Editor’s note: The first of a two-part article looks at how two generations – the Boomers and the Millennials – took control in post-World War II America.
In the years directly following World War II, America turned a war-torn page and began a new chapter in the continuously unfurling story of our nation. The famous image of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square as war’s end was announced heralded a new era of optimism in the American experience. “Forget your troubles, c’mon, get happy!” is how a beloved song from those years memorably framed it.
But the West had narrowly dodged an existential bullet. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had tried in vain for more than two years to coax President Franklin Roosevelt to join the Allies as the “gathering storm” of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich gave way to a fascistic deluge that threatened to douse the Free World. Though sympathetic to the plight of Europe, Roosevelt nimbly danced around Churchill’s entreaties, offering old ships on lend-lease here, some encouraging words there – but never committing a nation fortuitously bordered by oceans on two sides to the good fight.
However, when America was attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, the resolve to confront abject evil suddenly gained urgency and moral dimension. After patiently paving the way for the possibility the mighty United States might enter the fray, Churchill finally got his wish. As the smoke hung heavy in the Hawaiian air from the most brazen attack in our history, the United States declared war on the Axis Powers, and, after four years of the world’s bloodiest conflict, the Allies prevailed.
The collective sigh of relief across the Western world was audible, and the jubilation lit up America from sea to shining sea. The Greatest Generation had ultimately secured the very “peace in our time” that Churchill’s feckless predecessor, the appeasing Neville Chamberlain, believed he had secured from a mere handshake with Adolf Hitler. Lesson learned: Freedom must be fought for – not agreed to over tea and strudel.
An extended period of prosperity followed in America as the austerity of the war years and the dread echoes of the Great Depression faded from the cultural horizon. Optimism was reignited, giving rise to a rebirth of American ingenuity. By mid-century, things for the good life were built, branded, and sold by the millions — houses and cars and appliances.
And as the middle class defined the American Dream — and vice versa — those sunny smiles and beliefs in God, country, and capitalism meant a renewed focus on family. The excesses of the time were mirrored in the giant tail fins of the cars sold in record numbers – and reflected, too, in the burgeoning size of American families. Freed from the anxieties and privations of the war years, Americans were having a lot of sex, and a tidal wave of children followed.
The Baby Boom usually includes anyone born between 1946 to 1964. A staggering 79 million babies were born in the United States during that interval, and that generation went on to change America and the world forever.
As they came of age, the Boomers broke new ground culturally. They sent seismic shocks across the planet with the music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and many others. They challenged the established sexual mores of the ’50s, took advantage of the liberating new invention known as the pill, and engaged in “free love” as a path to cultural revolution.
The Boomers experimented with drugs and altering consciousness. The women’s rights movement came of age. The Boomers fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. These strains of counter-culture rebellion were knit together in the Dionysian excesses of the Woodstock festival, the last gasp of the hopeful ’60s before the dark clouds of Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and RFK rolled in.
Boomers expanded on the free love of the ’60s in the decadence of the ’70s. Their cynicism toward the establishment deepened, exacerbated by the corruption of the Watergate scandal. And in the ‘80s, when the massive Boomer generation collided with the workforce, the results were seen in the impressive economic gains of the Ronald Reagan years as well as the widespread abuse of drugs like cocaine.
But the dream of the ’60s had some unforeseen and unfortunate side effects: divorce, abortion, and drug addiction saw exponential increases, religion ceased to be a touchstone for faith in American families, and the gap between the middle class and the powerful and wealthy widened. Into this sobering American landscape, another cultural boom detonated: the largest generation in American history — the Baby Boomers – were having their own children.
They would come to be known as the Millennials.
The Millennials, named for the turn of the new century during which they came of age, include those born between 1981 and 1998. They are characterized as being far less willing to get married early and comfortable with such technologies as computers and the internet. They have been beset by the rising costs of higher education and housing and seek to become parents themselves during a time of dramatically lowered fertility rates. It hasn’t been easy for them.
But as the children of the Baby Boomers, the Millennials were adversely impacted by a phenomenon known as the Self-Esteem Movement. Possibly reacting to the sometimes stern “spare the rod” parenting of their Greatest Generation mothers and fathers, Boomer parents often cosseted their children, bolstering their self-worth with continuous empty praise.
They obsessively leveled every bump in their children’s way, as if smoothing the ice as sweepers do for the granite stone in the Olympic sport of curling. Such “parental curling” — also known as “snowplowing” — was an extension of “helicopter parenting.” It made for a generation of kids who got used to their parents as ‘fixers” and whose ability to problem-solve independently in the real world was stunted. And this unwelcome cultural development caused a sea change in education.
NEXT: The last of a two-part article examines the intertwined cultural imperatives of the Baby Boomer and Millennial generations that pervade our society, affecting everything from the response to the Coronavirus to the gutting of the First Amendment.
(Note: The author is complicit in his thesis as a Boomer on paper – but identifies Gen-X.)
Read more from author Pennel Bird.