If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we are not really living. Growth demands a temporary surrender of security. —Gail Sheehy
We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results. —Herman Melville
The spirit of the original hippie days knocked on my door at a café on San Pablo Ave in Berkeley. While I sipped a dark roast coffee, I looked around a classic 21st century café, with organic, fair-traded coffee, a comfortable patio, retro-chic knick- knacks, and free wi-fi. An empty bottle of Lancer’s circa 1966 sits on a window sill. Surrounded by old stuff, the café evokes a calmer, simpler time. But for many Boomers, the 60s and 70s, didn’t feel simple and calm.
Back then the scent of cultural revolution was in the air. Our generation was going to be different, anti-Establishment values informed us back then. We wanted a change and we wanted it now. A prescient anthem was Dylan’s ‘Times They Are A Changin’ (1962). A tumultuous decade of protests resulted in some modest changes in the political sphere: the lowering of the voting age, end of the draft, more civil rights for women and ethnic and sexual minorities and the impeachment of Nixon. Buddy Miles reflected the stress of those times in his 1970 song, ‘Them Changes.’ In other areas stewardship of the environment, ending futile and pointless wars, and economic fairness, we failed miserably. In these measures we have left our children a country in worse shape than we found it.
One of the most enduring gifts from the Boomer generation is the music and its corollary, the freedom to self express. Our music presented a vision of an idealized time of peace, love, freedom, and harmony in a highly contentious time. We pointed the middle finger at our elders who were ‘square,’ ‘bigoted,’ and ‘uptight.’ All things Establishment were at the risk of our ire and idealism. It was in the lyrics of the songs, but also expressed in other forms— movies, clothes, hair and more. We considered ourselves different, the Now Generation who would set about making the world with peace and. love. The high point came at Woodstock in the summer of 1969 and later in the year the shadow appeared at Altamont. The naiveté of the times was shown in hiring the Hell’s Angels for security one of whom was accused of stabbing and killing a young man while Mick Jagger sang, ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ But many of us were dreamers and lived for freedom and love. Guided by John Lennon’s words in ‘Revolution,’ we sought to free minds instead of perpetrating violent revolution. The Sixties cry for freedom resonates within most people, especially Americans. Looking back we can see that the ‘liberals’ weren’t liberal enough for many impatient youth. Resistance to the Democratic party’s political dominance prompted the rise of the underground press, the most prominent of which was the Los Angeles Free Press.
Following that spirit of youth and freedom, we aspired to build a new society, but we failed. Our nation took a drastic turn to the right. Since Reagan’s arms build-up that resulted in the implosion of the Soviet Union, we have been on a constant war footing. Coupled with excessive deregulation, anti-union policies, and tax breaks for the 1%, we now live with extreme natural disasters, climate change, increasing gap between the rich and the rest of us, self-righteous religious zealots, and never ending preemptive wars of aggression. It is no wonder that the youth of today look to our music for inspiration. We had great ideas and slogans and made a lasting, if limited impact on the political system as well as lifestyles. Some argue that the rise of Trumpism began as a reaction to the idealistic New Left of the Sixties.
In the 70’s our generation’s revolution subsided, but had lasting impact on lifestyles (think meditation, yoga, health foods) like others before it. The majority took the road most traveled, the one most traveled. The by-product of that conformity produced the fruit of climate change and tribalism infecting our body politic today. Nevertheless, we Boomers have continued through the power of our numbers in the marketplace and the voting booth to express our views loudly. However, despite positive trends, such as expansion of gender and sexual equity, organic food, yoga, and electric cars, society has lost ground on key quality of life indicators, obesity, traffic, economic security, bigotry, and personal privacy.
At a talk in Hawaii in 2011, renowned researcher on the science of human consciousness, Peter Russell, was asked if he had hope for the human race given its extreme challenges. His answer, “I don’t know. I hope so, but I don’t see the evidence for it.” As I sat in that room of 100 Boomers and a handful of 21st-century yogis/hippies, I realized that a positive plus of aging is to be knowledgeable and appreciative, of one’s past ideals.
Can we reconnect with our youthful vision of equal rights, economic justice, environmental sustainability, and the end of futile wars? But firstly, we need an honest inventory of our successes and failures. That recollection may be infused with regret or longing, but within the group memory is the power of community. Our generation once had hope, vision, and purpose. We can make a difference again. We now have the age and resources that come with it: time, economic freedom, knowledge, and mobility. Let’s leave a positive legacy. To paraphrase Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, ‘Let’s not blow it again.’
What do you miss from your youth? From your middle age (30–60)? What were your ideals in youth?
Pick one social issue that inspires your interest. How can you make a difference with your actions? Now do something concrete to address it.