Film follows generation of rebels into exciting future

The Middle Ages

March 25, 2007|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

PBS is inviting you to meet the baby boomers -- or perhaps reconsider them.

Like the generation it depicts, the documentary The Baby Boom Century: 1946-2046, which airs Wednesday on MPT, is unpredictable, multi-layered, inspiring and often overwhelming -- a testament to the heft of 78 million aging Americans.

Born from 1946 to 1964, boomers have lived through a series of stunning social transformations while contributing to many of them. The two-hour film shows how the children of the 1950s, molded by the parenting philosophy of Benjamin Spock and the early days of television, morphed into the young adults of the 1960s -- a time enlivened by pop culture but shadowed by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

By the '70s and '80s, the boomers were busy redefining America's notions of work and family.

Throw in civil rights, the birth control pill, feminism, Roe v. Wade, Nixon's resignation, personal computers, AIDS, gay rights, mini-vans, the Internet, the Persian Gulf War, Clinton's impeachment, Sept. 11, Botox, Viagra and long-term care insurance -- and you grasp the complexity of forces still shaping this group.

Now imagine constructing a narrative from such stuff.

Gerontologist and psychologist Ken Dychtwald, who is an authority on the generation, rose to the challenge. He enlisted the help of award-winning filmmakers and a variety of commentators to create the first film of such scope to consider both the boomers and their long-term future.

"One of the challenges was finding a way to present something different about a generation that has been covered so often," says Dychtwald, 56. "It's pretty easy to do something like a `back-in-the-day' film. However, reminiscing about Woodstock's already been done 10,000 times.

"Instead, we ask, `Who is this generation? What are the factors that have caused it to be so rebellious and yet so innovative?' We show this generation for what makes it great -- and for what makes it less than great.

"Ultimately, we want people who are watching to learn things about our collective history and to be able to say, `I never connected those dots before!' and then we drive them into the future. The media still brands the boomers as the youth generation, but I'm convinced that the more interesting decades will be the ones after 50. It's who we're starting to become -- not who we used to be -- that's so fascinating."

Produced by Joel Westbrook and Neil Steinberg, written by Academy Award winner Mark Harris, The Boomer Century considers boomers past, present and future through such topics as health, work, entertainment, money and family.

Commentators, many of whom are boomers, include "Emotional Intelligence" psychologist Dan Goleman, futurist Alvin Toffler, human genome scientist J. Craig Venter, founder Jeff Taylor, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, aging expert Fernando Torres-Gil, civil rights pioneer Julian Bond, filmmaker Oliver Stone, Daily Show comedian Lewis Black, feminist playwright Eve Ensler and healthful aging doctor Andrew Weil.

Interspersing their observations with archival footage and present-day interviews, The Boomer Century also explores people who are reinventing themselves in middle age, a time Dychtwald calls "middlescence." He says boomers remain anti-authoritarian, idealistic, open to change and self-empowered.

"They still have that strange combination of intelligence, of questioning authority and of deep-rooted distrust of the status quo that has caused the generation to be enormously innovative, from music and fashion to relationships, work and technology."

Mind-body connection

Now living outside San Francisco with his wife and two teenage children, Dychtwald is something of an uber-boomer himself. Long before he became known as an aging expert, long before he founded his consulting company, Age Wave, he says he lived a fairly conventional life in Newark, N.J.

In the 1960s, he attended Weequahic High School with intentions of becoming an engineer. After his second year at Lehigh University, however, his life took a sharp, boomer-esque turn.

He discovered psychology -- and a subject called human potential.

Dychtwald dropped out of Lehigh and headed toward the Esalen Institute at Big Sur to study the mind-body connection. Eventually he got his doctorate in psychology. In the 1970s, he helped found and direct the Sage Project, a social service organization in Berkeley funded by the National Institutes of Health that taught the elderly how to improve health by using alternative-medicine techniques such as yoga and meditation. In his early 20s, he wrote Bodymind, the first of his 14 books, now in its 81st printing.

In the 1980s, he served as adviser to a government-sponsored study trying to determine how aging boomers would alter 21st-century America. Before long, his knowledge about aging, mind-body and human potential had rendered him one of the nation's go-to guys on boomer futures.

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