Tom Brokaw On 1968 Versus 2008

In a recent interview published in Time magazine, Tom Brokaw was asked why we constantly compare today’s youth and politics to those of the 60s. He said:

We’re at war. It’s an unpopular and divisive war. Again, the elites have the privilege of avoiding military service because it’s an all-voluntary military. We have a much bigger drug culture now than we had then. It has given way to vast criminal empires that are ravaging the inner cities of this country.”

My take: By politicizing his remarks, Brokaw misses the boat. Brokaw is wrong on two fronts:

  • The response to the wars is very different. Unless they’re just not getting reported on, today’s youth aren’t occupying the administration buildings of their colleges, the National Guard isn’t getting called in to break up demonstrations at places like Kent State, and radical groups like the Yippies and SDS aren’t particularly active on college campuses. Today’s youth may oppose the Iraq war, but their response to it is far different that the response to the Vietnam War.
  • Today’s drug situation isn’t analogous to the 60s. I have no idea what the drug situation is like in today’s inner cities. It may very well be as bad as Brokaw makes it out to be. But the drug culture in the 60s wasn’t limited to urban areas. The 60s’ drug culture was about personal expression, mind expansion, and most importantly, an attempt to make a break from the rigid homogeneity of the 50s. Today’s drug situation may have grown out of what happened in the 60s, but it’s not why we “constantly compare today’s youth” to those of the 60s.

What Brokaw should have said was that the comparison of today’s youth to the 60s is due to the:

  • Collaborative spirit of the respective generations. Gen Yers like to think of themselves as the first collaborative generation. Wrong. The Boomers planted those seeds (pun intended) 40 years ago. It was people like Wavy Gravy who helped start communes like the Hog Farm out west, who personify the collaborative nature of the early Boomers (interestingly, Wavy isn’t a Boomer himself, too early for that label).
  • Activist nature of the respective generations. Groups like the Yippies and SDS may no longer be active on campus, but Gen Yers are very involved in community affairs. Just look at the list of extracurricular activities of the typical college student or high school senior. The cynical will say they’re padding their resumes — but it the impetus comes from their Boomer parents and Boomer college administrators who either require or look for these activities on their resumes.
  • Desire for social change. The Boomers of the Sixties were looking to effect change. It wasn’t simply a reaction to a war they didn’t agree with, it was a dismissal of the culture that emerged out of the 50s. Whether it was due to the greater affluence that enabled them to focus on social issues, or the drugs that enlightened their minds, the children of the 60s wanted social change — which is what today’s emerging generation is talking about again, 40 years later.

But here’s the most significant difference: The social revolutionaries of the 60s tried to buck the system, or avoid it altogether. They created communes, or moved out into the hills. They didn’t try to change the system from within.

Which is what today’s Gen Yers are doing. They’re creating their own companies, and trying to change the culture of existing organizations. And they have something that the children of the 60s didn’t have: Technology like PCs and the Internet. Of course, they have the Boomers to thank for that.

And Al Gore. Which is probably the one thing I’ve said here that Tom Brokaw might agree with.

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14 thoughts on “Tom Brokaw On 1968 Versus 2008

  1. Ron,

    I see a theme in your posts and I think you should change the name of your blog to: Why you are wrong.

    My observation. The anti-war demonstrators in my town (Seattle) ARE the Boomers not Gen Y. They are too busy trying to fix Vista (down the road at Microsoft).

    I agree that the drugs in the 60s were more about mind expansion and creativity while today it’s about…………um, I forgot what I was going to say.

  2. Ron –

    Awesome post! Having worked at a homeless shelter for three years, my experience is that inner city drug abuse is about a lack of hope and perceived lack of opportunity (rightly or wrongly). So wheras the drug use of the 60s was about expanding reality, today it’s the opposite in the case you and Brokaw cite.

    As to your other points, I think someone, somewhere, sometime in the not-too-distant future is going to galvanize the younger generation to “take back the government.” This will happen in my opinion for two reasons —

    1 – Young people are going to realize the bill for the fiscal mess (deficits and social entitlement programs) is coming due down the line.

    2- Roger Cohen wrote a great piece in the NY Times today about Al Jazeera being pretty much unavailable in the US, and it strikes me that our government has become more and more Orwellian and repressive in nature in the wake of 9/11 — and corporate media is complicit in the crime. Americans get a narrative about the world that is filtered to make us “the good guys.” Other people in other places do not share this view by a long shot.

    Oddly, the government & media is run mostly by Boomers and Gen Xers — their approach to running things is on a direct collision course with the free, open, “more information is good” style of the Gen Yers.

    Just my .02

  3. Good post. I agree with you for the most part. There still seems to be some more passion that comes to mind when I think of the 60s versus now, but maybe Gen Y just has a better idea of how to use the system (or create a better one) rather than merely bucking it. Which requires just as much passion, but it’s not quite as in-your-face as that of the 60s. But more effective.

  4. Pingback: Weekend Reading, Nov. 9-11 « Brett’s Blog

  5. Nice analysis. As a formerly (and happliy) drug-addled student at the University of Wisconsin in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I’ll add one more dimension of that era: at the most granular level, a lot of ’60s campus protests (at least at UW) were more about college students looking for something fun to do than about lashing out at conformity. In fact, when it got really serious and someone got killed (grad researcher Robert Fassnacht when the physics building, Sterling Hall, got blown to smithereens), the local ardor for revolting against the state cooled substantially.

