Episode 10: Talkin’ ‘bout my generation
In this episode: when you say “Okay, boomer,” have you thought about who you're dismissing? We unpack the boomer backlash, thinking through what it means to be part of a generation first scorned as radical youths and then insulted as greedy wealth mongers. How did the first generation to grow up with rock and roll actually change the world?
Featuring Stephen Katz (Professor Emeritus, Sociology, Trent University) talking with host Sally Chivers about:
- Generational Rifts
- Ageist language
- New retirement
- Boomer radicalism
- Boomer Rock
Watch Chloe Swarbrick’s Ok, Boomer moment.
Read more from Stephen on how Boomer biographies are tied to rock:
- The Greatest Band That Never Was: Music, Memory, and Boomer Biography (paywalled)
- Music, Performance, and Generation
Read what Stephen Katz has to say about Generation X in Generation X: A Critical Sociological Perspective (paywalled)
Find Joseph Kotarba’s book Music in the Course of Life
Stay tuned for the next show notes, featuring Stephen Katz drumming and more…
Wrinkle Radio is a proud member of the Amplify Podcast Network. We are grateful for funding from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and support from Aging in Data and VoicEd Radio.
Episode includes music by Mareproduction (Indie Fall and Indie Rockin 2.1 Clean) via freesound.org; Music_for_Videos via pixabay, and Rocknstock, Custom Melody, Alex Grohl, Duce Williams, and Michael Shynes via Artlist.
Stephen Katz [00:00:04]:
You know, for every report about how many American boomers voted for Trump or own guns or are, you know, environmentally destroying billionaires, there's also information about how many boomers oppose those groups, have joined environmental movements, anti racist movements, and sometimes those aren't as spectacularly sensationalized in the media.
Sally Chivers [00:00:35]:
Welcome to Wrinkle radio, where the stories we tell about aging matter. I'm your host, Sally Chivers, and I am so glad you're here. I'm joined for the next two episodes by Professor Stephen Katz. We're going to start out in this episode by talking about his generation. Which generation? The boomer generation. We're going to talk about the effect the boomer generation has on other generations and what that has to do with rock and roll.
Stephen Katz [00:01:11]:
My father never really got it, never came to any of our rock shows. For him till his dying day, it was that slick, cool Sinatra era of jazz where people dressed, men especially, had nice haircuts and hats. My father was also in the clothing business, where he made really, really fine men's suits, and he was always impeccably dressed. So these ruffians, as he called it, with the hair and the t shirts, really never made sense to him at all. They had no sophistication. He just didn't understand what this popularity was about. And I remember him and I used to go to movies together. We used to go to war movies together, which my mother hated.
Stephen Katz [00:01:53]:
But because he was in the american army during World War II, he really loved World War II type, you know, the Americans are heroes. They march in, all that kind of thing. The guns of Navarone and the Great Escape. The last movie we saw together was Apocalypse Now. He just didn't believe it. And then there was the rock and roll score to Apocalypse now, which he just hated. And so that became a huge argument, a huge fight after we saw that movie, and then we never saw another movie together again.
Stephen Katz [00:02:24]:
That was the ultimate disagreement point. The war was wrong. They were stoned. They had long hair, some of them. They listened to rock and roll. That was it. It was like him and I were over. I said, that was a great movie.
Stephen Katz [00:02:38]:
That really is how probably Vietnam was. He goes, no way. There's no way it was like that. We went out for coffee. We're just arguing ... the ultimate rock and roll argument. So it always symbolized to me the generational rift.
Sally Chivers [00:02:53]:
That's Stephen Katz, professor emeritus of sociology at Trent University and a true rock star. He's a rock drummer. We're going to talk more about that next episode. And he's also a rock star of age studies. He's taught or talked about or written about pretty much any age studies topic you can think of, in a really definitive way. If you heard I was going to do an episode about generational divides, you would know that the boomers were going to be at the heart of it. But you might not have expected that opening story where the generational rift is between the silent generation and the boomers. We hear much more about how the boomers are robbing the rest of us of the future that we supposedly deserve.
Sally Chivers [00:03:47]:
I always ask guests on Wrinkle Radio to talk about how the topics they study relate to them personally. And I usually put that at the end of the episode, but we're going to start off with that. This time I basically sat Stephen down and said, okay, boomer, tell me about your generation. I wanted to know how it felt to be part of a generation that used to be associated with youth and radicalism and progress, and over time has become popular culture's bad guy.
