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The youngest boomers have a say


By Brian Goslow

Brian Hopper, 50, of Rutland, entered adulthood differently than most of his contemporaries. His father had served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II and being from a Scottish family where “everybody goes into the military,” his natural inclination was to join the U.S. Army voluntarily.

Most of his grade-school classmates had younger fathers born in the 1940s who did not serve; with great opposition to the Vietnam War nationwide, being in the military wasn’t seen as noble as it once had been.

“By the time I was 10, I could tell things were anti-military from watching TV,” Hopper said. “The military was always portrayed in a bad light in the media. They were always the villain.”

Serving from 1986-1994, Hopper was able to see that attitude turn around after the Gulf War. Many of his superiors had enlisted in the ’60s and ’70s, and had been hurt by the public’s condemnation of them.

“Right after the Gulf War, we were in a convoy going from Burlington to Fort Devens and one of my older sergeants, a Vietnam veteran, he was like, ‘Oh man, I hate doing these, people always give us the finger.’ I looked at him and said, ‘No, no, it’s not that way anymore.’”

Along the route home, “people were waving, people were cheering, flashing their lights at us,” Hopper said. “The sergeant said he felt like crying. It was kind of funny. He said, ‘I feel like I’ve actually come home.’”

The last of the baby boomers, those people born between 1946 and 1964, turns 50 this year and like Hopper, many are using the occasion to revisit the lasting legacy of a half-century that began with a country recovering from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

“(Baby boomer) doesn’t necessarily describe a generation; it describes kind of a demographic trend,” said Matthew Johnsen, chair and associate professor at Worcester State University’s Department of Sociology and co-director of its Center for Social Innovation. “If you think about the differences between 1946 and 1964, you have very different things that are going on.”

As an example, he gave the different worlds in which former President George W. Bush, born in 1946, and First Lady Michelle Obama, born in 1964, reached adulthood. “Given the kinds of things that George Bush saw as he was growing up — the Vietnam War and the dynamic changes in the ’60s — these are things that left imprints on that generation — with some turning more conservative, some turning more liberal, if you will,” Johnsen said.

“Compare that with folks who were born in 1964, kind of coming of age in the ’80s, and you’re looking at a completely different time. Culturally, we’re talking about Reagan and a conservative revolution; we’re seeing a desire toward the restricting the government and more of a focus on capitalism as a solution to problems rather than government being the solution to problems.”

Attitudes toward the military aren’t the only things that have changed during baby boomers’ lifetimes. Among the most notable: sexual permissiveness. “The end of the baby boom really came with, among other things, the initial availability of contraception which actually did its work,” Johnsen said. “The pill is often credited as the thing that allowed women, really, to choose how many kids they wanted to have.”

When the first boomers became young adults, the country had a fairly high rate of teenage pregnancy, Johnsen said. “It was a major issue for young women who found themselves in that situation at that time — the rate was about 94 per 1,000 or so.” Teens who were pregnant were often shunned; abortion wasn’t legal at that time.

By the time even the oldest baby boomers were having sex, there were a number of birth control options available — the FDA approved the contraceptive pill in 1960 — which, when used properly, meant sexuality could be enjoyed without the fear of pregnancy. “They simply didn’t have the same constraints on sexuality growing up as others had. It’s a very different sexual environment,” he said. However, Johnsen, added, by the time the last boomer reached adulthood in the early 1980s, the HIV-AIDS epidemic and the fear it caused had put the brakes on permissive sexuality.

“The ’60s and ’70s also saw greater racial tolerance — greater acceptance of interracial marriages and those kind of things,” Johnsen said. “We certainly saw experimentation with marijuana and more.”

The long lasting effect of those times can be seen in current attitudes toward gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana in some individual states. As baby boomers still represent a very significant part of the electorate, they bring these attitudes with them to the voting booth and it tips the balance in favor of some of those things, Johnsen said.

“It’s not just the young people these days who are more accepting of gay marriage,” Johnsen observed. “In some churches, it’s the old and the young parishioners who are accepting; there’s a greater tolerance.

“It might not be something that we want to do ourselves, but we don’t want to step in front of the considered decision of another person.”

