• August 31, 2015

The Peculiar Generation

The Peculiar Generation 1

Margaret Bourke-White, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images

Nancy Lee Botkin, part of the wartime cohort of births, reached the pages of Life magazine in 1947 with her parents, Leroy (left), a graduate student at the U. of Iowa, and Edith.

We've all heard about the "greatest generation," which lived through the Depression of the 1930s and won World War II (with a little help from our Russian friends). We've also been subjected to innumerable analyses about the "baby boomers," born in the late 1940s and 1950s, who instigated the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and have shaped American society ever since.

But what about the people born between the beginning of World War II, in 1939, and its end, in 1945? Those members of a transitionally awkward generation who were too young to have personally experienced the Depression or the war, but too old to have been embroiled in the turmoil on college campuses in the late 1960s. Who were presumably too blasé or sedate to have participated in the battles against the Vietnam War or for the equality of women, much less in the revels at Woodstock. Who came of age in an America that was obsessed with the cold war and was not yet bombarded daily by technological innovations, new waves of immigrants, or cataclysms in the stock market. What contributions, if any, has this generation made to American political and cultural life?

Quite a lot, as it happens. In fact, many in this cohort were responsible for some of the principal transformations—especially in movies, music, and journalism—that have occurred in America over the past 60 years.

The historical impact of my own peculiar generation wasn't immediately apparent to me when I returned to Kansas City, Mo., for the 50th reunion of my high-school graduating class at Southwest High School, the Class of 1959. I was born in 1941, as were nearly all my classmates. We were in grade school during the late 1940s and early 1950s, before entering high school in 1954.

At the time, Southwest regarded itself as one of the premier high schools in the United States. We were among the first beneficiaries of the enormous sums that began to be spent on high schools and colleges in the late 1950s, in the wake of Sputnik, in 1957, and the National Defense Education Act, in 1958. Thus 90 percent of my class of 400 students went on to college—a considerable number to prestigious institutions like Harvard, Rice, Rutgers, Stanford, and Yale Universities and the Universities of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Most of us, unlike later generations of undergraduates, never conceived of dropping out to "find" ourselves or discover what we wanted to do. We earned our B.A.'s in four years in an era when the degree was often sufficient for a good job and a successful life. And so (unless, like me, we lingered on into graduate school), we left campus in 1963, before our successors seized administration buildings and the aroma of marijuana and tear gas floated over the Gothic and Georgian spires.

With that sterling if orthodox educational pedigree, what did we accomplish? On the basis of conversations with my classmates, and after reading the biographies they submitted for the reunion's commemorative book, I concluded regretfully that our adult occupations were respectable but hardly remarkable. Among the men, there were the predictable cluster of lawyers, a sprinkling of professors, and a doctor or two. Most of the men, however, had flourished in business, usually as executives of small or medium-size firms. A few of the women pursued careers in primary- or secondary-school education, but the majority said they had concentrated on their families and volunteer work. Almost everyone, male and female, seemed to love playing bridge.

Notably absent were any Wall Street bankers or masters of the corporate universe, major politicians or foreign-policy gurus, media icons or Madison Avenue admen, eminent scientists, filmmakers, musicians, novelists, or playwrights. In short, this was not a group of people who might show up as characters in the television series Mad Men (except, if they were women, as indispensable secretaries) or in one of Tom Wolfe's mordant meditations on how we live now. We seemed to fit the stereotype of a generation that was steady, reliable, and well adjusted, but not one that had substantially changed or influenced America's politics or its culture.

Yet that stereotype is false. The names of those in my generation who have had a profound effect on American life, and on America's image (for better or worse) in the world, are striking.

In no field has our legacy been more consequential than in the movies. Hollywood enjoyed a renaissance in the 1970s in large part because of the films of Francis Ford Coppola (born in 1939), Martin Scorsese (1942), and George Lucas (1944). Among the dominant actors born during World War II are Al Pacino (1940) and Robert De Niro (1943). Pacino and De Niro are the spiritual descendants of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean, the first generation of Method actors whose movies we all began to watch in the late 1940s and 1950s. And while Nora Ephron (1941) is not the equal as a director of Coppola or Scorsese, she has become one of America's most successful female filmmakers.

American music during and after the 1960s would be unimaginable without the songs and charisma of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Art Garfunkel, and Paul Simon (all born in 1941) and Barbra Streisand (1942). Similarly, American journalists are still hoping to ascend to the level of culture heroes, uncovering the big story, as Bob Woodward (1943) and Carl Bernstein (1944) did with Watergate. Or maybe they would be satisfied anchoring an evening newscast, preferably if anchors are once again deified, as Tom Brokaw (1940) was in the 1980s and 1990s.