Stephen Katz [00:04:19]:
My boomer status, to me, is an ethical status, and not just a generational one. I am 71. I was born in 1952. I fit the boomer demographic profile pretty precisely. And naturally, I'm aware I grew up with the benefits of postwar utopian promises, of accessible education, of unlimited social mobility, of the enjoyment of new technological wonders that all seem to be happening almost monthly for my generation, the beneficiary of social and political freedoms, et cetera, all of the cultural benefits of boomerdom. I'm also aware that I represent a generation for later generations to follow, like Gen X and millennials who get pushed around the boomer borderline. As you say.
Sally Chivers [00:05:12]:
We're off to a great start here because Generation X got a mention, and we don't usually get talked about in these generational discussions. But I also want to signal that Stephen's being inordinately generous here. That wonderful phrase "pushed around the boomer borderline," he makes it sound like maybe I raised it, but that phrasing is all Stephen, and it's quintessential Stephen Katz.
Stephen Katz [00:05:38]:
The boundaries and experiences and possibilities we as boomers have carved out of the life course have become the infrastructure of the life course for following generations. I mean, just think organic gardening, vegan diets, natural childbirth, the peace movements, common law, and same sex marriages and on. all of that has been attributed to boomer radicalism. That is, the alternative ways to live in various life courses in prosperous or western countries anyway, have been, in a way attributed to that infrastructural radicalism of boomers. I think it's precisely this privileged background compared to the struggles of older generations in my family. This background inspires me to advocate, actually for future generations and our joint commitments to environmental and social justice. It gives me the breadth to imagine intergenerational collaboration that I'm not sure is available to other generations. I mean, we as boomers, and I feel this personally need to use our experience and status to combat and disrupt the reckless and short sighted politics of our time that actually are stripping out the economic prospects of younger people of their rights to shelter and security and health care and safety.
Stephen Katz [00:07:05]:
We just look at the housing affordability crisis here in Toronto, how it's endlessly, endlessly on about how one generation is denying the other generation shelter, affordability, places to live, which has really nothing to do with intergenerational injustice, but the politics of our time. And we get this promotion of neoliberal futurities around planning for healthy and active old age that's constantly shoved at younger people that they should save up for rsps starting at what, when they're in the womb, maybe?
Sally Chivers [00:07:40]:
I appreciate and share Stephen's sympathy for younger generations here and just the impossible situation they're in. But when any term becomes a wholesale way to dismiss a large group of people, you're going to lose my sympathy all over again. About four years ago, New Zealand Member of Parliament Chloe Swarbrick was giving a speech in support of a climate change bill. Tod Mueller, another MP, took it upon himself to interrupt her. She was having none of it, and she dismissed him, saying, "okay, boomer," and continued her speech. As someone who's been interrupted by male colleagues my whole career, part of me's with her. But here's the rub. Tod Mueller was only 49 years old at the time, not a boomer, a member of Generation X.
Sally Chivers [00:08:36]:
And yes, I am going to bring that up a few times, because we just continually get squeezed and folded into other generations. We went straight from being too young and not really wanting to work and all the insults that get thrown at the millennial generation to being old and out of date, and all the insults that get thrown at the boomer generation. If you want to insult us, we want our own insults, thank you. But the other point I want to make is that Boomer has just become this insult and a way of dismissing people because they're supposedly old. And when you're old, you supposedly just don't get it. Stephen's expertise in Boomerdom doesn't just come from personal experience. He's also studied and researched it, and I asked him to put that academic hat on and talk about the term boomer, what it means for other generations and what it means for aging.
Stephen Katz [00:09:34]:
Boomer is a very odd term because of the contradiction and negotiation between identities that you just raised. It basically refers, on the one hand, to this generational boom, or bulge as it was originally called, of individuals born roughly between 1946 and 1964 whose outsized demographic footprint has been linked to all manner of economic and cultural and social change. You might remember David Foot's book Boom, Bust and Echo in 2000 that really popularized this demographic boomer phenomena. But culturally, the boomers are a cohort raised with new freedoms, affluent consumerism, exciting electronic media, and also distinctive tastes and new fashion that indicated this sense of historical self importance. And then there's the commercialized figure of the individual boomer as a kind of person, characterized by that rebellious spirit of active and independent and surprising aging. And at the same time, the figure of boomers makes invisible age-based inequalities, health challenges, the precarious lives of many boomers who are not, despite the stereotypes, necessarily healthy or highly educated or mobile or politically empowered. You've probably seen the books with titles like Who Destroyed the Economy? The Case against Baby Boomers in 2012, or the really well known book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took their Children's Future and Why They Should Give it Back, published in 2011. Horrible stuff.
