A little over 50 years ago, approaching my 12th birthday, I spent the morning of January 20, 1961, shoveling snow from a massive snowstorm that paralyzed the Northeast. At noon, I watched the inauguration of John Kennedy as he gave us the clarion call of our generation. “Ask not,” he exhorted us, “what our country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
Last week, the day before the anniversary of those words, I happened to be in Dallas and, as chance would have it, to get to my meeting, I had to drive through Dealey Plaza, the site of his assassination. That place has always given me chills, as if the potential of the world hangs there unmovable.
The years since Kennedy’s inauguration have not delivered on the promise as we had hoped. The passing years have, to some extent, changed the final words to “ask what you can do for yourself.” The experiences of 1963, the upheaval of 1968, the disaster of Vietnam, economic booms and declines were not friendly to the altruism of 1961, when all things looked possible.
Today’s youth seem to me alienated and venal. The “greed is good” philosophy, which is the one that led us into the recession we are now fighting our way out of, is probably more of a metaphor for the time than anything.
But, was it all “sweetness and light” then? Of course not. The business world was like “Mad Men.” Jim Crow laws still prevailed in the South. Full voting rights were still in the future, along with greater opportunities for women.
Nevertheless, the prevailing mood was optimistic. Now, we are anything but.
Perhaps it is the growing realization that our 1960s’ pre-eminent position, economically and militarily, in the world is no longer. Maybe it is that our vulnerabilities, partially the result of our own inventiveness (personal computing and the Internet), are more open to the world.
Though it is naïve to try to bring the ‘60s from the amber, there is a lot about it that I wish we could instill in our present day youth. Then, a quality education was the demand of all levels of society. Parents who had lived through the Depression and fought in a World War knew that that was the leg up into a growing and vital middle class.
Today, that middle class is disappearing, with greater and greater disparities between those with and those without. And, while it is not the fault of those with for the distinctions, they must understand that the success of a society is for those without to have a path to become a “with.”
Looking back over 50 years, it has not turned out like we had hoped. Nor, should we have expected it to. But, sadly, some of those pieces most damaged by age are the ones we needed most to succeed. ER