Aussie Baby Boomers, The Generation Thinking Outside the Box

It is always intriguing to read statistics about the so-called Baby Boomers, that generation of people born following World War II.

Those who like to put people into ‘boxes’ have had a field day at the Baby Boomers (BB’s) expense over the last few decades. That is because they are the generation that were required to help re-invent the world after the war. To do that they had to take huge risks, build something out of nothing and survive the ‘tall poppie syndrome’.

This was a national sport in Australia where everyone sought to bring those ‘rising above their station’ back down to size.

The BB’s as they move into ‘old age’ are still thinking outside the box and continually challenging the status quo. They are still having fun, gaining knowledge, traveling the world, climbing mountains and going on adventure holidays. They are increasingly mastering technology and using it to advantage. As part of a life long learning ethic they have learned how to be constantly vigilant, to keep an open mind and to ensure that any new evidence, which has come to light to affect known facts and theories, will both continue to mediate and inform change.

Amanda Keller, Josh Thomas, Shaun Micallef & Charlie Pickering of Talkin' 'bout Your Generation

If we want to see just how BB’s are expected to behave, we only have to tune into entertaining television shows like Talkin’ ’bout Your Generation. It has three categories for us to leer at, cheer along with, or just plain laugh at. The success of the show, which is a great deal of fun, depends on each of the groups reacting to questions and tasks thrown at them. Naturally they defy all the odds.

The tasks have been framed according to information provided to producers by psychiatrists, psychologists, behavioural analysts and, an ever growing plethora of professions who endeavour to understand every aspect of what people do and why. So are they predictable or not?

Well the interesting aspect about humans is that they always entirely capable of surprise, and often when it is least expected.

Can you really know what another person is really on about. Or, what went on in the families, believed for generations to be ‘pillars of society’, that shaped their make up and their lives?

The temptation to do so is certainly evident in TV shows like ‘Lie to Me’, which must have had for a while anyway, just about everyone in the community seeking ways to develop their ability to produce and hold a deadpan expression or otherwise, have regular Botox injections so their faces remain permanently rigid. That way no one would be able to study every muscle twitch on their face, which it is believed reveals the truth. But does it?

While truth may be in the detail, much of that detail has been informed or shaped by a past others often don’t know about or try to understand at all. And, just how predictable or unpredictable can that be? At least the writers of the television show Criminal Minds have their FBI agents constantly redefining and re-evaluating their theories on the run as they learn more and more about the ‘unsub’ (unknown subject) they are pursuing.

They know that theory and practice is often poles apart and, that constant change is inevitable.

According to Australian author Tim Flannery in his amazing work Here on Earth, which is a twin biography of our species and our planet, speculation about and on the progress of human society is at least as old as the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s ‘The Republic‘. It is all about ordering society and its ‘self interest’.

In his summation at the end of the book he reveals that he believes that in order for humanity to continue to prosper it must continue to have hope, foster goodwill and further develop our understanding of, and about each other.

Baby Boomers have been called the generation that changed the social landscape, which is interesting, as so many other generations previously could have been said to have achieved a similar outcome. They were born not in 1944, but in 1946 according to ‘experts’ a terminology I have always had a hard time coming to terms with. How many ‘experts’ of the past have been proven a decade or more on to have been misguided, or completely off the track with conclusions they have come to or assumptions they have made.

We can all gain a certain amount of expertise and knowledge of our subject in our own time. But in the great scheme of things, it is only a minute amount, not even a pinhead size, on what there is to know.

What the Baby Boomers did in Australia is different from that of their allies the Americans and English, even though their parents shared the WWII experience and a common ancestry. They also shared common bonds, like the sex revolution of the sixties.

Their reaction to the sex and flower power revolutions was dictated by the traditions, fashions and passions of the country and the city of their birth.  Those who really remember ‘bodgies’ and ‘widgies’ are dating themselves dreadfully.

Growing up during the 50’s in Australia, when the population was still minimal and scattered over a vast area, in the cities and towns generally, parents would leave the doors and windows open all day and night. They would let their children play on the footpath, at the beach or in the park without supervision. They knew they were watched over by a caring community of neighbours.

The baker on his rounds, the shopkeeper in his corner store, the policeman walking his beat, the boy delivering the ice or, the Dr outside hosing his lawn in between patients, would have seen your child passing by and you would be re-assured all was fine.

Usually roaming around in small groups the kids would stop off at one home for morning tea, another for lunch, and yet another for afternoon tea. Friends in those days, at least until you were twelve, lived in your neighbourhood and you would walk together to the local public school. You also belonged to the local swimming club, sporting club and council library.

You stayed out all day, spied on the neighbours, roamed the sandhills where some kids were actually murdered, and then came home when the street lights went on in time to help Mum by setting the table for tea.

There she stood in her apron slaving away at her ‘Early Kooka’ stove pumping out meals for six or eight in a kitchen the size of a box. The copper in the corner was used daily to do the washing and then at Christmas to boil the pudding.

What are you talkin' 'bout...

At night after tea you settled in to listen to serials and dramas on the radio. Yes What, was a huge favourite as Greenbottle and his chums undermined their school teacher in the class from hell. It was a simple life really one that only became more complex when you went off to High School and to University and if you had a phone.

Expectations certainly weren’t anything like that of parents of young children are in the here and now. The biggest event in any young life was appearing on stage at the local Church hall singing ‘what comes naturally’.

Much of the Baby Boomers childhood was about or affected by the war to end all wars. They spent many a day reading life changing books such as the Diary of Anne Frank, the sad and deeply moving of a twelve year old girl whose dreams were crushed when she became a victim of the holocaust.

Then there was The Great Escape, or watching endless movies about the war, discovering in the process man’s continuing inhumanity to man. If it wasn’t war movies it was American westerns, where you learned just how hard it was to be a pioneer and how perfectly horrid a lot of people really were.

The war certainly impacted heavily on my family as we visited a beloved uncle trying to rebuild his weight and life after being carried out of a prison camp weighing three stone from being starved and tortured.

As relatives died in their extended families from a small age children were picked up so they could kiss them goodbye in their coffins. This was common practice and the way they learned to cope with death as an integral aspect of life. It was supposed to help them keep their feet firmly on the ground, as they grew to adulthood, and help them cope with all the crisis they would face in their adult lives. It was also about having time to experience life.

Sport was a major part of that, football, cricket, swimming and so forth, but the emphasis was not as much on competition, but in learning about what it meant to be a good sport and how to lose gracefully as well. The arts and rugby have always been co-travellers during my life’s journey. My brother in law John ‘Rupert’ Mudge (1928 – 1998) 16 years older than me, a member of the ‘Silent Generation’ epitomized that connection.

30th April 1955: Workington Town Rugby League team. From left to right and the back row
A H (Tony) Paskins, N Herbert, John (Rupert) Mudge, W Lymar, A Key, J Vickers, J Hayton, D Holland, W Wookey, Ike Southward, William Ivison (captain), E Gibson, W Ivil, D Moore, J Roper and K Faulder. Original Publication: Picture Post – 7708 – A Great Rugby League Final – pub. 1955 – Photo by William Vanderson

A beautifully mannered well-spoken strong and very handsome man, John was a Rugby enthusiast from an early age. Saturday and Sunday afternoons when I was a small child were spent on the sidelines of the oval at Coogee Beach cheering him on.

He was so good he was seconded from his eastern suburbs Sydney side by renowned English player coach Gus Risman in 1946 to play for Workington Town at Northumberland.

In the 1952 Challenge Cup at the Empire, later Wembley Stadium, John scored the longest ever-running try ever at that ground. His achievement was a major turning point for his team in the match. He held the record right up until 2003 when the old Wembley Stadium was demolished to make way for a new structure.

On his return to Australia at the end of 1955 John became heavily involved in coaching and encouraging young people to participate in all types of sport. He was a marvelous mentor to many young Rugby players.

It may seem impossible to imagine that a man who spent many years as a panelist on the Channel Seven Rugby League panel discussion program “Controversy Corner” hosted by Rex (the Moose) Mossop would successfully mix the worlds of interior design and sport, but he did.

He managed brilliantly, and without anyone endeavouring to take the micky out of him, such was people’s respect for John as Sales Manager for P.Rowe & Company, a prominent textile importer.

He was instrumental in ensuring that my career in interior design happened and he was proud of what I achieved in the field. I know because he phoned me a few days before he died to tell me.

He loved the whole notion of a Rugby World Cup, which was being discussed when he contracted cancer and died quickly and, just before it all came to fruition.

BB’s were raised by parents who had lived through two World Wars and the Great depression. Consequently they were frugal and they knew how to mend socks, recycle every paper bag, put new heels and soles on your own shoes and save the rubber bands, something later generations laughed at. They were also stoic and learned to cope with dreadful life threatening diseases.

My brother and I both had polio and spent four years and 12 months respectively in hospital. Two sisters suffered terribly with whooping cough and another sister died of Diptheria.  The family next door was much the same. They lost their only 3 year old girl in a family of eight boys to Polio.

After watching these dreadful diseases do the rounds of the neighbourhood when the BB’s had kids of their own they ensured they were vaccinated. The suffering was just too much for many to talk about.

It was hard to communicate, except by letter or by a visit to your family or friends, which usually took up the whole day. They didn’t have a phone or a car and until many left home in their early 20’s when they married for a while at least, they were still not able to access that exciting device, which would allow them to talk with loved ones miles away. Public transport was also at a minimum.

They could not stay and live in the area where we grew up. It was far too expensive by then on wages. Most women’s wage alone was the whole of a week’s rent in or near the city.

So they had to ‘boldly go where no one had gone before’ and move to the outer suburbs, where grass was laid in mats and houses all brand new. Family often needed to pack their lunch and a thermos just to come and visit you and so their support was at a minimum, unless you could earn enough to ‘hire’ someone to help.

You found out very quickly you were on your own and that if you wanted something done you had to do it for yourself.

We are going to the moon said JFK (John Fitzgerald Kennedy)

Baby Boomers married young, had babies quickly and then it seems, according to the experts, set out to became voracious consumers of education, travel and sex. But I am not sure in what order. During their growing years while they were acting out war themes, the arrival of the phone, the car, the ice box and then refrigerator, television and finally, the gadget that gave them all ‘spare’ time the dishwasher.

These were all huge events that impacted enormously on their lives. As did the cold war, with its talk of spies and nuclear power. And, then there was the space race.

The sixties and early seventies were indeed a period when values held for generations previously were challenged and overthrown. Hell, this was the generation that put a man on the moon.

While many may have worn flowers in their hair and strewn them about with ‘gay’ abandon, for those involved in the green movement in its infancy, behind the smiles were a sparseness of resources and support.

That also was the case for those boys and girls who went from being happy to sad as part of a ‘gay movement’. They all had to tough it out, shored up by a stoicism perhaps inherited through the two generations before them. If the didn’t they fell victims to society and its confining judgmental behaviour.

The Baby Boomers certainly rode more than just the escalator in David Jones and Myer, and, it was the ride of their life. As opportunities opened up post war with booming economies in the seventies and early eighties many took a lot of risks. With optimism they said yes to a lot of initiatives opening up business opportunities throughout Australia, across Asia, and in England and Europe.

There is a temptation today to believe that the Baby Boomers had a rosy ride. The reality is they were at the heart of the economic successes and disasters of the eighties, going from boom to bust and back and then from boom and bust again, helping to build a nation.

For those who chose to stay at home, it was all about starting a family and putting off thoughts of going away until they were older. Especially on an overseas holiday, which seemed out of reach for a few decades until prices came down.

Being a part of the Baby Boomer generation has for many often been a no win situation. It was a bit like the new television UK/US series Downton Abbey. Those below stairs were holding their own back from rising. While those above stairs tried hard to keep those from below stairs, coming up.

My mother constantly told me I wasn’t to ‘rise above my station’, which for a Sagittarius child was only a red flag challenge to do so.

