I think a lot about what my cohort accomplished, and where it failed, particularly at this time of year.
Soon there’ll be chill, and then rain, and then sleet, and then the entombment of deep winter. (Ryan Soulliere/CBC)
With every passing year, for obvious reasons, the end of summer carries a heavier melancholia.
In a sense, it’s the worst time.
It’s only just begun where I live, in Ottawa; October begins tomorrow, but temperatures have been in the 30s lately, or, as I still think of it, the 90s. (Does anyone understand “litres per hundred kilometres?”)
In the Gatineau Hills near my home, the trees are still green and lush; the palette of oranges and reds and yellows hasn’t yet erupted. The park is still and quiet, like July. For the moment, at least, entropy seems to have been repulsed.
But entropy always prevails. The end of summer comes. Soon there’ll be chill, and then rain, and then sleet, and then the entombment of deep winter. It will become difficult to even remember the luxury of warm, easy nights or a hot midday sun.
‘Do I dare eat a peach?’
Some of us will experience those things again, others won’t. At this time of year, and on each birthday, I have a habit of re-reading T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, one of the most eloquent statements on entropy ever penned. I remember Pierre Elliott Trudeau quoting it when some reporter accused him of being “yesterday’s man.”
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
Entropy is the most atavistic dread; it eventually kills everything, even stars. Religions exist because of it, with their promise of everlasting life if only you have faith and tithe. At Christmas, we cut down and celebrate a totem that seems to stubbornly live and remain green, indifferent to the death around it.
Of course, when you are at the apex of your physical and mental power, entropy seems irrelevant, or at least impossibly distant.
I remember that. My cohort at its peak was the most powerful economic force in human history, and for a time, the baby boomers couldn’t imagine a world in which events wouldn’t arrange themselves according to their desires.
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But the boomers are moving out of power, out of the workforce, and out of relevance. The first of them turned 65 in 2010. The youngest are now about 57 years old. We are shuffling arthritically into twilight, to the cheers of Gen-Xers and millennials, who feel not just morally superior, just as we once did, but cheated for having had to wait so long for their turn.
We don’t like it. We, who once embraced the generational admonition of Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin, now resent having to get out of the new road if we can’t lend a hand. We think we invented physical fitness, and “wellness,” and had mandatory retirement declared unconstitutional, and get work done when wrinkles appear, and talk about 60 being the new 40 and other such nonsense, but we are firmly in entropy’s grip, staring at varicose veins and groaning when we stand too quickly. Our parents called it rheumatism and wore copper bracelets as cures, and we have total hip replacements, but it all goes to the same place.
Accomplishments and failures
Anyway, I think a lot about what my cohort accomplished, and where it failed, particularly at the end of summer.
I think we did a lot of good. We were the engine of the transgenerational welfare state, and its expansion. We tried hard to break conservative yokes; we were the hippies, and the rainbow coalition before it splintered on the rock of identity politics.
There has been no world war on our watch. The Wall fell, and the nuclear doomsday clock backed off (at least for a few decades).
We made sex — especially during those wonderful post-pill, pre-AIDS years — a democratized, legitimate recreation; the more the better. Questioning authority, especially police, something that was regarded almost as treason by the so-called “greatest generation,” became a civic value.
And we believed, or thought we believed, in free speech, in the idea that the best way to combat offensive speech was to engage it and win with ideas.
It was a time; my gracious, I’m glad to have lived it.
Jobs were easy to find in our time. It seemed all you had to do was show up. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)
But ultimately, we were selfish. Perhaps the most selfish of all, if you believe Tom Wolfe. We were privileged and lucked out on timing; jobs were easy to find. It seemed all you had to do was show up. We took pensions for granted.
We also unleashed the rapaciousness of free-market destruction that nearly ruined the world’s economy a few years ago.
We were casually sexist and racist when we started out; I wince just remembering some of the jokes and workplace banter among educated colleagues, me included.
And, believing only our viewpoints valid, we removed what civility remained from politics; turning it into a form of warfare. Where once conservatives and liberals argued, they now live in separate neighbourhoods and wish each other dead, or at least vanquished and silent.
In that sense, we boomers may actually have helped create the cloying, censorius preciousness in newsrooms and universities nowadays, and the inquisitorial attitudes toward anyone who disagrees with the herds of independent thinkers and their orthodoxies.
Speaking hard truths
Personally, I prefer Pierre Elliott Trudeau, despite his contempt for my craft, to his mushy, happy-talking son, who, along with his cabinet, regularly insults Canadians by pretending to say things of substance, but in fact saying less than nothing. A few weeks ago, I actually found myself nodding as the racist boor in the White House managed to speak a few hard truths to the UN about evil in the world, while our prime minister bored everyone.
We revolutionized credentialed journalism, then went about killing it. I regret that, although I realize the extent to which our “news judgment” was laced with ethnocentrism and, often, plain ignorance.
I guess we did okay; anyway, soon enough, none of it will matter.
I wish the incoming keeners well, but I will say this: sooner than they know, their kids will be childsplaining their hateful, racist, exclusionary, classist, androcentric, sexist, hegemonic, ageist, privileged, cisnormative thinking. I’m mean-spirited enough to admit I’ll enjoy watching that.
Terms like “African American” and “people of colour” and “genderfluid” will become anachronisms, replaced by a new parade of descriptors, and those who insist on sticking with what they were taught growing up will be treated with bemusement and eye-rolling.
And unless the generation being born now is uniformly multiracial, which it isn’t, enthusiasm for racial preferences will evaporate with parenthood.
Because self-interest remains the most powerful force, after entropy. Ultimately, not much changes. Work in a place like the Middle East, and you begin to understand that.
If this all sounds fin-de-siecle at the beginning of a century, I suppose it is. The end of summer does that to me.
Soon enough, if I’m lucky, I shall wear rolled white flannel trousers, and walk upon some beach. And none of this will matter. Hypocrite that I am, I may even begin to notice religion.
This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section.