostility, resentment, and fear. Most Greatest Generation Americans disapproved of wives working outside the home, and those wives who did were seen as defying their husbands' authority. Even then, women had few options beyond a small and circumscribed set of "female jobs." Want ads were segregated by sex, with separate sections for men and women, a practice The Washington Post didn't end until 1972. In the "Help WantedFemale" classifieds of the September 1, 1950, New York Times, women's choices were limited to bookkeeper, cashier, clerk, lab technician, maid, model, nurse, receptionist, secretary, stenographer, switchboard operator, or typist, and many ads described the perfect "girl" as "young" or "attractive," with one clerk-model job listing "5' 5"-7" in heels" as a requirement. Even bastions of enlightenment treated female aspirations with disdain. Of the 513 Harvard Law graduates in 1964, only fifteen were women, and they had to survive professors who refused to call on them and endure a first-year inquisition from the dean, who made them justify "taking the place of a man." Of course a woman's job didn't count for much anyway, as a wife's earnings could not be included when applying for a mortgage, and until the Equal Opportunity Credit Act of 1975, women had a hard time obtaining charge cards and wives couldn't establish credit lines independent of their husbands.
But it wasn't just women's economic independence that America suppressed in the Greatest Generation years. It was psychological and personal. In 1956, Life magazineever attuned to the cultural zeitgeistinterviewed five male psychiatrists who blamed female assertiveness and ambition for troubled households, anxious husbands, and even homosexuality in boys. Marital problems, the psychiatrists said, stemmed from "wives who are not feminine enough and husbands who are not truly male." And wives who weren't feminine enough and didn't send the right social signals could lead to husbands losing jobs and promotions. These sermons were of course mild compared to the censure aimed at women who asserted their sexual independence. Men who sowed their wild oats were met with a cultural wink and nod, while like-minded women were condemned as degenerates. Nor were these mere academic judgments. As historian Stephanie Coontz writes in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, "institutionalization and sometimes electricshock treatments were used to force women to accept their domestic roles and their husbands' dictates." Women were considered too emotional for politics, science, business, and even jury duty, and women who spoke too forcefully were labeled "hysterical," a word derived from the psychiatric term for a disorder characterized by uncontrollable, even violent emotional outbursts.
So overwhelming was this cultural ethos that large numbers of women felt compelled to internalize and believe it. In a faint echo of the light-skinned blacks who passed as whites and cut off ties with their families, more than one in four women26 percenttold pollsters in 1946 that they wished they had been born as men (only 3 percent of men wished they were born as women), and in 1962, two out of three women said decisions "should be made by the man." But just as civil rights marchers holding I AM A MAN placards asked America to affirm their humanity, so too did the early feminists: "Women Are People Too" was what the little-known Betty Friedan called her 1960 article in Good Housekeeping, which she would eventually turn into her groundbreaking 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. A nation that fought for human dignity and worth in World War II seemed to be ignoring and suppressing it here at home.
Nostalgia is a funny phenomenon because it puts a sepia-toned lens over the past and makes us yearn for the imagined good old days. But in truth the old days weren't so good. And in truth we live in a far better America today. It is a more humane America, a more equal America, a freer America, an America that no longer blesses the exclusion and debasement of people simply because of their background and gender. We live in the Baby Boom era of American history, and despite our flaws and blemishes as a nation, we are a more benign and virtuous nation than at any time in our history. The media may headline all the finger-pointing jeremiads about moral decline and a loss of virtues, but the real story of America in the Baby Boom era is how we've become a more open nation, a more accepting nation, a nation that's adopted a norm of democratic pluralism and tolerance for people regardless of who they are and how they act, think, or look.
Today's gauzy memories may bathe the typical Fifties community in a glow of welcome and warmth, but in truth these were communities builton ostracism and exclusion, which means they denied community to some as they conferred it on others. The Baby Boom norm is different: We expect communities and institutions to include, to reach out, to respect difference and find ways to accommodate it. Indeed if we're intolerant at all today, we're intolerant of the old intolerance. Rather than shame a black person for not looking white or a wife for not acting wifely or a gay man for not acting manly or a Jew for being too conspicuous, we now shame those who resist and disrespect this new norm. We now prize rather than punish people for expressing themselvesunless, of course, they're doing it in ways that exclude or harm others. People are free to conform or not to conform; mothers are free to stay at home or pursue careers; blacks and whites are free to fall in love and not fear harassment or worse; two men living together are free to call themselves a family; employees are free and often encouraged to speak their minds; citizens are free to dissent without risking censure for disloyalty; people are free to live and let live, to pursue their own version of happiness.
