It has been said one generation’s idea of fun is the next generation’s idea of poison.
The 1960s and 1970s represented a hopeful time in America. Progress was being made with gender and racial issues. We were working steadfastly toward maintaining the economy and were given the time and freedom to explore issues.
We looked on in horror as Apartheid tore apart Africa, the cruelty of it and the injustice of it, as we shook our heads with the thought of how lucky we were to be here. SAFE in America. As the 70s shifted into the 80s, we made an entire transition from the previous generation's idea of inclusiveness to a self-centered focus. It was in some ways a complete rebuke of the values of the previous generation. What we considered important changed. Money became everything. Success at any cost and the idea of community quickly became a thing of the past.
It didn't all go away. Some of us stayed the same idealized versions of ourselves, some of us changed dramatically, while most people lived in between.
However, the values of what we were trying to achieve changed completely in just a few years.
The turning point came in 1980. During the election between Jimmy Carter and then-candidate Ronald Reagan, we wanted a continuation of safety. The right convinced us they were the party of power and strength. The "Carter-like" inclusive generation was defeated by the stronger, conservative pro-military candidate, who encompassed an entire other set of values.
Under the guise of safety, we began our shift toward becoming a more selfish generation. We swallowed the lie that corporate American greed is a good thing. We believed the wealthy would take care of us, the rich would give back to us, and everyone would prosper. And we all breathed a collective sigh of relief. As the Cold War stretched into its fourth decade, our feeling of protection waned. We looked to politicians to help maintain the America we deserved, the safe America. The right wing did its job of terrifying us, and we overspent on the military. Expenditures increased from $295.6 billion to $427.7 billion, as the nation spiraled toward Dwight Eisenhower's dark vision of a future military-industrial complex.
We never stopped thinking we were doing the right thing, the moral thing. We had Live Aid, bans on South African products and educational programming. We needed the feeling of safety so badly that we almost turned a blind eye to the Iran/Contra debacle, where we traded arms for hostages illegally, and the bombing of Grenada with no warning or explanation. But they knew what they were doing. They were keeping us secure, right?
So we continued down the path of our lives, slightly unsettled, but we wanted our luxuries. We wanted our MTV. There was still something missing, though. We couldn’t quite put our finger on the pulse of it. But not to worry. Madison Avenue advertisers took care of that for us.
We saw our parents feel despair when they compared themselves with the shiny advertisements of middle-class perfection they saw everywhere. Not just on TV, but trying to keep up with our neighbors as well. America literally became a walking commercial. We became washing machines, high heels, yuppies, perfect hairstyles, Corn Flakes, TV dinners, patriotism, all under the threat of imminent destruction from a Soviet nuclear bomb. It was all meant to be a distraction while the wealth gap changed and more and more of us were left behind. The Reagan administration made sure a stigma was attached to social programs, and we started to look down on those who needed assistance.
What was happening to the country that had the shared purpose of a greater good for all? We were supposed to be a shining beacon on the hill. Sure, we helped tear down the Berlin Wall, but we put in our own invisible one between the wealthy, the aspirational, and down-on-their-luck Americans. We did achieve something, though; the death of discovery, imagination and celebration of uniqueness. All gone.
We all became corporatized, and we were fine with it because of the American story brought to you by, and circled straight back, to Madison Avenue.
We weren’t bad people for what we had become. The commercials told us so; the ads for washing machines had PSAs in between them, and weepy family-orientated commercials from AT&T emphasized how we care. All sandwiched between the Brady Bunch and Fantasy (be careful what you wish for) Island.
Because, look, we were still good people at the end of the day. We knew the difference between right and wrong. It was our right to demand anything we want. We worked hard for the money that subsidized our life choices and credit-card debt.
They told us we were still good people. After all, we remember the last generation wanting to buy the world a Coke and sing in perfect harmony.