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...and welcome to the other side of the hill

p> by Julia Sneden

Baby Boomers are defined as people born between 1945 (the end of World War II) and 1965, or thereabouts. That puts the oldest of them at age 56 this year, and the youngest at 36. They represent a huge demographic bulge in America's population, explained by the return of all those veterans and the economic boom that followed the war.

Boomers have certainly had great press. Of course not all of it has been favorable, but as someone once said, "I don't care what they say about me as long as they spell my name right." God knows, Boomers have been noticed.

I'm actually rather fond of the generation. As the mother of one bona fide member and two who just missed it, I've never subscribed to the labeling of all Boomers as drugged-out, lazy, sloppy, or any of the other stereotypes. It's a generation that has done some great things, and we're all in their debt.

It does rankle a bit, however, that someone labeled my generation, the group that was adolescent during the 1950's, "The Silent Generation." No one ever called us that at the time, but I suppose that in retrospect, we seemed silent in comparison to the chanting hordes of Boomers.

"Silent Generation" depicts my generation as placid, accepting whatever was handed to us to believe, content with things as they were. That's not what I saw! Remember, please, that Elvis and Buddy and Chubby and even Ann Margaret were members of my generation. Rock 'N Roll didn't suddenly spring into being post-1960. And it would be nice if all those youngsters who were on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement would remember that it was the young professionals from my generation who organized them, defended them, counseled them, doctored them, and supported them. It would be good to remember that Betty Friedan was of my generation, and Elizabeth Dole and Ann Richards and Gloria Steinem and Jane Fonda and even Phyllis Schlafly. Silent? I think not!

Most of all, it would be good not to label any generation, nor to brand all members of one generation, with adjectives like silent or hippie or conservative or self-centered. There are, of course, trends in fashion and culture; there are philosophical shifts in the body politic; there are advances in science and changes in demographics, as well as in the social contract. But to stick any one group of people who happen to be born within an arbitrary time span with a one-size-fits-all label is just plain silly.

That said, let me revert to popular custom and give the Boomers their due: by their sheer numbers, they have brought about many good changes, oftentimes without their knowledge or intention. I remember reading in astonishment the adjustments my college made to attract and serve them, shortly after my graduation. The curriculum was revised (long overdue); the parietal rules were removed from dormitory life (we girls had to be in by 10:30 p.m., and I don't know anyone who wasn't insulted by that). Dorms were rewired, the dining system revamped, apartments built, automobile restrictions rescinded or at least loosened, a new field house constructed, classrooms spruced up, etc. I was glad for the new students, but I was also jealous as hell.

Special treatment is the norm for Boomers. New schools were built just in time for them (and many were abandoned immediately following the 60's). Educators played with new teaching methods and programs, some disastrous, some productive. The teaching profession boomed, but during the late '70's their ranks were reduced as the Boomers left grammar school. That was, I think, a great mistake. By reducing the number of teachers, we missed a great chance to reduce class size rather painlessly, with all those extra teachers and classrooms in place.

As the Boomers moved into adulthood, they proved themselves able to make huge changes in laws and customs. They have immeasurably furthered tolerance among people of different races and religions. The causes they embraced have brought about new attitudes toward same-sex relationships, single parenting, women in the work force, the environment, and physical fitness.

New marketing strategies were developed to entice Boomers. (Remember when you could buy shoes without a company's logo on it, or a shirt without the designer's name on the pocket?)

Now that they are beginning to tip the demographics for older Americans, we are bound to see changes in services, advertising, and probably even attitudes affecting the elderly. I say: Good Deal! Maybe the Boomers can do something about problems that have puzzled, amused, and infuriated me.

For instance: the record-keeping systems of Medicare and most physicians. I can understand those "This Is Not A Bill" pages that Medicare sends you, but have you ever tried reconciling them with bills from your doctors? When dates for services are given without a statement of the service provided, and when they don't agree with your doctor's dates of service, you can spend an entire morning on the telephone, pushing one button after another in an effort to get to a real person - and when you do, you're often told to call another number. The other day, I received a first-time bill from a doctor my mother no longer sees, for a visit dating back to Sept. of 1999. I do remember that his office submitted a bill to Medicare once, using the wrong number (a clerk's typographical error) and once using Mother's middle initial instead of her middle name, so that the whole thing had to be processed three times, but there was no indication that the '99 bill referred to that debacle. It took me the better part of two days to track it down, and I'm still not sure whether or not she really owed it.

Then too, there are any number of trivial items that I'd like to see the Boomers take on, like the fashion industry. Why can we no longer buy simple, straight-cut cotton shirts and blouses? The latest craze for elastic shirting has all but obliterated shirts made of any other fabric. Not only does the elastic resist ironing (and, un-ironed, look horrible), it's simply not flattering to the older figure. It may look great on youngsters who haven't yet lost the battle with gravity, but on anyone over 50, it just accentuates the negative.

And while I'm griping about shirts, why do so few of them have breast pockets these days? I suppose the clothing industry saves millions of dollars by leaving them off, but I'd be willing to pay a few cents extra to find one on a shirt. Cutting fabric costs is probably also why shirts no longer have French cuffs. I can live without those, although they do look elegant, but I regret that I can no longer wear the pretty gold cufflinks that my grandmother left me.

Just a few years ago, grocery stores stocked canned foods in small sizes as well as larger ones meant to serve families. Lately, however, I have had trouble finding small cans of things like tomatoes or pumpkin, or small packages of breads or pastas. Rather than buy a large can and waste at least half of it, or filling my freezer with half-used foods, I've simply done without. As the population ages and more and more of us kiss our children goodbye and settle in to one or two-person households, wouldn't it make good sense to bring back single or double portion packaging? In fact, I can envision some enterprising youngster starting up a chain of stores called something like "TwoFers" that features nothing but small packages. I for one would gladly pay a cent or two more per ounce and avoid having to waste or freeze half of my purchases.

Dear Boomers, I hope that you will find as we have that the other side of the hill is not a slippery down slope, but simply a continuance of your journey. I can remember looking at my small son and groaning that I dreaded the time he'd change into a teenager. "Don't be silly," my mother said. "He'll still be who he is, just bigger." Well, barring disasters like Alzheimer's or a psychiatric disorder, being past 50 won't make you different either — just slower. And that's not necessarily bad. You'll find that you notice all sorts of things you missed as you zipped through your earlier years.

So welcome to the so-called down slope. I hope you continue to take on the Establishment even though you have now become it. I hope that you will find that things like old friends, good memories, and grandchildren more than make up for lots of minor indignities like bifocals and creaky joints and answering extra questions at the DMV. Most of all, I hope you get busy fighting the negative attitudes that people often have about old age. Boom on, young friends, and don't let anyone tell you that you are over the hill. You've just reached the plateau at the top.



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