To be sure, not all Americans wholeheartedly embrace these choices, and we're far from eliminating those old habits of heart that demeaned anyone who didn't conform or spoke out or stood even a bit outside the mainstream. We may never eliminate prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and fear. But at a minimum we've created a new and compelling norm that shuns prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and fear. In a very fundamental way America in the Baby Boom age is closer than ever to its founding ideals of freedom and equalitynot economic equality, which Americans never espoused, but a democratic equality, an equality of worth between people, a sense that all segments of society are equally deserving of respect, a belief in cultural pluralism that regards no race or belief or way of life as superior or inferior to another.
So natural and comfortable is our new liberal norm that most Americans seem to take it for granted, as if it's always been this way. Because we live in a changed America, we tend to forget what it was like before we embraced the principles of diversity, feminism, and Baby Boom individualismwe tend to forget how much better it is today, much like the proverbial female basketball star who spurns feminism without ever asking who put the ball in her hands. Today our political culture is riven by the notion ofgay marriage, and pundits breathlessly report that gays are on the defensive because only 40 or so percent of Americans support the idea, far less than the number that supports the less ambitious concepts of gay adoption and civil unions. But to think that gay marriage would even be an issue, or to imagine civil unions as a possible compromise, or to see two men raising children let alone holding hands in public, or to have a majority call homosexuality an acceptable lifestyle, or to have nearly four in ten adults approving the marriage of two men or two women and a comfortable majority saying they're fine with civil unionsthese would be mind-boggling and thoroughly incomprehensible during the Greatest Generation years, when gays could be arrested simply for congregating at bars and parents would commit their gay children to psychiatric hospitals. Today we haggle about the limits of affirmative action and politically correct thinking, but it would be hard to find many Americans who would support an accounting firm like the one in the 1980s that denied a woman partnership for failing to "walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry," which is precisely what most employers expected from women during the Greatest Generation era, when men were men and women were girls.
Today we see women going to work and men staying home to raise the children, black and white characters kissing passionately on television, universities training female prosecutors and male nurses, and Mississippi police departments once accustomed to arresting blacks now hiring black police chiefs. Today we see bottom-line business considerations giving way to environmental concerns, religious denominations blessing gay or female rabbis and ministers, lay organizations challenging church doctrine, corporate brochures promoting diversity, and a deeply conservative vice president of the United States praising the gay rights work of his lesbian daughter. We even see an attorney general known for his right-wing views authorizing a gay pride celebration at the Justice Department that his black deputy was asked to address, hundreds of thousands in hundreds of cities flocking to see a play celebrating female sexuality named The Vagina Monologues, and a southern senator driven from power for expressing segregationist sentiments. Most Americans barely raise an eyebrowwhen hearing these things today. It doesn't seem unusual anymore to see a female boss at work or a black and white couple lovingly embrace. But all of these would have been inconceivable in the Greatest Generation era. America has undergone what the scholar Ronald Inglehart has called a "broad cultural shift, with one worldview replacing another," and except for religious conservatives railing against it, the rest of America seems perfectly comfortable and has barely paused to notice. In fact when pollsters dig beneath the generalized nostalgia for the good old days, they find that only a small number of Americans would ever want to return to them, a fact that public opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich learned more than two decades ago when he asked people if they had "any hankering to go back either to traditional standards of sexual relations, to the 'spic and span' housekeeping norms of the past, or to the male monopoly on working outside the home."
To say that America today is far better and more humane than in the Greatest Generation years is not to suggest that Greatest Generation Americans were in any way bad or indifferent people. Far from it. But when they returned home after the war and it came time to advance the freedoms they defended overseas, the Greatest Generation turned out to be generally resistant or mute. Perhaps it was because they were tired of fighting, or perhaps it was because they had experienced so much uncertainty that they just didn't want to rock the boat, or perhaps the white men didn't want blacks or women competing for jobs, or perhaps they were simply old-fashioned and liked things as they were. But whatever the reason, they acquiesced and remained largely silent. It was what Martin Luther King, Jr., meant when he wrote in 1964 about the reign of police terror against blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, "The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people, but the silence of the good people."
