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Baby Boomers’ Existential Crisis of the Early 1970s

The generation asked the big questions of life for a few years.

Key points

  • The early 1970s were a transitionary period for baby boomers, defined by psychological uncertainty.
  • Many baby boomers searched for meaning and purpose in life during these years.
  • Boomers' determination to live in the moment challenged societal norms.

When we think of the history of baby boomers (a painful experience for many younger people), we tend to recall their privileged youth of the 1950s, their countercultural ways in the 1960s, and their embrace of consumer capitalism in the 1980s. What’s often forgotten is their cohort identity of the early 1970s, a largely missing chapter of their long, strange trip.

By the summer of 1971, it was readily apparent that a sea change was taking place within American youth culture. Much of the psychedelia and political activism associated with the counterculture had dissolved, leaving a vacuum that teenagers and young adults were not sure how to fill. (The Nixon administration had begun to reduce the number of troops in Vietnam in 1969.)

Joining the ranks of Corporate America was still anathema for many, and the nation’s economy was continuing to spiral down after the postwar boom. With limited opportunities and without any clear direction, baby boomers hit the road en masse in hopes of discovering more about the world and their potential place in it. Through the early 1970s, the generation drifted along, entering a peripatetic and philosophical phase of life, often with no real destination in mind.

Boomers’ existential crisis—the psychological inner conflict creating the sense that life lacks meaning—triggered a desire among many older teens and young twentysomethings to search anywhere and everywhere for purpose (or just fun and adventure). Wanderlust had much to do with it, as millions of young Americans backpacked through Europe or hitch-hiked across the U.S., often depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.

Whether it was a trek to Nepal or just hanging out near home, suspending “real life” for an undetermined period of time was one reason young people were referred to as the “Now Generation.” (“Nowness” also equated with hipness.) Much to the frustration of their elders, baby boomers appeared to be disrupting the traditional tripartite model of school-work-retirement by doing what they wanted when they wanted.

Rather than wait for some vague future to be happy, this generation subscribed to the idea that life, or at least one’s youth, was short, so you better enjoy it while you can. It could perhaps be said that the Judeo-Christian ethic rested on delayed gratification (either in this world or the next), something in which boomers did not seem particularly interested in the early 1970s. Growing up during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear war was quite real, gave this generation a sense of urgency, as one never knew if tomorrow would come.

Living life in the moment was one theme that Charles Reich addressed in his 1970 book The Greening of America. As part of the new level of awareness that Reich called "Consciousness III," young people were challenging the constraints and limitations that up to that point had been generally assumed to be immutable. Work, relationships, and all other pillars of everyday life were up for grabs in Consciousness III, ignoring what Reich called “the guideposts of the past.”

Through Consciousness III (which Reich believed would eventually become the norm), youth culture was creating a new form of personal identity based on one’s current interests in life, quite a different thing than the standardized version that had been in place for decades or even centuries.

While Americans were relieved to see that the sit-ins, teach-ins, strikes, and confrontations on university campuses had ended, no one knew for sure where youth culture was headed if it wasn’t to the workplace. “Jesus freaks” were a ubiquitous presence in college towns and on the streets of big cities in the early seventies, signaling a spiritual and religious revival among some young people. Eastern neo-mysticism was also popular, and cults attracted some adherents, much to the dismay of parents and religious leaders.

Regardless of the possibility of there being a new level of human consciousness, many wondered when or even if young people would become ambitious and achievement-oriented like past generations of Americans. A good number of those who were not in college continued to drift along, not ready to subscribe to the work ethic that their parents had embraced. Some believed that a new “leisure ethic” had usurped the convention of getting up in the morning and going to one’s job five days a week, fifty weeks a year, for about forty years.

By 1974, however, baby boomers’ existential crisis was over. A new spirit pervaded college campuses as 8.6 million young people (including myself) began the fall term, many of them pragmatic in their outlook, highly oriented toward careers, and interested in financial security. The nation’s economy had tanked over the past few years, leading observers to conclude that in addition to the de-escalation of the Vietnam War, the attitudinal shift was as much about economics.

Interestingly, the media framed this new conservativism in generally negative terms, something that certainly hadn’t been done for college students of the 1950s. Now focused on preparing for their careers instead of ending the war, baby boomers instantly earned the label of “the self-centered generation,” a characterization that would stick to this day.

References

Samuel, Lawrence R. (2022). The Rise and Fall of Baby Boomers: The Long, Strange Trip of the Generation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

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