Born at the Right Time:
A History of the Baby Boom Generation

315 pages,
ISBN: 0802059570

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Boomers: Suchness or Muchness?
by Daniel Stoffman

In 1955, more than ten million Davy Crockett coonskin caps found their way onto the heads of North American children, fans of the hugely popular Disney television series based on the American folk hero. So powerful was the demand for this retro fashion statement that the price of raccoon skins in the United States increased tenfold.
The special fascination of Born at the Right Time is the knack of its author, the University of Alberta history professor Doug Owram, for finding significance in such apparently trivial events. As he points out, the Crockett craze was a turning point in the history of marketing in North America because it "taught manufacturers a lesson they would not forget: If you could entice the baby boom, the potential for profits was immense."
At the time, less than half of the boom had yet been born and the eldest boomers were a mere eight years old. Yet they were already demonstrating their ability to shape society and the economy to their own needs and tastes. The boomers are now into middle-aged fads such as vintage wines, sport utility vehicles, and Prozac. But marketers are still asking themselves the same question Davy Crockett taught them to ask forty years ago: "What will the boomers want next?"
Definitions of the baby boom vary. Owram defines it as the group born from 1946 to 1962, which seems an odd place to end it, since only 4,000 fewer babies were born in 1963 than in 1962. David Foot places the end of the boom in 1966, when the birth rate fell below 20 per 1,000, an historic low. But these, as Owram rightly says, are minor disputes. What is indisputable is that the boom is the largest cohort in the Canadian population and that it creates a "shock wave" wherever it goes, from kindergartens to mutual funds.
The key question about the boomers, and one that Owram never satisfactorily answers, is this: Are they special merely because there are so many of them, or is a boomer really a different sort of person than someone who is a member of a previous or succeeding generation? Most of the evidence in Born at the Right Time points to the former conclusion. If the boomers are different it is because they know they are powerful but that power derives solely from the size of their population cohort relative to others. It was only because there were so many of them that boomer kids could affect the price of raccoon skins.
"The peer group was so large and so economically powerful," writes Owram, "that even in childhood it competed with the family's hold upon the values and sensibilities of the child." So if the peer group decided that Barbie dolls or hula hoops were required, then it was the duty of parents to provide those things. Few parents dared refuse. The boomers were the first Canadians to grow up in a child-centred society composed of child-centred families.
Owram offers a convincing explanation of how this phenomenon came about. By the 1950s, Sigmund Freud's theories had become part of mainstream thought. Freud and followers of his such as Erik Erikson believed that the mental development of the child was crucial to the later life of the adult. This theory created tremendous pressure on parents, Owram writes, because "even small, well-intended acts by parents were seen to have the potential to warp a child permanently." Journals specializing in child psychology offered such articles as "Analysis of Psychogenic Constipation in a Two-Year-Old". In this environment, Dr. Benjamin Spock was not the proponent of radical permissiveness he is often accused of being. On the contrary, his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care became a mega-bestseller because it reassured parents that they should trust their own instincts while at the same time it confirmed the rightness of the permissive approach that had already achieved the status of conventional wisdom.
The new suburbs outside the major Canadian cities where this new style of child-rearing was taking place were communities the like of which had rarely if ever been seen before. The boomers' grandparents had been left behind in the central cities or small towns. Not only did the new suburbs have no old people, they had no middle-aged people or teenagers either. Overwhelmingly, the populations of the new suburbs in the 1950s were composed of young children and young couples. Owram approvingly quotes William Whyte, the author of The Organization Man, who in 1956 described such a community as a "filiarchy". It was always "for the kids" that people moved to these desolate places and, once there, it was usually through the children that adults formed relationships with other families. The suburbs, said one writer, were places where the mother "delivers the children once obstetrically and by car forever."
Is it any wonder that some boomers today have such an uncanny ability to irritate the hell out of both their elders and their juniors? They were raised to believe that the world revolved around them and they still believe it. Many boomers forget that though they are the largest cohort, they are only one-third of the Canadian population; the baby boomers are, always have been, and always will be, a minority among Canadians. But their self-centredness is encouraged by their dominance of the mass media, which hired large numbers of them during the 1960s and 1970s. Two decades later, boomers clog the hierarchies of media organizations, leaving little room for new blood, and boomer editors fill newspapers and airwaves with their own navel-gazing obsessions. This explains the spate of articles over the past year about the wondrous fact that boomers are turning fifty, as if no-one had ever done such an amazing thing before.
Born at the Right Time is as much a book of intellectual as of social history and Owram is at his best explaining the importance of such thinkers as G. Stanley Hall, an American psychologist who published a two-volume opus in 1911, establishing the notion of adolescence as a distinct stage of life between childhood and adulthood, characterized by emotional stress. This idea had filtered into the conventional wisdom by the 1950s, by which time it was accepted that adolescents existed and that they were naturally "troubled". Many elders would oppose and resist the huge explosion of adolescent angst that characterized the 1960s but, for the most part, boomer adolescents were indulged. They were, after all, just going through a stage.
Never had adulthood been postponed for so long. Before World War II, most people entered the work force in their teens and, as a result, had no time to be adolescents. It wasn't until the 1950s that a majority of Canadians finished high school; not until the 1960s was university education offered to more than a small elite. Canada in the 1960s had more adolescents with more time on their hands than ever before. They didn't have to work for a living, had never experienced economic insecurity, and knew they could get a job should they ever need one. They had the bodies and energies of adults but none of the responsibilities. Moreover, their life experience had taught them that they belonged at the centre of attention. When Owram puts it in this context, the arrival of the counterculture and other forms of dissent in the 1960s seems an event as natural and inevitable as the eruption of a volcano.
