Friday, November 12, 1999

Who is Generation Jones?

Events make young 'baby boomers' deserving of their own label, author says

Wilmington News Journal

        They grew up watching The Brady Bunch, not Leave It to Beaver. Their attitudes were shaped more by Watergate than JFK. They remember gas lines, not Mustangs. So can you really call 35- to 45-year-olds baby boomers?

        Jonathan Pontell says no.

        The 41-year-old popular culture expert from Los Angeles has coined a name for this group, which represents a quarter of all U.S adults: Generation Jones.

        Why “Jones”? The name embodies the idea of a large, unknown, invisible generation. And, Mr. Pontell says, this generation has a “Jones,” or longing, for its own identity and for the world it was promised as children but never received.

        “We were given huge expectations during the '60s and confronted with a different reality in the '70s,” says Mr. Pontell, whose book, Generation Jones (Vanguard Press; $19.95) is due in January. “The generation came of age watching the slow sellout between the love fest of the '60s and the money grab of the '80s.”

        Although some people bristle at the notion of yet another label, many Jonesers say they like the idea of a generation to call their own.

        “There is a definite difference between the early 40s and early 50s, not only in lifestyle, but maybe even career mindset,” says Judy Hearn, 42, of Anderson Township.

        “The older boomers are pretty close to retirement. I can't even begin to think that way. I still have a 10-year-old child.”

        Indeed, having children who are teens or approaching the teen years tends to differentiate younger boomers and older boomers, says 38-year-old Vickie Francis of Lawrenceburg.

        “I would never have known who the Backstreet Boys were if I didn't have a little girl who's in love with them. You ask people who are 50 ... and they're "Backstreet who?' ”

        Now, this in-between generation is beginning to find its voice, Mr. Pontell says. Its awakening is fueling a '70s nostalgia reflected by television shows such as Freaks & Geeks and That '70s Show; movies such as The Ice Storm and Boogie Nights; and retro fashions such as clogs and bell-bottoms.

        “Nostalgia is kind of the glue that holds people together,” Mr. Pontell says.

        Generational identity goes deeper than popular culture.

        It touches on shared experiences, expectations and attitudes. In a general way, it helps people define themselves.

        “I don't think it's been as important as racial or ethnic identity, but there's a consciousness of this type of thing,” says Gordon DiRenzo, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware who studies generational identity.

        But the baby boom generation has been too big to offer an identity to its younger members, Generation Jones, Dr. DiRenzo and other experts say. Boomers traditionally include everyone born in the 19 years from 1946 to 1964.

        “We generally think, demographically, that generations span a 10-year period,” Dr. DiRenzo says. “People at the tail end are different than those in the beginning.”

        Older baby boomers, offspring of the World War II generation, were shaped by a robust economy that had only begun to wane by the time they entered the work force, a climate in which many were still able to realize their childhood dreams.

        Boomers shared the idealism of John F. Kennedy. Although they lost some innocence when he was assassinated, they still had hope that they could change the world. They were the Vietnam soldiers and the flower children who stuck daisies in gun barrels. They dropped acid at Woodstock and lived through the Summer of Love.

        Basically, Jonesers grew up along with America. They were children in the idealistic, childlike '60s, Mr. Pontell says, lost their innocence as they searched for identity in the '70s with Watergate, and “in early adulthood scrambled for the cash with everyone else in the '80s.”

        Like the older boomers, Jonesers inherited a good economy. But as they grew, that economy soured, spawning gas lines and a recession, and dashing hopes.

        “Their expectations were very high,” says Diane Macunovich, professor of economics at Columbia University's Barnard College. “So in the sense of relative income, they felt even more cheated.”

        Meanwhile, divorce and nontraditional families (Think The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family) became more prevalent.

        The women's movement and civil-rights movement quietly transformed the culture as the Jonesers grew. Although the older boomers set the changes in motion, the Jonesers felt the true impact.

        Gradually, Jonesers watched many of those who brought such huge social changes join the establishment. They waited in vain for their turn to change the world.

        Libby McDowell, 44, of Newark, Del., remembers those formative years.

        “I came in on the tail end of the hippies,” she says.

        In college, she and her dormitory mates went on a hunger strike to raise money for the Vietnamese. On the second day of the fast, President Nixon announced he was pulling U.S. troops out of Vietnam.

        The gradual changes, and the nation's waning idealism, left a big hole for people her age.

        “People figured: Now there's nothing left than to get jobs and buy BMWs,” Ms. McDowell says.

        After spending almost 10 years living among students and artists as a waitress and singer, Ms. McDowell gradually entered the mainstream. She became a wife, a mother and a Girl Scout leader.

        “I've been to a Tupperware party. It was strange for me to participate in,” she says. “It felt really weird to live the mainstream life.”

        Ms. McDowell has chosen to hold on to remnants of her earlier days, though. She lives in a solar house, has a relatively low-stress job teaching writing at the University of Delaware, and still sings.

        Balance, especially the balance between idealism and cynicism, is a hallmark Jones trait, Mr. Pontell says.

        After an idealistic start, cynicism set in as Jonesers watched their elders sell out and toss aside commitments, to marriage and social change, for example. (Gen-Xers were cynical from the start, because they were never promised much of anything.)

        Mr. Davidson recognizes the mix of idealism and cynicism in his views on government.

        “I do have a distrust of government institutions,” he says. “But I realize we have a need for them.”

        Although Jonesers have grown into a practical bunch, Mr. Pontell says they long for the love and the better world they were once promised.

        These themes reverberate in Joneser songs, songs of craving, unrequited love and perseverance: Gary Wright's Dream Weaver, Bruce Springsteen's Hungry Heart, U2's Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. The generation's movies also share that restlessness. Consider Fame, St. Elmo's Fire and Sleepless in Seattle.

A Generation Jones quiz

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