The issues you so profoundly summarize in your post have been on my mind for
a long time -- another Zeitgeist? Below I'm pasting a short essay that
grapples with mid-life dissonance. I'm not sure if it addresses all the
issues you raise, but I was once fortunate to convince the editors of
Writer's Digest of its veracity.
Baby Boomers at Mid-life: Coming of Age Revisited
When a middle-aged individual struggles with aging, it is called an identity
crisis. When a generation struggles with the same fact of life, it is called
a Zeitgeist a shared feeling for an era, a spirit of the times.
As the leading edge of the baby boom the so-called Sixties generation
passes into mid-life, millions must struggle with the dissonance between the
idealism of youth and the nihilism of middle age. The iconoclasts who spawned
the youth culture of the Sixties and Seventies look backward from the
beginning of a new millennium to reincarnate flickering vestiges of youth.
Rock singer and boomer John Mellencamp laments, "It's a lonely proposition
when you realize that there's less days in front of the horse than riding in
the back of this cart."
The first wave of the baby-boom generation is on the threshold of a major
values shift, a bellwether social trend, the outward appearance of which
could seem like a mass mid-life crisis. For some anguished boomers, the
crisis may rekindle the most immature and frivolous moments of adolescence.
Most will be more subdued. But because of the imposing size of the population
of older boomers and their historically significant impact upon the national
agenda, this Zeitgeist could explode into social and political upheaval
reminiscent of the Sixties. In the words of Dennis Hopper's cynical hippie
character from the movie, Flashback, "the next decade will make the Sixties
seem like the Fifties."
The first wave of the baby boom came of age at a volatile point in history.
As a member of that wave those boomers born between 1945 and 1954 I was
13 when Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and US President John F. Kennedy
locked horns over the Cuban missile crisis, 14 when Lee Harvey Oswald shot
and killed Kennedy in Dallas, 18 when the streets of Chicago became a war
zone during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, 20 when the war
casualties in Vietnam peaked, 21 when 300 civilians were massacred by US
troops in the Vietnam hamlet of My Lai, and 24 when President Richard Nixon
resigned in disgrace for a political espionage cover-up called Watergate.
As German psychologist Karl Mannheim observed, social upheaval during the
impressionable years of adolescence could foment and congeal a generation.
Just as the lessons of depression-era economic deprivation live on with the
children of the Twenties, the Sixties generation carries with it an indelible
sense of intra-generational connectivity, a psychological ball and chain
which was attached during those impressionable years when effusive societal
change was the norm. But shared volatile experiences of a generation are both
weights and magnets.
The coming-of-age period of our lives the fragile years which fell roughly
between San Francisco's Summer of Love in 1967 and the end of the US
involvement in the Vietnam War during January 1975 are a haunting
attraction to those who find disenchantment in their contemporary lives.
Careers in crisis, mid-life economic shortcomings, unsatisfying marriages,
waning physical prowess, and widespread boredom can foster musing daydreams
about Vietnam protest marches, backpacking sojourns to Europe, bare-butt
swimming parties, LSD mind trips, first love affairs, and Woodstock. (Hello
drugs, sex and rock 'n roll.) The quest to return to more vigorous and vital
times of life can become unrelenting to people who find their middle years
empty of meaning or value and short of expectation. Quixotic adolescent
memories become idealized. "The days of our youth are the days of our glory,"
wrote Lord Byron.
In his book Baby Boomers, author Paul C. Light exploded many myths about the
generation, including the false belief that my generation retains one
distinctive identity, but he also revealed several salient, overarching
Today, many older boomers' lives fall short of the ebullient expectations we
held during the Age of Aquarius. A sizable segment of the generation is
financially unable to pursue the American Dream, which has traditionally been
defined as a home, financial security and quality education for children. We
have been forced to accept job market overcrowding, downsizing, and career
ladder lassitude as a fact of life. Many older boomers feel politically
alienated when confronted by the juggernaut of two political parties, now
converging to become two sides of the same coin. And these themes form to
reveal the face of disenchantment, an omnipresent undercurrent of
disfranchisement. Today's economic realities in contrast with the
idealistic expectations of thirty years ago are precursors to restless
stirring, the renaissance of experimentation, values conflicts, erratic
behavior, role playing, depressive moods, grief reactions, and profound
Coincidentally, these psychological struggles are also hallmarks of
adolescence. Just as the new teen-ager reluctantly lets go of the idealized
aspects of early childhood, the inner battles of middle-aged adults are
reflective of persistent efforts to relinquish the past but to never fully
let it go.