The Greatest Generation's progeny, the Baby Boom generation, is often accused of being over-indulged and soft. In a curious and usually implied cultural condemnation, Boomers stand indicted for never having fought the Great War and never suffering through the Great Depression. But it's really a moot exercise to argue over how Boomers would have fared during World War II. What we do know is this: Millions of Boomersfought nobly and bravely in a pointless and duplicitous war their Greatest Generation parents bequeathed them, and millions more risked arrest, imprisonment, and ostracism for protesting and opposing the pointlessness and duplicity of that war. We also have no evidence or reason to believe that Boomers wouldn't have fought the Nazis with the same commitment of blood, bravery, and selflessness their parents gave, and indeed Boomer anti-war protesters said so at the time, distinguishing between the very just and necessary war against Hitler and the misguided, deceptive, and morally ambiguous war in Vietnam.
More relevant when examining these two generations is to focus on what they did when faced with the exact same circumstances, when faced with a culture, society, and political system that denied basic rights, suppressed aspirations, scorned anyone different, and made people outside the mainstream doubt themselves, their value, and their worth. In the 1960s, 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, the founding principles of our countrythey made the choice to end the hypocrisy of proclaiming but not observing our national ideals, 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 democracy and fulfilling its promise when neither war nor catastrophe nor crisis nor necessity compelled them to do it.
Greatness can be measured not only by the decisions we must make, but by the decisions we choose to make. Two generations stared at the same shortcomings, inequities, and hypocrisies of American life, but it was the Baby Boom generation that chose to tackle them, to hold this country to its grand ideals, to agitate for justice when it would have been easier to remain docile and silent, and we are a better nation because of that. It is why this generation's accomplishments eclipse what came before it, and why the Baby Boom must be recognized as the Greater Generation.
One of our prevailing cultural assumptions today, fueled by the media's insatiable need for narrative arcs, is that the only path to greatness is throughsacrifice and suffering. We have a bias toward the epic, toward the dramatic, toward the visual show of courage and grit, toward the Saving Private Ryan version of history. But what gets left out of this narrative is the heroism of daily life, of changing institutions and compelling society to live up to its ideals. What gets left out is the idealistic legwork of democracy. There's no rule in history saying you have to endure hardship or deprivation to be greatthat only soldiers or ascetics have a claim to moral worth. Baby Boomers never had a good and triumphant war to fight, or a grueling depression to endure. And so many observers simply assume that the Baby Boom generation has lived off its birthright and hasn't accomplished much since energizing the civil rights movement and grinding the Vietnam War to a halt. But ever since Boomers burst into the Sixties and began challenging the status quo, they have relentlessly held themselves and their country accountablemorally and personally accountablefor expanding freedom and embracing pluralism. There may be nothing Homeric or visually compelling about bringing democracy to the workplace or effecting equality at home or ending the shame minorities feel simply for sounding or looking different, but these and other changes spawned by the Baby Boom are so far-reaching and fundamental that they will transform how Americans live in ways no war or New Deal ever could accomplish. Baby Boomers will never receive medals or decorations to document what they've done, but it's evident every day in our more open, inclusive, tolerant, equal, diverse, and environmentally aware society. The great advances of the last four decades didn't just happen on their ownit was, by and large, the Baby Boom that made them happen.
What Baby Boomers have done, as one author put it, is transform society through "a silent revolution in social values." Once the clamor from the Sixties died down, Boomers very quietly took the core values from that decade and began to remake society attitude by attitude, family by family, courtroom by courtroom, office by office, institution by institution. Empowered by their vast numbers and network of like-minded peers, they became a generation unafraid to examine the precepts on which society and their identity stood. These were regular people leading regular lives but unwilling to accept the obsolete norms of these regular lives, ordinary citizens who imagined themselves as agents of change. SoBoomers began to challenge old assumptions, modify outmoded laws, modernize personal and institutional relationships, and change the social values that guide the way we live and act toward one another. Demeaning and bigoted habits of speechdiscredited. The sexual double standardconfronted. Deference to white menchallenged. Genteel prejudiceexposed. Discrimination against anyone outside the mainstreamrooted out. Racial and sexual taboosdefied. Imposing religious values on people who believe differentlyrejected. The command and control workplacediscarded. Sexual harassmentoutlawed. Entrenched authorityheld accountable. Smoke-filled politics, cronyism, secrecy in governmentunmasked. Toxic run-off and belching smokestacksno longer tolerated.