Moviemakers, musicians, and journalists were all inflamed by the crises in American politics in the 1960s and 1970s. But the troubles have not abated in the age of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—conflicts that my generation continues to preside over and argue about. Since 2001, in the midst of these debates, we have produced one presidential candidate (John Kerry, 1943) and two antithetical vice presidents (Dick Cheney, 1941, and Joe Biden, 1942). Meanwhile, Richard Holbrooke (1941), who started his career as a junior Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and helped negotiate the end of the Bosnian civil war, in 1995, is now the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a mission as tortuous as any on the planet.

However famous these people are, our real impact on the tone of American culture and politics has been less glamorous but even more enduring. That influence is rooted in the experiences of our childhoods and adolescences, experiences that rarely conformed to the clichés about American complacency in the 1940s and 1950s.

Despite the notion that postwar America was dominated by men, many of us absorbed our most important views of the world—including the political world—from women, particularly during the early 1940s, when our fathers and uncles were away at the war. My first political memory was of the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt died. I was walking with my mother on a street in Kansas City when a barber left his shop to whisper something to her. She immediately burst into tears. So my deepest remembrance is how profoundly Roosevelt's death affected her, her reaction as emotional as any I myself had in response to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.

While our fathers were hard at work in the 1950s making a living to support their families, and rarely at home except in the evenings, our mothers continued to influence how we understood the politics and culture of postwar America. In the spring of 1954, my mother allowed me to stay home from school so I could watch the Army-McCarthy hearings on television. She believed, correctly, that I would learn more from watching Senator McCarthy's brutal performance than from anything I might be taught in class.

Few of us, though, felt the McCarthyite chill that many historians have claimed afflicted American culture in the 1950s. Our nonchalance about McCarthyism was due partly to the fact that we were the last generation who grew up listening to network radio. I can still hear in my mind the nasal voice of Fred Allen skewering the foibles of politicians, the Senator Claghorns who prefigured the pomposities of Joe McCarthy, thereby deflating them in advance. But because we grew up during the most frightening years of the cold war, with the constant fear of nuclear conflagration, we were not soothed by situation comedies or happy endings. Once we graduated to television, we didn't spend much time watching the anodyne escapades of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver, nor were we enthralled by the avuncular pronouncements of Walt Disney. Instead we watched live television dramas like Marty, 12 Angry Men, and Requiem for a Heavyweight, all of which offered a darker view of America's values than the House Un-American Activities Committee, with its campaign to blacklist suspicious actors and playwrights, would have liked.

Our most cherished show-business idols, however, were the new generation of comedians who emerged in the late 1950s—acerbic humorists like Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Tom Lehrer, Mort Sahl, and soon Woody Allen. Long before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, those comics were our reporters and tribunes, satirizing the pretensions of the liberal, well-educated middle class. As Sahl once observed, the typical progressive-minded Unitarian probably believed in the "Ten Suggestions" and would, if he or she were in the Ku Klux Klan, burn a question mark on your lawn.

We were supposed to have been raised on rock 'n' roll, hot rods, and drive-in hamburger joints. Certainly that's the image presented in George Lucas's American Graffiti, his 1973 film about teenagers (like himself) growing up in California to the music and mores of America in the late 1950s and early 60s. Yet for me and many of my friends, the music we admired was jazz—particularly the "cool" jazz of Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. To us the sound of a muted trumpet, a dissonant saxophone solo, or a rippling piano was the background music for our young, unformed lives.

At the same time, the movies we revered—On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass—reinforced our own sense that our families were dysfunctional, that parents (especially fathers) were distant and ineffectual, and that authority figures of all sorts were not to be trusted. Those insights expanded once we entered college and started reading some of the works of corrosive social criticism published in the 1950s and at the beginning of the 60s—like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte's The Organization Man, C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite, and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd. What those books suggested was that we might not be revolutionaries, wild ones in black leather jackets, but that we could decide from time to time when to resist the suffocating conformity of the men in gray flannel suits.

It is important, not just for us but for Americans today, to understand how our experiences affected modern America. What we have bequeathed to the country is an innate moderation, a skepticism about movements and ideologies, an agnosticism about the quarrels that summon intense passions in present-day liberals and conservatives. John Kerry, for example, was an eloquent but oddly aloof opponent of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. When I was protesting the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, as a young instructor at Harvard, I couldn't quite share the fervor of my students. My first child was born during the week of the killings at Kent State University, in 1970; as I was voting to shut our university down, one undergraduate reminded me that I was an "adult," not at heart one of the militant demonstrators.