Stephen Katz [00:11:14]:
And as you say, the image that the boomers are some kind of planet destroying human vortex of self enrichment, completely removed from caring about future generations, is a myth that became so insidious during the COVID pandemic. You remember the social media sites like remover, boomer and OK Boomer on Twitter? These were really, really tragically horrible. I mean, even if they weren't about boomers, just the language, the insult, the disrespect was phenomenal. So what do we do with this contradiction? Does Boomer have any value? Or is it just too simplistic and universalizing and contradictory a buzzword?
Sally Chivers [00:12:04]:
I started working in age studies about 25 years ago, so I was in my twenties, and people would do a sort of double take and be like, why are you interested in aging? I tried to explain how important I thought it was. Typically, I would get the refrain back, right, the boomers are coming. The boomers are coming. The boomers are coming. As though it was some sort of smart and opportunistic move, or that we should all just live in fear. That's a discourse that's become really familiar. At that point, boomer was already synonymous with a wave of aging, that thing that we're all going to have to worry about, that age panic moment that I talked about in episode two of Wrinkle radio. I didn't then, in my 20s, think about the way that boomer had changed from meaning radical youth to meaning older age. And it's shifted again now to mean a greedy, nasty, white, privileged older person who's going to cost the planet everything.
Sally Chivers [00:13:05]:
Stephen cautioned me, though, that we shouldn't just dismiss the term boomer because it's become an insult. It's been a helpful term to launching a conversation about aging. And there's a whole vocabulary of aging that's developed alongside the term boomer vocabulary that we need in order to talk about this demographic change more respectfully and in a more nuanced way than what we see in the popular press and on social media.
Stephen Katz [00:13:35]:
It gives us a kind of common language to understand something. However contradictory these terms are, and homogenizing, they can also be counterstreotyping and intergenerational if we use them in the right way. In my view, like generation X or the millennials, these are kind of popular terms that seem to fill some kind of linguistic void. There's very little public vocabulary for journalists and marketers and policymakers to have a conversation together about unprecedented age-based demography changes. I mean, there's empty nesters now, there's snowbirds, there's even seniors as a kind of odd word. And I think all of this vocabulary is actually useful. It's useful because it allows us to talk about post traditional aging in a conversational way.
Sally Chivers [00:14:29]:
Post traditional what? Post traditional aging is an academic term. The way it sounds so academic makes Stephen's point for him. Post traditional aging is a way to describe how boomers have changed aging. The term boomer and all the vocabulary that developed with it illustrates this concept of post traditional aging, and it also helps us have a conversation about it without feeling like we're in a lecture hall.
Stephen Katz [00:14:55]:
You have traditional aging, which maybe never existed, but at least was represented by the so called three boxes of life, by the heteronormative kind of family, by the bungalow with the dog and the one car and the stay at home wife, usually, and very white vision of middle class north american society.
Sally Chivers [00:15:16]:
I so recognize that vision of a life that we're supposed to have, a picket fence, a Labrador retriever, two and a half kids nowadays, a minivan. But I'd never heard of the three boxes of life before. Do you remember the book, What Color is Your Parachute? When I was a junior high student, even, it was really popular. And that book was supposed to solve my life by telling me what my future would be. And it would do that by figuring out what would fulfill my dreams. I don't think I actually ever read it, so maybe I should. The author of that book, Richard Bolles, also wrote a book called the Three Boxes of Life. And the three boxes in that book were education, work, and retirement, really plotting out a straight line of a trajectory of the progress of the life course that few people actually have ever lived in exactly that way.
Sally Chivers [00:16:18]:
Stephen explained that even though we hear all the time about boomers being this conservative, wealthy generation, in fact, the boomer generation reinvented and redefined us away from those three boxes as the only way to live a good and fulfilling life.
Stephen Katz [00:16:36]:
Just think about retirement now. I mean, 50 years ago, when you used the word retirement, it was 65. You left your job, you were usually white and male, and then nobody knows what you were supposed to do. There was all this literature about taking up hobbies and adapting and keeping up with active engagement, all kinds of nonsense about this space that nobody quite knew what to do with. Now you think of retirement, there is no age to it. It could be anywhere between 50 and 90. You could retire and still take up other jobs after. Nobody's advising you anymore that you better have a hobby or you'll be bored. Now, we have every kind of healthfulness linked to 65 to 95 to 105.