Over the last four decades, the Baby Boom has created, reinvented, invigorated, or sustained most of the great citizen movements that have advanced American values and freedomsthe environmental movement, the consumer movement, the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the diversity movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the human rights movement, the openness in government movement. In its wake the Baby Boom has left not a single institution unchanged for the better, from the workplace to the university to the press to the military to the basic relationship between men and women. This is not to deny credit to those Greatest Generation legislators who sensed the cultural groundswell and voted for all the landmark civil rights laws in the Sixties. And many did it against the wishes of their white Greatest Generation constituents, who cheered Richard Nixon's cynical southern strategy in 1968, which exploited racial prejudice and fear, and who supported the segregationist George Wallace in the 1964 Democratic primaries, giving him as much as 43 percent of the vote in some northern states. But as Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out repeatedly throughout the 1960s, a law can go only so farit's the heart, the soul, the mind, and the deed that ultimately validate human dignity, that determine whether a black woman feels a need to bleach her skin, or whether a Jew feels a need to change his name, and until the Baby Boom tackled these matters of heart, the old norms remained unbowed and unchanged.
It was this evolving worldview that Boomers bestowed on society, aworldview that embraced change, pluralism, inclusion, and individual worth, that cast aside blind faith in tradition and fear of the other. Throughout human history new generations have always struck a bargain with their elders: Adhere to our traditions and conform to our values, the elders say, and we will let you assume power. Generation after generation acquiesced in the deal. But the Baby Boom said no, the Baby Boom refused to compromise its ideals, and in the span of a single generation the Baby Boom has overturned decades if not centuries of outmoded norms, attitudes, and discriminatory practices, replacing them with a more fundamentally democratic culture that reaches every nerve and synapse of American life.
Of course if most Greatest Generation Americans had their way, Baby Boomers would have transformed precious little in American life. As pollster Daniel Yankelovich has pointed out, America in the Greatest Generation era was governed by "universally held prescriptions" about how we should lead our lives, prescriptions that circumscribed personal freedom and upheld the prerogatives of white men at the expense of non-whites, women, and anyone who lived or loved outside the cultural mainstream. So stubborn and monolithic were these norms that the Greatest Generation resisted change even when the rest of society was metamorphosing around them, relenting only somewhat in their very twilight years. Well into the 1990s, polls showed Greatest Generation majorities opposing racial intermarriage, objecting to working mothers, supporting discrimination against gays, clinging to the notion that husbands belong at work and wives belong at home, and insisting on the old rule that young people should be taught to follow their elders, not think for themselves. When asked if people should obey the law without exception or observe their conscience when faced with an unjust law, large majorities of Greatest Generation Americans continued to espouse obeying the law without exceptionno different from what they lectured young Baby Boomers on during the civil rights and Vietnam days. On issues involving the very nature of inclusion and pluralism, the Greatest Generation has repeatedly balked at the new Baby Boom norm. Through the end of the Eighties a majority of Greatest Generation Americans said they would vote for a law allowing a homeowner to refuse to sell his home to a black buyer. Whenasked in 1977 if they would try to end racial discrimination in a social club they and their friends belonged to, nearly 70 percent said "no"and "no" remained the majority sentiment for this cohort till the end of the 1980s.
On all of these issues the Baby Boom has held diametrically opposed views ever since pollsters began recording their attitudes in the mid 1960swhen half, for example, expressed shame over our nation's racial problems. Indeed for Boomers, the generation gap is not merely a rhetorical relic from the Sixtiesthe persistence of Greatest Generation norms, manifested today in the conservative movement, has been a real and decisive barrier to the inclusive, equal, and democratic America that the Baby Boom has been shaping since the Sixties. To Boomer critics, if our nation had only stuck with Greatest Generation valuesduty, faith, and deferencewe would have become a stronger, stable, more united, and less divided nation. It was Boomers, they claim, who roiled society and stirred things up. But to Boomers, duty does not mean blind loyalty. It does not mean following authorities simply because they're authorities. It does not mean accepting unjust norms and resisting efforts to change them. During the climactic years of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr., worried that too many Greatest Generation Americans preferred order to justice, "a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." Boomers answered King's call, and as a generation they have never been afraid to challenge a status quo that needs challengingthey have always insisted on rights before deference and justice before order. And we're a better nation because of it.
