By Patrick Henry
It seems that, no matter where I go, I see myself.
It’s been that way all my life.
When I was a child the world was full of children. In my teens there were teenagers everywhere I looked. As I approached my 20s most everyone, like me, had lots and lots of hair, and sported boots and bell bottoms.
Even today, entering my eighth decade, this odd sense of living in a world full of people who look like me persists. Standing in line at the grocery store, the heads in front and behind are as gray as mine. Settling into my seat at the theater I’m surrounded by crepe paper skin and thinning hair that matches my own. And, during intermission, as I wait my turn in the men’s room, the line of enlarged prostates ahead tests my patience, as mine will undoubtedly test that of the men standing behind me.
It’s not that I reside in a universe of doppelgangers, it’s simply that I’m part of the largest (I did not say “Greatest”) American generation to date: baby boomers.
Through blind luck (I wasn’t involved in the initial decision) I was born a few years into the post-WWII population explosion. Veterans returning from the battlefront were anxious to lay down roots and start families, and the women who’d taken their place in the labor pool left the factories to play their part. The result was a decade and a half long boom in births, what demographers came to call the “pig in a python.”
Think about that image. A python doesn’t chew its food, it swallows its prey whole, and from the outside you can watch as the large, round bulge makes its way through the snake’s digestive system. That’s what my generation looks like to population experts: a bubble moving through the American culture, dominating it in different ways as we age.
Our childhood triggered the largest public school expansion in history, and the creation of television programs interspersed with toy and breakfast cereal commercials, all aimed directly at us.
Our teen years created a market for something called rock ‘n’ roll, and our buying power dictated both the Top 40 and the fashions of the day. We danced the Twist, and even the elite of New York and Paris café society mimicked our moves.
Then, just as we thought peace, love and understanding would win the day, all hell broke loose. Civil rights battles in the South, political assassinations and the impeachment of a president filled our TV screens. A misbegotten military incursion in Southeast Asia cost 50,000-plus lives, and many of the survivors, including some who fought against the war, were left physically and emotionally scarred.
The fortunate among us went on to create decent lives for ourselves and, as we grew older, formed the largest group of senior citizens this society is likely to see. But now, after a lifetime of being in the driver’s seat — culturally and demographically — there’s something dark on the horizon, a sense that this may not end well for my cohorts and me.
There are too many of us, and too few young people moving into the labor force to take our place. The Social Security and Medicare benefits that many rely on as their primary source of income and health insurance aren’t being funded at a sustainable level. And, there’s a growing shortage of nurses and other critical occupations needed to care for an aging generation.
We baby boomers don’t know how our story will end, but one thing is certain: It’s been a long, strange trip indeed.
Patrick Henry, of Orchard Park, is a proud member of the biggest generation.