In a recent article on his website, my friend Erik Eckel, talked about how Millennials and GenZers view the world. His view is that these groups “seem to be putting experience ahead of careerism.”
As a Baby Boomer – people born between 1946 and 1964 – his statement caused me to reflect on how my generation was raised. What values were imparted to us that made us so much different from young people today? Did we really put careerism ahead of experience? Did that mindset make us less sensitive to issues around us?
The Boomer Experience
To explore those questions, we need to look at the environment of the times.
As a Boomer – the child of parents who came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930s – I was imbued with their insecurities born of that experience. Both of my parents came from middle class families, but circumstances in the early 1930s plunged both families into a life of daily deprivation throughout the decade.
Thus, for them, careerism – or put another way – the driving need to ensure financial security for one’s family no matter what might happen, became their guiding principle. And above all, they longed for stability after a decade of worry. So 1950s mothers took care of the home and fathers brought in a paycheck. There was order to life that was missing in their adolescence.
A Smaller World View
For most Boomers and their parents, it was not so much a matter of careerism over ideals. Rather, the lack of exposure to a world outside your own small neighborhood or town meant there was little to be ‘idealistic’ about. A car, your own house, a good job – didn’t everyone have that? That and a martini after work and a backyard barbeque on the weekend. What else did you need? America was reaping the rewards due the people we call the greatest generation – who had saved the world in World War II.
And it worked for nearly 20 years. Boomers benefitted from the relative affluence of the postwar years and their parents’ frugality. Game shows and feel-good weekly sitcoms dominated television in the 1950s.
Father Knows Best and I Love Lucy didn’t give us much of a look at the outside world. If anything, they presented the world in more glowing terms than even our own lives reflected. And we thought our lives were quite good.
And television news – the window to what was happening outside our town? It was 15 minutes of snippets. Movietone News in movie theaters provided more content.
The Turbulent Sixties
Then came the 1960s. Many Boomers came of age with the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, and protests over a war opposed by increasing numbers of people. The concurrent explosion of television, particularly increased news coverage, brought new and startling views into our living rooms.
Seeing fire hoses used against civil rights protestors, including children, in Birmingham had a far greater impact than hearing a report of it on the radio or a local news anchor reading from a script. It was unsettling and gave the martini a bitter taste.
But unlike the protests of 2020, civil rights protests and marches were largely attended only by African-Americans. A few white students became involved, particularly in the Freedom Rides of 1961. But the majority of Americans saw only Black faces protesting.
And for many, less than 100 years from the Civil War, the problem of racial injustice was only an issue in the south – which had never really accepted the loss of the Confederacy. The time was epitomized by the image of Governor George Wallace standing in the portico of the Alabama statehouse in January, 1963 intoning, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”?1
Only three years later, the conflict in Vietnam escalated to overshadow even news of civil rights protests. U.S. involvement in Vietnam began on June 1, 1954. On that day, the Saigon Military Mission, a covert operation to conduct psychological warfare and paramilitary activities in South Vietnam launched. U.S. Air Force Colonel Edward Lansdale commanded the operation.
By March, 1966 – slightly more than three years after Wallace’s inflammatory speech – 185,000 U.S. troops were in South Vietnam. People were starting to take notice at home as the American death toll moved past 2,700. In 1964, America began drafting young men specifically to serve in Vietnam.
Officially, the military draft applied equally to all young men. In fact, it disproportionately affected members of the lower socio-economic classes. Because of draft deferments for college attendance – not available to poorer members of society – “most of the Americans who fought in Vietnam were powerless, working-class teenagers sent to fight an undeclared war by presidents for whom they were not even eligible to vote.”2
Since a large portion of these recruits were African-American, civil rights leaders began focusing on opposition to the war. At this point, many more whites joined the protests because they or someone they knew was drafted and maybe died in Vietnam. Additionally, television began broadcasting contemporaneous images from the war, something unavailable to earlier generations. The nightly ‘death tally’ – the number of American casualties in Vietnam – which flashed on living room television screens brought a continuing reality of the conflict into the homes of every American. And at the time, few Americans could even find Vietnam on a map. Why were we fighting there?
