Momentous change is in the air.
On the verge of the 2020 election my Boomer cohorts are quietly sharing a nebulous sense of coming change. One characterized it as “a taste in the air”. Another described it as an “emerging unfamiliar newness”.
There is a vague yet weirdly familiar feeling that a break with the past will happen soon and our nation and society will be radically different from the way they now are. Exactly what might change or even the general direction of the coming change is unknown.
That is the nature of radical changes.
Compare the world before 2008 and now.
Gig work has largely replaced traditional jobs. Half the population makes less than $40,000 a year. More women are employed then men. The age at which people have their first child and first marriage have shot up. New homes are now luxury items and school loan debt has replaced mortgage debt. Donald Trump is president and has a good chance of being re-elected.
But none of that captures the enormity of the change my Boomer friends have in mind.
Imagine being a young person in 1965.
The only presidents you would have personal knowledge of would be Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. The Viet Nam war is a world away; mummers of dissent are only beginning to emerge. Congress is passing civil rights legislation and astronauts are national heroes. Young people are listening to the Beatles, but the Rolling Stones are largely unknown. Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Lawrence Welk dominate television and radio.
Now imagine recent events from the perspective of 1970, only five years later.
Massive race riots are occurring every summer killing hundreds and leaving huge urban areas in smoking ruins. A sitting president refuses to run for a second term, his hands full keeping the country together while waging an escalating and unpopular Asian war.
An assassin murders a popular presidential candidate on the campaign trail. A few months later a prominent civil rights leader meets the same fate. Radical political groups like the Weather Underground murder police, plant bombs and call for revolution.
The Democratic National Convention flirts with collapse and the Chicago police disintegrate into a violent mob attacking demonstrators in what is later officially labeled a “police riot”. Police and National Guard troops shoot down student protesters on pastoral campus greens.
Barefoot hippy girls become a statement of radical social change as do beards and long hair on men. Bralessness and halter tops on women are considered decadent signs of social upheaval by some, but to others symbolize a challenge to ideological restraints that hobble social progress.
College professors urge young people to drop acid and “turn on, tune in and drop out” while marijuana competes with alcohol as a recreational drug among the young.
Rock and roll dominate the radio, featuring protest songs from Buffalo Springfield, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joan Baez and Cosby Stills and Nash.
And now imagine graduating from high school or college only five years later in 1975.
It’s a changed world.
As you survey the world you are about to enter, equal rights for women and African Americans has become legitimate social goals. Race riots are a thing of the past and civil rights for blacks are a popular and well established aspiration.
TV sitcoms like All in the Family and Maude making social and political criticisms replace bland offerings like Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.
The Viet Nam war is mercifully over, Richard Nixon has resigned in disgrace and Jimmy Carter will be the next President, replacing Gerald Ford, a President who was never elected.
Crooners like Sinatra, Bennett and Welk are gone. The Eagles, Doobie Brothers and Linda Ronstadt all score number one pop singles.
The Twenty Sixth Amendment now allows 18 years olds the vote. Peace symbols and “Question Authority” bumper stickers are part of popular culture.
There is a sense the county has emerged from a crucible; dark clouds have given way to a ray of hope and sunshine. The ordeal that split the country is over and a search for unity has begun. The journey to integrate a lost war, a failed presidency and political violence into the national character is underway.
There has been an irrevocable break with the past. There can be no return to the previous national identity. The future looks bright, but uncertain.
In 2020 the country again is in upheaval.
That nascent sense of relief of the late 70’s has not arrived. But it will. That is the sense my Boomer friends seem to experiencing.
But it won’t be easy, comfortable or entirely rosy.
Cherished institutions will be challenged, changed and maybe eliminated. We will need to adjust to the loss of things we might not have liked, but which nevertheless supplied a sense of predictability and security. We may leave old ideas and beliefs behind, but that means constructing new ones that demand change and adjustment.
Not everyone will make that adjustment.
There is no guarantee that the future will be better because the only reference point we have is a past that is no longer relevant. While there is a sense of optimism, it is tempered with foreboding.
That foreboding is the essence of the Boomer sense of change.
The Times They Are a-Changin.