For sheer lyricism, nobody beats the Beatles in capturing the angst of a generation. This nifty little ditty, for example, might as well have been the anthem of the Baby Boom Generation:
“Will you still need me,
Will you still feed me,
When I’m 64?”
In case we haven’t noticed, the first babies of that generation are 64 going on 65.
Using the Gregorian calendar, the first babies sired by the generation that fought the Second World War will start entering retirement age, 65 years after the surrender of Japan on Aug. 15, 1945 (the war in Europe officially ended on May 8, 1945, with the surrender of Germany.)
By convention, demographers officially classify as Baby Boomers those born between the years 1946-1964. The term “baby boom” comes from the 20-percent above-normal upsurge in the birth rate that followed the euphoria over the end of the greatest war ever fought.
The award-winning television journalist Tom Brokaw called the generation that won the war The Greatest Generation in a book of the same title. He explained: “At a time in their lives when their days and nights should have been filled with innocent adventure, love and the lessons of the workaday world, they were fighting in the most primitive conditions possible in the bloodied landscape of [Europe] and the coral islands of the Pacific. They answered the call to save the world from the two most powerful and ruthless military machines ever assembled… They won the war; they saved the world.
“They came home to joyous and short-lived celebrations and immediately began the task of rebuilding their lives and the world they wanted. They married in record numbers and gave birth to another distinctive generation, the Baby Boomers… They gave the world new science, literature, art and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history.”
‘I shall return’
To preserve the world for the next generation, The Greatest Generation risked everything they had, including their lives.
My father was a minor intelligence officer during the war. He always carried with him a pencil that was inscribed with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s promise to Filipinos, “I shall return”—words he had prudently scratched out. Those three little words kept him going during the war years.
After the American forces brought MacArthur back with the landing at Leyte Gulf, US warplanes started bombing Albay. My father climbed to the church tower in the town of Daraga, built on a hilltop after an eruption of Mayon Volcano in the 1800s had buried the old church. From there he watched the planes do their bombing runs with pinpoint accuracy, igniting secondary explosions when they hit ammunition dumps.
MacArthur had indeed returned, and MacArthur’s three little words had sustained the guerrillas in their darkest hours so that they could preserve their world for the next generation they would sire.
To follow in the footsteps of The Greatest Generation was to walk in the shadow of giants. Thus, the Baby Boomers sired by The Greatest Generation have been described alternately as “self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and all too often just plain selfish.”
But is this a fair assessment?
Born into the post-war affluent society created by their fathers, the Baby Boomers spurned the materialistic ethic of their parents. Instead of just deploring poverty, they rolled up their sleeves and lived with the poor and neglected in the ghettos of America and the developing world to uplift them.
They responded to the call of President John F. Kennedy to join the Peace Corps and serve the peoples of the third world. In the process, Kennedy also demonstrated what visionary leadership could do to mobilize a generation’s angst and give it practical purpose in the real world.
“I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation,” he told them in his Inaugural Address on a bitterly cold January afternoon in Washington, DC, in 1961. “The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it—and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Then came the blockbuster words that persist in history and memory: “And so my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Man on the moon
Kennedy’s soaring rhetoric would inspire not only “a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war”—but also the next, the Baby Boomers he would challenge to land the first man on the moon.
The Soviet Union officially began the space race with the launching into orbit of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Within eight years after Kennedy challenged the Baby Boomers to land the first man on the moon, two American astronauts planted their historic footprints on the powdery lunar surface in the Sea of Tranquility.
It took a visionary leader of The Greatest Generation—and a Greater Generation—to make it happen.
The poet William Butler Yeats captured the essence of great human achievement:
“It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.”
Back down on Earth, the unofficial icon of the Baby Boomers, former President Bill Clinton, is effusive about his newfound health. Featured recently on CNN in an episode called “The Last Heart Attack,” Clinton told medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta how he discovered the fountain of youth.
A hamburger and French fries addict, Clinton has undergone heart-bypass surgery twice, and was likely headed for a third, or the grave. The breakthrough happened when several nutritionists and physicians volunteered to save his life by thoroughly changing his lifestyle. They told him to lose weight and exercise some more.
They prescribed a purely vegetarian diet that has the effect also of scraping out Clinton’s cholesterol-clogged arteries. Clinton is back to what he weighed when he finished college and is apparently in the pink of health.
He is feeling better, eating less, and has not felt as good in his whole life, he told Dr. Gupta.
Clinton looked older but healthier. In fact, his rosy cheeks glowed.
But as with everything else, he says, we have to take that with a generous serving of salt.