That feeling of adulthood, of an early-acquired maturity, has been with my generation for a long time. Even during the 1960s, when we listened to the songs of Dylan or Baez, we were more interested in their music than their politics. We were rarely activists or ideologues. And that emotional reserve makes us, even in the midst of America's current crises, unruffled, temperate in conversation and behavior, unmoved by the strident crusades on Fox News or in the left-wing blogosphere. Given our craving to be pragmatic and cool, we have tried to define America's centrist political and cultural style for the past half-century.

And we have an heir, a metaphorical child. For these attributes describe not only my own generation, but also the public traits and private instincts of Barack Obama. In many ways, President Obama—with his aura of ironic detachment from the political furies surrounding him—is a throwback to an earlier time. He reminds me of Henry Fonda in the 1957 movie version of 12 Angry Men: strait-laced, a bit icy, always ration-al, refusing to surrender to the rages or anxieties of his fellow jurors. As an actor, Fonda usually played a calm, laconic hero, a character whom my generation always wanted to emulate. Americans don't have, or don't seem to admire, those types of heroes today. But Obama—whatever his current political difficulties—has an affect that those of us born in the early 1940s, learning to prize a similar psychological reserve, recognize all too well. He exemplifies our strengths and our weaknesses.

So we could use some relief, embodied by Henry Fonda and Barack Obama, from our current political extremism, and some reticence in discussing our present problems. Such restraint might make our political culture healthier and more productive. That is the most valuable contribution those of us who were children in the 1940s and 50s could bequeath to our successors in the 21st century.

Richard Pells is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II (Basic Books, 1997). His book Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture will be published by Yale University Press in spring 2011.


1. lairdwilcox - March 22, 2010 at 10:29 am

Interesting article. Having been born in late 1942 I felt just a little young for the 50's generation and a bit old for the 60's, so I wound up being kind of a mix but probably more 50's than 60's. I have a lot of friends who are just a few months either side of me and many of us feel the same way. On the other hand, I wonder if we can make too much of this. I was also an only child and some onlies tend to identify a bit more than usual with their parents generation. How we see ourselves is a combination of things.

2. 11264553 - March 22, 2010 at 11:05 pm

There must be a better name for us than "Peculiar." How about "The Last Sane Generation"?

And I remember The Lighthouse.

3. gmatheson - March 23, 2010 at 04:04 am

Great article. As one born in 1945 I'm technically not in, but definitely am of, the baby boom cohort. May I explain this? Those who,like my parents, had already delayed family formation on account of the Depression further delayed pending the end of WW II (my mother once confided they had postponed having children "till we were sure we would win"). The result, which I remember vividly, tho not of course knowing the cause, was intense competition for housing, schooling, university places and ultimately jobs and income. (Canada's baby boom was actually more extreme than that of the US owing I suppose to our having been in The War from 1939 and having supplied proportionally more soldiers than any Western ally.)
My older cousins had little of the struggle for places in university and the job market that my contemporaries and the subsequent boomers did, because their attenuated "generation" supplied fewer candidates per position. If they were as a cohort calmer perhaps it was because they had less to be anxious about. It's possible that some of the supposed rejection of society by hippies, rural communards, and a fair fraction of youth in general is explained by their perceiving society as rejecting them, compared to the expectations their elders had led them to, based on labour shortages rather than surpluses. Of course, none of us would have admitted any such thing, even had it occurred to us.

4. rgeldard - March 23, 2010 at 06:44 am

Born in 1935, I was part of the Smallest Generation (nothing peculiar about us), so few of us that we had an easier time getting into college and graduate school in the 50s and getting jobs later on. True, our fathers did work hard and loyally for GM or Big Blue and retired with gold watches while mothers stayed home. We knew the joys of sitting around the radio on Sunday nights listening to Jack Benny and Charlie McCarthy. As a boy, I replayed every battle of WWII but without toy guns. We made our own toys and my greatest thrill was getting a shiny new Schwinn bike when I was eleven. It is true that our role as a generation was to observe. We recorded the great events but stayed on the sidelines. As Emerson said, our task was to be the faculty of reporting, and I'll wager that our generation had a large percentage of writers, journalists and film makers.

5. 11893310 - March 23, 2010 at 08:30 am

Born in 1942, I had given up ever reading even a brief analysis of my generation. But now, about to make my biggest career move, into a senior dean's position in a midwest university, I am sometimes puzzled by how to respond to my experiences with so many generations of colleagues and students, including my own seven children, born over a period from 1963 to 2000. An obvious and unremarkable answer is to live simply in the present, committed to whomever is present with me, and always true to oneself . . . and stay away from AARP.

And yet the small nagging voice persists. One of my earliest formative memories is flying up the west coast of South America at night, in 1948, the engines of the Panagra DC-6 droning on hour after relentless hour. On the right, the coast. On the left, the ocean, a full moon overhead. An attentive steward kept urging various drinks on me, hoping I'd fall asleep. Finally we landed in Panama, around 4 AM, and the heat and humidity were overwhelming. After a few minutes walking on the tarmac, I could wring the sweat out my shirt.

