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The Private Lives of Public Boomers

A PBS documentary features 19 influential Americans from this generation


The boomer generation has been celebrated and scorned for its contributions to American society: celebrated for championing feminism, human rights and individual freedoms; scorned for its alleged materialism, selfishness, hedonism and greed — and, of course, for being so huge that it’s impossible to ignore.
 
But who, really, are the boomers? Is it even possible to generalize so easily about such a large, diverse group?

(MORE: What Does It Mean to Be a 'Baby Boomer?)
 
American Masters: The Boomer List (premiering on PBS on Tuesday, Sept. 23; check local listings) is an ambitious attempt to broaden the cultural conversation as it relates to the 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964. The method by which filmmaker/photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders tackles this subject is deceptively simple: He interviews one important person from each of the 19 years of the baby boom and lets them tell their story.
 
Starting with The Things They Carried author Tim O’Brien (1946), New Age guru Deepak Chopra (1947), actor Samuel L. Jackson (1948) and singer/songwriter Billy Joel (1949), The Boomer List provides viewers with intensely personal narratives told by people whose public lives may be familiar to us, but whose private experiences and struggles are not.

O’Brien talks about the day his Vietnam draft notice came and admits he was “scared out of my mind” at the thought of going to war. Chopra — famous for fusing Eastern and Western medical and spiritual practices — talks about the many years he spent being derided by his colleagues as a “quack.” Jackson explains what it was like to grow up in a segregated society in Tennessee and how those experiences continue to affect the decisions he makes to this day.

New Age guru Deepak Chopra, M.D. (b. 1947) / ©Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
 
The Personal is Political
 
As personal and compelling as these stories are, they also connect with larger themes and cultural threads of the late 20th century that have shaped the world we live in today. In fact, many of the subjects interviewed in The Boomer List helped create that history. By focusing on important people from each year of the baby boom, however, viewers will discover that the issues facing this unique generation morphed and evolved over time.
 
In fact, people of the boomer generation span at least three separate mini-generations in American history — post-World War II babies, children of the 1950s and children of the early 1960s, who ultimately came of age in the 1970s. The Korean War, Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War provided the geopolitical backdrop for this era, but these events affected people along the boomer spectrum in very different ways.

(MORE: The Gulf Of Tonkin: Reflections, 50 Years Later)
 
Children born in 1946 were 17 when President John. F. Kennedy was assassinated, but those at the latter end of the boom weren’t even born yet, so the impact of Kennedy’s assassination on their lives was entirely different. And while popular culture leapt forward on several fronts — in technology, music, entertainment, science and art — what looked and sounded good to those born in 1946 was not quite as appealing to babies too young to know who Andy Warhol or The Beatles were.
 
Individual experiences in different parts of the country were also very different. 

While Samuel L. Jackson was wrestling with segregation in Tennessee and Billy Joel was coming of age in New York, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak talks about what it was like back when Silicon Valley was just a few tech geeks working in their garages. “What Steve Jobs and I did — and at the same time Bill Gates and Paul Allen did — we had no savings accounts, no friends that could loan us money. But we had ideas, and I wanted all my life to be part of a revolution,” Wozniak says. He also explains why, to help the revolution along and maximize his personal happiness, he ended up teaching eighth grade instead of staying on at Apple to create a billion-dollar computing empire.
 

Environmentalist Erin Brockovich (b. 1960) / ©Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The Turbulence of the Times
 
Social justice, gay rights and the idea that individuals could fight the establishment (and win) were also part of the social fabric of the 1960s and 1970s, when boomers came of age. Environmentalist Erin Brockovich, who became synonymous with the word “whistleblower” after the Julia Roberts movie named after her hit it big, is among those interviewed, as is AIDS activist Peter Staley.

(MORE: James Brown, Vietnam and Race)
“The turbulence of the 1960s set the ground for our generation to really soar,” says Julieanna Richardson, founder of PBS’s The HistoryMakers. “There’s no doubt that we are the beneficiaries of those who came before us. We are the affirmative action babies.”
Indeed, the rise of women in virtually all areas of American society is one of the boomer generation’s most laudable achievements. Several women interviewed for The Boomer List speak eloquently about the importance of the feminist movement in their lives.
 
Author Amy Tan recalls that her mother “didn’t teach me lessons about being Chinese as strongly as she did the notion of who I was as a female.” And journalist/author Maria Shriver talks about how her mother, Eunice (John and Robert Kennedy’s sister), encouraged her to excel. “She always pushed me to be competitive in a man’s world,” Shriver says. “That’s maybe one of the attractions to journalism in the beginning. It was a male profession, and I was comfortable with that.”
 
Likewise, astronaut Ellen Ochoa recalls what it was like to watch Apollo 11 land on the moon when she was 11, and then go into space herself less than 20 years later.
And Virginia Rometty, the first female CEO of IBM, describes her unique experience as one of only a handful of female engineers in the male-dominated tech field. “I never think of myself as being a woman CEO of this company,” she says. “I think of myself as a steward of a great institution” — a freedom she attributes to the courage and persistence of feminists who came before her.

Author Amy Tan (b. 1952) / ©Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

An Age of Optimism
Another theme that comes through in many of these interviews is a palpable sense of possibility and optimism. Virtually, every one of these interviewees believed in the idea that if they worked hard and did their best, they could make something of themselves — even if the odds were stacked against them.
Hispanic actor John Leguizamo (for you boomers with grandchildren, he’s the voice of Sid in the Ice Age movies) was even surprised by his own success. “I wasn’t supposed to make it. I just wasn’t. Not statistically,” he says. “I didn’t see my people anywhere that was important, except on the news, which is where you don’t want to be. I just didn’t feel like I was part of the American fabric.”
Today, that fabric is considerably more diverse and multi-dimensional than it was back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the boomer generation began exerting its influence on American culture. It wasn’t all sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, as anyone who lived through it well knows.
Indeed, the arc of American history has been altered by the boomer generation. The 19 interview subjects in The Boomer List represent a wide cross-section of American culture, and their personal stories are as interesting as their insights are valuable.

Actor John Leguizamo (b. 1964) / ©Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

The following is the complete lineup of interviewees seen in The Boomer List:

  • 1946 Tim O’Brien, Vietnam vet / author
  • 1947 Deepak Chopra, M.D., New Age guru
  • 1948 Samuel L. Jackson, actor
  • 1949 Billy Joel, singer-songwriter
  • 1950 Steve Wozniak, co-founder, Apple Computer
  • 1951 Tommy Hilfiger, fashion designer
  • 1952 Amy Tan, author
  • 1953 Eve Ensler, playwright
  • 1954 Julieanna Richardson, founder, HistoryMakers
  • 1955 Maria Shriver, journalist
  • 1956 Kim Cattrall, actor
  • 1957 Virginia Rometty, CEO, IBM
  • 1958 Ellen Ochoa, director, Johnson Space Center
  • 1959 Ronnie Lott, athlete
  • 1960 Erin Brockovich, environmentalist
  • 1961 Peter Staley, AIDS activist
  • 1962 Rosie O’Donnell, entertainer
  • 1963 David LaChapelle, artist
  • 1964 John Leguizamo, actor

Tad Simons is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in Variety, The Washington Post and Mpls.St. Paul Magazine.

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