- The Washington Times - Monday, January 12, 2009

NEW YORK — When President Bush lifts off in his helicopter on Inauguration Day, leaving Washington to make way for Barack Obama, he may not be the only thing disappearing into the horizon.

To many social analysts, historians, bloggers and ordinary Americans, Jan. 20 will symbolize the passing of a generation: the baby boomer years.

Generational change. A passing of the torch. The terms have been thrown around with frequency as the moment nears for Mr. Obama to take the oath of office. Yet the reference is not to Mr. Obama’s relatively young age - at 47, he is tied for fifth place on the youngest presidents list, with Grover Cleveland.

Rather, it’s a sense that a cultural era is ending, one dominated by the boomers, many of whom came of age in the 1960s and experienced the bitter divisions caused by the Vietnam War and the protests against it, the civil rights struggle, social change, the sexual revolution and more.

Those experiences, the theory goes, led boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, to become deeply motivated by ideology and mired in decades-old conflicts. And Mr. Obama? He’s an example of a new pragmatism: idealistic but realistic, post-partisan, unthreatened by dissent, eager and able to come up with new ways to solve problems.

“Obama is one of those people who was raised post-Vietnam and really came of age in the ‘80s,” said Steven Cohen, professor of public administration at Columbia University. “It’s a huge generational change.”

Mr. Obama, it must be said, is technically a boomer - he was born in 1961. But he has long sought to draw a generational contrast between himself and the politicians who came before him.

“I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation - a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago - played out on the national stage,” he wrote of the 2000 and 2004 elections in his book “The Audacity of Hope.”

It has been awhile since historians spoke of generational change in Washington. Sixteen years have passed since Bill Clinton, the first boomer president, took office. Before that, presidents from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush - seven straight - were part of what Tom Brokaw has termed the “Greatest Generation,” those who grew up during the Great Depression and later served in World War II.

If Mr. Obama isn’t a boomer in spirit, then what is he? Not exactly a member of Generation X, though obviously that generation and the next, Generation Y (also known as Millennials) embraced him fully and fueled his rise to the presidency.

“Gen-Xers are known to be more cynical, less optimistic,” said social commentator Jonathan Pontell. “Xers don’t write books with the word ‘hope’ in the title.”

Some call late boomers like Mr. Obama cuspers - as in, the cusp of a new generation. One book has called it the “Thirteenth” generation, as in the 13th generation since Colonial times. Mr. Pontell, also a political consultant in Los Angeles, has gained some fame coining a category: Generation Jones, as in the slang word ‘jonesing,’ or craving, and as in a generation that is lost in the shuffle.

Jonesers are idealistic, Mr. Pontell said, but not ideological like boomers. “Boomers were flower children out changing the world. We Jonesers were wide-eyed, not tie-dyed.”

Mr. Obama, he said, is “a walking, living prime example of Generation Jones. He’s a classic practical idealist. It’s not the naive idealism of the ‘60s.”

Wide-eyed or tie-dyed, Mr. Obama will be sworn in by an early “Joneser” himself - Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who turns 54 at the end of January. Although the average age of the new Congress is 58.2 - an early boomer group - the incoming president is bringing some “Jonesers” with him.

Obama’s chosen Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, is 47. His pick for education secretary, Arne Duncan, is 44, as is Susan Rice, his U.N. ambassador. His apparent pick for surgeon general, 39-year-old neurosurgeon and TV correspondent Sanjay Gupta, is a true Gen-Xer.

“It may be technically correct to call him a boomer,” said Douglas Warshaw, a New York media executive who, at age 49, is part of Mr. Obama’s generation, whichever that is. “And it’s in the zeitgeist to call him a Gen-Xer. But I think he’s more like a generational bridge.”

He said Mr. Obama got where he was by “brilliantly leveraging the communication behaviors of post-boomers,” with a campaign waged across the Web, on cellular phones and on social networking sites.

One analyst of popular culture said Mr. Obama definitely symbolizes a new generation - just not one connected to the year he was born.

“I think it’s hilarious that everyone wants to categorize people by their birth year, especially now, a time when our parents are on Facebook,” said Montana Miller of Bowling Green State University. Mr. Obama, she said, represents a generational shift in ways less tangible than age.

“You can see it from his approach to knowledge. Never before have we had a president who’s troubled about giving up his BlackBerry,” Miss Miller said. (Indeed, Mr. Obama is still in a struggle over whether he can keep the device.) “He’s constantly exposed to multiple perspectives, to what people out there feel and think.”

Mr. Obama’s biracial heritage also plays into the generational shift, Miss Miller said.

“It’s so emblematic of how the world is changing,” she said. “So many people are now some sort of complicated ethnic mix. Today’s youth are completely comfortable with that.”

Will Mr. Obama speak of generational change when he stands on the podium to issue his inaugural address? Given some of his rhetoric on the campaign trail, it’s reasonable to think he will - just as, some six months before he was born, Mr. Kennedy pronounced on Inauguration Day that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

Boomers often claim Mr. Kennedy to be one of their own, even though he was nothing of the kind. Born in 1917, he would be 91 now. In the same way, many Gen-Xers, and even Gen-Yers, like to claim Mr. Obama.

“As humans, we all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, part of a page in a history book,” Mr. Pontell said. At least for now, he adds, “Obama’s a rock star, and people are dying to call him one of their own.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide