Was 'upbeat' generation's groove a rut?

Because I have never taken hallucinogenic drugs, I'm pretty sure my recollections of the 1960s are accurate, and what I recall is a widespread feeling among baby boomers that we were not obligated to follow in the footsteps of previous generations. We would challenge the old order.

Many of us embraced the idea of blazing a new trail into the future and creating a culture that treated citizens as real people instead of cogs in an economic machine. It seemed the right moment in history to abandon the rat race and its emphasis on materialism, power, and prestige.

Adults were alarmed and confused by our collective energy. In 1966 the folks at Time-Life Books tried to explain the situation by issuing a special publication entitled "The Young Americans - Understanding the 'Upbeat Generation.'" My wife had the historical foresight to save her copy. It's now faded and brittle with age but still compelling as I carefully study the 112 pages of text and photos. Kids from all over the country were interviewed about their attitudes toward society and how they fitted in, or didn't.

In high school, lots of my classmates were carrying around copies of Hermann Hesse novels and "The Greening of America" by Charles Reich. Popular posters featured philosophical musings of Frederick Perls ("I do my thing and you do your thing...") and Thoreau ("If a man does not keep pace with his companions..."). The word "paradigm" entered conversational speech when students debated the pros and cons of American culture.

I was thinking about those days recently while riding on a massive, congested highway in the southeast. The area I was visiting is filled with sprawling new housing developments. Big homes are still very popular with Americans of all ages. The new neighborhoods are serviced by satellite malls, which means residents must use cars for all errands. Many families with teenagers consider three vehicles a necessity to handle their transportation requirements.

I wonder what happened to our youthful enthusiasm for sensible urban planning and quality lifestyles when I read about the enormous population growth in arid regions like Las Vegas and Phoenix. All those new buildings suck up enormous amounts of electricity for air conditioning, and is there really enough water to sustain desert urbanization in the decades ahead?

Here we are, 39 years after Time-Life profiled my restless, alienated generation, and we seem to be stuck on the same cultural road that Americans have been following since the end of World War II. Our economy depends on massive amounts of foreign oil, no one seems enthusiastic about energy conservation or slowing down our pursuit of conspicuous consumption, and the main goal for many parents is to make sure their children get perfect grades so they'll be accepted into elite colleges.

How long can we keeping heading in this direction? I feel like most of us boomers will be gone by the time the road finally reaches a dead end. But right now wouldn't be a bad time for you people in Generation X and Y and all the other ones coming behind us to start looking for alternative routes.

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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