Stephen Katz [00:17:24]:
We have cognitive fitness exercises. We have cognitive health. We have sexual health, physical health. We have consumerism between 65 and 105 that wouldn't have existed before. Products, fashions, devices, of course, connectivity issues. We have NORCs, naturally occurring retirement communities, that are now being paid attention to very, very heavily. It's an amazing investment in this period of life that used to be called retirement. That, to me, is a kind of post traditional fragmentation that's opened up to new sorts of possibilities.
Stephen Katz [00:18:01]:
So we have this period of life that I think is no longer traditional. And antiracist movements and feminist movements and trans and queer movements have also contributed of course. Hopefully, their contributions will really be seen as valuable to also post traditionalizing the life course. So it seems an investment in fragmenting traditional aging, sometimes for commercial purposes, but sometimes for very meaningful, political, empowering purposes as well.
Sally Chivers [00:18:34]:
I do get it. That person who's really been pissing you off at work or at the grocery store or on social media is a boomer. But when you use the phrase, okay, boomer, to dismiss him and everybody like him. You undo the work that boomers have done to change not just how we think about generations and how we think about aging, but how we experience our own generations and how we will experience our own aging.I just finished my annual rewatch of the Gilmore girls, and I paid a special attention to the band that Lain puts together, and especially the way that Zach keeps getting upset and saying, "dude, that is so not rock and roll." The phrase persisted, but I realized that phrase was kind of the "okay boomer" refrain of the boomers era: this way of dismissing an older generation that just did not get it. And boomers at that time were associated with a youthful radicalism that was tied to rock and roll. They were the first generation to grow up with rock and roll, and rock and roll grew up with them.
Stephen Katz [00:19:54]:
Sometimes I ask boomer friends what music or song they would want at their funeral, and somehow they all know. I think it's kind of fascinating. They all have an answer for that. Just like that. They've already thought about it. Like they've already thought about completing their lives with a boomer rock and roll song. Or songs. Boomers can recount their lives through music.
Stephen Katz [00:20:19]:
It's like a time machine. And even though it suspends the past, it still keeps the past going. Rock and roll music and boomer identity have become so deeply connected. It's really interesting. I mean, you could say, well, every generation must have its music. Like depression era and war era swing jazz, was that its music? Or Gen X, punk, and indie music, was that its music? But I think the connectivity between boomer identity and rock music is kind of unique. It's really astonishing how rock music in such a short period of time between the 50s and 60s became transformed from a kind of marginal adolescent subgenre, mainly innovated by African American musicians, to a global commercial empire. It's somewhere between the beatles, first appearing on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, February 9, and maybe Woodstock in August of 1969.
Stephen Katz [00:21:16]:
Those five years, somehow is this key history in the history of the world, according to the boomer rock chronicle. Of course, that's when boomers became adolescents, so that's also when it would be seen as so hyper important. We have that connection again between boomer outsized demography and the post war consumer economy that expanded in tandem. They came together and grew together. I mean, if we look at just the vast consumer materiality of boomer rock music, it's phenomenal. We have nostalgia industries. We have classic rock radio stations. We have vintage instruments that cost a fortune.
Stephen Katz [00:21:57]:
This was Eric Clapton's SG Gibson. We have remastered records endlessly. We have remastered cds, after you bought the records and after you bought the tapes. You have the same record, actually, that boomers will buy, probably up to, I don't know, 15 times, in various versions of remastered. They add a song that wasn't included before or something like that. We have the takeup of Japanese karaoke during this time. We have playlist streaming now. We have the clothes, the t shirts, the exorbitant ticket prices for Forever last tour, classic bands whose every concert seems to be their last one.
Stephen Katz [00:22:37]:
And yet The WHO have been having end of career concerts since the 1980s. I don't know how many last tours they've had. Elton John's had a few. The Eagles have had several. It's just endless. They're always on their last legs, and yet here they are again. And tickets are now between $500 and $5,000 a ticket. Rock boomer music has also been proud to have even its own literature.
Stephen Katz [00:23:05]:
The Rolling Stone magazine first appeared in 1967 and still continues to kind of track and review and reiterate this evolving transformation, locating its history as an important history. And it's also interesting how classic boomer rock and roll is constructed. Like the boomer image itself is kind of ageless. It's really interesting that this is ageless music. Even when its idols die, they live on in a rock and roll heaven forever. There's more records coming out, there's hidden gems coming out. There's some unrecorded concert that's suddenly a bootleg version of something in someone's basement, and then they're kind of crowned, you know, Elvis and Michael Jackson are kings, Donna Summer and Aretha Franklin are queens.