Can I pretend an X Box or Wii or Second Life experience matches mine? How can my generation help the present generation, to use Albert Borgmann's words, "hold on to reality?" Damned if I know, but, at age 67 I have to find out.

6. 11182967 - March 23, 2010 at 09:30 am

Born late in 1942 (my minister father was exempt from the draft), I share some of this sense of having been betwixt and between. Even college (class of '64) was in many ways still the 50's--girls in sweaters and long skirts, sorority teas, calling for your date at the desk in the dorm. The pivotal even of our senior year was JFK's death, but I remember the Cuban missle crisis more vividly--should we stay on campus, flee north (in Michigan), go home?--decisions complicated by the fact that few of us had cars on campus (who to take with us?). This event, like the civil rights activities my generation participated in, prompted discussions of moral and ethical questions which which reflected a Henry Fonda seriousness much more than a Peter Fonda narcissism (and when was Jane born?). I first watched Vietnam war protests from a TA office high in the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt, then from the window of my TF office overlooking the quad in front of the UGLI in Ann Arbor. I sympathized with the protestors, but I had a wife and child and had to get on with getting my degree.

But the best thing about our generation was the music. I was born in time to swing in my cradle, to talk about Elvis on the bus to junior high that Monday morning, to listen to girls in black turtlenecks recite poetry to cool jazz at the Purple Pickle in Pontiac in high school. In college we gathered around the piano after dinner and sang songs from the great musicals of the era but then went looking for Larry Hadsall and his twelve-string to hear and sing folk music. And there were the Beatles and the country and rock and roll and R&B singers that created them. What a time to grow up!

7. sberrien - March 23, 2010 at 09:42 am

Interesting article, but the second paragraph is really annoying. We (I was born in 1943, my wife in 1944) were just old enough to be out of college before the counterculture flourished, and we generally avoided the excesses in lifestyle that those a few years younger indulged in. But we were deeply committed to and active in the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements. "Emotional reserve" does not preclude "activism." As fellow generation-member Paul Simon puts it, we were "born at the right time."

Steve Berrien

8. 11170227 - March 23, 2010 at 09:52 am

Born in 1942, I don't agree with Pells characterization of this cohort. Although I experienced the 1950's, wore my circle skirt and believed that dating and marriage were the highest goals for a
woman, I did undergo a transformation in the late 1960s and 1970s. I participated in consciousness raising groups, marched in women's liberation demonstrations, and worked on a feminist newspaper. I went on to create women's (now gender) studies at the university where I received my PhD. I also participated in anti-war demonstrations and was tear-gassed. Although my then husband was a faculty member and I was not a student, I remember yelling "pigs off campus" in student demonstrations. Although I hold a well-paying job as a research director, I still run into people from my cohort at pro-health care reform and other demonstrations.

9. red_hawk - March 23, 2010 at 09:55 am

Excellent book on the topic:

Elwood Carlson, "The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom" (2008)

It is pricy. I asked my library to buy it.

10. red_hawk - March 23, 2010 at 09:56 am

pricey not pricey. I wish you could edit these things.

11. bdbailey - March 23, 2010 at 09:59 am

It is pretty hard for me to believe that the college educated elite described in the article and commenting after is in any way representative of your generation. The author says that 90% of his high school went to college, many to the Ivies. What was the percentage nationally? I suspect it was probably somewhere in the 20-30% range.

I was also struck by the collective we in both the article and the comments as if any generation is monolithic. While some in this generation enjoyed the experiences described, most left high school (often before graduation) for blue collar jobs or the military. For many of them, this led to a solid middle class existence, but it also shaped their politics. I grew up in a blue collar neighborhood, and the politics clearly leaned to the right. The generation described here was more conservative than their parents. My oldest brother graduated from high school in 1957, and I followed 10 years later. The gulf in our world view has always been enormous.

Coming of age in the 1960's, I counted among my friends draft resisters and volunteers. I always admired the courage of conviction in those who chose to oppose an unjust war, and risked jail or never seeing home again. I admired equally the courage of conviction of those who were willing to endure the jungle, the horror of the war, and the risk that they too might not see home again. They also endured the scorn of many of those they thought they served. Most of us though, were caught in the middle. We did not know really where we stood, and in fact it could change from day to day. My generation ultimately opposed the war in large numbers, but that was not the case as it unfolded in 1965-1969. Likewise, even the "greatest generation" was not a monolith. Along with the Roosevelt democrats, there was a significant group that opposed and tried to block everything he did. There were anti-war pacifists and fascist symapthizers who opposed our entry into the war. This changed only when our very existence was threatened. Then, this generation came together to do what they had to. After the war, that solidarity faded.