News Media Perception
Most notably, television news anchors began commenting negatively about the continued war. Veteran newscaster and “the most trusted man in America”, Walter Cronkite had initially supported the war. But in 1968, shortly after returning from Vietnam himself, he said, “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.” President Lyndon Johnson lamented, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”3
Even though protests against the Vietnam war expanded in the streets of America, the public still seemed mixed. There was still a trust in government leaders among many, particularly older Americans. Even those who questioned the war did not support violence by protesters – often the focus on the evening news.
The war was winding down by 1973 when another monumental event rocked the nation. As Boomers were beginning to make their own place in the world, the Watergate scandal broke. It was political intrigue on a level rarely seen before, juxtaposed with two ambitious reporters. Trust in government would never be the same again.
Still, public perception of Watergate – as with Vietnam before it – was shaped largely by the interpretations of the news media. There was little real opportunity for anyone outside the ‘mainstream media’ to shape public opinion.
Return to Normalcy?
With the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, American returned to a time of relative social stability. Most certainly, distrust of government officials continued. But conservative ideology – ushered in by the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 – dominated American politics for the next 25 years. The dominant impact on American life was the fall of the Soviet Union, a major source of American angst for 50 years.
The election of moderate Bill Clinton in 1992 signaled an ideological shift toward progressivism. But there was little impact on racial inequality, the touchstone of the civil rights protests of the early 1960s.
Even the election and two-term service of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, had little effect on civil rights issues. Obama, more than most of his predecessors, commented on local issues. But these were largely issues of gun violence, particularly school shootings, mostly carried out by white perpetrators.
The Explosion of 2020
The year 2020 did not seem to presage social change. Government, still largely untrusted by Americans, was in the hands of an ultra-conservative administration. The economy was good and even though there were social inequities, they seemed no greater than in the past.
Then in February, the novel coronavirus COVID-19 made its appearance in the U.S. The economic and social structure suffered nearly unprecedented upheaval in a matter of weeks. Nearly 21 million Americans lost their jobs in the six weeks after mid-March4. Not surprisingly, large numbers of the unemployed were from the lower-paid service industries – jobs often held by ethnic minorities. But there was little unrest. People seemed to understand that a virus played no favorites.
Unemployed, Sequestered with Little Hope
By the end of May, many people had been unemployed and sequestered at home for more than two months. There were a few abortive attempts to reopen businesses, but for most Americans, the future was murky at best. A pall of uncertainty – and even abject fear – permeated the population.
Loved ones died from the affects of the virus, afraid and alone. No one but busy medical personnel could comfort their remaining hours. The risk to other family members of catching the dreaded virus was too great.
Could it get much worse, especially for those hit hardest by the economic impacts of the virus pandemic?
On May 25, George Floyd died in Minneapolis. A police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, even after Floyd lost consciousness. The event, captured on video from several cell phone cameras, was shown repeatedly on television news and social media.
2020 is light years apart from 1955. With a proliferation of 24 hour news, bloggers and social media, it is no longer possible to sit back in one’s recliner and believe that all is right with the world. The images evoked a visceral response. Videos reached the lives and minds of far more people than imaginable during the turbulent times of the 1960s.
At the same time, the world learned of the death of Breonna Taylor during a drug raid in Louisville, Kentucky. Taylor’s death occurred on March 13. The date is significant because it was the last day of in-person attendance in public schools in Kentucky because of the COVID outbreak. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear ordered many businesses to shutter their doors five days later. There were also severe restrictions on remaining business operations. The closures dominated local news.
Taylor’s death went largely unnoticed by the public until lawsuits by residents of a neighboring apartment and Taylor’s family – filed on May 15 and May 20, respectively – brought the matter to light5.
