“I can’t be that old!” I muttered when I saw the latest cover of my Harvard alumni magazine. It commemorated the year 1969, fifty years ago, with the phrase “Time of Turmoil”. The article explains how “The images of that time remain vivid for those who lived through it…” They’re more than vivid for me. The campus turned into Protest Alley and tear gas rose up from the streets. There were Civil Rights marches and demonstrations and students demanding African-American studies. There was a blossoming Women’s Liberation Movement as the women’s college Radcliffe merged with Harvard. Today’s activists use similar strategies of marches, signs, and slogans, but with an internet megaphone.
While many sixties issues linger, other “Me Generation” causes seem outdated today. More than 58,000 American youths gave their lives in the Vietnam War. The war may seem like ancient history, but it’s because of our protests that young people are no longer subject to the draft. The damage of Agent Orange was immoral and campus protests against its corporate producer, Dow Chemical, shut down universities. Students were considered unpatriotic thugs, but, thankfully, chemical warfare is now banned. Corporate involvement in politics was, and remains, high on our list of protest targets. Sound familiar? Yet, we aging activists often look quaint, at best, and annoyingly ever-present.
Why the bad press? The powers-that-be back then saw us as self-important agitators, and foolish idealists. The nickname “Me Generation” emerged and stuck, never as a compliment. The term was recently used to describe Boomers by opinion columnist in The Washington Post. “… the generation that was born into some of the strongest job growth in the history of America, gobbled up the best parts, and left its children and grandchildren with some bones to pick through and a big bill to pay. Politicians … should be asking how future workers can claw back some of the spoils that the “Me Generation” hoarded for itself.”
But Boomer activism was about revolution, not exploitation. That brings us to today’s young activists. As the memory of our activism fades, the disdain is being applied to the younger generations of protesters. When you Google “Me Generation” what comes up in the search is not Baby Boomers, but Millenials. Take a closer look and it’s 1969 all over again.
The Green New Deal is being painted as naive by the powers-that-be and protests against corporations that make money off of fossil fuels are considered un-American. The desire for healthcare for all is labeled as socialism and therefore illegitimate. The determination to relieve the younger generation of massive student debt is considered irrelevant, and a reboot of higher education funding is laughable. Protests against far right speakers on campus is viewed as so objectionable they should be outlawed by a presidential executive order. Why don’t these young’uns understand that they owe obedience to older and wiser leaders?
Remember that the Boomer Generation, once characterized as psychedelic young loonies, became the culture’s trend setters for decades. You may not agree with all that they stood for, just as you may not agree with all the ideas emerging from today’s young advocates. But know that they will refuse to be squashed. Just as we activists in 1969 were impervious to insults and dismissive comments, they will persevere. We shaped the future 50 years ago and fought for it, as they’re shaping the future now. Give thanks to the “Me Generations” who create, innovate, inspire and aspire. Take the best of what they have to offer and run with it.