To my fellow 1968 babies: Happy 50th birthday.
Amid the overwrought 1968 remembrances that will ornament news coverage this year — grainy film clips of assassinations and war protests, interviews with aging hippies, long columns in the New York Times about how Ho Chi Minh was morally superior to Donald Trump — just remember, WE ARE TURNING 50. One minute, you’re learning how to do the Moonwalk in front of a Michael Jackson video, and the next minute, you’re signing up for an AARP membership.
We were born during one of the most chaotic years in American history, and we’ll be reminded of this throughout 2018. Our mothers were either pregnant or nursing newborns when they heard the news that Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. were killed. Our grandparents, still recovering from the trauma of World War II, prayed their sons — our fathers — would be spared a tour of duty in Vietnam. Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb was published in 1968, warning our new parents that “in the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death” because of global food shortages.
Americans thought the country was having a nervous breakdown: 12 months of credibility gaps, generation gaps, gender gaps, racial gaps, economic gaps, and military gaps, mixed with shocking violence, and portrayed dramatically in an increasingly sensationalistic and anything-goes popular culture. The impact, both positive and negative, has endured for the past 50 years.
That’s the promo for a program scheduled later this month at The Smithsonian, “1968: The Tumultuous Year That Changed America,” to review how that year “holds lessons to remember as the nation faces new political and social turmoils.” (Take an extra bite of birthday cake for every pundit or historian who claims Trump is a greater threat to mankind than the craven, murderous march of Communism that rampaged across the eastern half of the globe in the late 1960s.)
So does it matter that we entered the world under such dire conditions? Are these tragic events buried somewhere within our brooding, Gen X subconscious, explaining the inexplicable, such as why we wore parachute pants with rainbow-colored leg warmers? Or, could it be that we were born into fire so we were properly steeled to tolerate being sandwiched in between the two most insufferable generations ever conceived?
My guess is that none of it matters much. The fact is, for those of us lucky enough to be alive to plan our 50th-birthday festivities (because we all have friends and classmates who, sadly, are not), it’s been a hell of a ride so far.
Despite our ominous start, we entered the world during one of the most fortuitous eras in human history. The Information Age began right around the time we were being potty-trained; we have witnessed, benefitted from and, in some ways, contributed to the most remarkable period of rapid innovation the world has ever seen.
I remember when my dad brought home our first VCR in 1981. Awestruck at this modern miracle, I smugly informed him that there were no more inventions to be created. What would possibly surpass this glorious machine that could rewind and fast-forward? My father, a marketing executive with the brain of an engineer, (and the man who introduced me to National Review), made me write it down so I could later eat my words. (Yes, that’s how my family rolls.)
How wrong I was. Here is a partial list of inventions that have made our 50 years on earth much easier: The Internet, laser printer, microprocessor, personal computer, email, mobile phone, bar code, digital camera, GPS, and wireless local area network. Biotechnology — tinkering with genes in humans, animals, and plants — has improved human health and enabled crop yields that our farming grandparents could only dream of. The PET scanner and MRI machine have saved countless lives by detecting diseases that were once a certain death sentence. Laser technology has made same-day surgery possible.
We’ve had a good time, too. The iPod, video-game console, online shopping, and paintball are just a few of the joys created over our lifetime. The year we were born, the Zipper roller coaster was invented. (You’re welcome, Charlie Cooke.)
I often tell my daughters that I feel bad they weren’t raised in the ’80s because everything about that decade’s culture — the music, the movies, the videos — was about having fun.
Aside from benefiting from this astonishing pace of modernization, we were blessed to have come of age during the greatest decade ever: the 1980s. I often tell my daughters that I feel bad they weren’t raised in the ’80s because everything about that decade’s culture — the music, the movies, the videos — was about having fun. Think of some of the top pop hits of the 80s: “All Night Long,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party),” “Nothin’ But a Good Time,” “Let’s Go Crazy.” The movies were fun: We were 16 when Sixteen Candles premiered, and nothing has even come close to portraying teenage angst (not to mention the real-life struggles of a typical suburban Chicago teen, including yours truly) like the John Hughes genre of films released in the 1980s. Imagine the horror of being raised in the 1990s. Grunge rock, boy bands, and The Blair Witch Project? No thanks.
While we now benefit from various teen-tracking devices as parents, we were lucky to have escaped that technological leash during our formative years. Whenever I worry about my teen daughter texting and driving, I remind myself how I would drive around a car full of friends in my Chevy Cavalier, with a Stroh’s Lite in one hand and a Virginia Slim in another, trying to rewind the Van Halen cassette back to the beginning of Best of Both Worlds. Thankfully, none of it was ever posted on Instagram for our parents to see.
So, cheers, my fellow quinquagenarians. Being born in 1968 was a gift, not a curse, and we are living testimony of the great recovery powers of both a free republic and human nature.