Last week marked the passing of author Charles Reich, whose “Greening of America” became a counterculture version of a GPS, infusing some of the baby boom generation with direction; enough oxygen to fuel a 50-year endorphin rush; and in retrospect, an awesome responsibility for nothing less than changing the world. Reading his obituary in the New York Times last week reminded me of 1970: Many of us were in college, giddily happy to be included in the cohort, ready to make an indelible mark on the culture.
His obituary got me thinking about whether or not our generation, more greying than greening at this point, fulfilled his lofty expectations. Although there are certainly disagreements about whether we did or not, and about the baby boom in general, there are things that defined all of us, based on our shared experiences, most a result of being born post-World War II. Often referred to as “War Babies,” we were unique in several ways, not the least of which was how many of us there were: 76 million, making up 29% of the population.
Unlike our parents, we were not hardened by adversity. They were the “Greatest Generation,” having lived through the depression; stormed the beach at Normandy; and saved the world from tyranny. Before being anointed by Reich, our lives were dominated by the joys of our new best friend, television, and the constant terror of nuclear annihilation, courtesy of the ever-present “duck and cover” drills needlessly conducted in elementary schools across the country.
Even though we were young and stupid, we’d all seen the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in photographs and knew — beyond the shadow of a doubt — that our defensive posture was merely cosmetic and would save none of our lives. Consequently, many of our childhoods were spent in a heightened state of anxiety over the possibility that we — at any moment — would find ourselves roasting in nuclear hell. Catholic children faced even greater peril. If we somehow dodged the fusillade of bombs and missiles, real hell awaited for a variety of other, even more confusing indiscretions. Our depression was clinical.
Reich caught up to some of us when we were post-secondary freshmen. After fleeing a white shoe law firm in New York City, opting for Haight-Ashbury in 1967, he acquired an entirely new perspective on the world, particularly the younger generation (he was pushing 40). And while many of our detractors then and now see boomers (often accurately) as self-indulgent and narcissistic, in “Greening,” Reich lauded what he felt was the counterculture’s embrace of personal happiness over material success in what he dubbed “Consciousness III.” The first two installments being the self-sufficiency of rural life and the institutional conformity of the New Deal and World War II and the 50s.
But just as not every one of our fathers landed on Omaha Beach, neither did boomers saunter through the decades as one, giant organism. Although we maintained a few of our similarities, many of us headed in decidedly different directions, chasing our own personal visions, defining our achievements in a variety of ways, including levels of material success that even the prescient Reich couldn’t see coming.
Although many of these trajectory decisions were subtle, the “Me Decade” 1980s were a glaring exception, offering a distinct fork in the road. As cinematic “Wall Street” tycoon Gordon Gecko opined: “Greed is Good,” enough of us bought that doctrine wholesale to make ours the richest generation by far, worth an estimated $30 trillion. But again, not all of us participated and certainly not all of us prospered, at least not in the same way.
Case in point, I’d been in Vermont several years when a couple of college friends became stockbrokers, earning in a month approximately what I was pulling down in a year. They urged me to head back to the New York area to reap some of the ample rewards. It was certainly tempting. I even flew down for a couple of days, spending time at their small brokerage firm in Hoboken, presumably a wellspring of unlimited cash. The office was comprised of mostly 30-something men in expensive suits watching the DOW rise and fall in real time, subsequently shouting orders into phones, alternately elated and despondent.
Although the kinetic energy of the place was extraordinary, I knew that it wasn’t my turf. I admired their ability to remain focused through the chaos around them, but living in Vermont saved me. Not only was I no longer willing to negotiate the sharp edges and turmoil of this kind of life, but I had already found an alternative, 5 miles out on a dirt road.
From the vantage point of where I live, Reich’s thesis seems to have been pretty accurate, and I’d venture a guess it’s also accurate for a lot of others who came to Vermont from somewhere else, looking for something other than material wealth — maybe carving out an American Dream for themselves.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais.