Boomer Angst

February 13, 1993|By ANDREW RATNER

None of the other groups whom he represents, not New Democrats, Southerners or even saxophonists, was emphasized during Bill Clinton's election as much as his role as a Baby Boomer.

Much was said about the generational watershed of the Clinton victory. Some of it was reflective, about how the outgoing administration probably represented the last ever forged by World War II. Some of it was whimsical: The president now being younger than Mick Jagger.

But a lot of it was also very judgmental -- and practically cost the candidate the nomination before Election Day. Controversy over Hillary Clinton's role as lawyer/mom, and over Bill Clinton's war protests as a student in Europe, and his failed experiment with marijuana were all questions not just about a man, but about a time. Even the gays-in-the-military storm that clouded the new president's first weeks has its roots in generational change. To young adults raised in the civil-rights era, the moral question is not over sexual acts, but about the prejudging and disenfranchising of a minority group.

On the eve of the inaugural, columnist David Broder wrote: ''America has an enormous investment in this generation. We have spent more on their health, their nutrition and especially their education than on any previous generation. Clinton symbolizes the well-fed, well-schooled, well-traveled and well-wed people the boomer's parents hoped to produce. Now he has the chance to show that he and his generation are ready to lead.''

The tone of the columnist's remarks, and of many of his contemporaries, seemed to be: A generation that had so much going for it should be able to produce great things. I hope that President Clinton can produce great things, but his -- or any -- generation's challenges can't accurately be judged by another.

I am a member of the Baby Boom generation -- by strict census definition only. Born at the end of the Fifties, my peers and I are counted as part of the post-battle bulge in births, but we weren't much older than a saluting John-John when JFK was buried, were only in grade school when draft numbers were called, and Elton John, not Elvis, entertained us as teens.

I wouldn't begin to try to make small the challenges that previous generations faced, in this century alone: my grandmother's landing at Ellis Island as a young girl; my grandfather's studies to become an architect, only to have his life's ambition derailed by the Depression; my mother's family awaiting word from her twin brothers fighting in Europe.

And yet I can't help but also envy my ancestors for the time in which they grew up, for their sense of national pride, of values, of the worth of a dollar -- and of a life. I picture my grandfather, now 95, in a fedora, riding the New York subway with my aunt as a little girl. In my vision are gleaming silver trains; no graffiti; no drugs; no terror; teeming masses, but with manners; a people with a purpose. My mind races forward 30 years and I see my folks as young adults in a forward-looking America still sure of itself.

The generations before the Baby Boom had steep mountains to climb. The Boomers and the succeeding generations, on the other hand, were carried to the top of the mountain, but left to find their way down without a map. Has there been a generation prior to the Baby Boomers that relished nostalgia and the ''good old days'' so long before they settled into their rocking chairs?

The retrenchment and turmoil in many professions have closed doors both to bright college graduates and to their less-studious peers, who in a manufacturing age could always count on a way to raise a family. Women of child-bearing age, afforded greater educational and work opportunities, face enormous choices between business and baby. And the cost of living is phenomenal, fueled by expectations in an electronic age that defines success so relentlessly.

I was raised just fine in a family of five with one bathroom and two bedrooms, but you would be hard-pressed to find a new dwelling built today with fewer than two baths and three bedrooms -- even for families smaller than those my parents' generation raised. We survived trips in a sedan or station wagon, but today's domestic vehicle of choice is the mini-van, with the head and legroom of a jumbo jet, at the price of a house in my grandfather's day.

Elder observers might say that sounds like a pampered generation. I'd say it's more a confused one -- no closer to the goal of happiness than its forebears.

Andrew Ratner is the director of zoned editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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