Given the Baby Boom's staunch values, their devotion to egalitarian and inclusive principles, how curious that some critics accuse Boomers of lacking a moral compass and imposing a reckless relativism on the rest of society. Conservative critics such as William Bennett, George Will, Sean Hannity, and Robert Bork condemn Boomer liberalism for "unilateral moral disarmament," to quote Bennett, for an unwillingness "to make judgments on a whole range of behaviors and attitudes." But this analysis is flawed and misguidedit simply misreads Baby Boom culture. At bottom, what perturbs these critics is that their version of morality has been superseded by Baby Boom morality, and in a sly effort to undermineBoomer liberalism, they attempt to trivialize it. But in the Baby Boom book of virtues, there's nothing equivocal about the Boomer view of right and wrong. Boomers condemn bigotry, intolerance, and discrimination. They reject moralistic constraints on personal freedom and don't like it when women are patronized and not treated as equals. They find pollution objectionable and see nothing moral in imposing religious beliefs on others. They believe a moral upbringing is teaching kids to think for themselves, not to follow arbitrary rules or blindly accept the status quo. And they have a hard time seeing the morality of ostracizing those whose sexual orientation and private behavior do no one any harm. What Boomer culture embraces are the very American values of pluralism, privacy, freedom of choice, tolerance, and respect for others no matter how different they are from you. To Boomers, authority should be earned, government should be open, conscience should trump rules, the environment should be protected, people should feel free to express themselves, and we should have as much democracy as any organization or institution will allow. These are core Boomer values, and they're as moral as the values of any previous era. To the oft-repeated accusation that Boomer culture has eroded the traditional family and all restraints on personal behavior, not at all. Boomers simply accept that people are different and have a right to make their own choices and lead their own lives, and that the moral imperative is not to condemn those who are different but to include and support them. Diversity is not just a sloganit's a moral value in Baby Boom America.
Historians looking back will probably say that Baby Boomers turned Greatest Generation morality on its head. Whereas the Greatest Generation imposed its morality on private behavior and personal relationships, the Baby Boom projected its morality onto our social behavior and public relationships. Whereas the Greatest Generation viewed sexual and other personal behavior as a moral or religious issue, the Baby Boom sees it as an individual choice and a private personal issue. Whereas the Greatest Generation accepted racial bigotry, sex discrimination, cultural conformity, and environmental degradation as unchanging realities, the Baby Boom deems them unconscionable realities that need to be changed.
What's clear is that the norms of the Fifties are no longer the normstoday, and the norms today were never the norms in the Fifties. To suggest that Fifties morality is the only type of morality is to misunderstand the very nature of morality. The William Bennetts of the world deride Boomer morality as parvenu morality, a politically correct indulgence of educated elites. They just don't recognize that today's morality is as exacting as any moralityit asks for self-restraint, it demands consequences, it involves making judgments. Or perhaps they just don't like the results of this new morality. Boomers are making a moral statement when they confront a politician who disparages gays or a sportscaster who demeans blacks or a businessman who condescends toward women. But when Bill Clinton "did not have sexual relations with that woman," even Boomers offended by his lying simply shrugged at his wrongheaded personal behavior and instead shuddered at the invasion of his privacy, to the great bewilderment of Greatest Generation pedants who wailed about an American society morally adrift.
To Boomers, of course, it was the old America of the Fifties that was morally adrift. As the first generation weaned on television, Boomers grew up seeing the flickering images of racial injustice and political McCarthyism, and they began to ask how there could be such public listlessness and conformity in a society that clearly wasn't living up to its founding ideals. Nor were they alone in this assessment. In 1960, President Eisenhower warned that an America "worshiping material success" could "become emptied of idealism," and to combat national aimlessness he created a Commission on National Goals charged with restoring a sense of purpose and direction in the country. His concerns were confirmed by sociologists who found Americans uninterested in civic life, unwilling to get involved, and unmotivated to learn about politics. One 1959 study of New Haven, Connecticut, found Greatest Generation Americans barely engaged in their communities or participating in any public concerns"citizens are not interested, concerned, and active," the study concluded. In 1960 Life magazine worried about a growing gap between American ideals and the reality of excessive materialism. The social critic Paul Goodman diagnosed the Greatest Generation with a condition he called "the nothing can be done disease."
