A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Talkin' 'bout My Generation

The Mercury News today had one of those perfectly obvious "news" stories on its front page, about how Obama, Clinton/Romney, and McCain represent three generations: Gen-X, the Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation. My first reaction was, Well, duh. But my second was to feel my old gray hackles rise at the labeling of my own cohort as the "Silent Generation."

The article defines the "Silent Generation" as those people born between 1925 and 1942, and claims that it "was overshadowed by the 'GI Generation' that preceded them and fought World War II, and the baby boomers who came after them."

Well, first of all, a lot of people born in 1925 and 1926 also fought in World War II and Korea. And the baby boom is usually dated from 1946, when GIs came home and started raising families.

But even taking the article on its own terms, the inappropriateness of the label "Silent Generation" is obvious. There's a chart that goes with the story (the Merc loves charts) headed "Generations compared" that lists, among other things, "Prominent contemporaries" for each of the generations. And the prominent contemporaries of the "Silent Generation" include Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Dylan. If those guys were "overshadowed" by anyone in either the preceding or following generations, I'd like to know who.

I suspect that the "Silent Generation" label was coined by a baby boomer, a member of a generation that loves to celebrate itself. Baby boomers seem to believe that they changed the world, when most of the work was done for them by the generations that preceded theirs.

Take for example the famous baby boom triad of "sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll." That there was a sexual revolution there can be no doubt. But the groundwork for it was laid by Alfred Kinsey -- who was born in 1894. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published in 1948, and the followup on human females in 1953. It was the Silent Generation that made them bestsellers. As for drugs, it was Timothy Leary (born 1923) and Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass, born 1931), who ushered in the psychedelic era.

Oh, and where to start with rock 'n' roll? The article has already spotted us Bob Dylan (1941), but there would have been no good rockin' tonight without Chuck Berry (1926), Fats Domino (1928), Ray Charles (1930), Little Richard (1932), James Brown (1933), Elvis Presley (1935), Jerry Lee Lewis (1935), and Buddy Holly (1936). Not to mention a couple of Brits: John Lennon (1940) and Paul McCartney (1942).

In fact, almost everything the boomers claim as their own has its origins in the previous generation.

Feminism? Gloria Steinem (1934) and Germaine Greer (1939) built on the work of members of the generations before them, such as Betty Friedan (1921) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908).

Anti-war protest? Not one of the Chicago Seven was a baby boomer. Abbie Hoffman was born in 1936, Jerry Rubin in 1938, Tom Hayden in 1939, and so on.

Civil rights? Think Martin Luther King Jr. (1929) and Malcolm X (1925), James Meredith (1935), Eldridge Cleaver (1935), John Lewis (1940) and Julian Bond (1940). Rosa Parks was born in 1913.

Campus protest? Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech movement was born in 1942.

The Merc article lists as the baby boom's "prominent contemporaries" George W. Bush, Madonna and Bill Gates. I think I'll stick with my contemporaries.