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Culture, Politics and Technology

Boomers Won't Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Baby boomers just can't let go. About to turn 60, the generation still collectively sees itself as young and essential – even the ones in it who aren't taking Viagra and haven't had plastic surgery. They still believe they're the center of the universe. But they're clinging to a greased rope.

Hippie chick In the workplace, where they hold many top management positions but have never shown much interest in mentoring their Gen X underlings, boomers are being positioned behind their backs for retirement. And in the arts and popular culture, specifically the music world, where they've had such a profound presence for 40 years, boomer relevance is receding faster than their collective hairline.

But they're in denial about all of it.

This should come as no surprise. Boomers are spoiled, and they've been obsessed with being young, hip and the center of attention since they actually were young, hip and the center of attention. But in their defense, it can't be easy giving up the spotlight and stepping off the main stage after such a long headlining run. So as their final curtain call approaches, it's time to drop the rubber chickens and give this generation some deserved applause.

Truth is, baby boomers – those born roughly between 1946 to 1964 – have gotten a bum rap. Vilified for being self-absorbed and for selling off their early ideals and even their songs to the highest bidder – they went from "make love, not war" to "make a killing!" – boomers just did what every generation does as it ages: they grew more conservative, practical and boring. But because the ideals they espoused and the things they achieved at their youthful zenith were so unprecedented, so wonderful, there was so much more to lose, so much more to sell.

Let's not forget what the boomers actually did accomplish. It's kind of absurd to generalize too much about a group comprised of more than 70 million people, but this generation did change the world. And mostly for the better. While it gave life to fast food, rampant divorce, ritual killings, Altamont, EST, disco, yuppies, pet rocks and insider trading, it also brought us the Beatles, the anti-war movement, Woodstock, civil rights and "Saturday Night Live." Boomer-bashing has become popular American sport of late, especially among younger generations, but a lot of it has the shrill, ugly sound of jealousy.

And now as the generation that preached "don't trust anyone over 30" turns twice that age, it heeds Dylan Thomas' call to not go gentle into that good night. Boomers are stubbornly raging against the dying of the light as they set out to prove they aren't dead just yet. Or, to twist F. Scott Fitzgerald's eloquence a bit, they are desperately holding on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past against a backdrop of an already fading green light.

The most glaring, poignant and even sad example of this is in popular music, which boomers dominated for so long. In what can either be described as a heartening denouement or pathetic death rattle, depending on your age and level of cynicism, a host of boomer-era icons from Paul McCartney to the Rolling Stones to Neil Young released records almost simultaneously in late 2005 that, as if by design, were each critically hailed as among these celebrated artists' finest works.

Album covers McCartney's "Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard" has been called the former Beatle's best record in 25 years; the Stones' "A Bigger Bang" has been called the legendary band's best effort since "Some Girls"; and Young's introspective "Prairie Wind," the third in his acoustic trilogy ("Harvest," "Harvest Moon") has been called the veteran singer-songwriter's "masterpiece."

Talk about going out with a bang. These concurrent releases from these three boomer legends each sends a strong message that boomers still have something to say. But the thing is, has anyone noticed? Does anyone still care? The record charts and downloads – legal and illegal – are dominated these days by young artists such as Twista, Kanye West and Franz Ferdinand. On that same Billboard chart, Neil Young's record sits at #21, McCartney's is #38, and the Stones' is #49, and all three are descending.

These musicians are symbolic of an entire generation that is yesterday's news but, to its credit and embarrassment, refuses to turn the page – or have the page turned on it. Boomers just won't get out of the way and let Generations X and Y play through. Dreamers, essentially, boomers are hard-wired to believe in themselves, if to a fault, and in selfish impossibilities such as eternal youth.

For all their narcissism, for all their shortcomings and disappointments, boomers, bless 'em, remain steadfastly idealistic. Heroic but tragic characters, boomers, like Jay Gatsby himself, still believe in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before them. They still believe that tomorrow they will run faster, stretch out their arms farther, and one fine morning...

Published November 2005

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