The First Baby Boomers Turn 70: 1946-2016
Dedicated to My Two Classes turning 70
The Class of 1964, Paramus High School, Paramus, New Jersey
Paramus High School mascot, “Sammy the Spartan”
The Class of 1968, Rutgers College, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Rutgers University mascot, “The Scarlet Knight”
Excuse us for living, but 2.1 million of us Baby Boomers are turning 70 this year! – -The largest 70th Birthday Party in American history! We the Baby Boomers admit right out of the paddock that there are, obviously, people much older! There are over 44.7 million senior citizens 65 and older than we are! We know we did not invent “old age”! But, there are 76.4 million people dubbed the so called “Baby Boomers,” born between 1946 and 1964! And, while there were 3.4 million of us first Baby Boomers born in the year 1946, only 2.1 million of us are still alive and kicking, turning 70 this year in 2016. It seems fitting during this momentous year for so many of us, leading a generation into our dotage, often credited and blamed for influencing and “changing the world,” to take stock and do a little reflecting.
As I started to write about these years, I found myself writing the history of the United States for the last half of the 20th century and into this 21st. – – Wrong approach, Phil! – -Try again! First, I had to narrow the scope of my topic and limit myself to our school years of the 1950’s and 1960’s, our “coming of age” years. Then I had to try to separate what I’ve come to learn and read about our times in contrast to what I recall growing up. What in reality was I aware of during those formative and naive school years as we came into adulthood?
However, having researched our seventy years, enabled me to paint an overview, the broad impressions attributed to us, the impact of our generation. There is certainly agreement that we as Baby Boomers are associated with rejecting or, at least, redefining traditional values and questioning authority. To what extent has been disputed since the Baby Boomers are also credited with a widespread continuity of the values of our elders. But it is safe to say that while many of us were growing up in traditional ways, the impact of our generation as a whole changed the nation culturally, socially, politically, and economically. Attitudes were being rewritten from dress to music, art, drugs, gays, race, sex, and more, changing just about everything.
Hippie fashion of the 1960’s went from the modest to the extreme. Pictured here is a “middle of the road” leaning toward the extreme hippie look. It’s difficult to find a truly representative photo between the original “flower child” look & the cast of “Hair,” the Broadway hit show of the late 1960’s.
Most profound, perhaps, were the causes our generation brought to college campuses in the 1960’s; civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War, and women’s rights. The “hippie” came to epitomize the threatening and scary changes in society to the older generations. Guys were decked out with long hair, maybe a beard, head bandana, tie-dye T-shirt, and worn out jeans. Gals often had long flowing hair, went barefoot, with long dresses sporting flower patterns. These hippies, also referred to as “the flower children” at their origin, were emblematic of those times. (Yes, it started with them wearing and handing out flowers symbolizing “peace and love.”) Yet, we were not all hippies! Most of us were just the average, usual young people growing up into adulthood, going to school, dressed in regular “nerdy” clothing in contrast! While a hippie might be walking down College Ave at Rutgers, New Brunswick, going to a “Teach-In” protesting the Vietnam War with all-night speeches, you, the average college student, were at your desk in your dormitory studying for an upcoming exam. – -With Bob Dylan’s recordings blasting down the hallway from someone’s dorm room! The music revolution went its full course culminating in the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York in 1969 that lasted three days! – – Talk about culture shock! – -But that was a whole year after we graduated from college.
Woodstock Music Festival, upstate New York on a dairy farm near Bethel, August 15 to August 17, 1969; 400,000 people camped out in all sorts of attire & those without! – – Culture shock of drugs & nudity & “more.” – – Oh, & great music too, both rock & folk with 32 acts!
So what do I remember growing up in the late 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s? The irony of the tumult attributed to we the first Baby Boomers was that, in my opinion, we were born into relatively “charmed lives” compared to that of our parents’ generation. We stood on the shoulders of giants, the “Greatest Generation.” Thank you, Tom Brokaw. Our parents came into adulthood during the Great Depression and then went on to win World War II for the nation, the world, themselves and us too! We, the bountiful numbers of post-World War II babies were born into a growing middle class life of prosperity in the white suburbs, thanks, in part, to the GI Bill.
