IT’S AT WORK THAT I FEEL IT MOST — a strange disconnectedness, the sense that I’m peering into an aquarium filled with fish of an exotic new species. When did people start putting smiley faces on routing slips, or cheerleading in what used to be routine e-mails: “This month’s issue looks great!!!”? This is a workplace, not the land of Hello Kitty. How am I supposed to take colleagues who do such things seriously?
And yet I have to. They keep getting hired, these peculiar young folk, these grown men who warm up Lean Cuisines for lunches, these women who accessorize their workspaces with pillows and beads and inflatable orb-chairs. What’s more, they keep monkeying with office culture, making me change my habits; they want me to plot my vacations on CommonOffice, schedule meetings on an iCalendar, wrap up the workday in time for them to hit the gym. There’s a weird reversal of roles here; aren’t they supposed to learn from me?
Not likely. They’ve got nothing but contempt for my generation, for the big bubble of boomers they trailed into the world. We can’t figure out how to update our browsers. We eat corned beef specials. We still drive SUVs. In their eyes, I’m a dinosaur, bloated from squandering their birthright: cheap oil, open land, clean air and water, Social Security.
We’re not used to being resented, you know.
In fact, we’re used to being celebrated, our every milestone examined in painstaking detail by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek: our Dr. Spock childhoods, the rebellious teen years, our marriages (or non-marriages), the era when we were young parents, the dark days when our children left home, and the darker, recent days when recession sucker-punched us just as we should be joyously retiring. We’ve been the center of attention all our lives. Which is why it’s so strange, not just that we’re being supplanted, but that the generation coming up behind us despises us and can’t wait to shove us aside.
Every generational shift is seismic. And it only makes sense that a shifting of the biggest generation ever would be more seismic than most. Before we get out of Gen X’s way, though, I’d just like to point this out: We were right. We were pretty much right about it all.
[sidebar]IT’S NOT LIKE WE ASKED to be born all in a lump like that. We just came to be, in Levittown houses with white picket fences, and then came of age rattling around in un-seat-belted station wagons, and duck-and-covering beneath our desks. Our father was Frank Rizzo, jackbooted and threatening, sweetmeats tucked into his belt when he hit us. Our mother was Grace Kelly, lovely and distant and cold. We were afraid of him, and we alternated between loving and hating her, with her chic hats and bridge club and Pall Mall cigarettes. They never showed affection for each other. She kept the house very clean and practiced casseroles on us.
It was stifling in a way Gen Xers can’t possibly imagine; even the TV was black and white. Grown-ups were automatons, marching in circles: work home work home work home work home church work home work home, with two weeks in summer at the Shore. We weren’t sure what we wanted, but we knew it wasn’t that. So we fought with them, all the time, over everything: hair, jeans, war, God, pot, Nixon, rock-and-roll. We were dreamers. We thought big. We believed in a new age, the Age of Aquarius. “Imagine,” John Lennon exhorted us, and we did.
We were fighting more against than for, but as it turned out, Vietnam was bad; Nixon was a crook; how long our hair was didn’t matter. Numbers and righteousness were a dangerous combination, but we made it work for us. We were the Niagara Falls of generations, unstoppable, plunging ever onward, tumbling over ourselves in bubbling, churning enthusiasm. My younger coworkers would snigger at the idea of Harmonic Convergence, those three days in August 1987 when we hoped a new planetary alignment might change the Earth’s karma and, as Shirley MacLaine put it, open “a window of light.” (Shirley MacLaine!) But we honestly believed we were part of something big, something important and good.
Gen Xers don’t know what Philadelphia was like then. They don’t remember those other three days in August, in 1964, when rumors that cops had killed a pregnant black woman set the city on fire. They never saw downtown before we began to rebuild it, rescue its 19th-century ruins, rehab its vacant rowhomes and repopulate the empty streets. NoLibs? Fishtown? Hell, Center City was scary then, strewn with litter, pockmarked with peep shows, hookers strolling what are now the best addresses in town. You had to be brave to live at 17th and Delancey. We got robbed. We got mugged. We stuck it out.