Yes, your generation made significant contributions to the arts. These my have been more important to my generation than to yours (Dylan, et al). But, generations and their accomplishments are shaped largely by the challenges they face. When your parents generation faced a real physical threat, they responded proportionally. Perhaps the challenge for your generation was to revive the American dream, and get the economic engine running again. My generation's challenge was to question both the dream and the economics. I can't say that we did either very well, but that was our world.

12. barbarapittman - March 23, 2010 at 10:14 am

The article was interesting, until Pells felt he had to drag Obama into his generation, undermining the article's drift that his peculiar, in-between generation had been successful. Obama as Henry Fonda? Please. Let Henry be Henry and Obama be whatever he is or will be.

13. rburns - March 23, 2010 at 10:18 am

Regardless of the year of his birth, the author appears to have picked up a heavy dose of later gernerations' liberalism, if we can judge from this piece. The elite life on our nation's campuses can do that to a guy. So he describes our generation (which he slams by calling us peculiar)as "presumably too blase or sedate" for real involvement in anti-war, anti-men, and anti-most other things movements. I take an opposite view from this author in taking pride in being "steady, reliable, well adjusted." Now, I realize that these attributes are long out of fashion, especially on most university campuses. But I don't see them as faults. It's just too bad that they are peculiar. And Obama as our off-spring? Well, Obama does remind me of a Fonda. It just isn't Henry.

14. dgura - March 23, 2010 at 11:24 am

Actually, perhaps the politics of the late 60's is that cohorts creation too. Tom Hayden, Mario Savio, Stokley Carmichael, Bernadine Dorhn, H. Rap Brown, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin, to name just a few of the prominent political personalities of the time, were all born between 1938 (so I fudged on a year) and 1945.

15. firstname - March 23, 2010 at 11:57 am

Born May 1939, in Europe, I still feel somewhat guilty for having started WWII.

A telling turn of phrase in the article I found this: "...one undergraduate reminded me...".

A later generation would have said: "one of MY graduates..." -- which is a proprietary way of putting it that always bugs me.

And yes, I have felt rather peculiar all my life. Good to see I am normal--or at least belong to a specific generation (never felt I belonged, though; it's a peculiar feeling--I'm not sure I like it).

16. 22253510 - March 23, 2010 at 12:13 pm

I always thought of us as the War Baby Generation, and this is the first time I've seen even a short discussion about us, so I found it quite interesting. How many remember listening to Big Jon and Sparky from Cincinnati on Saturday morning radio? My high school included grades 7-12, & as I advanced through, I was amazed at how much larger each new 7th grade class was than the one before. They had to build a new school only 4 years after I graduated. I miss the smaller populations of my youth, the smaller towns, less crowded highways & beaches & parks, the forests & fields & habitat that have been replaced by suburbs. Unfortunately we aided this transformation, and I don't think it was always for the best.

17. jffoster - March 23, 2010 at 02:12 pm

And there's a subset--those of us born in '43 and early to mid '44. We were the "Goodbye Babies", the products of Dad's last furlough (Army) or leave (Navy, Coast Guard, or Marine Corps) home before being shipped out to the wars. And we are old enough to remember the bronze flag-covered coffins that were one of our friends' or maybe our own father or uncle coming home. Or the posthumous Purple Hearts and Navy Crosses or Air Medals for one who would never come home 'until the sea shall give up her dead".

Indeed -- Music of the 40s -- still listen to it on Satellite Radio. And network radio -- I was 13 before we had TV. We listened to Don McNeil and Aunt Fanny on the Breakfast Club on the way to school. But our listening was ecumenical and international -- my favorite radio program featured Sgt. Preston of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police and his faithful companion Yukon King, the swiftest lead dog in the North Country. And we sort of envied the Canadians because while our police just arrested lawbreakers, he arrested them in the Name of the Queen.

Note that we entered 1st grade (no kindergarten, thank goodness!) younger than the past two or three generations have. We were 6 and many of us were still 5 because you could enter school in September if you would turn 6 on or before the following 31 January. Nowdays the crucial date is usually 1 September of the year you enter. So we were a year younger when we went off to our Freshman year in college than these students are now -- but we were from 18 to 30 months more mature. Wonder why?

18. ng26249058 - March 23, 2010 at 03:05 pm

However you spell it, "pricey" seems to mean $139 on Amazon and $116.10 on Barnes & Noble. (I am not making this up. It must be a "textbook.") For a free preview of Chapter 1, search for it on Google.