The iconic 1945 photo taken in Times Square, New York City, on V-J Day, Victory over Japan Day, August 14, 1945, ending World War II. The photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt was published in Life magazine with the caption, “In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers.” The euphoria of love & marriage resulted in 3.4 million Baby Boomers born the next year, 1946, & 76.4 million in total born between 1946 & 1964!
“Those were good times,” we like to say, remembering growing up in the 1950’s, our elementary school years. Prior to that our first years in the late 1940’s with President Truman weren’t even a memory with the outbreak of war in a place called “Korea” in 1950. We were just finishing kindergarten in 1952 when we chanted, “We like Ike,” like the older kids, and didn’t even know who “Ike” was! “Ike” turned out to be the first President we remember, President Eisenhower. Little did I know that my youngest uncle I welcomed home from the Korean War was thanks to President Eisenhower bringing an end to hostilities with an Armistice Agreement in 1953. – – But not before 36,568 American soldiers gave their lives and another 103,284 more were wounded.
So we continued, seemingly uninterrupted, to live the “good life” that we remember so well growing up. Our youth was all about elementary school and play and Little League and picnics, barbecues, and vacations. We knew nothing about a “Cold War.” But we did hear about something called “Sputnik” in 1957 that turned out to be the first satellite put into space by the Soviet Union, launching the “Space Race.” Who knew? But all of a sudden there was lots of talk about science and math being more important. Who knew? And then there were those drills to guard against nuclear attacks. Who knew? If hiding under our desks and sitting on the floor along the hallway walls were not safe enough, we knew we were all “dead ducks”! And we certainly knew about something called “Television” coming of age in the early 50’s with the slapstick and comedy variety shows and children’s programs.
This was the best deterrent the schools, at least in the New York-metropolitan area, could devise to protect us from nuclear fallout should there be a nuclear attack upon the USA by the Soviet Union in the late 1950’s; hiding under our desks! In New Jersey, where I grew up, our schools had us drill both under desks & also sitting on the floor along the walls in the hallways.
But the important developments of the 50’s did not make enough of an impression on little young me to remember; whether it was the momentous 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision declaring “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional, to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement with “sit-ins” in the South and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But I do recall the violence on TV and President Eisenhower sending in the federal troops to integrate the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. The beginning of the Interstate Highway System and Act of 1956? – -Not a clue at the time. Maybe I remember vaguely Fidel Castro coming to power with a coup in Cuba against Batista. And as kids, while we paid no attention to Senator Joe McCarthy’s hearings to hunt down Communists in the USA, we sure could sing along with Elvis Presley, “You Ain’t Nothin’ But A Hound Dog”!
Then came those tumultuous 60’s that Generation X-ers and Millennials hear so much about. There was a presidential election going on in 1960 between Vice President Richard M. Nixon, Republican, and Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy from the state of Massachusetts. That did catch our attention with 60-66+ million Americans tuning in their TVs to watch the first presidential debates in history, the highest viewership even on today’s standards. There were four debates in all, one in September and three in October. (Total US population in 1960; 180 million) We witnessed the closest election in American history with Kennedy winning over Nixon by a slim 120,000 votes despite Kennedy’s “questionable” returns from Illinois and Texas.
The four Kennedy-Nixon debates held in September & October 1960 were the first presidential debates in history. And they were televised with a record 66+ million viewers at the highest & never dropping lower than 60 million! The U.S. population at the time was only 180 million people. Pictured in the above debate, the first I believe in September, John Kennedy on the left, moderator Howard K. Smith center, & Richard Nixon right.