  6. Hi Ron, VERY interesting post. And as a Boomer myself, I, too agree with your comments about the differences between the Boomer generation and the Gen Y’ers (or as many refer to them, the Millenials). A couple of years ago, we presented during an Executive Roundtable at USC. The session opened up with a discussion of the different values and buying habits of different generations (presented by Morley Winograd). Specifically, Morley explored the Millenials generation, as today’s 10- to 20-year olds who will be tomorrow’s customers — and decision makers.

    The basis for the session was to get marketers to begin to pay more attention to the importance of Generational attributes, both in the workplace as employees, as well as in the marketplace as customers. One thing’s for certain — there are trends within the Generational cycles that, when understood, can help us more effectively reach our customers with the most compelling story.

    Now . . . back to your post . . .

    One of the items of discussion was about how there is a sort of “cycle” with generations. So, Winograd thought that the Millenials of today most often relate to the GI Generation (the oldest living generation), today), possessing their “values” and feelings about war and social issues.

    So maybe that’s where the rub is . . . what if these Gen Y’ers or Millenials (you say tomato, I say tomahto), really DON’T relate to the Boomer generation at all. They relate more to our parents (if you’re old like me) or grandparents? Maybe, that’s why there are so many differences.

  7. Ron,
    Why is Tom Brokaw “wrong” because he has a point of view that differs from yours, or the “other side of the argument” or the majority.
    Yours is the perfect example of someone talking at you rather than communicating with you.
    Read a book or take a class on communicating.

  8. @Ken: Re-read the post, please. I laid out my argument for why I thought Brokaw was wrong in two bullet points (following the sentence “Brokaw is wrong on two fronts”). No where in the post did I say — or even imply — that he was wrong because his POV differed from mine.

    p.s. I read lots of book — and HAVE been trained in “communicating.” I don’t, however, see a link to YOUR blog, where you display your communication skills. I bring this up because your comment about “yours is the perfect example of someone talking at you…” makes no sense, and isn’t even grammatically correct.

  9. No, he should have just said “I disagree with those who draw such comparisons. Today’s youth/college students etc are fundamentally different from youth in the 60’s…

    Here’s what you said Tom should have said, and why YOU are wrong, Ron 😉 (if I may steal a great line from Denise here)…

    1. Collaborative spirit of the respective generations. Gen Yers like to think of themselves as the first collaborative generation.

    Not only is it wrong that they are the “first,” but they are not collaborative at all. Recent articles have touched about how Gen Y is probably the first generation where each individual feels entitlement and thinks “the world revolves around me.” Thus all the MySpace profiles, as if the minutia of their lives is as interesting as a celebrities… This is the most competitive self centered generation of all time, folks… I know, because I also happen to be a card-carrying member of it.

    Activist nature of the respective generations. Groups like the Yippies and SDS may no longer be active on campus, but Gen Yers are very involved in community affairs. Just look at the list of extracurricular activities of the typical college student or high school senior.

    Yeah this is BS. See point above — everyone in Gen Y is so caught up on their own lives that they shut out the world around them. They feel helpless to make a difference in politics, so they tune out and focus on seeing what Anon. Ken did with his friends last night. Voter turn-outs will continue getting lower as older folks die and more Gen Yers (and the next gen) take their place.

    Desire for social change.

    Again, people in Gen Y are too busy focusing on themselves to spend the time volunteering or taking up a cause. This apathy is also compounded by the second point I make, which is the overall sense of disenfranchisement felt by the Generation.

  10. The most recent comments here just confirm that the only point in talking about the generations as a giant lump is to have arguments about it. “Generation Y is self-centered and lazy.” “No, it’s not, it’s the most socially-conscious generation ever!” “No they aren’t, we were!” This sounds like the kind of argument I have with my 8-year-old. There are some members of every generation that are lazy and there are go-getters in every generation. Social altruism and narcissism have been with us since the dawn of humanity.

    Why are we trying to paint the generations in one stroke? Still a pretty pointless exercise from my point of view. Talking about tens of millions of people that way ignores the fascinating and infinite diversity of those people. Chronological age is so fifteen minutes ago.

  11. It always amazes me that one generation thinks that they have done something previous generations have not accomplished, or that they have done something better than previous generations. History is not “if”, it is “when”, and there is nothing new under the sun baby. If you can do, you can bet someone in human history has done it before you. Your not that smart!!!

    As for drug us in the 60s and today on campus, let’s look at the drugs used by both generations. The students of the 60s used alcohol, marijuana, acid and heroin. Today’s students mainly use alcohol, marijuana, percocet, vicodin, oxycontin, cocaine and heroin. Gee, the only difference I see is that today’s students are using a few drugs that were not available in the marketplace of the 60s. As for the 60s students using drugs for “mind expansion”, give me a break. I guess Clinton did not expand his mind, since he forgot to “inhale”. Both generations of students used drugs for the same reasons, including; 1) escape from reality, 2) to appear sophisticated + cool in front of their peers, and of course 3) to get laid.

    On the opposition to the wars of both generations, it is plain and simple, the majority youth of both periods wants/wanted the benefits of citizenship without the responsibility of service. The generation of students in the 60s enjoyed 18+ years of free + safe existence provided by prior generation’s sacrifices by the country’s veterans. But their response when the call came to them for service was “hell no we won’t go”. For a bunch of college students, you think they may have come up with a more grammatically correct statement. As for today’s generation of students, they enjoy freedom + safety, as well as low interest government guaranteed student loans. However, a large majority of them have no desire to answer the call to duty. Although, I would bet the majority of them would like “free” healthcare from the government (which is currently promised by two candidates for President). In my opinion, both generations of students are / were spoiled beyond belief and full of themselves. I also see some hard life lessons down the road for the current generation.

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