The Perfect Storm for Protests
The combination of the news of Floyd and Taylor’s deaths ignited a firestorm of protest nation-wide. While other African-Americans had died as a result of questionable police tactics6, May 2020 presented a ‘perfect storm.’
Social media moved front and center in the dissemination of information. News of the deaths reached people already under stress as a result of job loss and social isolation resulting from COVID.
But COVID provided an additional factor. People were stressed by being out of work, but they were available. At any other time, many who may have been sympathetic to the concerns could do little. They were unable to join protests due to job requirements. Thanks to COVID unemployment, they were now free to lend their voices in protest.
Billy Joel said, “We didn’t start the fire.” But the plethora of information, accurate and otherwise, coupled with Millennials’ craving for ‘fairness and genuine and meaningful experiences’ as Eckel put it, pushed the fire – the drive for equality – to new heights.
As I write this article, my town – Louisville, Kentucky – has experienced more than 120 days of continuous protests. Recent daily revelations about the handling of the investigation of Breonna Taylor’s death have only accelerated the unrest.
Experience Over Careerism?
So I think that increased access to information is a large contributing factor to the difference between social protest of my youth and that of young people today. But I also think there is one more significant factor.
In my working life, I worked in the same industry for more than 45 years. In that time, I worked for only four different organizations, including 32 years with a single group. The Boomer’s indoctrination to job stability – careerism, if you like – made that the norm of my generation.
In my 32 year stint, I held several different positions in the organization. And in 1991, I was in charge of Personnel – Human Resources in today’s terminology.
That year, I was invited to a symposium in Washington, DC hosted by the World Future Society. The topic of the symposium was the changing view of careerism in the minds of those coming into the workforce in the last decade of the 20th century. I well remember one prediction from the symposium. It addressed the changing response to the classic pre-employment question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Whereas those of my generation responded to that question with answers like “a supervisor in this company” or “a division head in this company”, the symposium speaker predicted a new answer.
“Within the next five years, when you ask that question of a potential employee, the answer likely will be, ‘working somewhere else.’ And you won’t be able to reject a prospective employee for giving that answer, because that will be a common response.”
I saw that prediction come to pass.
New Ideas and Experiences
Young people of today, the Millennials and GenZers, change jobs and even careers often. And with that, they are exposed to different people and ideas – far more so than if they remained in same environment for a lifetime career. Does this make them more empathetic to the plights of people less like themselves? I think so.
The careerism of my generation, understandable though it was for the times we lived it, has given way to a life of honoring experiences. And I think that’s a positive step for the future.
Do you remember the protests of the 1960s? How would you contrast them to the protests of today?
Let us know in the comments below.
- The phrase was part of Wallace’s inaugural speech as governor of Alabama. Wallace was standing on the exact spot where Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as president of the Confederacy in 1861 – a fact noted in the speech. The speech was written by Wallace’s chief speech-writer, Asa Carter – who also happened to be the leader of a local Ku Klux Klan group.
- “The Military Draft During the Vietnam War.” Omeka RSS, michiganintheworld.history.lsa.umich.edu/antivietnamwar/exhibits. Accessed 11 October 2020.
- Johnson indeed lost the support of Americans in general. Only one month after Cronkite’s comment, Johnson withdrew as a candidate for president in the 1968 elections. The 1968 election is widely considered a realignment of American politics toward a more conservative view.
- Stephanie Soucheray | News Reporter | CIDRAP News | May 08, 2020. “US Job Losses Due to COVID-19 Highest since Great Depression.” CIDRAP, 8 May 2020, www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2020/05/us-job-losses-due-covid-19-highest-great-depression. Accessed 11 October 2020.
- Subsequent revelations regarding irregularities in the internal police investigation suggest to some that there may have been motivation on the part of the Louisville Metro Police Department to keep Taylor’s death out of the public eye.
- One solution being touted in recent protests is ‘defunding the police‘. To some, this means the total elimination of police departments.