By the November election those high school years of 1960-1964 we’ve come to idolize were well on their way. They were filled with “rah-rah” sports with “letter sweaters” and school activities. These were heady times. We were caught up with the idealism of our newly elected President, John F. Kennedy, and identified with the “vigor” that came to characterize his charisma. Our high school years took on an inadvertent mystique that mirrored JFK in a spirit of civic participation in high school activities as if we were fulfilling JFK’s admonition in his inaugural address, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – – ask what you can do for your country.” Oh, we remember something about the young President screwing up the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba against Fidel Castro early on in his administration. But his Peace Corps impressed us and captured our imagination. And it was not every day that the President of the United States said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
How much awareness/attention each of us had and gave to the momentous events of these high school years varied, I am sure, with each person’s experiences. We did not comprehend the gravity of the Berlin Wall raised in East Germany at that time in 1961. But the Presidential address on TV about Soviet missiles in Cuba, coupled with TV coverage of our U.S. Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson, showing the exact location of the missiles using photographs, indelibly marked our awareness of what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. And no, we did not know we were sitting on the edge of nuclear annihilation when Kennedy ordered the blockade of Soviet ships off Cuba. And yet, in those years, we sure listened intently to the radio broadcast live over the school public address system of Alan Shepard’s brief 15 minute flight as the first American in space, 1961. And then there was John Glenn’s historic flight in 1962 as the first American to orbit the earth! But we did not comprehend at the time the gravity of the situation and how challenged our young President was by the Civil Rights Movement to pass some sort of civil rights legislation. It started with the “Freedom Rides” into the South. Then came the violence with the Birmingham, Alabama, march. But the peaceful “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963 got the attention of the President and ours as well! We knew this was serious from the TV news footage of the Mall in Washington, D.C., with hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters listening to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his stirring speech that has come down to us as his “I Have A Dream” speech. – – The beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement? The game changer we were too young to appreciate came in 1960 with the Food and Drug Administration approval of the birth control pill. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique? – – Didn’t register with us yet!
There were 250,000 people that participated in the peaceful “March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom” in 1963 on the Mall. It was there that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his address that would become famous as his, “I Have A Dream” speech.
Then came the most devastating blow of our lifetime up to then, coming early-on in our senior year of high school, shattering our young innocence. – – November 22, 1963. It was the day our idealism was shaken to the core when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. It felt to us as if our world came crashing to a halt, a feeling from which the first Baby Boomers, to some extent, have never recovered. – – How about two days later watching JFK’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, shot to death on live TV while exiting the jail to be transported to another jail! These were not fairy tales we were living through. We moved on through that senior year with various tributes to our late President, a clothing drive for the poor in the Appalachia area about which JFK taught us, and visiting his makeshift grave-site and placing a wreath during our senior trip to Washington, D.C., the March of 1964. – – While we sang Beatles’ songs on the bus at the top of our lungs…. “I want to hold your hand”!!!
One of my own photos of JFK’s makeshift grave-site at Arlington National Cemetery taken during our March 1964 senior trip to Washington, D.C. As student council president, I placed a wreath on President Kennedy’s grave, assisted by a soldier, on behalf of our Class of ’64. I vividly remember my knees shaking.
I’ll never forget that summer of ’64, after high school and before going off to college. That was the summer the Republicans nominated arch-conservative Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona, for president. The Republican National Convention was held at the Cow Palace, Daly City, California. The Democratic National Convention was conveniently located for us in New Jersey at Atlantic City’s Convention Hall on the famous Boardwalk. Three of us guys wrangled tickets to attend one of the evening sessions of the Convention. We even got to meet Robert F. Kennedy who in person with his golden tan looked more like a movie star celebrity than a politician. The Democrats dutifully nominated the President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, LBJ for short. But the aura of Robert Kennedy, his presence, his speech at the Convention was beyond words.
I took this photo of Robert F. Kennedy, photo left, as he entered a modest memorial pavilion dedicated to the memory of President John F. Kennedy. It was right on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, at the 1964 Democratic Convention. We wisely ran ahead of the cumbersome TV camera, in those days, & ahead of the hysterically adoring RFK crowd, & went into the JFK pavilion. RFK entered the pavilion & they locked the doors behind him. So there we were locked in the JFK pavilion with Robert Kennedy & the few of us & able to snap this hurried photo.
While not everyone in those days went off to college, already the majority of us did. And it was those college years for we the first of the Baby Boomers, 1964 to 1968, that have become synonymous with upheaval. And yet again, the typical student experience of these years was as a by-stander of these monumental events as we plodded through our classes, our course of study, towards graduation in 1968.
As I review the major events of the ‘60’s, what I see is the simultaneous collision of events from the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and protests, and the Women’s Rights Movement. And again, what caught our attention varied from person to person, depending on where you lived, at home or in a college dormitory or fraternity house, and access to TV news coverage and newspapers, periodicals.
