Occasionally one reads something that just makes so much sense. I read something like that this morning in J.R. Dunn’s meditation on the resurgent Democratic obsession with some abstract “youth” as the core of the Obama surge. Aside from writing well on that subject (of course), Dunn made a fascinating point about the overwhelming power accorded to the young in the 1960s. I’d always assumed that the young people then were so powerful because of their numbers. It was, after all, the coming of age of the demographic baby boom. Dunn, however, makes a different point entirely, which is that a power vacuum existed precisely when these boomers stepped up to bat:
The early 60s was one of the most youth-obsessed periods in American history. There’s no simple explanation for this, and we don’t really require one beyond noting the fact. It was reflected in the presidency of John F. Kennedy, who was characterized as “young” although, like Obama, he was actually on the cusp of middle age. What youth thought, wanted, and believed was subject to endless public dissection and analysis. Youthful opinion on all sorts of complicated topics, ranging from Cold War strategy to Vietnam to race relations, was actively courted and given serious consideration. At one point, Time magazine chose the “Youth of America” as its Man of the Year.
As the decade wore on, rhetoric concerning the younger generation grew more extreme. Rather than simply having opinions of interest, youth were now said to possess the Answer to all sorts of critical matters. Youth, the public was assured, had important things to say. Youth must be listened to. And finally, “Older people have screwed things up. Let’s give the kids a chance.” All sentiments that would sound familiar to the Roger Cohens of our day.
All this might have been harmless but for the collapse of the previous generation — the so-called “Silents”. (Actually merely a subset of the GI generation.) Possibly the most overlooked factor of the entire decade is the manner in which this generation, just coming into their prime years, abdicated responsibility in favor of what we’ve come to know as the 60s lifestyle. It was this, rather than anything the kids did, that caused much of the later trouble.
There’s no difficulty explaining this turn of events. Every generation has a strictly limited leadership cohort — the number is generally held to be approximately 5%. The U.S. lost over a quarter-million men in WW II. A substantial number of the GI generation’s natural leaders were killed at places like Kasserine, Tarawa, and Omaha Beach. This is one kind of deficit that simply can’t be made up. As a result, positions in the postwar world that required hard-charging alphas were filled by whoever was available, too many of whom weren’t up to the job. Government was left in the hands of odd figures like Lyndon B. Johnson (who could never have been elected on his own) and Robert “S. for Strange” McNamara. (The same phenomenon can be seen in the 80s and 90s of the 19th century, the so-called Gilded Age. Consider the lengthy chain of nonentities that served as president during that period. The truly dynamic leaders had been killed in the battles of the Civil War.) The kids (just becoming known as “Boomers”), left without guidance or the benefit of experience, ran wild, with many of their elders grooving right alongside them. And so the country roared full-speed ahead into the children’s hour: the 60s of legend, in all their tie-dyed and bell-bottomed, not to mention tear-gassed and rubber-bulleted glory.
It’s an interesting conundrum now, because the babyboomers– the mature generation — certainly have the numbers to make a difference. They’re still demographically hefty. The question is whether, as opposed to the “youths” of today, there is any meaningful leadership in a generation raised to think the world owed it something, and tempered alternately by passion, apathy and political corruption. (Actually, that last is a description of me. I grew up at the tail end of the baby boom, and became politically aware, in a very youthful way, right around the time of Watergate and the withdrawal from Vietnam. It set up in me a political cynicism and apathy that didn’t go away until 9/11, when passion took over.)