As a wordsmith for over 25 years, unique and powerful words matter to me. I love to discover yet another word conveying a commanding and complex concept, succinctly. When thinking of specific words, I also recall consequential times from my past.
I remember when a brash and brisk college roommate referred to everything as copacetic. This was his vigorous way of saying something is excellent. For awhile, copacetic became one of my favorite words. Successful conclusion of a college final exam was copacetic. An alluring brunette who I took to a rock concert was copacetic. You get the idea.
As my copywriting career became active in the 1980’s, another word came to my attention, a transitive verb that implied a powerful intersection of thoughts: juxtaposition. It means “to place two or more things together, especially in order to suggest a link between them or emphasize the contrast between them.” After I learned this word and began to use it — perhaps too liberally for a time — I started seeing many aspects of my experiences with a sense of juxtaposition.
And so I return to this word now because it works well to help describe what I’m going to convey. I will use this word with a favorite modifier: ironic juxtaposition. Two disparate news stories about the Boomer generation have appeared recently that can be thought of side-by-side, strengthening ramifications for each article.
First, the darker story:
A column in the Wall Street Journal reported an astounding development in the content of many college commencement addresses: from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet to Indiana Governor Mitchell Daniels, some keynote speakers have become apologists for the Baby Boomer Generation.
In his commencement address to Colorado College, Senator Bennet said, “We have limited the potential of future generations by burdening them with our poor choices and our unwillingness to make tough ones.”
As a retort to the Journal’s columnist, who essentially agrees with the apologists, I submitted my reaction to the sudden barrage of critical commentary by Boomers about Boomers:
Let’s put today’s state-of-the-union situation in perspective. When I graduated from college, Boomers faced an arduous job market due to large numbers and a tired industrial economy running out of jobs. Interest rates had started escalating to unprecedented heights. Housing prices began inflating beyond reach of many first-time homebuyers. Severe segregation controlled the nation’s social and cultural institutions. President Richard Nixon’s Watergate crisis had become the obsession of news media. Industry routinely assaulted the environment, with Love Canal being paradigmatic. The Vietnam War was by then inspiring outrage from most corners of society while draining the U.S. Treasury. An OPEC oil embargo hovered on the horizon.
This was the status of the nation handed Leading-edge Boomers by the much-lauded and idealized GI Generation. Did commencement speakers back then condemn the generation that fought in World War II for our freedom? On the contrary, we graduates knew that the nation we were inheriting was imperfect, but we also had a sense of what our parents had given us: a robust economy through childhood, much material satisfaction, relative safety in a dangerous world, and a media culture that honored intergenerational cooperation, exemplified by family television shows such as Ozzie & Harriet. Many of our parents’ generation were also our heroes: from John Wayne to John Kennedy.
Yes, Boomers have nurtured a much more egalitarian society where minorities and women have a better shot at the American dream. But that isn’t the end of it. Boomers have infiltrated every sector of business, culture, science and the arts with idealism and collective will to change America for the better.
Boomers’ children have learned important life lessons from brilliant storytellers such as Steven Spielberg and his Oscar-winning movies Shindler’s List and Munich. Millennials have become the economic beneficiaries of Boomer-led industries, from Bill Gates’ Microsoft to Steven Jobs’ Apple Computer. Millennials have witnessed inspired leadership on television with Oprah; in science with Craig Venter and Francis Collins (genome sequencing); and in literature with Pulitzer-prize winners Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and Richard Russo (Empire Falls).
Today, we experience the Boomer legacy through inclusive institutions, through innovation and entrepreneurship, and through worldwide media clout. The nation is not perfect, but America percolates with opportunities awaiting optimists open to new possibilities rather than pessimists bearing grudges and casting blame.
Even though the nation is embroiled in two wars, Generation Y males do not face conscription upon graduation. Even though times are rough economically, hordes graduating from colleges today demonstrate the extent to which their parents have advocated and enabled post-secondary education. Even though traditional American industries are under enormous pressure to change, the nation charges forward with innovation in biotechnology, healthcare, alternative energies and the internet.
The nation is experiencing difficult times, but our problems run much deeper and wider than the actions or non-actions of a single generation. Every generation has fallen short of perfection. Every generation has helped make the nation a more perfect union. Every generation has confronted and surmounted its own challenges at the beginning of adulthood.
I’m glad I got that off my chest. Now the brighter story:
According to a headline in Forbes magazine, “Boomers Move to Self-Employment: Rising Unemployment Reinforces Their Entrepreneurial Bent.”
This article leads with grim facts about the current recession and joblessness among older workers. “Unemployment rates in June (2009) continued to climb for those aged 55 and older — to 7.7% for men and 6.4% for women, up from 3.1% and 3%, respectively, in December 2007.”
Although unemployment among older workers falls lower than the June 2009 national average of 9.5%, it’s much more difficult for older workers to find new jobs once unemployed. So how are members of this generation dealing with twin disasters of unemployment and a bleak employment future due to advancing age?
Many are becoming entrepreneurs and starting new businesses. According to Dane Stangler, senior analyst at the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Missouri, charity devoted to entrepreneurship, during the last ten years the 55 to 64 age group has led the pack in new-business creation. As Mr. Stangler suggested to Forbes, “The image of the 20-something entrepreneur obscures the trends that have persisted for a decade.”
According to Emily Brandon, reporting about the Kauffman study for U.S. News & World Report, a Duke University professor further found that “twice as many U.S.-born tech entrepreneurs start ventures in their fifties as do those under age 25.”
Kauffman Foundation’s Stangler predicts a “new entrepreneurial era,” where the nation’s path out of deep recessionary morass may be paved by a rich new period of business creation, with Boomers leading the way.
Should Boomer political leaders continue to apologize for Boomers about the current mess? Or should these leaders congratulate their peers for demonstrating entrepreneurial verve in a time of national malaise? Which kind of generational leader do you prefer to inspire young entrepreneurs of the future?
As part of my wordsmith tool kit, juxtapose has traveled with me as a well-considered friend for more than twenty years, and it seems apropos even now.
Juxtapose Boomer apologists with Boomer entrepreneurs. Ironic isn’t it?