The same attitudes seem to apply when discussing legalizing marijuana. “Many people, after experimenting with it, decided that they didn’t want to bring that into their life over the long haul,” Johnsen said. “But whether or not that’s something they want to indulge in, people might not see it as a decision they want to make for someone else.”

With each decision made in a state in favor of these changes, it can seem like advocates of these issues are winning. However, when it comes to a greater openness to recreational drugs, greater racial tolerance and increased acceptance of different sexual lifestyles, Johnsen pointed out there are still “very big differences” on these issues across the country.

While much of the country is moving in the direction of accepting gay marriage, Johnson said there’s still quite a bit of the country vehemently opposed to it. “So, even as we talk about a legacy, it’s not clear to me that it’s a legacy that extends across the country,” he noted.

Laura Faye Tenenbaum, 50, of Pasadena, Calif., said she’s always seen herself as a boomer, even though she’s right on the cusp. “I was 4 months old when Kennedy was assassinated, which I’ve always heard marked the end of the boom. I’ve always kind of resented being the last boomer, as if everyone ahead of me got all the best stuff and I was left with the dregs.”

Her earliest memories are of eating cereal or a TV diner in front of the TV while watching Gilligan’s Island. “We ate a lot of packaged or processed food for sure,” Tenenbaum said. “People had no idea how unhealthy those foods were.” Her mother had mixed feelings about her role as a stay-at-home mom versus having a career, and went back to school. “Girls were supposed to want to be little princesses and get married to Prince Charming and settle down,” Tenenbaum said.

Born during the “Space Age,” she was in grade school during the final Apollo missions. “I remember people at our school telling us that we could be the first female astronaut, but I also remember thinking ‘not me,’” said Tenenbaum, who is now a communication specialist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.

It wasn’t an easy career path for her, and she’s hoping to serve as a role model for the next generation of women.

“I’m writing a book about how discouraged I’ve been as a woman in science and how hard I’ve had to struggle to push myself forward in my career.” she said. “I want to encourage future generations to get engaged in science, to share what not giving up despite obstacles looks like.”

Tenenbaum said she’s inspired by what she hopes will be the next great wave of women’s rights issues. “Today’s women’s movement absolutely rides on the shoulders of what my mother’s generation was able to accomplish,” she said. “The birth control pill and the Roe v. Wade decision, which was made when I was 10, had enormous impact on my generation’s ability to be independent and have a career.”

Mitchel K. Ahern, 54, of Boston, said it took a while before he understood that he was considered to be a member of the baby boomer generation. “I assumed it meant a heap of folks older than me,” he said, noting that growing up in Rochester, N.Y., the differences between older and younger boomers seemed weightier.

“One of the biggest differences was that these folks were ‘there’ in the ’60s and ’70s when the ‘counter-culture’ was in full bloom,” Ahern said. “They saw the cool bands, did the cool drugs, had the cool sex and had a bit of a condescending attitude toward those of us who had not, as if we’d missed all that out of choice. In my case too, coming from the mid-west — and trust me, Rochester is the mid-west — a lot of that hippie activity just wasn’t going on there.”

David Kowalchek, 50, of Worcester, was born in November 1963. “I am an end-of-the-baby-boom baby boomer,” he said. “In my opinion, life has always seemed to be in a kind of lost-in-limbo state where you were too late for the ’60s, didn’t get the ’70s. So you became a punk in the ’80s, got a career in the ’90s and are now trying to figure out an exit strategy while trying to afford your kid’s education in an economy heading for third world status.”

Kowalchek noted that society has gone through an amazing journey of technological change: cable TV, cordless phones, cell phones, personal computers, Internet, cloud storage, smart phones, fuel injection and the computer-controlled internal combustion engine that helped catapult the price of a car to what your parents would have paid for a home.

Having grown up during a time that “Be yourself” was a motto for individuality, Kowalchek is a big believer in being an active participant in his community and has served on his city’s parks commission and local neighborhood group.

“Life is grand and you get to keep up with the changes or get left behind,” he said. “Go into every day with a positive attitude and try to make a lasting impression. Get involved, get educated and vote. You can hope all you want but only you have the power to change.”

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