Talking About “Race” Across Generations and Ethnicities

Meditations Of An Aging Civil Rights Child: Baby Boomers

The first wave of Baby Boomers is in the stage of life I call the passage beyond middle age.  Even the diehard health fanatics among us must concede that we’re way past the halfway point.  Heck, considering the vices and upheavals that marked our era, many of us never thought we would live this long.  And, on the surface, most of us wear our new roles as society’s elders fairly well.

The first wave name refers to those of us born between 1946 and 1955, whose rebellious 1960s experiences were different from the more jaded children of the ‘70s born between 1956 and 1964.  But we’ve all been on the front lines of racial and ethnic change. 

The boomers rounding 60 now may be battle weary but when they get together for lunch or dinner, we usually bring an upbeat attitude.

Over fat-free lattes we assay our future with grownup talk about living wills and long-term care.  Chuckles ripple around the table as the reading glasses come out when the low-carb menu arrives. 

We pass on the dessert tray to dish up memories of growing up with end-of-the-world prophecies, bomb shelters, and the fear of foreigners threatening the American way of life; of wars, assassinations, and public protests against government.  We had to take low-paying jobs in a down market because our college degrees couldn’t promise us jobs. 

We’ve lived a pendulum of economic, political and social upheavals, confirming that the only constant is change.  In today’s world that should make us the wisdom-bearers of hope, not fear and dissension, advising others on survival skills during challenging times.

 In our conversations at the table, a whiff of the frustrated child does tend to seep in.

We want to make a difference, shake things up again, and resist the pessimists who predict and expect the worst. Yet we lament the lack of a clear vision of how that can be done.  The passion and optimism of youth has waned. 

Here we are, officially the older generation, the ones “in power”, feeling ineffective.  It’s as disorienting as the aging figure staring back from the mirror each day. 

We’re in an in-between time.

On the one hand, the turbulence of our past is fading into nostalgic stories about a youth that was trouble-free, unlike the overwhelming obstacles faced by younger people today.

There’s a theory, though, that many people reach their peak in their youth and then they decline, not the society around them.

 Aristotle was even more critical of this melancholy stage, saying that as people age they get cynical, distrustful, less open to innovation and less able to absorb new ideas – about what’s possible for them, or others. 

But, research has also found that people 60 and older, in general, can be less conservative than people in their 40’s and 50’s. 

A lot of us are getting involved again in unfinished business with the environment, women’s and children’s rights, the political system – and with building bridges across racial and ethnic lines, despite the troubled waters.

Black, Whites, Hispanic/Latino and Asian boomers, especially first wavers, have become the target group for my Race and Change oral history interviews for this reason. 

We have lived through, arguably, the greatest social change in history in society and our personal lives.

A willingness to recall all of the experience and to share the lessons we have learned can be our greatest legacy.  

In the process, we’re also trying to re-envision what aging means in society today. It’s an uphill struggle, though.  (More next time.)

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