Everybody knows what a Baby Boomer is. But do you know what a “trailing-edge Boomer” is? If you were born anywhere from 1956 to 1964, you do, because you are one. The Baby Boom generation was enormous – it started as soon as the first GIs came home from World War II and didn't run out of steam until the year after we lost John F. Kennedy.
Popular culture has stereotyped this generation as anti-war, anti-establishment, protestin’, pot-smokin’, long-haired hippie freaks. We think of Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and all of the Beatles – but hold on just a minute! They were all born before the Baby Boom started. In fact, their group is known as – ha! – the Silent generation. So the years don’t necessarily line up precisely.
Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are true demographic Boomers. So are Bill Gates, Stephen King, Billy Joel, and Oprah Winfrey. Anyone born between 1946 and roughly 1955 is considered a “leading-edge” Boomer. The rest of us have been given a rather sad-sounding label: “trailing-edge.”
I was born in 1958, and clearly remember many of my classmates speaking derisively of the icons of the 1960s and the whole phenomenon. “Bunch of drug addicts!” they’d say. “ I am NOT one of those people.” And my classmates were right. We simply could not truly identify with the people we saw hogging the limelight for so many years. We were too young for Woodstock – our parents frowned on hitchhiking up to the New York State farmlands. They often had older kids (true Boomers) to deal with, and as they caught a breath in between births, they vowed to be wiser and not let “the little ones” get up to the kind of shenanigans they’d already witnessed.
A friend of mine still bears the emotional scars of coming up during this time. Older Bro dived headfirst into the counterculture – blacklight posters of the Grateful Dead on the bedroom walls, and funny smells wafting from under the door. Mom and Pop idolized their first-born and were clueless as to why he dropped out of college. Such potential! He was a genius! Where did they go wrong? Gradually, public awareness increased toward the use of heroin, psychedelics, “uppers and downers,” and of course, everybody’s favorite “gateway drug,” marijuana. Suddenly the light dawned! These kids were endangering their lives, playing with fire! And if their bright young scion could be so seduced, then what about their middle-schooler? Well, he wouldn’t be pulling the wool over their eyes, no siree! My friend recalled having his possessions ransacked, a flashlight being shone into his pupils anytime he came home late, and being sent to a doctor to pee in a cup when he brought home a B+ instead of an A-. And this guy was Mister Clean! To my knowledge, he’s never in his life taken a hit of weed, and a milestone in his life was two glasses of Jaegermeister when he was in his mid-30s.
A lot of my classmates lived with this self-imposed mini-generation gap. These are the same people who voted for Reagan and were symbolized by Gordon Gekko in the 1980s. “Poverty Sucks” read their favorite poster – the guy standing next to a Rolls Royce.
So our Junior Boomer group found itself betwixt and between for a long time. We didn’t really have an identity. That had been claimed already by people just 10 years older than us. What would we do when we grew up? What would distinguish us?
Well, here we are, in our mid-to late fifties. What I’m finding, based on news stories, social media and the 40th class reunion I attended last year, is that our group finally seems to be coming into its own. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Ellen DeGeneres, Alec Baldwin and, of course, Barack Obama, are examples of where our cohort has blazed its own trails. If life can be compared to a road, the leading-edgers got the newly paved road, all smooth and shiny and clearly marked, and were invited to impose their own speed limits. We, on the other hand, got potholes and faded signs that we had to squint to read. A lot of detours. A lot of flashing blue lights in the rear-view mirror. We understood that we had to play by the rules or face the consequences. We were calmer and steadier, more sober, than the ones who went ahead of us. We were lucky enough to avoid being sent to Vietnam, but managed to be in the bullseye when the economy collapsed. We are the Sandwich generation – our own parents find themselves widowed or ill, and moving back in with us. And our kids are, too!
The leading-edgers are now in their 60s, with the oldest turning 70 this year. And boy, are they annoyed to find that they are no less prone to life’s misfortunes, especially when it comes to health. AARP predicted that this generation would not go gentle into that good night. They consider illness and infirmity a personal insult. They want all the laws changed to favor them. They want "alternative community residences,” not nursing homes, like for old people!
Our bumpy road of life has finally led somewhere good. One of the bonuses is a sense of perspective. Right now we're watching the Presidential campaigns, and can't help reflecting on some echoes from the past. We hear dire predictions that the world as we know it will come to an end if one candidate prevails over the other (some people in the early 1970s contemplated leaving the country to avoid Nixon, if not the draft). But we can look back and see that no matter how scary things may seem (like oh, the recession we've just barely emerged from), there's a place of everyday normalcy to be found. I think that's where our trailing-edge generation excels. When it comes to "everyday normalcy," we're champs.
And you just thought we were dull.