Owram demonstrates that institutions such as the church or the Boy Scouts that tended to impose conservative values on their members had been badly weakened even before the 1960s rolled around. Yet the rigid conformity of the 1950s still had strong adherents well into the new decade. That made it an exciting time for young people because it was so easy to get a rise out of adults like the Vancouver restaurant owner cited by Owram who evicted a pair of customers because the male had a beard and the female had a "beard-like attitude". Pity today's teenager who paints his hair blue and fastens rings to various body parts and still can't get thrown out of a restaurant.
Owram devotes more than a third of the book to the doings of the hippies and New Leftists during the 1960s, a period he defines culturally as lasting from 1963 to 1972. This is understandable because they were certainly the most interesting of boomer youth. And yet it is also misleading because, as he admits, "large percentages of 1960s youth remained apolitical or opposed to the radicalism that was so associated with their generation." He justifies giving the radicals so much space by arguing that even non-radicals felt generational solidarity which they expressed by adopting counterculture styles, listening to rock music, and generally empathizing with the protest movements.
I think this is wrong. I was in the eye of the storm as editor of The Ubyssey, the student paper at the University of British Columbia, in 1967-68. The engineering students were so empathetic with the radical viewpoints of some of our writers that they trashed our office and destroyed an entire issue of the newspaper. The fraternities, still influential on campus during the 1960s, were no more sympathetic. In fact, the vast majority of students were oblivious to the protest movements of the 1960s. Yes, males wore their hair longer, females dressed more informally, everybody listened to the Stones, and a lot of people smoked pot. But one could do these things without wanting to challenge the way society was organized. Most boomer youth were just as conservative as their parents.
I think it's time to recognize this obvious fact because doing so relieves us of any further need to deal with the foolish question of why the boomers abandoned their youthful radicalism. The answer is that most of them had very little radicalism to abandon. In retrospect, it's easy to see why the importance of the protest movements was exaggerated. Again, the massive size of the generation is the crucial element. The hippies were always a small percentage of the boomer population. But a small percentage of a huge number is still a lot. And when thousands of bizarrely attired late adolescents from every corner of the country congregated on a few short blocks of West Fourth Avenue in Vancouver or Yorkville Avenue in Toronto, it made an impressive and, to some, frightening, spectacle.
Owram also takes the New Left that arose on campus during the 1960s a bit more seriously than it deserves. Canadian youth, unlike American, were not in danger of having to risk their lives in the Vietnam war, nor was there anything in Canada to compare with the often violent struggle for black civil rights. In the absence of such powerful issues, Canadian student radicals had to content themselves with vague demands for "participatory democracy". True, there were some lively times at places like Simon Fraser and Sir George Williams but, for the most part, the student Left in Canada was a movement in search of a cause.
Born at the Right Time is a lively read but it might have been livelier still had Owram interviewed a few of the participants in some of the events he documents. It might, for example, have been interesting to hear the recollections of someone like Martin Loney, who was a student leader at SFU and the last president of the Canadian Union of Students, and who now writes eloquent letters to the Globe and Mail deploring the excesses of the political correctoids of 1990s, many of whom are 1960s-vintage New Leftists.
But Owram's strategy was to mine the copious secondary sources and to apply his own rigorous analysis to this material. In general, the strategy works well. The book is consistently interesting and happily free of academic jargon. But in a work so meticulously researched, the presence of avoidable errors is all the more disappointing. Is it too much to ask of a book written by a professor and published by a major academic press that "flare" not be written when "flair" is meant and that Gordon Shrum, an important figure in B.C. business history, not have his name misspelled three times in one paragraph? Owram is generally weak on his B.C. facts, putting Vancouver department stores in the wrong places, situating one of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Canada, the British Properties, in the wrong suburb, and failing to acknowledge the importance of West Fourth as a mecca of hippiedom. But these flaws are minor and Owram has done an excellent job of pulling a vast amount of material together in so readable a fashion.
Were the boomers really different? Yes and no. They were different from previous generations in that theirs was the first in which it was normal for every family to own a car and the mobility that came with it, the first to grow up with television, the first to live in a society that defined itself as secular rather than Christian, the first to experience mass university education, and the first to experience the full impact of the sexual revolution (an event that began in the 1920s and culminated in the 1960s). These were momentous developments and they made the lives and sensibilities of the boomers different from those of their elders. But they do not make the boom unique because they affected succeeding cohorts just as much. Society became child-centred when the boomers were young, and it still is. If anything, society today is even more child-centred because boomer parents, having so few children, want to deny them nothing.
Now that they have children, the boomers have discovered "family values". Now that many of them are accumulating cash and looking forward to retirement, they have discovered financial planning. In these, as in other ways, the boom is no different from previous generations. Any notion of generational solidarity some of them once may have felt is a distant memory. It disappeared when they entered the work force and began competing among themselves for jobs, real estate, money, and power. Many boomers can name individuals born before or after the boom with whom they have much more in common than they do with many of their fellow boomers. People, after all, are people whenever they are born.

 Daniel Stoffman is a Toronto-based author and journalist who was born just before the baby boom. He is co-author, with David Foot, of Boom Bust & Echo: How To Profit from the Coming Demographic Shift (Macfarlane Walter & Ross).


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