A Boomer No More!

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.

Always Will Be?

At a neighbourhood cocktail-party recently, I was doing my usual thing—wandering casually from group to group, wine glass in hand, smiling and nodding, overhearing and eavesdropping, trying not to engage directly— biding my time until it was time to go.

My wife, who works a room like the most polished politician, understands this about me, and seems not to worry about leaving me to my own devices.

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I was brought up short, however, when one fellow—an acquaintance more than a friend, but pleasant enough—pointed at me as I approached the small cluster of folks he was with.

“Here he is,” he said, “the guy I was just talking about.”  Draping one arm over my shoulders, he drew me into the circle.

“Oh, oh,” I joshed.  “This can’t be good.”  They were all smiling, though, so I raised my glass as I nodded hello.

“I was just telling everybody that I’m a regular reader of your blog,” the fellow said.  “Good stuff!  Really enjoy the articles.”

“Good, good,” I replied, nodding, waiting for the But

“But,” he said, “I’m curious about one thing.”

“And that is?” I asked, casting an eye to see if I could locate my wife.  This was exactly what I try to avoid.

He dropped his arm from my shoulder to reach for a canape on the tray being passed by one of our hosts.  Shoving it into his mouth, he said, “I don’t know how you can be such a Pollyanna optimist about things.  So much of your stuff is about the end of the world, about how we’re all going to die, about the mess we’re leaving for our kids.  And yet, you come across as confident that things are going to change.”

issuesI shifted slightly away so he couldn’t drop his arm on me again.  Everyone was still smiling, but expectantly now, wondering, I suppose, how I might respond.

“Well,” I said, shrugging, “we are going to die.  Nobody disputes that, right?  And I think we are making a mess of the planet, which may not affect us in the time we have left, but will surely have an impact on our kids and grandkids.  But you’re right, I don’t think it’s too late to do something about it.  Not quite yet.”

I gestured to the group, hoping to elicit a response.  “What do you guys think?”  A woman across from me opened her mouth, but not quickly enough.

“I don’t think anything we do makes one iota of difference to the planet,” my erstwhile friend said.  “You think blue boxes are going to solve the problem?  Most of that stuff ends up in landfills, so what’s the point?  You think changing your personal carbon footprint, whatever that means, is going to help the planet while billions of people in China and India are spewing pollution?  Please!”

We waited for him to go on.  “Here’s my theory,” he said.  “Every one of us was born into this world.” He paused for a swallow of his drink.  None of us could question his theory to that point.

“We didn’t make that world,” he continued.  “We got what we got.  Our parents called themselves the greatest generation.  They did the best they could with the world they inherited, and now we have to do the same.  Am I right?”

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“I don’t know,” I said, gesturing again to the group.  “What do you guys think?”

But the fellow was on a roll.  And I must concede, no one seemed inclined to step in.  He was compelling—even if (in my opinion, at least) a tad pompous.  I reminded myself that he was a loyal reader of this blog, and took another sip of wine.

“And we are doing the best we can,” he said.  “Nobody I know goes out and deliberately befouls the planet.  Hell, right in this neighbourhood we’ve got a group that’s adopted a stretch of county road so we can clean up the trash and litter.”

I couldn’t restrain myself.  “Where does the trash and litter come from?”

People’s eyes were shifting back and forth between us now, as if courtside.  And I don’t even like tennis.

“From idiots who don’t know any better,” he said.  “My point is that, for every ten of them, there’s only one of us who cares.  We’re outgunned.”

“What do you guys think?” I asked again, facing the group.

The same woman said, “I think there’s…”

“Excuse me, Marilyn,” the fellow interrupted.  “Sorry to butt in.  The thing is, no matter how many of us try to do the right thing, it’s not going to work.  There’s too many of them, the ones causing the problems.”

“Problems like the great plastic patch of trash in the Pacific?” I said.  “I’m told it’s larger than the state of Texas.”

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“Yeah, that’s a big one,” he said, waving his glass.

“Or the wildfires in California and Australia?” I said.  “Or the melting of the polar ice caps, the rising sea levels, the increase in global temperatures?  Problems like that?”

“All of those,” he said.  “You think we’re going to solve them in our lifetimes?”

“Maybe not in our lifetimes,” Marilyn said, quicker off the mark this time.  “But we could at least make a concerted effort.  Are you saying we should do nothing?”

“No, no, that’s not what I’m saying,” the fellow protested.  “I’m just saying we got what we got.  We didn’t ask for it, we just got it.  There’s five billion people on the planet, or whatever, and the planet can’t sustain that.  Not forever.  All we can do is what we can do.”

No one could dispute that last statement.  The question, though, is whether we will do what we can do.

“So, here’s the question then,” Marilyn persisted, on her own roll now.  “Will we do whatever we can do?  Or will we just bury our heads in the sand?”

The fellow’s wife, drawn by the sound of his voice, was at his elbow now, smiling brightly.  “George, there’s someone over here I want you to meet.”

He smiled down at her.  “Okay,” he said, “but let me say one last thing first.  Everybody knows we got problems, nobody’s arguing that.  My point is, there’s nothing we can do about them that’s going to make any difference to our kids and grandkids.  It’ll be up to them to deal with the world they live in, just like we had to.”

“So, you’re saying it is what it is?” I asked.

He nodded emphatically, setting his empty glass on a table.  “Exactly!  It is what it is!  Always has been, always will be.”  And with a cheery smile, he allowed himself to be escorted away by his wife.

“Always will be?” Marilyn said.  “I wonder.”

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As I nodded goodbyes and wandered off in search of my own wife, I wondered, too.  We know how it’s been; we know how it is right now.  Is this how it always will be?

What do you guys think?