Anyone who believes that the cultural imperialism of baby boomers is limited to the generations that came after them need only see a recent documentary called “Young at Heart.” Almost unanimously loved by critics (most of them baby boomers), the film depicts a Massachusetts senior citizens chorus (median year of birth 1929) that became an international touring act when its director (year of birth 1953) switched its repertoire from flapper-era ditties like “Yes, We Have No Bananas” to golden not-as-oldies by such artists as the Rolling Stones, James Brown and the Clash.
Many of the choristers seem to neither understand nor particularly like the material; their own preferences run toward opera or Rodgers and Hammerstein. But conditioned by cheering audiences of mostly younger people, these oldsters have been convinced that they are healthier, happier and sharper -- not to mention better traveled -- because of Mick Jagger and Mick Jones. Boomer-era classic rock is not just music but a life force.
As a member of Generation X, I should know -- I’ve been strong-armed into an appreciation of ‘60s and ‘70s pop culture my whole life. There are an estimated 76 million boomers (10,000 babies a day on average, born between 1946 and 1964), while we Xers (born between 1965 and 1982) number a paltry 48 million. So boomers set the tone for everyone. Their tastes, needs and values are considered America’s default setting. They turn 60, and it warrants magazine covers. They get a cold, and the world sneezes with them.
So privileged is this group, they’ve been allowed to change generational labels the way they changed their (always “groundbreaking”) clothing styles. They’ve been known, in whole or in part, as the Dr. Spock Generation, the Free Love Generation, the Generation That Changed America, the Me Generation, Hippies, Yuppies, Bobos and, to certain members of Gen X, “moronic aging hippie posers.” Despite having grown out of the category years ago, they remain, thanks to a certain iconic TV show, etched in the popular imagination as forever “thirtysomething.”
As we find ourselves now halfway through a year of seemingly endless commemorations of yet another thing that happened in 1968, it’s hardly surprising that so few people are questioning the relevance of certain supposedly “historic” events. Granted, some are beyond dispute. In the first six months of 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and the North Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive, which is widely believed to have turned public opinion against the Vietnam War. In the second six months, demonstrations turned violent at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Richard Nixon was elected president and Apollo 8 orbited the moon.
So why does this stroll down memory lane feel more like a carjacking? Maybe because for every truly significant event of 1968, there are half a dozen not-necessarily-newsworthy happenings that we’re goaded into remembering with just as much gusto. Amid the nods to King and Kennedy, we can expect this year to be replete with art house revivals of the films “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Yellow Submarine,” innocuous if tiresome public radio features about Valerie Solanas’ shooting of Andy Warhol, and, if there’s a slow week in entertainment news, maybe even an E! special commemorating the marriage of Jackie Kennedy to Aristotle Onassis.
Even though I wasn’t alive when any of this stuff happened, I sure feel like I was. Maybe that’s because my generational cohorts and I have already endured five anniversaries of 1968 (one for each decade, plus the 25th thrown in for good measure) as well as four Woodstock revivals and countless Summer-of-Love-themed concerts. As though trapped at a reunion for a school we didn’t attend, pre- and post-boomers can only nod in bored bewilderment while the no-longer-hippies get their retroactive groove on.
It is, by now, a cliche for members of Generation X to complain about the excesses and hypocrisies of the hippie generation. (Gen Y has its grievances toward that generation too, but unlike Xers, nearly all of their parents are bona fide boomers, so their gripes may have their roots in bedtime or borrowing the car.) In the 1990s, when Gen Xers weren’t busy thinking up synonyms for “alienated,” we were carving out a collective identity largely concerned with our role as the victims of any number of boomer-imposed crimes (dwindling Social Security, fearsome divorce statistics, AIDS as the death rattle of the free-love party).
It may be unoriginal to point out that the sanctimony of “getting back to the garden” in the late 1960s and early 1970s begat the equal and opposite sanctimony of the “greed is good” mantra of the 1980s. But one need only rent “The Big Chill” to be reminded that if there’s anything boomers enjoy more than the music of Procol Harum and Three Dog Night, it’s remembering the earnest piety of their college days. This reminiscing is even better if it can be done within the confines of an expensively furnished house.
“The Big Chill,” released in 1983, is itself 25 years old this year. That means that many Gen Xers are now roughly the age of the characters played by Glenn Close and company. Why does that seem so hard for me to believe? Because for most of my peers, crushing student debt and a prohibitively expensive housing market preclude solipsistic weekends in that kind of square footage.
Even a lot of boomers hate boomers, and not just the right-wing kind, who love to blame the half-life of hippie-era hedonism for everything from teen sex to homelessness. The Democratic political consultant Paul Begala (year of birth 1961) published a screed in Esquire in 2000 denouncing boomers as “the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history.” Pointing out that key objects of boomer worship like the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin were all born before World War II ended, he suggests that (Bruce Springsteen excepted) “the truest [musical] expression of their generation” was actually disco.
The writer Joe Queenan (year of birth 1950) devoted an entire book, “Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomers,” to his generational self-loathing. His peeves include overindulgent parenting, tiny pony tails on balding, middle-aged men and, of course, boomers’ chronic refusal to let go of the myth of their specialness. “They had not been the first generation to sell out,” Queenan wrote, “but they were the first generation to sell out and then insist that they hadn’t.”
Which bring us back to this year’s 1968-apolooza. It would be one thing if we were being asked to take a few moments to honor truly historic events like the King assassination. But like an infomercial that endlessly wails “but wait, there’s more!,” the 40th anniversary of 1968 only gets less important the more TV specials, limited-edition magazines and nicely designed coffee table tomes get churned out to emphasize its importance. Why? Because by lumping pop albums in with political movements, we falsely elevate the former while cheapening the latter. And ironically enough, this yearlong remembrance reflects what, for all intents and purposes, was the original sin of the baby boom generation: not knowing when to quit.
That’s not to say that making octogenarians sing the Rolling Stones is tantamount to elder abuse (and for the record, the Young at Heart Chorus also performs renditions of Coldplay and Sonic Youth songs). But the novelty of that act belies a darker truth about the boomers’ monopoly on society, namely that any cultural artifact predating the 1960s is no longer merely obscure but facing imminent extinction.
But wait. There is (and will be for quite some time) much more. Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of 1969, which means fun-filled of reminiscences of Woodstock, the Manson murders and John and Yoko’s bed-in. The following year commemorates the break-up of the Beatles, the first Earth Day and the Kent State shootings.
In 2011, get ready to honor the death of Jim Morrison, the Concert for Bangladesh and Evel Knievel’s record-setting motorcycle leap over 19 cars.
And on and on it will go until, say, 2050, when, if they’re lucky, the last of the boomers will be living out their days in the Young at Heart Chorus. Something tells me they’ll bring a little something extra to “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Op-Ed page of The Times.