19. prof313 - March 23, 2010 at 03:09 pm

For many of us Generation X-ers born between 1965 and 1970, the "Peculiar Generation" is our parents' generation (for the record, my dad was born in 1938 and my mom in 1942). As such, I think I can see some generational affinity. Pells' himself suggests this by mentioning Mort Sahl and John Stewart in the same breath.

20. ludlow37 - March 23, 2010 at 03:17 pm

Sparky, the little elf from the Land of Make Believe who wants more than anything else to be A Real Boy! Plunk your magic twanger, Froggy (the Gremlin)--#16, you have hit a recessive nerve. I was born in 1937, lived in four towns by 1941 thanks to FDR and Al Gore Sr. starting the TVA dam projects for my Dad. I recall public school kindergarten in Seattle in 1942 along with the blackout curtains, and following the war by radio and maps in my Georgia home while my father was away. I grew up in a segregated society, was called back to Army duty for the Berlin crisis, covered the race riots in Charleston and Birmingham for a newspaper, and wondered why students were dodging the draft and fighting authority. It took years to evolve to the point where I could and would use my corporate standing and involvement in public education to try to build racial calm in a Reddening South. Harder today, it seems. I have understood my generation's strengths and weaknesses, but I have never felt I had to defend our allegiances or innate moderation, nor I do I harbor guilt at not taking to the streets in the mid 60s. It is, simply, the way we were.

21. mfreeman1943 - March 23, 2010 at 03:37 pm

One other property of this generation: good luck at being just ahead of the baby boom. Jobs and housing were more available to us. And, if society turns out not to be able to support its aging members, we can count on getting in there ahead of the rush once more!

22. 11182967 - March 23, 2010 at 04:31 pm

And #21 prompts another note: those of us in this cohort should give thanks to the parents of the boomers for providing that huge cohort of students (and the war they were escaping)the teaching of whom as TAs and TFs got us through our graduate programs--while we, on the other hand, were taught throughout by distinguised real fulltime permanent faculty members. Those were the days.

23. cliftonw - March 23, 2010 at 04:39 pm

An interesting article with which I can resonate: born in 1945. I remember some time ago reading other professional journal articles in which our generation was referred to as War Babies or Tweeners. I've always been aware that my life experience which informs my worldview was somehow different. I found many things in this article comforting and enlightening. Thanks for conjuring up the familiar.

24. jobowen - March 23, 2010 at 05:45 pm

I was born in 1942 and the early 60's for me were defined by the folk revival and the Peace Corp and serious attention to civil rights. We were most definitely NOT the '50s people.

25. shalomfreedman - March 23, 2010 at 11:53 pm

Singling out as seperate generation those born during the Second World War is so far as I know a sociological novelty. As one born during that time I have no real tool for assessing the kinds of generalizations made in the article.
In my own case it seems to me that more than any shared consciousness and values as part of a generation, came a character and consciousness formed by my own special family situation. Perhaps this fits in with certain conceptions about the role of individualism in the America psyche, the sense that the real development and story are what the individual does by him or herself - independent of, or often in contradiction with the norms of contemporaries. I heard the sound of my own drummer even while in the fifties we were told about all pervasive social conformity, and in the Sixties about 'doing our own thing'. I suppose the latter corresponds or confirms in some way my own story and ethic in this regard. I suspect that is true for millions of others and also not true for millions of others.

26. vaneblucas - March 24, 2010 at 11:49 am

This was a well written piece and I enjoyed reading it. I find it typical however, of the more liberal attitudes expressed by many, if not most, in academia.

I am not a member of Pells' cohort, as I am a Boomer, born in 1950. I am also not of the same mindset as Pells, in his admiration for John Kerry, Barack Obama or Viet Nam war protests that close down universities. Having lived in TX for over twenty years, prior to relocating to PA last fall, I find Pells typical of the educators you will find at UT Austin. (Austin is the most liberal city in the state, as well as the state capitol.) Never the less, I am an admirer of well written material and this letter certainly qualifies as such.

I graduated from highschool in 1968. By 1970, when the "Kent State Massacres" occured, my older brother had been dead for five years, killed in action in Viet Nam. The battle in which he died was later depicted in the Mel Gibson movie, "We Were Soldiers Once..." My father was in Viet Nam for his third tour. I was there on my one and only tour.(I was not drafted. I joined.) I remember when I read about the incident at Kent State, in The Stars & Stripes newspaper, writing a letter of support to President Nixon, in which I wrote, "If those students had been in class, where they belonged, they would not have been shot." Not a popular attitude among the academics with whom I work, but then again, I have never really been concerned about the opinions of those who dodged the draft, fled to Canada or dishonored me and my fellow Viet Nam Veterans.

