Shortly after the end of my seventh decade, I made a dramatic discovery. One of my basic beliefs, one of my most treasured tenets, turned out to be untrue. Indisputably incorrect. Not founded upon fact.
Contrary to my lifelong assumption, I learned I was not a baby-boomer!
Perhaps this seems less than a momentous finding, given the plethora of problems and disappointments we face every day in our troubled world. Nevertheless, it left me somewhat in limbo, wondering where I fit in, if not where I had always assumed.
Conventional wisdom in the western world, I learned, defines boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964. Sadly, I came along, the firstborn of my generation, in early 1943, a full three years before my next oldest sibling. Upon my birth, I became the seventh living person in my three-generation family, and the youngest.
Today, I am the eldest of my own three-generation family, one of eleven people. This diminutive dynasty of mine has increased in number by a meagre four souls across a span of more than seventy years. We are not exactly a fecund family!
My brother and three sisters, born between 1946 and 1954, are legitimate baby-boomers. We’ve never talked about that, though, most likely because they take it for granted. Just as I always did prior to learning the truth. As I aged—reluctantly, grudgingly, but inevitably—it was comforting to know that I would never become irrelevant, inconsequential, or ineffectual. By virtue of my inclusion in such a huge, influential, demographic cohort, I was hopeful of being ever important, pertinent, and significant.
“I am a boomer!” I would proudly declare to one and all. Alas, that hope has been forever dashed.
It was only in the last century, apparently, that people began to think in terms of generations, and to label them. Prior to 1900, presumably no one had the time or inclination to pursue such frivolous thoughts. After World War I, however, when almost sixteen million soldiers and civilians were killed, and after the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, when perhaps fifty million people perished, the term lost generation sprang into use, denoting those born before the turn of the century. It is generally credited to the writer and critic, Gertrude Stein, and it came to define the cohort of that era.
The people born between 1900 and 1924—who came of age during the great depression of the 1930’s, many of whom served or fought in World War II—are often referred to as the greatest generation, a phrase first coined by another writer, Tom Brokaw. After the baby-boomers’ years, along came generations X, Y, and Z, roughly spanning the years between 1965 and the present. My two daughters are gen X-ers.
Generation Y, or millennials—born roughly between 1980 and the late 1990s, the children of boomers—are sometimes referred to as echo-boomers. One of my grandchildren falls into this cohort. The other four are of the gen Z group, which means my family spans five generational cohorts.
Anyway, my place in this grand scheme appears, sadly and irrefutably, to be wedged ignominiously between the greatest generation and the boomers, born between 1925 and 1945, a span that encompassed a period of rapidly-declining birth-rates in the western world. In the United States, for example, population fell by almost 1.8 million in the five years before 1945, whereas it grew by 19.4 million in the five years following. My generational cohort, the waning product of that decline, was dubbed the silent generation in a 1951 Time magazine article.
Can you imagine how I feel? I’m part of the silent generation? I went from being a boomer, a member of that iconic group responsible for much of the economic, cultural, and technological growth in the western world, to being a nobody—the product of a flagging era, dwindling and diminishing in comparison to the years surrounding it. It was disheartening, it was frustrating, and it was humbling to learn I was a member of a marginal, mute minority.
But, you may ask, why do I care? Why is this of such import?
Well, in times past—from feudal fiefdoms to Victorian villas—younger sons were often banished from their noble fathers’ mansions, sent off to the army or the church where they would succeed or fail on their own. The eldest son, however, was to the manor born, and was never treated in the manner of his younger siblings. Not for him the shame of exile or exclusion from the elegant elites. Male primogeniture reigned.
Therefore, when I eventually became old enough to understand my status as the eldest grandson in my somewhat-Victorian grandfather’s family, I more or less assumed I would benefit in a fashion similar to those earlier first-born scions of society’s finest families. Not only that, but in addition to my favourable birth-rank, I stood poised (I thought) at the leading edge of the greatest population boom in modern times, the boomers. The world would be there for our taking; none could stand against us.
[An aside: it occurs to me as I write this that perhaps, as a child, I was too steeped in Victorian delusions of grandeur. Ah, well…]
In any case, here I sit today, silenced, stifled, and insignificant, gloomily appraising my paltry position on the generational flowchart—not riding the crest of a great wave as I had assumed, a triumphant shout upon my lips—but rather receding slowly and soundlessly into a forgotten fragment of twentieth-century demographic distribution, the silent generation.
There is a painting, The Scream, completed in 1893 by Edvard Munch, himself the eldest son in his family. Famously considered to represent the universal angst of modern man, it portrays the artist at a particularly anxious time in his life. Since my banishment from the boomer ranks, I have looked at it closely and repeatedly, wondering what it sounded like, that scream. In similar torment, I have tried to copy it, tried to unveil my own scream of protest at the unfairness of it all.
“Let me in!” I open my mouth to cry, but no sound emerges. Oblivious to my silent suffering, the boomers tramp on, adhering to their own imperatives, a wholly-engrossed horde of humanity resolutely heading who knows where. Without me.
And so, ‘tis true. I am a boomer no more.