One lesson the Greatest Generation taught Boomers was to respectAmerican history, to honor our wars for democracy, and to revere the ideals encoded in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. So Boomers took the founding American values to heart: freedom of speech, equality before the law, respect for privacy, distrust of power, individual liberty, open democracy, the pursuit of happiness, and constant vigilance against the tyranny of the majority. But as they looked closely at Greatest Generation society, they began to question how much America was living up to these ideals, the ones they were so earnestly taught in school. Drilling deeper, they wondered how a president could send young people to fight a war without telling the truth about the war or showing how it would protect democracy. Or they wondered how white Christian Americans could claim the mantle of American tradition when in fact this nation was built by a multicultural cast of whites and blacks, Christians and Jews, Europeans and Indians, deists and religionists. Or they wondered how our leaders could pontificate about our freedoms when so many Americans were unable or afraid to exercise them. To Boomers, a truly moral America would end this hypocrisy, which is precisely what this generation set out to do.
Recently, in a widely celebrated book called Bowling Alone, the prominent sociologist Robert Putnam labeled Greatest Generation Americans the "long civic generation" largely because so many built bonds of trust by belonging to social organizations like the Elks, Kiwanis, and Lions clubs. Sadly, Putnam argued, civic life in America has fallen apart in the Baby Boom years. But to Boomers there was nothing civic about belonging to private clubs that excluded blacks, Jews, and womenand nothing civic about blindly accepting that status quo. A social trust built on distrust of others seemed contradictory at best, poisonous at worst. Rather, Boomers understood "civic" the way Eisenhower articulated it, as a moral cause to advance American ideals. Much like other idealistic generationsthe Revolutionary generation or the Progressive reformers of a century agoBoomers were warned not to defy received tradition, not to question the established way of life, not to distrust their elders. But as they emerged onto the American scene in the Sixties, Boomers saw an America riddled with hypocrisythey saw an astonishing gap between our founding ideals and the reality of American lifeand as a generation theyrefused to accept it. And ever since the Sixties, Boomers have spent their lives quietly agitating to bridge that gap.
In their neighborhoods and offices, in universities and the courts, through nonprofits and loosely organized grass-roots groups, in the home and in personal relationships, Boomers have sought to create a public morality that would square American ideals with the way we lead our lives. And in doing so Boomers have forged new bonds of trustwhat Putnam calls "social capital"between people who never would have met through an Elks or Moose club, or who never would have been allowed to join one of these clubs. This Boomer determination to transform our social values and create new forms of social capital first became evident on the increasingly diverse campuses of the Sixties, and today it is evident in every corner of Boomer culture and life. A Simmons Market Research Bureau study in the early Nineties found Boomers considerably more likely than other adults to participate in public meetings, work on local civic issues, volunteer in politics, give time and money to charities, and write letters to officials, newspapers, magazines, and product manufacturers. And to many Boomers it's more than just a civic dutymany have dedicated their lives to improving America. The number of nonreligious nonprofit and advocacy groups has mushroomed from fewer than thirty thousand in the late 1940s to nearly nine hundred thousand today, with nonprofit employment nearly doubling since the late 1970s, and in Baby Boom America there are advocates for any and all Americans locked outside the corridors of power, from consumers to minorities to working parents to small investors to plain old citizens seeking a more open and accountable government not beholden to special interests. Nor does that even count all the grass-roots groups and impromptu networks dedicated to social action, legal services, environmental protection, zoning laws, community festivals, and countless other local activities.
Boomers also put a great deal of their civic energy into transforming a new center of community life in America, the workplace, where they have successfully challenged corporate structures, flattened organizational hierarchies, and pushed for more flexible, inclusive, non-discriminatory work environments. Boomers may not flock to Kiwanis clubs, but most do work, and the office has become a new town square for people of alldifferent backgrounds to build bridges, socialize, and band together for a common cause, so it's natural that Boomers would insist on making it better. It's the same spirit behind Boomer involvement in the environmental movement. In the 1950s and 1960s, few Americans considered the environment a national problem, placing it near the bottom in a Gallup poll of public concerns, and anyone criticizing industrial practices was accused of obstructing progress. But that was before Boomers took on the cause. By 1970, more than twenty million Americans would participate in Earth Day celebrations; by the early Seventies, under pressure from Boomer students, universities across the country were establishing environmental studies programs; by the Eighties, membership in environmental groups would multiply ten-fold if not more; by the Nineties, local chapters energized by grass-roots members would challenge zoning laws and sue for stricter environmental enforcement; and by 2000, curbside recycling would take hold in more than nine thousand communities, up from six hundred in 1988. A similar time line could be written about the rise of racial inclusiveness, or the growing equality for women, or the emerging acceptance of gays and lesbians, or the increasing tolerance for all forms of diversity. If membership in a Kiwanis club can merit a civic label, it would be difficult to call the Baby Boom anything but a great civic generation. Or as one writer put it, Americans have been experiencing "not the extinction of civic life but its reinvention."
