“To understand a man you have to know what was happening in the world when he was twenty.” That saying is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the most famous military and political leader in the history of France.
In point of fact, the quotation was taken from the text of an address by George Malcolm Young (1882-1959), an obscure English historian. But whether its perceptive insight was first spoken in the early 19th century or the mid-20th century, that statement is an astute observation of the profound influence that world events during a person’s early adult years can have on perceptions, instinctive reactions, emotional responses, reasoning aptitude, outlook, and character.
Psychologists may contend that our behavior patterns and values are established in the first five or six years of our lives, but we are shaped even more by our experiences from about age eighteen through twenty-one when we have reached that mature stage of mental development which allows us to utilize greater cognitive abilities of logic, evaluation, comparison, calculation, judgement, and sensibility. If you want to know why a person thinks and acts as they do, you must know what their world was like when they were twenty years old.
When I was twenty, when my Baby Boomer generation was twenty, America and the greater world little resembled the America and world that today’s twenty-year-olds are experiencing. Social, cultural, and political values were vastly different; not necessarily better, but different. The 1964-73 decade was a riot in a madhouse: the Cold War, Mutual Assured Destruction, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, political assassinations, the Freedom Rides, China’s Cultural Revolution, peace-love-drugs-sex-rock’n’roll, Black Power, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, the Kent State shootings, the birth control pill, the War on Poverty, White Flight, George Wallace, Gloria Steinem, miniskirts, bellbottoms, the Detroit Riots, the Tet Offensive and Hue, marijuana and LSD, food stamps, The Beatles, the personal computer, My Lai, the American Indian Movement, Watergate, Roe v. Wade, Attica, the OPEC Oil Crisis, tax cuts for the rich, the Designated Hitter Rule.
The lessons my generation learned in that ’60-’70s decade were harshly and starkly clear. We learned to distrust authority figures, question irrational regulations, disobey nonsense rules, reject materialistic values, revolt and demonstrate against social injustices. We came to realize that America has “the best government money can buy,” and comprehend that the ultimate goal of the international corporation is creating billionaire plutocrats. We learned that racism is the greatest evil that has been perpetrated upon the people of the United States, historically, socially, and politically.
Former President Bill Clinton said in 2004, “If you look back on the Sixties and think there was more good than bad, you’re probably a Democrat. If you think there was more harm than good, you’re probably a Republican.” My take is much simpler: If you came to adulthood in the decade from 1964-73, you’re probably a bitter cynic.
My generation’s bitter cynicism will be resolved “one funeral at a time,” as one of my aging cohorts has often said. Until the last of our bulge in the population passes, it is unlikely there will be the slightest change in our admittedly biased and jaundiced perceptions, instinctive reactions, emotional responses, reasoning, outlook, and character. To know us (if knowing us has any purpose in today’s world) you would have to know what was happening in the world when we were twenty.
The late 1960s and early 1970s era was an acrimonious and discordant time, and although we gained much during that decade of cultural and social madness, we also lost much that we once valued. The greatest loss may have been our childhood belief that things will work out okay. We do not truly believe that anymore. We’ll leave that naïve hope to later generations.