The media love publishing stories on different generations of humans. Every time a new set of teenagers comes of age, countless authors expound upon what makes this one different from the last. Gen X, the disenchanted, have been replaced by Gen Y, hard workers who don’t remember a world before the Internet. Yet the baby boomers are always discussed as a thing of the past, not a force that shapes the present, let alone the future. Why should we care about them?
In this fascinating new memoir, Ted Polhemus takes us on a journey across two continents, using his entire life as a lens through which to discuss the massive social movements that have shaped societies since World War II. Growing up in Neptune City, New Jersey, the young Polhemus witnessed the death of small town America, the explosion of the suburbs and the rise of giant shopping malls, a geographic shift in which a new way of doing business demanded a new way of living – or was it the reverse? At the same time as Polhemus saw his town centre cut through by a major highway, he adopted new fashions (sharply cut suits as a teenager, hippie clothes as a college student) that represented the very same modernity that ripped apart his town’s social life.
These dual processes of destruction and creativity appear as a theme throughout the book, creating a compelling account of the emotional lives of the boomers as they dealt with massive change in which they were agents as much as subjects. From the book’s first sentence, “The aliens and their fire-farting machines from hell invaded on the 4th of July 1947,” Polhemus evokes the anxiety surrounding social changes and the technologies that accompany them. The Vietnam War, feminism and civil rights, experimentation with non-monogamy and drugs all put the boomers at the vanguard of change. Polhemus was there for all of them, and recounts in detail his experiences of being rejected for military service, taking mind-bending strips, and having strippers sit on his face to see if he could taste the difference between them. If the author’s own experiences are anything to go by, the boomers clearly did not live quiet lives at home behind picket fences.
The aliens and their fire-farting machines from hell invaded on the 4th of July 1947- Ted Polhemus
This sense of things in motion is particularly evident in Polhemus’s account of his life in London, where he did his graduate studies in anthropology. On Carnaby Street, Mary Quant, a pre-boomer, led the way with steering fashion into a contemporary direction, making the hippies look decidedly behind the times. Quant and others in the 1960s “changed fashion forever” as this was the first time that teenagers had their own style, rather than being expected to emulate their parents in miniature. Polhemus was there for the very first gigs of The Sex Pistols, where “Up on the little stage the extraordinary persona of Johnny Rotten took form right before our eyes: scary, bent in what seemed like every sense of the term, leering, angry, utterly compelling.”
One intriguing observation made by the author is how, because this generation was such a large percentage of the population, the boomers grew up with the feeling that the entire world was young. As a result, aging came as a shock, something to be denied, and boomers were unwilling to relinquish creative control to the new generations. But movers and shakers nevertheless wrested the baton away. The punk scene really changed the mood and the mindset, introducing postmodern deconstruction to fashion and music.
Nevertheless, Polhemus ultimately questions whether the cult of youth has survived. He observes that teen and ‘tween’ fashions are now diminishing in popularity as teenagers no longer want to stand out: rather, they prefer to identify as stylish adults. What does this new conservatism mean for society? Does it augur a future of more conformity and less change? Or is it simply an evening out of the generational divide, so that it is no longer possible (even for literary purposes) to draw a line between one generation and the next?
Either way, Polhemus makes it clear that the boomers will continue to be a force to be reckoned with for some time to come, even as they feel their youth slipping from their grasp, and the world changing wildly around them. Why? Partly because they still comprise such a large percentage of the west’s population, thus controlling the purse strings and other positions of power. But, just as importantly, to understand how the younger crowds are shaping the world we need a good grasp of how the actions of the boomers set the stage.
This is not just a book to project boomers down memory lane. In fact, post-boomers stand to learn the most from reading ‘Boom!’ to understand how our actions are informed by those who came before us. Readers may be surprised to discover just how much our actions are shaped by history.
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