I am one of the 4,017,000 Americans born in 1954, who are in turn among the 39,964,000 born in the 1950s. My impending 60th birthday, in other words, is a drop in the ongoing flood of such anniversaries. The attendant individual assessments are inseparable from collective ones since, as we’ve learned to say, the personal is sociological.
Those of us who arrived in the 1950s are the biggest part of the Baby Boom, the demographic bulge generally defined as comprising Americans born between 1946 and 1964. We also, apparently, identify ourselves more strongly as Boomers than do those older and, especially, younger than we are. Barack Obama, though born in 1961, wrote in The Audacity of Hope that he considered the political turmoil under President Bill Clinton (born in 1946) and George W. Bush (also 1946, six weeks before Clinton) part of “the psychodrama of the baby-boom generation—a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago.”
“Long ago.” That stings. So does the fact that the 15-year gap between the age of his two predecessors and the 44th president’s raises the strong possibility that out of almost 40 million prospects, not one American born in the 1950s will wind up in the Oval Office. The politicians most likely to contest the 2016 election include some born in the 1940s (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Elizabeth Warren, Jim Webb); the 1960s (Chris Christie, Martin O’Malley, Rand Paul, Scott Walker); and the 1970s (Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan). Hopes that the 1950s cohort will finally put a run on the board rest, precariously, on Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum.
If it turns out that the 1950s never produce a president, it will be one of only three calendar decades in the nation’s history to share this dubious distinction. (The others were the 1810s and the 1930s, the latter of which had the good excuse of having a Baby Bust instead of a Boom.) Is America telling those born in the 1950s that for judgment and maturity it’s still a safer bet to rely on our older siblings, even as we’re now preparing to sign up for Medicare? But also that when boldness and vigor are called for, they want to see real athletes on the field, not a sad, embarrassing Old Timers’ Game?
It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. The generation of Americans that had all those babies back in the 1950s needed to think well of their big investment in the future. As a result, we grew up hearing endless, ruinous praise for our hypostasized wisdom and virtue. Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1966 was the entire generation of Americans under the age of 25, hailed for their “vast commitment toward a kindlier, more equitable society” and being “in many ways…markedly saner, more unselfish” than their elders. The kindly, equitable, sane, and selfless 21st-century America we were supposed to deliver is adjacent to Brigadoon, but the Baby Boomers’ invincible self-regard goes on and on.
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Sixty, though, means that that particular frug is just about up. By this point, whatever we’re going to do, we’ve pretty much already done. And the list of things we haven’t done corresponds very closely to the list of ones we’re never going to do. People entering their seventh decade have faced this reality for the history of the species, of course, but it’s more jarring for those who heard so much about our youthful promise: years after we’ve stopped being youthful or promising, we still anticipate prodigious achievements over the horizon.
Against the burden of being born near the exact middle of the millions of underachievers who checked in during the 1950s, I take some private consolation from the belief that my hypochondria and morbid gloom—embarrassments decades ago—are finally becoming age-appropriate. I like my favorite New Yorker cartoon better all the time—the one showing a man reading a newspaper’s obituary page, where we see all the articles’ headlines as he does: “Two Years Younger Than You.” “Exactly Your Age.” “Five Years Your Senior.” It turns out that the artist, Roz Chast, is five days younger than I am, and that her cartoon ran in 1993, when we were both 39. The misery that loves company, apparently, includes the type you go looking for as well as the misery that finds you.
Philip Larkin, by contrast, was a scamp of 55 when he wrote his last great poem, “Aubade.” It is a meditation on “unresting death”—“the anaesthetic from which none come round”—being “a whole day nearer now.” The inescapable awareness of “what’s really always there” makes “all thought impossible but how and where and when I shall myself die.” For Larkin that turned out to be of esophageal cancer; in a hospital in Hull, the Yorkshire city where he resided nearly his entire adult life; at the age of 63.
What lies beyond the grave is scarcely more mysterious than what lies just before it. Did Larkin, in those last days, follow the course strongly suggested by “Aubade”? “Being brave lets no one off the grave. Death is no different whined at than withstood.” Or did he obey the subtler implication that being a coward lets no one off the grave, either?
Better, I think, to resist, as long and defiantly as possible. How else to enjoy these final chapters’ incongruities? To be 60 in 2014, and at sea about popular culture, is to sympathize deeply with the parents and grandparents baffled by the British invasion. Ariana Grande, it turns out, is a singer—news that saved me from ordering an Ariana Decaf at Starbucks.