Starting nine months after the end of World War II, the soldiers who had returned home to tightly embrace their wives and girlfriends began to frequent hospital maternity waiting rooms across the country. Their pent-up sexual desire, along with an optimistic view of the future saw the U.S. population balloon by 76 million from 1946 to 1964. Born in 1946, I and everyone sharing my birth year were on the leading edge of the boom – the first to qualify to use the generational descriptive term “baby boomer.” By the time the baby boom ended in 1964, I was eighteen years old and prepared to move out into the world and make a difference.
The early years of my childhood, an age of innocence, occurred during a time of optimistic prosperity in the United States. A great war, which was preceded by a great depression, had just ended and the country was steeped in optimism.
By the time I turned 18 in 1964, that optimism had waned. The United States was mired in the unpopular Vietnam War and the assassinations of three great men had scarred our consciousness. Yet my childhood wasn’t defined by a term describing a generation of post-World-War-II births or those landmark occurrences from the 1960s. It is instead a collection of experiences linked to the places I lived and the people with whom I interacted during my early years. Some experiences were unique to me, such as contracting rheumatic fever at the age 14, while others were common to everyone from this generation. For instance, recalling when the first television arrived in our home and remembering the first show we watched (The Lone Ranger; Hi-ho, Silver!) Or knowing exactly where we were when John F. Kennedy was shot (high school cafeteria) or when Neal Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon (U.S. Air Force barracks in the Philippines). This post-war and post-depression time period framed my childhood. That structural framework, when combined with my childhood experiences, formed the foundation for the person I am today.
During the years and decades that have passed since my childhood, the term “baby boomer” has taken on more of a cultural context. My generation is, in part, defined by some specific values or attributes that can be directly linked back to our childhood. There are three I hope to explore as the story of my childhood unfolds – optimism, independence, and exploration. I believe the sense of optimism we possessed was instilled in us by our parents. They had all just endured the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II. It was their optimism for the future that drove the increased birth rates that created our baby boomer generation. Comprising 40% of the population, we influenced or redirected our country into new and defining directions. The anti-war protests that helped to end the Vietnam War impacted not just this country, but the broader world as well. We were independent in our thinking and in our actions. We wanted to define a new way forward that was different from the path taken by our conservative parents. After all, we were raised to believe anything was possible, and we bought into the concept. The independence we were granted as children supported our desire for exploration and achievement. Some achievements were broad and far-reaching, including the societal changes relative to women’s and minority rights, while others were individual and small in scale, such as walking 50 miles in one day because President John F. Kennedy challenged us to do so.
My childhood, along with those of many baby-boomers, was a free-range childhood. Our back doors were like swinging gates that we left and entered as we wished. From an early age, we independently roamed far and wide without parental supervision or oversight. After being gone all day, if we didn’t show up for dinner, our parents might raise their eyebrows and call our names from the back porch. Our parents trusted not just us, but the community and society in general to watch over and protect us. By giving us this gift of freedom, they allowed us to grow and develop into young adults who felt independent and optimistic because we had learned many of life’s lessons via self-exploration and trial and error. Why did our parents sanction this? Was it just a result of the times in which they raised us? A time just after the great evils of World War II had been defeated and the home front seemed safer than ever. Or was it related to the fact that they were not exposed to the constant barrage of bad news from all over the globe via the internet, as parents are today? The effect of this damaging and relentless internet bombardment is comparable to the continuous bombing of London during World War II that kept parents from letting their children roam the streets. The bombs were, and the bad news today is, incessant and draining.
This mental “bad news” assault causes parents to worry about and be fearful of the possible bad situations that might occur, be over protective, and deny their children the freedom to explore and learn without parental interference. In addition, many parents also narrow their circle of friends to like-minded people. By doing so, their children’s ability to learn about the broader, diverse world is further contracted. Because of the freedom and independence I was given, I developed confidence in myself and my abilities and have lived my life without fear and worry. The freedom to explore and learn helped shape me so I fit neatly into a diverse society, not just a fragmented piece of it. The timing of my childhood could not have been better, for it broadened my horizons and helped prepare me to understand and accept the larger, complex world in which we all live today. And today, more than ever, we need the children of the world to be independent, optimistic, and confidently ready to explore the opportunities that will make our world a better place.