I am new to acadamia. I have been teaching as a fulltime faculty member as an Assistant Professor of Insurance, only since last fall. I am in the process of completing my first textbook (publishing in July) and I realize I do not have the life experiences of most of you who post on this website regularly. I am glad to be here however, to add a least a small amount of conservative, "America First," non John Kerry minded Viet Nam Vet spice to this Chronicle of Higher Education stew.

I had to chuckle at the comments of barbarapittman and rburns. If Obama has ANYthing incomoon with a Fonda, it is surely with "Hanoi Jane" Fonda...and not Henry...or even Peter.

Also to ludlow37...I grew up in Germany, from 1952 through 1964. I lived in Berlin in 1955-57. My dad was a career soldier, serving in WWII, Korea and Viet Nam. I was born in the South, like you. Enjoyed your comment.

27. beachwalker - March 24, 2010 at 12:16 pm

I was born after WWII ended, in October 1945. Up until middle age, I thought that I was a post-war baby boomer. Apparently, I was a post-war baby but not a boomer. Where would you categorize people like me?

28. norwood - March 24, 2010 at 12:47 pm

#12, 13, 26 I agree with you folks about the Obama reference...totally out of place in this article.

I was born in 1971 and have enjoyed reading the comments...and the article (sans Obama reference). As a lover of history, you folks have given me the opportunity to imagine life as it might have been during the 50s and early 60s.

Thank you to all of you.

29. barrybb - March 24, 2010 at 04:02 pm

Interesting that Pells does not reveal his agenda until the end.

30. skfitzp - March 24, 2010 at 04:06 pm

SCHIZOID GENERATION: Some years ago, I sat through a presentation by a demographer whose name I have forgotten. He characterized us (39-45) as the schizoid generation: one foot in the depression, one foot in the boom: we have been torn between the values of these two phenomena ever since. In my own case, I can typecast my behavior over the years under each of these two conflicting drivers.Having grown up on JAX NAS during the WW 2 years, I also maintain a strong affinity for movies that feature brown shoe aviators, corsairs and aircraft carriers. But that's just me, I suppose. And my sound track is "A String of Pearls."

31. greeneyeshade - March 24, 2010 at 05:51 pm

This topic resonates for me--I'm more of a 'Tweener than most in this group (late December, 1944); perhaps more will be written to add to the long list of books we swear we will read when we retire.

Living in the state where the atom bomb was developed, we grew up in a nuclear bull's eye. I was born in a very small town that was a mere 36 miles--and a tall mountain--from Trinity site in the N.M. desert. Later, my state-employed dad was stationed up and down the Rio Grande Valley.

So classmates of mine were the very last of the "war babies" and older than boomers by months. Moreover, as Hispanics native to the state, we were the generation who melded more than generations before us with the American mainstream. On the radio we followed such favorites as Jack Benhny, Arthur Godfrey, Fibber McGee and Molly, the Great Gildersleeve, and the Lone Ranger. And when TV reached the hinterlands, we watched the Cisco Kid, Life of Riley, Your Hit Parade, the Little Rascals, and even Life is Worth Living with Fulton Sheen. We read the same comic books and serial books other American kids read and used the same textbooks in school.

And the food I grew up with was to die for---it still draws me back. I hear the new state question is "red or green?" But the legislature was wrong. It should have been "red, green, or both?" :)

"The Lucky Few?" I'll buy that.

32. honore - March 25, 2010 at 09:22 am

how refreshing to read comments that I agree with or not, but are consistently written in complete sentences representing complete thoughts and in very correct/acceptable grammar...wow, give me more time warps anyday...my freshman class is wired, zoned, incoherent and incapable of deciding between a latte at Starbucks or McDonalds without consulting their their newest BFF on their "smart" phone...maybe the good ol' days were not all that good but at least that generation communicated its thoughts without electronic intervention and without piles of letters representing even shallower understanding...OMG

33. oreni - March 25, 2010 at 10:53 am

Those who object to the Henry Fonda/Barack Obama comparison seem to be blinded by their own ideology. In fact, Obama does seem to have the seriousness and calm temperament that Henry Fonda projected in many of his film roles. This is not the type of personality that fits easily into our media culture, which is more interested in arousal and stimulation than in calm reflection of all the facts.

Comparing Obama to "Hanoi Jane" Fonda is a typical neoconservative "sneer, jeer, and smear" tactic. It is an often-effective way of switching the focus from the real issues that need to be addressed--such as the enormous damage caused by the last administration.

I was born in 1943, and I approached this article with great interest. In some ways, I don't fit the profile outlined by the author. However, I have always had some of the reluctance to be caught up by the iconoclastic movements, fashions, and fads to which Mr. Pells alludes. I never thought of this as a "generational" trait, and I'm not sure that I do now.

However, I will be reflecting upon this. Thanks to the author for that.