We couldn’t stop voting for Ed Rendell, for anything; he was us, an optimistic bear determined to remake the city by sheer force of will. The Gallery was a bold urban experiment. South Street was where all the hippies met, not a chain store in sight. We ate at Little Pete’s and Day’s Deli, or we ventured to Chinatown. Penn wasn’t on anyone’s “Best Colleges” list. There were parking spots.
Willard Rouse III became our Dumbledore, waving the blue wand of Liberty Place at the offspring of suburbanites in Doylestown and Downingtown and Cherry Hill: Come back! Come home! And we did, to our parents’ horror: They’d worked so hard to get out of Philly! But the Inquirer was drowning in Pulitzers, Big Ed was scrubbing the City Hall toilets, and Neil Stein and Steve Poses were giving us places to hang that weren’t the bus terminal. We molded the city to our tastes: The Convention Center! The Kimmel! New stadiums! Then we took on the ’burbs, building our big-ass houses, putting in malls and restaurants, rejuvenating Main Streets, everything spiraling upward in blissful prosperity.
SO WHAT HAPPENED? What we never thought would: We got older. We found out that if anything, we hadn’t been suspicious enough. Nixon was the tip of the iceberg; everyone was in cahoots. Dot-coms dropped dead. The towers toppled; were terrorists coming for the Liberty Bell? Banks tanked. Manufacturing moved overseas. Our houses turned to albatrosses. Our kids couldn’t get into Penn. Suddenly that white picket fence and the bridge club didn’t look so bad.
We hunkered down with what we had left: our children. And if we over-loved them, it was only because we remembered all too clearly what shits we’d been to our moms and dads. We were shell-shocked survivors clinging to what remained, our trajectory interrupted. It was not, needless to say, the future we’d imagined. Our best efforts brought on Armageddon, not Aquarius.
We saw neighbors walk away from their dream homes — walk away! Leave them empty! We watched proud men, hardworking men, lose their jobs and have their confidence crushed. We cringed as our pensions disappeared, our savings withered, Social Security buckled, as the safety net we’d trusted frayed, strand by strand. And the monsters we thought we’d slain — racism, sexism, bigotry, jingoism — reared up again, insatiable and fevered, to rage from the pulpits of talk radio and TV.
Local institutions crumbled: Both Bookbinders closed! South Street went corporate! The Phillies won! There weren’t any more record stores, because there weren’t any records. We got jerked along by technology, movie houses to VCRs to DVDs to Blu-ray. Something happened to TV; we were supposed to care about real housewives and toddlers in tiaras and Kardashians. Instead of Willard Rouse’s beacon, we got the blue haze of Facebook, with its faux bonhomie.
We were fully prepared to go quietly, to work for one company till the end of our days, to make a little money on the stock market, to balance the upheaval of our youth with quiet elder years. Instead, we got the rug yanked out from under us as new, ever-younger CEOs brought in efficiency experts and mergers-and-acquisitions guys and slick managers for whom loyalty was a joke. We were downsized, replaced with cheaper, more pliant workers, told that the skills we’d spent our lifetimes acquiring — law, journalism, ironworking, auto-making, surgery performed with our own hands, without the damned robots — were no longer relevant. We have to be tethered 24/7 — that revolting shorthand noose — to a bewildering array of Bluetooths and iPads and iPods, all designed to get us MORE FASTER NOW when we already have more than we can use.
But what really irks us, what truly gets our goat, is the way Gen X and Gen Y get all self-righteous about going green and globally aware and socially active and giving back, like they invented the concepts. Greenpeace, Habitat for Humanity, PETA, Friends of the Earth, the EPA — they all date from our heyday; we brought them into being. Boomers give much more to charity than the Greatest Generation did at our age, and more than Gen X or Gen Y or anybody else does. We have the highest volunteer rate in the nation; we’re the ones heading to Haiti, circling school tracks for cancer, teaching little kids to read.