It also would be difficult to call Boomers anything but patriotic. No, it's not patriotism in the flag-waving and chest-thumping sense, but in many ways it's as meaningful a patriotism because it recognizes that American nationalism is built not on pride or hubris but on ideals and how we uphold them. And it's a patriotism that doesn't feel a need to demonize others to prove how good we are. In fact the Baby Boom culture may best be judged by something Boomers haven't done. After World War I, the war to save democracy, an America seized by Red Scare fears arrested thousands of immigrants, charged many with sedition, and passed such restrictive immigration laws that they limited entry primarily to Anglo-Saxons and were later used to keep Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism from finding safe haven in this country. In the Thirties, millions of Americans cheered the anti-Semitic rants of Father Charles Coughlin, the "radiopriest," who needed ninety-six clerks to answer the eighty thousand grateful letters he received weekly. In the Forties, as the Greatest Generation fought Hitler, we rounded up 120,000 Japanese-Americans and locked them away in internment camps. Then in the Fifties, the shroud of McCarthyism cast a shadow of persecution, suspicion, and fear over anyone different from the ideological or cultural mainstream. This was all a part of the patriotism of old.
Now fast-forward to today, to America under the Baby Boom. Except for some law enforcement excesses and random but rare acts of violence, there was no Red Scare equivalent after September 11, no credible calls to persecute or imprison or deport Muslims and Arabs, no public imagery depicting Arabs with exaggerated or stereotyped features, but rather a sincere if at times awkward attempt to reach out and bridge any differences and reinforce our new ideology of inclusion. Observed the New York Times essayist Edward Rothstein, "at a time in which a war on Islamist terror is working itself out in so many incarnations and with so many controversies, what seems noteworthy is that there are now so few examples of graphic American propaganda and none using ethnic or racial caricatures." It's the same with the American response to the millions of Latinos and Asians who have emigrated during the last four decades: Unlike the malevolent nativism, bigotry, and 100-percent Americanism that greeted Russian, Polish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants a century ago, a norm of diversity shields today's immigrants. As a culture we've marginalized nativism and rejected stereotyping, and the worst it gets is the occasional initiative to limit government benefits for illegal immigrants, which is then dissected for xenophobic motivation and denounced if it's found. This is Baby Boom public morality, Baby Boom patriotism at work.
As we peer through the media looking glass today, most images of Baby Boomers seem stuck in the Sixties, when youthful Boomers quite brazenly confronted status quo values and norms, setting off a Newtonian process of action and reaction that pitted Boomers against their Greatest Generation elders. Many Boomers themselves harken back wistfully to these "glory years," a time when their generational adrenaline flowed, when they challenged a misguided war, two lying presidents, and a society that devalued minorities and women. To them, Baby Boom historystopped right about then. Now there's no question that the Sixties experience is a central helix of the Baby Boom DNA. But to focus only on the Sixties is to miss the more significant story of how this generation, ever since the Sixties, has transformed our institutions and changed our norms. In the simplistic narrative of mass media, the fact that Boomers were no longer marching or protesting or in-your-face demonstrating meant that Boomers had eschewed their ideals. But that narrative says more about the media's need for a good storyline than it does about Boomers. For the Baby Boom reverberation didn't end with the Sixtiesit began with the Sixties and in the process suburbanized and institutionalized the Sixties. That is how this generation's story unfolds.
There will no doubt be critics who argue that the Baby Boom's generally liberal attitudes are not widespread and merely reflect the values of cultural elites, particularly activists from the Sixties who have moved into media and the universities. But research on public attitudes belies that argument. On social issue after social issuefrom race to family to religion to personal behavior and choicea large majority of Boomers fall squarely in the column of greater inclusion, freedom, equality, and acceptance, and an equally large majority of Boomers hold attitudes diametrically opposed to those of their elders in the Greatest Generation.