What would have major importance, devastating to some, for male Baby Boomers was watching President Johnson on TV call for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, summer of ’64, providing the opening for the buildup of troops in Vietnam. But surely, we thought, this thing called “Vietnam” would be long over before we graduated! Well, we were wrong about that. By sophomore year of college all males with draft deferments had to take a test and score high enough to maintain those deferments. Everyone passed, but this was the Johnson administration’s answer to the criticism that the non-college minorities were fighting the war while we got “a pass.” We remember the largest buildup in the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam came as a result of the 1968 Tet Offensive by North Vietnam into South Vietnam. And who could forget President Johnson announcing, as we huddled in front of TVs on campus, in March 1968 that he would not seek re-election as a result of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s primary challenge, starting in New Hampshire with 42% of the vote, followed by that of Robert F. Kennedy. We were keenly aware of the tragedy of President Johnson’s downfall as a result of his commitment to ground troops in Vietnam in contrast to the successes of his Great Society programs from Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, Head Start, and virtually, dozens of anti-poverty programs. And yes, these accomplishments were drowned out by anti-Vietnam protests on campus and the takeover of our college president’s office.
As President Lyndon Johnson’s war efforts escalated in Vietnam with increased numbers of troops in the late 1960’s, so did the demonstrations by anti-Vietnam War protesters. This photo is New York City, 1968. Many anti-Vietnam protests were not as peaceful as this one as the war dragged on, pitting protestors against police & National Guard troops. The Vietnam War finally ended through a negotiated gradual U.S. withdrawal of troops in 1973 under the next President, Richard Nixon. The toll was tragic with 58,300 American soldiers making the ultimate sacrifice & another 153,303 left wounded.
Over these years we witnessed President Johnson’s fulfillment of President Kennedy’s civil rights efforts with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And we watched the violence of the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, marches culminating in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the memory burned greatest into our consciousness was the race riots that resulted in the cities burning in 1967 as that National Guard troops moved in to try to restore order.
Detroit, 1967, pictured above, was just one example of the cities that burned in 1967 as a result of racial unrest & race riots in over 100 U.S. cities across the nation.
I saved the Women’s Rights Movement for last because of the subtleties of the causes that would be decades long struggles. As a social movement there was a wide range of issues from reproductive rights to family, the workplace, inequalities, domestic violence, rape, and more. The Equal Rights Amendment was long in coming, not until 1972, and was rejected in the end. As for our Baby Boomer experience on the campuses in all male colleges, the women’s movement manifested itself with the introduction of “female guests” being signed “in and out” of dorms for set hours on weekends!
A good choice of photo to represent all the Women’s Rights Movement during the 1960’s which encompassed many issues from reproductive rights, to workplace inequality, rape, violence, & more.
Finally, it was as if our tumultuous experiences growing into adulthood saved more of our worst experience (the assassination of John F. Kennedy) for last. As we were about to graduate from college in 1968, in April Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and in June Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Chicago Democratic National Convention that summer mirrored the national unrest with violence outside the Convention and even on the Convention floor. The Convention nominated President Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, to run as the Democratic candidate. The albatross of Vietnam that he inherited from President Johnson hung around Humphrey’s neck. The Republican National Convention meeting in Miami nominated the resurrected former Vice President Richard M. Nixon to face-off with Humphrey in the upcoming election. And with that tragic scenario of events by the summer of 1968, we the first of the Baby Boomers, born in 1946, were off to our careers if we were lucky enough to find jobs, or off to graduate school, or drafted and off to Vietnam.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was terribly marred & maligned by violence both outside the Convention on the streets as well as on the Convention floor itself inside.
Excuse us for living, but we Baby Boomers turning 70 this year, naturally, ask ourselves the question, “Good or bad?” regarding our “growing up years.” All I can say with certainty is that our parents gave us a great start in life, but the ride growing up was a wild one! And now, when I turn 70 this October, what’s important to me is that in my state of New Jersey by law I no longer need to buy a fishing license!!!
Comments: Please! – – So much to add! – – So much left out!
Sources: Don’t even ask!