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Generation Obama vs. the Boomers

Posted by Joshua Glenn  February 20, 2007 06:24 PM

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Barack Obama's bid to capture the Democratic presidential nomination has been hyped in the media as a story about race. But in a perceptive National Perspective column today, Peter Canellos, the Globe's Washington bureau chief, pointed out that "much of what's striking about Obama's campaign ... can be better read in generational, rather than racial, terms."

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Canellos points out that although Obama, who was born in 1961, is "technically a baby boomer, one of the last of the breed," his "cultural guideposts" are markedly different from the boomers'. I agree with the latter comment, but I'd take Canellos's argument to the next level: Barack Obama is not a baby boomer at all.

The "baby boom" label was applied to all Americans born between 1946 and 1962, because these dates bracket a period of unusually high birthrates. But a generation is not simply an age bracket: History, attitudes, behavior, and self-identification are also a factor. And when you think about Americans born in the 5 or 6 years following, say, 1959, it's impossible to lump them in with the boomers. (NB: I was born in the late '60s, so I'm not talking about my own generation. I'm defending the generational integrity of my immediate elders.)

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Canellos writes: "Obama, for all his uniqueness, has shared with everyone his age a certain set of touchstones, and a certain view of society. Just what those touchstones comprise in political values and impulses is still undefined...." Brainiac readers, let's take a first step toward such a definition by recalling certain aspects of the pop culture of Obama's formative years.

Consider, for example, the Brat Pack, who appeared together in one teen-oriented film -- "Class," "Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "St. Elmo's Fire," "Pretty in Pink" -- after another in the mid-'80s. Emilio Estevez (1962), Rob Lowe (1964), Andrew McCarthy (1962), Demi Moore (1962), Judd Nelson (1959), and Ally Sheedy (1962) are the same age as Obama! He was formed in the same generational crucible as they were. Their touchstones are his touchstones.

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The Brat Pack generation (it's been more charitably called the Repo Man generation, or Generation Jones) gave us other iconic teens, too: There's Sean Penn (1960), a star of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High," which co-starred Jennifer Jason Leigh (1962), Phoebe Cates (1963), and Forest Whitaker (1961); Penn was also in "Taps," which co-starred Timothy Hutton (1960) and introduced Tom Cruise (1962). Cruise went on to star in "Risky Business" with Rebecca DeMornay (1962). Another teen icon from Obama's generation is Matt Dillon (1964), star of "Little Darlings," which co-starred Tatum O’Neal (1963) and Kristy McNichol (1962), not to mention the movie versions of S.E. Hinton novels like "Tex," co-starring Estevez (op. cit.); "The Outsiders," co-starring Lowe, Estevez, and Cruise (all op. cit.); and "Rumble Fish," co-starring Nicolas Cage (1964) and Laurence Fishburne (1961). Let's not forget Johnny Depp (1963), who got his start on "21 Jump Street," or Keanu Reeves (1964), who started in "River's Edge."

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I could go on and on. A second string of Brat Packers appeared in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," "Young Guns," "Footloose," etc. Kevin Bacon (1958), Matthew Broderick (1962), Lou Diamond Phillips (1962), Jennifer Grey (1960), Elizabeth McGovern (1961), James Spader (1960), Ralph Macchio (1961), and Eric Stoltz (1961) are also Obama's contemporaries. So are: Scott Baio and Erin Moran (1961) of "Joanie Loves Chachi," Michael J. Fox (1961) of "Family Ties," Willie Aames (1960) of "Eight is Enough," Valerie Bertinelli (1960) of "One Day at a Time," even Gabrielle Carteris (1961) and Ian Ziering (1964) from "Beverly Hills 90210."

Yes, you heard me right: "The Breakfast Club," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "21 Jump Street," "Footloose." Tremble, baby boomers! A generation weaned on "Joanie Loves Chachi" may soon make it into the White House. After getting your kicks in the '60s and '70s, you helped form this generation's touchstones and view of society by shoving such movies and TV shows down its collective throat. Tremble, I say!

Readers, email me with feedback, other well-known Americans born within 5 years of Obama, etc.

UPDATE: MORE FROM BRAINIAC: Generation Obama Jones | Generation Obama politicians | Generation Obama comedians | Generation Obama mailbag | Generation Obama: Music | Generation Obama sports stars | Generation Obama vs. the Boomers


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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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