Stephen Katz [00:23:55]:
And Prince, well, I guess, is still a prince in rock and roll heaven.
Sally Chivers [00:24:07]:
We heard at the beginning of the episode how rock music contributed and symbolized a generational rift between, in that case, Stephen’s father and his love for jazz, and Stephen being a little bit more rock and roll. He explained that for boomer parents, rock and roll music can be a way to connect with their kids.
Stephen Katz [00:24:28]:
Some years ago, in one of my sociology courses, I asked students to share an example of a rock song that had meaning for them in a lasting emotional way. And almost all the responses referred to some kind of classic rock song because it formed a bond between the student and their families, often their father. And they talk know Elvis and Steely Dan and Queen and the Beatles, etc. Saying how listening to these songs together with their families helped bring the generations together, sometimes solved emotional problems, open channels of communication. It was a very touching exercise. Joseph Kotarba has a great quote. He says, managing music illustrates one's skill at parenting. And when I first read that, I thought, what? What does that have to do with parenting? But then, as I think about these students'responses, managing music is a parenting skill for a boomer.
Stephen Katz [00:25:22]:
How they introduce the music to their kids, how they listen to it with their kids. I mean, young people, of course, have music of their own, whatever their cool, rocking mums and dads approve of it or not. But still, this music seems to have this value as intergenerational bonding and identity. Connecting.
Sally Chivers [00:25:45]:
Rock and roll symbolizes so much about the boomer generation that we've been talking about youth and radicalism, and yet somehow also ageless, rebellious, and sticking it to the man, and at the same time, initiating waves of global consumerism. It's the start of something new, a new way of thinking about and doing music as an art form, as a business, as an industry, as a career that has shaped so much to follow. But the desire for parents to connect with their kids through music isn't entirely new. I want to share with you a bit more of the story that Stephen told about his father, because that initial clip maybe gave the impression that he just didn't get it. The rest of the story shows that he did understand music. He had really strong feelings about it. It's just that kind of like me, to be honest. He wasn't that into rock and roll.
Stephen Katz [00:26:48]:
I mean, my father was a big musician. He grew up in New York. He grew up in the era of jazz and great baseball and great delicatessen restaurants in the 30s. Fantastic art. He was very, very poor, but he had this rich New York context to grow up in. So when we moved later, our years in Toronto and eventually in the suburbs, and we got our first record player in around 1964, he got it in order to educate us in jazz and swing jazz, right. Oh, this is Benny Goodman.
Stephen Katz [00:27:23]:
You got to listen to this and listen to Gene Krupa and all of these big bands. And so that was the trajectory. Here's the best music ever made from the best city in the world with the best culture. And that is the future for you kids, you know, you listen to this and you will be okay. And then my cousin brought over the first Beatles album around that time, because I'd never heard them before and put it on the record player, and it was like, wow, this is fantastic stuff. The energy, the guitars, the short little songs. I remember we kept playing that first record over and over and over again in my basement until my father came down. He goes, what the hell is going on here? What is that? I said, that's rock and roll.
Stephen Katz [00:28:07]:
That's the Beatles. He goes, that's not music. Because he had all his records, right? That was music. Especially Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra could sing. John Lennon could not sing, you know, It was just so obvious to him, right? And so this rift started in the universe, in the household, between this thing and his thing. And when I got my first set of drums, he was very keen on me
Stephen Katz [00:28:30]:
listening to Gene Krupa and all the swing drummers who are amazing. They're just fantastic drummers. But Ringo was the blueprint for me. He was the way you drum.
Sally Chivers [00:28:42]:
I hope, like me, you're on the edge of your seat to hear more about how Stephen learned to drum. I'm not going to share that with you now. You'll have to tune in to our next episode, boomers who rock, the famous and the not so famous. Until then, thank you, Stephen, for being more than okay for a boomer and for your rock star age studies scholarship. Thanks too for never judging me for not being at all rock and roll. This has been wrinkle radio. I'm your host, Sally Chivers.
Sally Chivers [00:29:28]:
Thank you for listening. Could you please tell your friend, tell your neighbor, tell your brother, tell your sister, tell your mother, tell your father, tell your music teacher. And remember, don't panic. It's just aging.
Music outro [00:29:27]:
I want to grow older. I want to grow wiser. I want to grow flowers in a house that's made of you. Sit and watch the sun rise get some wrinkles on my forehead. I want to build fires in a house that's made of you.