Accidental collisions with the planet


When I arrived at my office this afternoon, which is next to the town arena entrance, the first thing I saw was a foot-sized hole in the glass front door. I guess Christmas spirit comes in all forms, and some folks just keep on giving, no matter what.

Random acts of any sort—kind or violent—are puzzling. We’re hardwired to seek meaning in every event, even when that meaning is not forthcoming. And a good deal of what happens in the universe is random. Even an individual conception and birth is random.

Why, for example, were any of us formed from a single particular sperm, from all the millions of them in just one sexual event, and from one particular egg? How random is that, for you to be you, out of all those millions of random variables? Very, I’d say. And it’s even more random that one of those randomly conceived people smashed in my office door on Boxing Day, of all random days.

We all recognize, however, that things reorganize quickly around random events. Birth order is one such reorganizing feature of families. Oldest children are statistically more likely to be over-achievers. Youngest children are more inclined to be free spirits. Many middle children are envious of their siblings and seem to suffer from lack of recognition, and will go to any lengths to secure it, especially from parents.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, as I’ve just ticked off another birthday on my calendar. And yes, I’m a boomer.

The Baby Boom was one of those accidental demographic collisions. Following the Second World War, soldiers came home, found lovely, lonely girls and made babies by the millions. The result was the largest generation in history. Wikipedia observes:

“In Europe and North America boomers are widely associated with privilege, as many grew up in a time of affluence. As a group, they were the healthiest, and wealthiest generation to that time, and amongst the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time.

“One of the unique features of Boomers was that they tended to think of themselves as a special generation, very different from those that had come before. In the 1960s, as the relatively large numbers of young people became teenagers and young adults, they, and those around them, created a very specific rhetoric around their cohort, and the change they were bringing about.”

There were apparently 76 million baby boomers born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1960. They achieved higher rates of education than any other previous generation, and will likely contribute to a national economic slowdown when they retire.

Funny thing is, as much as it might seem that boomers are a privileged generation, it sometimes doesn’t always quite seem that way. For example, what’s often overlooked is the amount of competition the boomer generation had to deal with when it came to job-seeking. With such a huge cohort, there simply weren’t enough jobs to go around. Our parents, the so-called Greatest Generation, had all the jobs.

And it when it came to shaping culture, it wasn’t the boomers who were shaping it. It was the half-generation before them—the kids born just before or during the war. This was the bunch just before the boomers who included Elvis, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, artist Andy Warhol, feminist Gloria Steinem, writer Ken Kesey, black activist Stokely Carmichael, not to mention politicians like Brian Mulroney, Jean Cretien, Paul Martin and John McCain. Then there’s Charles Manson, born in 1934. And almost half of today’s top 100 wealthiest men in Canada were born before the main part of the baby boom generation really got going.

Sure, there are a lot of famous boomers, too. But few of them were anywhere near as influential as that half-generation before them. It’s like comparing the Bee Gees to The Beatles. The Bee Gees were famous. The Beatles were influential.

In any event, the young boomers made an incredible customer base for the previous generation—and have been soundly criticized for it as being the first consumer generation, and for betraying their early idealism. Fact is most boomers I knew weren’t particularly idealistic to begin with. Yes, there was an experimental fringe group, but most of boomers were headed for a straight up career path with big business.

That career path hasn’t exactly worked out as planned either. Big business has moved a lot of manufacturing offshore and shed millions of their workers-for-a-lifetime—and their expensive pension plans. What we’ve ended up with are multiple carousel careers, job retraining and new self-funded businesses—and a lot of career insecurity and financial anxiety.

Boomers aren’t the recipients of much sympathy from younger generations either. The huge boomer generation takes up a lot of space leaving younger people wondering when, if ever, these people are every going to retire, not to mention die. It’s kind of like watching Prince Charles waiting to become king (although Charles is a poster boy for all boomers, always waiting, rarely leading).

I recently asked a couple of 30-something about their impressions of boomers. Their responses weren’t pretty. I got everything from “self-centred” to “narcissistic” to just plain “greedy”. Their overriding perception is that boomers simply refuse to grow old gracefully.

The whole thing, I realize, is a chimera. Boomers are nothing more than an accident in time, a symptom of a century of war. More than anything boomers represent the full flowering of the world’s first fossil fuel economy—along with its machine-powered wars—and it may also presage that economy’s end.

Already younger generation is taking over the reins of political power. Russia’s 44-year-old, baby-faced president Dmitry Medvedev is a very notable one, though he may also be the last of the boomers.

One thing is certain. Any small cohort that precedes—or follows—such a large cohort is bound to have profound built-in advantages—or disadvantages. It’s the luck of the draw. To be born in the middle of the largest cohort in history is a lot like being that middle child, always craving something more.

And there is more. We’re all about to enter a new decade, and we are all getting older. As for me, I plan to age disgracefully, and hope the next generations will be wiser. They’ll likely have to be.


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