That the generation is recalcitrant when it comes to discarding the tangible
metaphors of our youth has been widely documented. The health food and
vitamin craze of the early Seventies led to the jogging and fitness craze of
the early Eighties, and the Nineties demonstrated robust sales of age-masking
cosmetics and plastic surgery. Oldies radio formats once the domain of
Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra have transformed into audio museums for
vintage rock n'roll artists such as The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield.
Contemporary women's fashion designers have resurrected miniskirts and
platform shoes, and middle-aged men are more frequently seen with shaggy
silver mop-tops and salt & pepper beards. A succession of movies, from The
Big Chill to Oliver Stone's The Doors, pay homage to an era that just won't
die in the hearts of middle-aged men and women.
Some pundits attribute our generational obsessions with the symbols of the
Sixties as simply pedestrian nostalgia. It is true that every generation
likes to return to its time of arrogant naivete, to relive those deep and
persistent moments when they captured a full view of the world and gained a
sense of control over destiny. But nostalgia is not pedestrian when viewed as
a method of coping. Nostalgia, though mere expressions of fantasy, can make a
positive contribution to later adult life. Louise J. Kaplan, Ph.D., author of
Adolescence: The Farewell To Childhood, said it succinctly: "Nostalgia
softens grief. It takes the sting out of the sense of loss. Grief empties the
soul. Nostalgia replenishes." Our nostalgic memories ignite passion, affirm
evolving priorities, incite new learning, revive visionary gleam, and enhance
wisdom. They represent the universal yearning for a better life.
Perhaps my generation, like all generations, outwardly pays tribute to the
past as a method of adjustment to present and future realities. But perhaps,
for the Sixties generation, there is also a deeper, hidden agenda driving the
urge to return.
William Wordsworth looked upon youth as a time of fresh vision. He wrote,
"There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream the earth and every common
sight, to me did seem appareled in celestial light, the glory and freshness
of a dream." If the impetuous youth of the Sixties is rediscovering that
beauty is truth and truth is beauty, then it is truth which endures as an
indelible caricature and perpetual quest of the generation.
Annie Gottlieb, a lucid writer about the Sixties generation, observed, "If
there is one theme that runs like a red thread through the fabric of our
generation, it is an obsession with the truth: finding the truth, telling the
truth, not lying to oneself, or others, honesty, authenticity, integrity."
It is hard for me to deny that the vanguard of the baby boom is coming of age
again in middle age. Too many people I know are searching for nostalgia,
freeing long buried dreams, coming to terms with failures, flailing
consumption as meaningless materialism, creating more congruent personal and
work lives, and setting new fulfillment goals beyond wealth. And we look back
pensively, considering the gaps between our dreams and our realities.
One consequence of a return to adolescence is anguish. Coming of age a
second time means a painful coming to terms with the past and exorcising
the tenacious demons which spawned our youthful idealism. Coming of age begs
us to renew our disdain over lingering social injustice. It forces us to take
an accounting of our progress in building ethnic harmony. It raises the
specter of environmental pollution and our personal responsibilities to
protect the natural world. It's all about unfinished agendas. But coming of
age, while tumultuous, can also be a harbinger of a more satisfying future.
Once again, it means honoring the nobler ideals of world peace, economic
equality, egalitarian civil rights, human potential, and spiritual
enlightenment. It means sharing a new, perhaps revitalized generational
Zeitgeist that tenacious obsession with the perfectibility of the human
condition. The stuff of truth
Copyright 1991, 2000 Brent Green
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