I was born at a time when maternity wards across America were filled to bursting. I am one of more than 40 million Americans born in the 1950s, the decade that stood as the high-water mark for births into the next century. As a reporter, I spent my 30s, 40s, and 50s interviewing somewhat older people who were trying, or would one day try, to become president of the United States. As I aged, I assumed, as every other generation in American life might, that a peer would eventually take the oath of office.
Then something funny happened. Numerous as we were, filling kindergartens and baseball diamonds, school buses, high school gyms, college campus, and cul-de-sacs, facing crowds and competition for every damn thing we did in life, we got skipped. Passed over. At least, so far as the presidency was concerned.
Kids from the 1940s, front-edge boomers who integrated schools, made campuses coed, fought and didn’t fight in Vietnam, dominated America’s politics for decades. From the election battles of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Al Gore, John Kerry, and so many others, America leapt right over that enormous 1950s birth cohort. We sent a ’60s kid to the White House, Barack Obama, who was born in the waning years of the Boom. He was too young to remember the Kennedy assassination, too young to worry about the draft, a politician whose journey into adulthood began in the Reagan years.
Has the political marketplace decided quantity isn’t quality?
When the Obama years were over, America headed back to the 1940s well, with a national election pitting Hillary Clinton (b. 1947) against Donald Trump (b. 1946). As 2020 approached, new contenders for the top job arose, among them, Julian Castro (b. 1974), Amy Klobuchar (b. 1960), Kamala Harris (b. 1964), and, strikingly, a candidate young enough to be my son, Pete Buttigieg (b. 1982).
Then, one by one the youngsters departed, briefly leaving Michael Bloomberg (b. 1942) and the relative kid, 70-year-old Elizabeth Warren (b. 1949). Unless you’ve been on another planet, or in a medically induced coma, you’ve probably noticed we are once again headed back to the 1940s for a chief executive. The next oath of office will likely be taken by one of three men, the incumbent president, or two pre-Boomers, Joe Biden (b. 1942) and Bernie Sanders (b. 1941). One of them will become the oldest person ever to take the president’s oath of office, and leave the ’50s kids shut out again.
The 1950s themselves are revered by many Americans as a time of rapidly growing prosperity, years of ex-GI dads proudly driving their families to the front door of newly purchased homes. Dwight Eisenhower was in the Oval Office, that era’s conventional morality prevailed, and Dick and Jane “saw Spot run.”
There are darker memories as well, of the Korean War, loyalty oaths, a deepening Cold War with the Soviets, and a gathering domestic war over racial segregation. As we watched Father Knows Best and Rocky and His Friends, it probably never occurred to any of us that our country would never summon us to greatness.
We began our careers in the waning years of the Vietnam War, were young adults for Watergate, gas lines, and breathtaking interest rates that seemed to threaten any future home ownership. Unemployment was high, union jobs were drying up, and raises chased inflation but never felt as if they caught up.
The final chapters of the Cold War were fought by proxies in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. After we crouched beneath elementary school desks to shelter from a Soviet nuclear strike that never arrived, we sat transfixed as the Berlin Wall and the solid, permanent reality of a superpower rival to our country crumbled into dust. Once out of the lifelong shadow of the Cold War, we didn’t have long to blink. Reservists my age unexpectedly deployed for real and traveled to the other side of the world to kick Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and seemed to get Vietnam’s monkey off America’s back. Yet in 1992, 2000, and 2004, children of the 1940s headed to the mat again to wrestle over the legacy of Vietnam.
Don’t get me wrong: I know I’m not being ignored. Every day I’m pitched estate planning services, incontinence aids, legal help with medical proxies, Viagra, Cialis, and One-a-Day 60+, and the latest AARP magazine arrives like clockwork. The people who want to run my country are all older than I, and the people I hear when I turn on my radio or see when I sit down to catch some television news are just about all younger than I.
Maybe we haven’t been ignored, exactly. Maybe we weren’t passed over on purpose. More than 30 million of us are still alive. The possible political salvation of the 1950s kids may lie in the 2020 race. It turns out that this year, if you were born in the 1950s, you just might not be old enough to be president.
Our ship may yet come in.