I try to write about my dad each August because it was at the end of that month, six years ago, that he left this mortal coil, all too soon. For most of his 74 years, my dad recognized himself as a Tweener, someone who didn’t belong to a specific or at least any commonly recognizable generation. For example, consider the Baby Boomers, who comprise the cohort that took shape once World War II had concluded, when my dad was already 9 years old. The parents of Boomers were, of course, the folks who fought The Big One as young men. So my dad arrived on this mortal coil in between these two sharp-elbowed generations. So did my mother. So did all the parents I knew growing up. Their kids (my cohort) were similarly “tweened” by our Boomer elders — the largest, most consumptive, coddled and self-indulgent generation America has yet produced — and their children, known as Xers. In many ways, these populous and impetuous Boomers overtook my dad’s generation, while his son (i.e., me) has lived all his days in their voracious shadow.
William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of “Generations: A History of America’s Future, 1584-2069”, would quibble with “Tweener”. They classify my dad as a member of a distinct cohort, the Silent Generation, or those born 1923 to 1942. These Americans, unlike members of the preceding G.I. Generation (1901-1924), were born too late to participate in WWII. Yet most Silent citizens came into sentience during the war, were hugely affected by it, as children, and developed a lasting respect for the way their G.I. elders rose to that occasion (and subsequently shaped the post-war world). All this influenced the way my dad, mom and other Silents saw the world, their country, their child-rearing and educational habits, their roles in the public square. Silents were again buffeted by forces outside their own generation when Boomers, the sons and daughters of G.I. folk, overturned then rerouted the culture in the 1960s, by which time my parents were married with three kids.
They didn’t invent it but Strauss and Howe were the first to map this generational theory onto American history. It’s complicated but fascinating stuff (see a more thorough summary of its tenets here). S&H postulate that there are four distinct types of generations — Civic (G.I.s, for example), Adaptive (Silent), Idealist (Boom), Reactive (Thirteenth, my own generation) — that cycle in the same order throughout U.S. History, going back to the Puritans (who, if you think about it, are the offspring of some ongoing English generational cycle). Before reading this book, I’d never encountered history told quite this way. It feels a bit pop-psychological at times but the patterns do fit together with remarkable logic, precision and predictability.
Though “Generations” was published in the early 1990s, my dad never read it. Didn’t know about it all, though it’s exactly the sort of thing he liked to read the last 20-30 years of his life (then pass to me when he was done). In the six years he’s been gone now, I’ve had the urge to discuss with him hundreds, maybe thousands of things. This seems to me the most striking and unchanging aspect of his death — the fact that I still instinctively think of matters to discuss with him but cannot.
Strauss and Howe struck a chord with me because if there are four distinct generations of Americans alive at any one time (they refer to these groupings as “constellations”), then my longtime complaints about being sandwiched between Boomers and their children in Generation X are not outlying but grounded in a kind of understandable framework. What’s more, this sandwiching has been going on forever. My mom and dad dealt with a variation on this theme: They led their Adaptive/Silent lives between one highly successful Civic generation (which won us the biggest war ever and presided over the largest economic expansion in the history of mankind) and their Idealist kids, the Boomers.
This dynamic has not changed the way I think of Boomers, ultimately a feckless lot of shallow, navel-gazing spiritualists. But it did change the way I think of modern U.S. history, my dad and the 1970s.