President John F. Kennedy was on C-Span the other night, delivering that inaugural speech which people of a certain age will never forget. It was a speech of many memorable lines, but on this particular night, one less-remembered phrase struck a chord. He was describing the new generation to whom the torch of power had been passed: “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” And, oh yes, “born in this century.”
All those gray and balding men behind him, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, were thus dismissed as the remnants of the old order, the last century. They were 19th-century men living in a 20th-century world. And they knew exactly what Kennedy was saying.
Before we know it, somebody will be saying similar things about us. All of us. Even our late-century children, who one day will be burdened with the first two digits of the year of their birth. They will be historical curiosities, if they are lucky. Or irrelevant relics, if they are not.
For baby boomers, the day of dismissal is near, I suspect. They are old media in a new media world, and however much they insist that they can make the transition, in fact they will simply be reacting to the energy and creativity of the twentysomethings who run the show. And those younger people will one day inspire either wonder or contempt when they tell some 21st-century whippersnapper that they were born before anybody had ever heard of anything dot-com.
Sic transit gloria , all right, but who knew how quickly? Boomers proclaimed their leadership of the world with the election of one of their own, Bill Clinton. And already their hegemony looks tired, looks very second millennium. Mr. Clinton’s contemporaries in the private sector, at least those who are part of the information age, are the people you hear talking about retirement at age 55 or even 50. Unlike Kennedy and his peers, who were thrilled to be leaders, to be adults, a fair portion of the baby-boom crowd can’t wait to be children again, building sand castles on a beach in Florida.
The new century won’t be theirs, and they know it, and perhaps even prefer it that way. What almost seems unfair, except that it isn’t, is that the generation that was tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace–the parents of the baby boomers–remains very much a presence at the turn of the century. In their golden years, Kennedy’s contemporaries are accepting plaudits as the nation’s greatest generation, a group that suffered and survived the century’s great catastrophes and won the century’s great battles.
So there isn’t much room in the dying century’s narrative for the greatest generation’s children. And there may be even less room in the century to come, for it surely will be defined at first by today’s fresh-faced Internet geniuses and, even more so, by their children.
Caught between shadows, boomers will have a choice: more irony and distance, or some kind of middle-of-life engagement with their immediate world. If they will not write the narrative of the new century, they at least may have a chance to spend a few decades righting some wrongs and perhaps living up to some of the brave words spoken 30 years ago, when there was some thought given to changing the world.
The 20th century was, as advertised, an American century. The 21st century may well be an Asian century, a Chinese century. But it also is bound to be a century in which the problems of North-South replace the tensions of East-West that so defined the boomers’ early years. East-West was about freedom. North-South is about economics.
The leaders Kennedy summoned to power in 1961 saw themselves as warriors engaged in a twilight struggle with evil. Mr. Clinton’s successors (if, generationally speaking, he has many–which is doubtful) will be measured in part by the courage they bring to another kind of struggle, but one that Kennedy might well have been describing in 1961. “To those peoples in huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required,” he said. “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
For whatever period is required: For a typical baby boomer, that’s a scary thought. No doubt some would regard such an effort as doomed to failure. Better to immerse oneself in celebrity profiles, hours of late-night television and up-to-the-minute tracking of one’s retirement account.
Still, the challenge is there. And it is by Kennedy’s words that his succeeding generation will be measured in the coming 30 years.