Where these critics stumble upon a kernel of truth is in describing the role of well-educated Boomers in setting the tone for this generation back in the Sixties. And there's a reason it happened this way. In the early Sixties, as America began to emerge from the smokestack industrial age, the technological demands of our changing economy required an increasingly educated workforce. That happened to coincide with the first group of Boomers entering early adulthood. For other generations a job and marriage were the sole options, but for better-educated Boomers the preferred choice was college, and many went. As employers clamored for smarter workers, campuses once reserved for WASP elites began opening their doors to an increasingly diverse student body. The result is that colleges that had previously reflected social privilege began to reflect another phenomenon: generational identity. And as is wont to happen at college, students don't simply get trained for a job. They begin to ask big questions, think critically, and question the status quowhich is preciselywhat Boomer college students began to do in the Sixties, and needless to say they had plenty to question. The result, as Daniel Yankelovich describes it, was a "cultural revolution" that was incubating on the college campuses in the Sixties. "Initially," Yankelovich notes, "its true nature was disguised by the Vietnam War protests, but when the war ended the unrest on campus turned out not to be essentially about antiwar protests and radical politics but rather about cultural values." These new Baby Boom values represented a sharp break from traditional values, and as Yankelovich puts it, we've moved from the old "lockstep social conformity" and "puritanical, repressive attitudes" to a new worldview characterized by greater diversity, less hierarchy, and a more pluralistic approach to knowledge and society.
But perhaps most interesting is how these values spread from campuses to the rest of the generation. And it happened through another quirk of historythe fact that Baby Boomers were really the first mass media generation. Transistor radios freed Boomer media from parental control and enabled Boomers to create a common youth culture on the airwaves. Through rock music Boomers heard the beat and the words that spoke to their desires, hopes, ideals, and frustrations. Television enabled Boomers to see what no generation had seen before: streaming images of Americans brutalizing other Americans who simply wanted to exercise their civil rights. As the Sixties progressed, FM radio and alternative weekly newspapers further sharpened the Baby Boom critique of Greatest Generation America and disseminated it beyond the campus gates. Nor was there the type of media clutter we have today with our many hundreds of choicesBoomers heard the same rock music and saw the same news programs and struggled with the same compelling issues about war, equality, bigotry, and official hypocrisy.
So what emerged was a youth culture of shared imagery, issues, and expectations that began to transcend the class, race, and ethnic barriers that had divided all previous generations. Boomer youth culture became a conveyer belt that spread campus concerns to the rest of the generation, even to younger brothers and sisters too young to remember the Sixties but old enough to be troubled by the fallout from Vietnam and Watergate. In the early Seventies, Yankelovich was the first to notice how broadlythis generational identity was taking shape, as he found "the gap between college and noncollege youth" closing through "an astonishingly swift transmission of values formerly confined to a minority of college youth and now spread throughout this generation." And it wasn't long before these values permeated the rest of America, to the point that by 1980 Yankelovich could find no more than 20 percent of Americans who did not subscribe "to at least part of the new value orientation," a finding confirmed by scholars who wrote in The American Journal of Sociology that between the 1970s and 1990s, the social attitudes of college graduates and the less schooled "became more similar," to the point of "significant" convergence.
So yes, the Boomer silent revolution may have started on the campuses, and it may be anchored in the protests of the Sixties, but there's really nothing elite about it. More accurate is to see it for what it is: a generation-wide movement to repudiate stifling norms and fulfill American ideals, one of the great mass cultural transformations in our nation's history. That we remain a far from perfect society today should not obscure the fact that we are a much better society today. And to say that the Baby Boom has made it so has nothing to do with generational vanity, as some critics might charge, but rather with giving credit where credit is due. Indeed it's safe to say that World War II-era Americans, for all their virtues, wouldn't be so honored today were it not for the fact that their children, Baby Boomers, have spent their lives righting the wrongs that the Greatest Generation condoned, accommodated, or never addressed.
THE GREATER GENERATION. Copyright © 2006 by Leonard Steinhorn. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Meet the Author
Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication at American University, where he teaches politics, media, and culture. He is a former political speechwriter and is coauthor of By the Color of Our Skin, a critically acclaimed book on race relations.
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