Boomers: The Real Greatest Generation

By Leonard Steinhorn
Sunday, February 19, 2006

It makes the headlines nearly every day, and the tone is usually resentful: Beware of those soon-to-retire baby boomers, all 80 million of them, who are about to place a huge burden on the rest of us. The first of this whiny, entitled generation are turning 60 this year, and they'll be demanding even more special treatment in old age than they've gotten the rest of their lives.

But imagine if the generation getting ready to retire wasn't the baby boomers, but the World War II generation -- or the Greatest Generation, as it's popularly lionized. No one would be calling those Americans a burden or a drag. If they were retiring today, we'd be writing columns full of praise for their sacrifice and discussing what our nation owes them and how it's our moral duty to support them.

Why the different attitudes toward these two generations? Why is one idealized as heroic and giving, while the other is disdained as self-indulgent and taking? It's time to reassess. The true test of a generation should be what it's done to make America better. And in that regard, boomers have an important story to tell. It's a story about a more inclusive and tolerant America, about women's equality and men's growing respect for it, about an appreciation for cultural diversity too long denied, about a society that no longer turns a blind eye to prejudice or pollution.

The boomers' problem is not that they haven't accomplished a great deal; it's that we take their accomplishments for granted and don't give them any credit. But if we look more closely at the legacies of both the boomers and their parents, we might see that the boomers are a far more consequential group than many admit. We might see, in fact, that they have advanced American values in ways the Greatest Generation refused to do.

Today, no one questions what the World War II generation gave to America, and that's as it should be. Its members sacrificed their lives and futures to defend our country. They were heroes then, and they deserve our continuing gratitude. But the reality few acknowledge is that, mission accomplished, they returned home to preside, by and large without complaint, over an American society vastly inferior to the one we know today.

Our view of the 1950s is clouded by nostalgia. We have a Norman Rockwell image of that era, one of tightknit neighborhoods and white picket fences. But for too many Americans, this was no golden age. In the storied years of the 1950s, we told women to stay home, blacks to stay separate, gays to stay closeted, Jews to stay inconspicuous, and those who didn't conform or prayed to a different God to feel ashamed and stay silent.

Greatest Generation blacks who fought Hitler were forced to sit behind German POWs at USO concerts, and when they returned home the new suburban neighborhoods -- emblems of the American Dream -- were closed to them. Even baseball great Willie Mays couldn't find a house to buy when the Giants moved from New York to San Francisco in 1957 -- until the mayor intervened. Just as Jews anglicized names and decorated Christmas trees to fit in, blacks tried to straighten their hair and bleach their skin by using fiery, painful chemical products with names such as Black-No-More. For them there was nothing warm or nurturing about that era.

It was a time when men with beards seemed subversive and women in pants were questioned by police, and when the Organization Man ruled the workplace. Children thought to be gay were sent off for psychiatric treatment and even electroshock therapy. As for those who spoke up for the environment, they were irritants in a nation that was on the march and viewed smog alerts and clouds of soot as simply the price of progress.

Women of that era found themselves trapped in an apron. Want ads were segregated by sex -- a practice The Washington Post didn't end until 1971 -- and it wasn't unusual for a description of the perfect "girl" to be "5-foot-5 to 5-foot-7 in heels." Judges ridiculed female attorneys as "lawyerettes" in court. A woman's job didn't count for much, as credit bureaus typically denied women their economic independence.

The Greatest Generation largely accepted and defended this status quo. Even in the 1990s, polls showed Greatest Generation majorities continuing to resist racial intermarriage, working mothers and laws to protect gays from discrimination. Through the late 1980s, a majority of white respondents in national polls even said they would vote for a law allowing a homeowner to refuse to sell his home to a black buyer.

In other words, if most Greatest Generation Americans had their way, American life would have remained frozen in the '50s. They were not the agents of change that built the far more inclusive, tolerant, free and equal America we have today.

That task fell to the boomers, who almost immediately started breaking down the restrictive codes and repressive convictions of the Greatest Generation's era. From the moment pollsters began recording their attitudes in the 1960s, boomers stood diametrically opposed to their elders on the core issues of race, women, religious pluralism, homosexuality and environmental protection. They saw an America that was not living up to its ideals, and they set about to change it.


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