The Real Greatest Generation

The generation Tom Brokaw praised won an extraordinary peace against true evil. But boomers did more than give us tie-dye and ABBA. They changed society monumentally.

Tom Brokaw named those who came of age during World War II the "Greatest Generation," but for my money the "greatest" sobriquet belongs to the sex-crazed, drug-addled, rock-'n'-roll-addicted revolutionaries who followed them. I know, this sounds inane. The World War II generation was raised in the economic caldron of the Great Depression; the boomers were the well-fed children of the new middle class. One generation willingly marched off to war; the other hitchhiked to Canada. The older sacrificed to give their children everything they never had; the younger threw it back in their faces. Most important, the generation Brokaw praised won an extraordinary peace against a genuine evil, remaking the political landscape of the entire world. The boomers did what? Invent tie-dye?

The boomers had their genesis in 1946, when soldiers returning from the front began procreating at a rapid rate. Presumably, they would have kept on with this activity but for the introduction of the birth control pill in 1961. As use of the Pill became widespread, births dropped from 4.3 million that year to just 3.8 million by the mid-1960s. There's irony here: The generation defined by free love and lots and lots of drugs was itself brought to an end by a drug that led to all of that free love.

What is their legacy? Sure, they gave us Hendrix and Dylan in the '60s, but they also gave us ABBA and Air Supply in the '70s. To many, their ostensibly principled stand against the Vietnam War, in retrospect, looks more like self-interest. Their worldview often seemed little more than a mindless rejection of the past, leaving us with literature, architecture, art, and even fashion that now seems silly or - in the case of the architecture - a permanent blight. Their excesses created a powerful counter-reaction, giving us Nixon and Reagan, the decline of liberalism, and the rise of the right.

For all of this, though, the boomers (and I count myself as one) created a world far better than the one they inherited.

How so? Post-World War II America wasn't a bad place to live - if you happened to be white, male, and straight. For the majority that didn't fit that definition, it was a very different, and far bleaker, existence. When the first boomers started coming of age, segregation was legal, mixed marriages were prohibited, and blacks and other minorities lived on the fringes of American society. Women weren't much better off . They might have been able to eat at lunch counters with men, but they couldn't dine at their clubs. Women's prospects were sharply circumscribed by the helpmate roles they were expected to play. Higher education generally meant some sort of secretarial school. Job ads were divided by gender. And, as with minorities, women's participation at the better-paid and more influential levels of society - in roles such as doctors, lawyers, or politicians - was sharply limited.

And gays? As far as most of America was concerned, they didn't even exist. And those who did were subject to arrest.

Collectively, those groups are upward of 65 percent of today's population. By almost any statistical measure - income, education achievement, and the like - they are now far better off than they were. Yet numbers don't even begin to tell the story. Back then, as much as the post-WWII United States saw itself as a land of opportunity - a place where one could be whatever one wished - that opportunity was foreclosed if you were female, a minority, or gay.

Credit the baby boomers and their rejection of the world they were handed for changing that. Marches on Washington, women's lib, Stonewall - it was under the boomers' watch that women, minorities, and gays became part of the mainstream. It was under their watch that expectations changed: Blacks could become doctors, women CEOs, and gay couples started to live openly next door to straight ones.

I know. The boomers didn't do it alone. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, led the fight against segregation, yet he was no boomer. But then, Eisenhower wasn't a member of the Greatest Generation either. In World War II, a generation of foot soldiers rose admirably to a challenge thrust upon them. The boomers were foot soldiers, too, taking on a challenge not of their making. The Greatest Generation may have saved the American Dream, but it was the boomers who helped make it come true for all.

Tom Keane, a Boston-based freelance writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at

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