As baby boomers, we have been spoiled all of our lives. When we were teenagers, the world took note because there were so many of us. Our music, our beliefs, our fashions, our styles dominated the culture of the age. When we took to the streets to protest the war in Vietnam and to support the Civil Rights Movement, we found a ready audience. Television came into its own and we splattered ourselves and our causes across the living rooms of America.
For some of us, that was the best of times. We were young, idealistic, and naïve. We truly believed that we were making a difference. We were creating a future of hope, justice, fairness, and peace.
As we move towards retirement age, we look around us with diminished hope, broken promises, reddened eyes, and cynicism. Where is the new world order we so desperately sought? In the violence-filled streets of Baghdad? In the ruins of the World Trade Center? In the hills of Afghanistan? In the political condemnation of gay rights, resistance to a woman’s right to control her own body, the death of Affirmative Action?
We look back in longing to the days before political assassinations turned the world upside down. Life was, indeed, so much simpler then. Involvement in revolution is for the young and naïve who, no matter the century, no matter the nation, no matter the cause, see only the possibilities and none of the difficulties that maintenance of profound social change demands.
Can we keep our ideals alive in the muck and mire of reality?
If our ideals are still there, perhaps hidden beneath the layers that decades of responsibility, work, fatigue, and the need to take care of personal matters have deposited, we can resurrect them. We can revitalize their tenets with the bolder judgment and broader understanding wrought by experience and maturity. We can still return to the fight we abdicated with the demise of the Great Society.
1. Political action.
We now know that marching in the streets has less of a lasting effect than the power of the voting booth and the closed door deals of professional politicians. Although many have fallen along the way, including some of the best and brightest, the boomers still have tremendous numbers and therefore significant potential political power. As our involvement in work and careers starts to taper off, we can use our newly found time to participate in the political process: listening, organizing, contributing, and supporting those who represent that new society we still so desperately seek. For us, the infringement of civil liberties generated by the Patriot Act and the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay demand that questions be asked, motives revealed, and expected outcomes honestly assessed. We can still throw off the conservative shackles of age we have unwittingly donned and re-enter the fray: as candidates, as volunteers, as individuals who demand accountability and justice from those in power.
2. Community action.
Supporting and fighting for civil rights no longer requires travel to the Deep South nor marching through the streets. The struggle now permeates all levels of our society: the workplace, the schools, the churches, the home. Community involvement may range from active support, to speaking out, to neighborhood organizing, all in the knowledge that our better world starts right outside our front door. Racial profiling, bias against those of Middle Eastern descent, and widely administered wiretaps confront us in our own corner of the world. An African-American child in a schoolroom without enough books, without internet access, without afterschool programs, without personal safety and a quiet academic atmosphere, is as cheated of his natural human heritage as his forefather in the back of the bus. A gay couple denied the social and financial benefits of married straights are as much the victims of prejudice as their forbears in their proverbial closets. A poor urban neighborhood without basic resources: libraries, museums, music, culture, is as disadvantaged in the modern age as in the shameful shanty towns of old. We may feel a lack of power to sufficiently effect a national change of direction but in our local communities the power is there for the taking if we choose to assert our energies and our concerns.
3. Personal witness.
We need to practice constant vigilance to bear witness to our beliefs. We must repeatedly re-assess ourselves to ensure that we have not inadvertently bought into the bias and prejudice that colors so much human thought. We cannot stand silent while others talk or joke about ethnicity, or religion, or sexual preferences. The need to get ahead does not require the sacrifice of all that we hold dear — the winner of the rat race is, after all, a rat. We must consider our families and ensure that our children are fully exposed to the potential and worth of every individual, no matter how different from us they may appear. Our expectations and demands of coworkers and subordinates needs to be fair and consistent, regardless or race, gender, or cultural differences. We can stand up and speak out, letting all know that nothing less than equal opportunity and fair evaluation will be tolerated in our personal sphere. We will continue to look for quality of character, knowing that little else matters.
As each generation ages, the qualities it represented in youth tend to dissipate. With the addition of multiple personal and occupational responsibilities and the acquisition of assets and at least a degree of wealth, the earthquake of social revolution is no longer a promise but a threat. We jealously guard what we have worked so hard to obtain. We become a force for conservancy rather than a force for change.
The baby boom generation has the potential to shatter that familiar pattern. Born on the cusp of the most horrifying war the world has ever seen, we continue to represent an opportunity for the world to evolve, for mankind to rise above the baseness of his bestial nature and to internalize the human capacity for true civilization. As we enter the autumn of our lives, we are presented with the opportunity to finally, and lastingly, make a difference. It is up to us to stand together now, as many years ago we stood in the streets of Chicago, Washington, and Birmingham, for the rights and liberties of all.
Virginia Bola is a licensed clinical psychologist with deep interests in Social Psychology and politics. She has performed therapeutic services for more than 20 years and has studied the effects of cultural forces and employment on the individual. The author of an interactive workbook, The Wolf at the Door: An Unemployment Survival Manual, and a monthly ezine, The Worker’s Edge, she can be reached at http://www.virginiabola.com