The BB’s were under a great deal of pressure when they were young to produce the perfect family in young adulthood.

This is the period when their sweethearts, husbands and friends were being balloted into the Australian forces to join soldiers fighting for other people’s freedom in a war in Vietnam. Instead of helping make a brave new world, as they thought, they arrived home from what had been a hell hole into an even bigger one.

Becoming an outcast or exile in your own country was for so many boys soul, body and mind destroying. A young business man I knew was tortured night after night with dreams about what had happened when he was in Vietnam. The events were so dreadful he was unable to speak about them, even to those who loved him.

His corporate and personal journey became very tough as this cancer of knowledge within him ate slowly away at every part of his being. And, the only way he could finally get to sleep was by drinking, at least until he passed out. For him in those days there was seemingly no other way out but death.

There was no counseling, you were just expected to get up and get on with it. All of this impacted hugely on their families often left behind in tragic circumstances to fend for themselves by their own families and friends.

It was like being permanently trapped in a revolving door.

Many women of this period were caught up in a cultural and social shift, that admired at first, women who stayed at home and looked after the children.

The reason was often because the man believed, like his father, grandfather before him that a woman’s place was in the home.

When you got married you had to leave work, there was no other option. Then by the time the children were reaching teenage years and their mothers could finally persuade or change their husbands mind to let them work, they were being denigrated by the next cocky generation for having not helped out.

What they had done in giving their children a stable secure home life and lots of love and this was not monetarily valued at all, dismissed in the end by many as being worthless.

Then when they reached their early 40’s and the kids were at university and finally they had time to do something for themselves they were told by ‘personnel’ experts’ why bother, they were redundant and unemployable.

The majority of Baby Boomer women liked to believe that by revolting against such archaic thinking, they were helping the next generation of woman have a choice. Although in talking to many of them today, it often seems if we have given young women even a greater burden to bear, as they put off having their own babies to both their own health and societies detriment.

For the young men who missed out on being drafted to go to war in the east, the decision to make was going overseas to Europe and England to gain experience or to find new opportunities locally in their professional lives. They traveled interstate and internationally, often leaving families to fend for themselves for weeks at a time.

Certainly for those in the performance arts world there was no other option than to go abroad where people like actor Peter Finch forged a well trod path for others to follow.

Perhaps no other generation, at least in this country has done as much, or spent more of their personal time raising funds to help others unable to help themselves.

Charity certainly did begin at home, as well as in their hearts. And they didn’t sit around winging about it they got up and did something about it.

Volunteering was an important part of the Baby Boomer’s way of life and they are still ‘giving’ of both their time and money. For more than two decades being part of a number of groups of men and women raising literally millions of dollars, was indeed rewarding. Baby Boomers put many of the main social profit organizations, like the National Red Cross in Australia onto a solid footing today.

One thing is certain. Even though many of the Baby Boomer’s may have had their careful savings ripped apart by the Global Financial Crisis, or stolen by the people they trusted and loved the most, they will continue to move forward with hope.

This is because they have eternal optimism. And they will, despite being physically hampered by aching and creaking bones, re-define old age and what it means.

As they continue to face challenges, like they have during the last six decades and more, the Baby Boomer’s will offer up their experiences and mentor those who come after, quite simply because they are a generation still thinking outside the box.

Carolyn McDowall © The Culture Concept, 2011 – 2013

1 Comment

  • Kevin Brennan says:

    Loved the article and research.

    For me being a BB has been about change, not just the process, but the understanding and valuation of change in ourselves and our communities. We have been part of and generated so much change in the Western world that our generation still remains interesting and exciting. That smiling Branson guy who used to illegally import records for his “Virgin label” is setting up trips to Mars-only one way of course. Only a BB could even think of that stuff. Our biggest achievement was that we changed the way human beings related to each other, and today most of the worlds political problems are coming from countries that weren`t part of that process,in the Middle East and China in particular. I believe that todays “social-media generation” are going to be the new BBs,because they too are generating new patterns of communication that we have previously shown can change the world for the better.

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