Teenagers were invented in the late 1950s.
If that’s an exaggeration, it’s not as much of one as you may think. While there had — obviously — been teenagers before, it wasn’t until the leading edge of the Baby Boom reached that milestone that the word took on its modern meaning. In the heady prosperity of those first years post-war and post-Depression, “teenage” came to be seen as a wholly separate phase of life, a way station between childhood and adulthood.
Where once it had been common for people that age to help support the family or to marry and make families of their own, these new teenagers were more likely to be spared such adult responsibilities. They — the white ones growing up in the new suburbs, at least — were flush with cash, brimming with modern conceits and — initially — indulged by parents captivated by the very newness of them.
Their fashion, politics, music, movies and mores would blow away the old like cobwebs in a wind tunnel. It’s no coincidence that civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental activism, and skepticism toward authority all came of age at the same time they did. Unlike any generation before or since, they would be defined by the fact of being new, of being young.
Until they weren’t.
This week, after all, marks the 50th anniversary — 50th anniversary! — of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the rain-soaked, mud-splattered three-day rock concert on a farm in upstate New York that many mark as the climactic act of the Boom years. Which raises a question: when you’ve so long been defined by youth, what do you become when youth is gone?
Maybe you’ve seen that commercial where a millennial is eager to improve her credit rating so she can move away from the clueless nit that is her mom. Maybe you remember when people like you were the ones on TV snickering at old folks’ old folksiness. Now you’re the one being snickered at and people like you are hawking walk-in tubs and adult diapers. But if it’s true the shine has worn off Generation Boom, that bell-bottoms and “groovy” have gone the way of rumble seats and “23 skidoo,” it’s also true that much of what that generation championed seems not just timely, but critical.
The new rise in racist rhetoric and violence certainly vindicates the Boomers’ fight for civil rights. The #MeToo moment extends their fight for women’s rights. If LGBTQ people now have the right to be married, the Supreme Court said last year that they have no right to a wedding cake, so that battle continues. As the planet burns, environmental activism has never been more important. And when authority’s name is Donald Trump, who can deny that it needs to be questioned?
Jimi Hendrix famously closed Woodstock by fracturing the national anthem, his guitar splintering the song into jagged, defiantly ugly shards, reflecting the jagged, ugly shards of the nation’s division. And that, too, remains relevant 50 years on.
But for all the hard truths Hendrix told through his guitar, it is worth remembering that what drew the Woodstock generation together was ultimately not anger, but a hope — idealistic, naive and impossibly young — that yet tugs at the imagination, the hope of a better, fairer, cleaner, saner, more peaceful world.
As Woodstock veteran Graham Nash recently told CBS News, “I still believe what we believed then ... that love is better than hatred, that peace is much better than war, that we have to take care of our fellow human beings, because this is all we have.”
Somewhere along the way, Nash, like many of us, got old. But that hope never did.