Philly’s boomer roll call is pretty damned awesome: Judy Wicks and Dick Hayne, who started Urban Outfitters here in 1970. Piazza at Schmidts developer Bart Blatstein. Local NAACP president Jerry Mondesire. Mural Arts founder Jane Golden. Consig-liere extraordinaire David L. Cohen. First female Philly Bar Association chair Deborah Willig. Journalists Buzz Bissinger, Mark Bowden and Richard Ben Cramer. Drexel prez John Fry, Penn prez Amy Gutmann and Temple prez Ann Weaver Hart. Hoops coaches Fran Dunphy, Jay Wright and Phil Martelli. Black activist Michael Coard. Center City District founder Paul Levy, who cleaned up all that litter. Best booster Meryl Levitz. These aren’t smiley-face people. They’re movers and shakers — dreamers who get things done.
AS A FORMER HIPPIE, I have grave doubts about relinquishing Philly’s future to a generation that’s decided women should pretend not to have pubic hair and spends big bucks to perpetuate that illusion. It’s also hard for me to imagine how those who come after us will accomplish anything when they’re always running off to the gym. Still, my peers and I are trying to be gracious about handing over the reins.
We’re sorry we didn’t leave our room as tidy as Gen Xers would like — that we didn’t bust the city unions, or “fix” Social Security, or make the schools all shiny and new. Now that it’s their turn, the Xers will find out: Problems are hard! Life is confusing! Sometimes you have to compromise! But they’re like younger siblings, blaming us for having come before them, so sure that if we’d just go away to college, they’d have Mom and Dad all to themselves and things would be grand. Okay, then. You guys go ahead and take over. We’re tired, anyway — tired from having changed the world.
We did, you know. We took the stark button-down black-and-white world we were born into and Kodachromed it, tie-dyed it, made it a rainbow of races and genders and candy-colored Spandex bike shorts. You think our force lay in numbers, but you’re wrong. It lay in the vision we had. You can’t comprehend that, because you’re so low-key, so small-scale, so It’s about intimacy. No. It’s not. Thomas Jefferson had it right: It’s about happiness.
If you’ve ever had an honest conversation with your mom or dad, you have us to thank for it. If you get time off from work to take care of a new baby or a sick relative, you’re welcome for that. Getting a tax rebate for making your house more energy-efficient? Bike lanes, pocket parks, hate-crime laws, legalized pot, death-penalty moratoriums, organic food, space telescopes, genome-decoding — don’t you see what we were doing? We were taking the American dream to the max, pushing to its limits the pursuit of freaking happiness.
“I THINK THAT THE TIME when music could change the world is past,” Neil Young announced not too long ago. Four decades after Woodstock, we boomers seem to agree. The only changes we’re responsible for now are distinctly gloomy: More and more of us are poor, homeless, disabled, moving in with our kids or hunting for roommates. We’ve got the nation’s highest suicide rate. We don’t even have good sex anymore (and we invented sex). We’ve got nothing to look forward to but a slow dwindling-down of our abilities and resources, and listening to the generations that come after us bitch about how we ruined it for them.
Guess what, though? (And this is gonna make them crazy.) We don’t regret the way we lived our lives, other than the occasional bad LSD trip. We had our Camelot, our shining moment when peace and love seemed within our grasp, when holding hands and strumming a guitar could topple the mighty and bring the corrupt to their knees. Here, let me stick this daisy in the barrel of your gun.
Ah, but you’ll never get it; you can’t help it; you’ve always been afraid to dream, because what if your dreams don’t come true, the same way ours didn’t? You think the disappointment would crush you, just as you think it should — wish it would — crush us. Too bad. Suicide, if you think about it, is just an acknowledgement that you were better off once upon a time. You don’t even have that. All you have are your diminished expectations, your plodding nihilism, your laser-focus on being locavores, or triathletes, or microbrew mavens, or Gleeks, or Twitterers, or whatever new fad you’ve seized on to try to make you feel your lives are worthwhile and you’re going somewhere. Good luck with that.
A man’s reach should exceed his grasp. A generation’s, too.