34. girlbot - March 25, 2010 at 11:46 am

"We were rarely activists or ideologues." 15 seconds on wikipedia: John Lewis (1940), Stokely Carmichael (1941), Jesse Jackson (1941), Tom Hayden (1939), Todd Gitlin (1943), Bill Ayers (1944), Bernardine Dorhn (1942), et al. Some politicians: Bernie Sanders (1941), Newt Gingrich (1943), and Nancy Pelosi (1940).

Too sedate for Woodstock? Jimi Hendrix (1942), Janis Joplin (1943), Sly Stone (1943), Jerry Garcia (1942), Pete Townshend (1945), David Crosby (1941) -- were there any performers NOT of this generation?

35. occidentalir - March 25, 2010 at 03:15 pm

Comment #34 is excellent; (in addition to Pete Townshend et al you can add all of the Beatles; though of course they weren't at Woodstock they were influencing the Woodstock Generation, granted they were British, not American).

Although I enjoyed Pells' essay and found it thought-provoking, I wonder if he makes not just the errors of omission that girlbot notes in comment #34, but errors of commission as well. Specifically, this passage:

"In no field has our legacy been more consequential than in the movies. Hollywood enjoyed a renaissance in the 1970s in large part because of the films of Francis Ford Coppola (born in 1939), Martin Scorsese (1942), and George Lucas (1944). Among the dominant actors born during World War II are Al Pacino (1940) and Robert De Niro (1943)."

Impressive list, but couldn't one create an equally impressive list by looking at people born between say 1946 and 1952, or 1953 and 1959, or etc.?

36. texastextbook - March 28, 2010 at 08:05 am

Perhaps you are more peculiar than you know, Mr. Pells. There exists the older-than-you Gloria Steinem. And there exists Steinem's refusal to extend a hand to the younger-than-you, younger-even-than-boomers, Sarah Palin.

What is Palin's threat, what disease does she carry, except that she is a person who raises her offspring to serve their nation in its military, to serve even during times of war and not excluding times when the military is on its way to freeing what Jews have not already been exterminated.

37. goxewu - March 28, 2010 at 09:54 am

"[Palin] is a person who raises her offspring to serve their nation in its military, to serve even during times of war and not excluding times when the military is on its way to freeing what Jews have not already been exterminated."

I've been told by highly placed sources that this passage has just been inserted by the Texas Board of Education into Texas public school textbooks, to replace all references to Thomas Jefferson and Darwin.

38. texastextbook - March 28, 2010 at 02:14 pm

#37, goxewu

Interesting. You didn't happen to ask why the Texas Board of Education didn't use it to augment existing info on Steinem or Nancy Pelosi, did you?

The only reason a would-be feminist writer employs Sarah Palin's "crosshairs" remark against Sarah Palin is because the writer is too simple-minded to use the concept against someone who has proven herself, with crosshairs, to be more than only a threat.

Nancy Pelosi, under the guise of one who was reforming healthcare, put *her own* into the crosshairs. Only by virtue of the fact that Pelosi had Bart Stupak's pants to hide behind did the Catholic Pelosi escape being called to account by (1) those who'd managed, this time and for whatever reasons, to escape Pelosi's sights and (2) those representing the Church, who'd have given her laurels.

I believe that Jefferson and Darwin would be the first to ask why, for whose good, women who would be the best of us are expected to suck it up, to absorb the losses, to *be* the losses.

39. cadiricci - March 30, 2010 at 08:58 am

As a European reader from this generation I was surprised that the name of Cassius Clay did not appear. For many here he was the first African American of our generation to make a global impact. Yes, he was mouthy, boastful, noisy and show business. But he made us aware of the African American's view on Vietnam. He showed us a proud black man. He made us aware of American Islam. And boy, could he fight.

40. south_man - April 05, 2010 at 01:51 am

I found the Pell article stimulating - and note its similar impact on many readers.

While growing up outside the USA (born 1941,in New Zealand in my case) we were enthused by the rock music introduced to our world by the movie "Blackboard Jungle" and then the wave of entertainment as it engaged our generation from that time into a new era. And much of my experience matches my US contemporaries (first ever in our family to university) - then being able to recognise and take career potential from computing, as this new business erupted in the 1960s, as a programmer.

Our other generational change we joined was activism and protest - unthinkable to our parents as they had battled to survive the Depression years.

In our local case this protest was fighting petty racism in our own nation - then the larger cause of South African apartheid. This went on in parallel to your domestic battles on the same issue.

For us apartheid was a long battle, but finally won after many years: our small pressures had eventually led to a N.Z. rugby football boycott of South Africa - inconceivable a few years earlier, but arguably a deeper cut than trade limits and other sanctions. Clint Eastwood's film 'Invictus' hints at the prior impact of that boycott.

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