The Best Years of Our Lives

A woman in a white shirt laughing and talking holding a cup of coffee

A case can be made that the best years of our lives are those when we enter maturity. For my generation, that means the time between 1965 and 1979. From a certain point of view, including New York Times columnist, Ross Douthat’s, our best age remains fixed in our minds as “the apex of civilization.”

If you turned twenty between 1965 and 1984, you experienced the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. You also witnessed the first landing of a human on the moon, the eventual eradication of polio, and the rise of the second wave of feminism. If you’re like me, you saw these events play out on television, something earlier generations could never have imagined.

Those heady years, full of conflict, protest, and achievement unleashed a certain freedom of thought and an era of questioning the norms of society and politics that hasn’t happened since. During young adulthood, many boomers catapulted over the cautious, conventional social attitudes of their parents. It was time for experimentation and discovery. Anything seemed possible.

In certain ways, boomers haven’t lost the beat. Experimenting with co-housing strategies for retirement living, grey romance, or pursuing uniquely productive and meaningful lives are just a few of the ways today’s older adults are re-writing the book on ageing. Based on the experiences enjoyed as young adults, Boomers have tenaciously clung to certain choices that seem just as powerful today as they did fifty years ago.

The music of the period will always be the best music for me: Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde album will never be replaced by another recording. I still listen to it on iTunes and think back to the summer of 1967. I was sixteen, in high school, more interested in boys and clothes than in the state of the nation. Across the river in Detroit, the tensions in the Motor City exploded into a race riot. “To help end the disturbance, Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan Army National Guard into Detroit, and President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the United States Army‘s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The result was 43 dead, 1,189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed.” The intensity of the violence and its causes, changed my friends and me, got some of us examining our comfortable lives. Instead of scaring us away from public engagement, it got us interested in changing things for the better, just the way Dylan sang about in his early lyrics.

To this day, I listen to Joni Mitchell’s, Blue, with an overriding fondness. Recently, when I watched the PBS special of Joni’s August, 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight music festival, it brought tears to my eyes. There she was, so young, healthy and beautiful, so talented, moving the 600,000-person crowd to their feet after a shaky start.

As for television, it was All in the Family and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, both sitcoms which managed, in half an hour, to rewrite the conventions of society for middle class America. The great Carroll O’Connor played Archie Bunker, who was the dinosaur of past generations, while his son-in-law, Meathead, questioned each and every of Archie’s biased assumptions. Archie was an object of derision rather than a figure of respect, which may or may not play well today, but that’s what happened. No doubt it led to many an argument between sons and their fathers in living rooms across North America. “The show broke ground in its depiction of issues previously considered unsuitable for a U.S. network television comedy. Through depicting these controversial issues, the series became arguably one of television’s most influential comedic programs, as it injected the sitcom format with more dramatic moments and realistic, topical conflicts.”  Today I enjoy reading Meathead’s (Rob Reiner) tweets on many of these same issues.

Mary Richards was the first television incarnation of the single American career woman, valiantly trying to occupy her own independent space with dignity at a small Minneapolis six o’clock nightly news production. She was single and childless –and that was anomaly back then, as it is not today. Yet if we look back, we can predict that Mary Richards would support the women vying for the Democratic ticket today in the U.S.

Boomer legends have spunk. Rather than kicking back, I see so many of this generation staying in the game, and not just fighting against ageism or for better pensions, health care and living arrangements. Staying in the game is a state of mind that has less to do with a painful bum knee, or a set of daily prescription medicines that must be swallowed, than it does with a lively mind that reads, listens to music, stays physically active and maintains close ties with friends and family. Our unique “apex of civilization” affected us deeply and now helps us to overcome the obstacles of older age.

We shouldn’t be shy of calling it up, or being accused of nostalgia, when we need it most. 

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