Generational Cohorts and Vicarious Living

Nostalgia, jealousy, and current crises

More often than not, generational labels get in the way of clear thinking. The tens of millions of individuals born in the United States between 1946 and 1964 do not all share the same characteristics or even the same perspective. Any attempt to generalize about the Baby Boomer generational cohort quickly falls into patterns of reasoning that don’t differ too substantially from astrology.

However much I know this is true, I can’t help but group the journalists I know by generation. And I can’t help but have my preferences among these generational cohorts.

The journalists—and in particular the foreign correspondents—that I find most interesting are those born in the generation before the Baby Boomers.

They have vague recollections of the Great Depression and they remember where they were when Pearl Harbor was bombed. They don’t take a lot of things for granted. More so than in succeeding generations, they come from east coast prep schools and Ivy League universities. They had privilege and could have gone a different direction. Yet, they chose not to go to Wall Street or industry but instead to strike out on a more adventurous route. They wanted to try to understand the world and explain it to others.

Because of the time in which they grew up, they began with a basic trust in a government that had managed the New Deal and World War II. They had to learn to critique it later, more often than not through the prism of their discoveries while reporting in Vietnam. Journalists who came of age later, when mass mobilization against Vietnam was normal and when the Pentagon Papers and Watergate dominated the headlines, began their professional careers with more of an instinctive distrust and opposition to the government. It was already part of their professional self-conception.

The world was different then. First of all, the global status of the US in the 1950s was new. We were suddenly concerned about the entire world and not just Europe, the Western hemisphere, and our territories in the Pacific. We rather too optimistically and naively stepping into European powers’ failed colonial projects. Foreign correspondents suddenly were in places like the Congo or French Indochina.

Secondly, the world was bigger. It is not flat now, but you could not even be forgiven for thinking it was in those early days of the Cold War. At that time, it was a struggle for an editor in New York to get ahold of a foreign correspondent in the field. There were no smart phones or laptops or even internet cafes or satellite phones. Telegrams and Telex machines weren’t always available. And even if they were available, phones were prohibitively expensive. The foreign correspondents in those days had a freedom that we struggle to even imagine today.

And then, thirdly, there was money. Newspapers were doing pretty well. Even if radio and television were starting to cut into ad revenue, a good newspaper could splash money around on foreign correspondents. It was in those days that the Washington Post, the premier newspaper in the capital of the most powerful country in the world, decided that it might be useful to have foreign correspondents in cities other than London. Newspapers would pay for journalists to have a driver, a nice hotel, and then pay the enormous costs to manage the complicated transmission of stories from the field back to the newsroom.

All that is gone now. Even the most important American newspapers have fewer foreign correspondents than they used to. Very few even have foreign bureaus. And forget about drivers, fancy hotels, and the like.

So maybe it isn’t just respect. My attraction towards this older generation—the Silent Generation, if you want to call them that—also comes, I have to admit, with a tinge of envy. If you came of age in the 1950s, you could have a decent, stable, and interesting career in fields like journalism or academia.

As I look at the cuts that some of the greatest American newspapers are undergoing right now, it is depressing to say the very least. In academia, and in particular in the humanities, where I’ve invested much of my adult life, it is not that different, with huge cuts in tenured faculty and even departments.

I’m not the only one from my generation who feels this way.

Although I haven’t worked directly in the media, I have a lot of friends of the same age who started in the mid-2000s only to lose their jobs in the financial crisis. Many of them decided to go back to academia only to find the same dynamics there. Our career prospects have taken a body blow from both the 2008-09 financial crisis and the pandemic of the past year and a half. Although I haven’t made this decision, many of my friends have decided to forego families. We often work significantly more hours than Baby Boomers did at similar stages of their careers. Buying a house, especially in places where jobs are, is often impossible for people in journalism or academia. They are often too busy just trying to keep their head above water to get involved in their communities.

I have to admit that my own interest in the history of journalism since World War II is tinged with nostalgia and jealousy that comes from these dynamics. It’s a way of living vicariously through the people I study, I suppose.

In recent conversations with friends, I find that we return to a small number of names in our generation again and again. They are the all-stars. In their mid-30s, they have already published a book or two, dozens of journal articles or chapters in edited volumes. They are now editors of journals, writing in every conceivable public outlet. It’s easy to compare yourself.

But as a friend reminded me today, you shouldn’t compare yourself to an all-star. There are really only a handful.

But it’s hard, because a lot of us have been nothing but successes from elementary school on. I was valedictorian of my high school class, top 10 at my university. I graduated with three BA’s and have studied at some of the most elite universities in the world. But I still find myself treading water. Success is far from certain, and if it comes it will require superhuman effort and will take many, many years. I know that just putting in my dues isn’t enough. You have to do even more than that.

At this point, I’m really just looking for a lesser form of success: stability. It would be nice to know where the money will be coming from a few years down the line.

I could potentially change careers. I sort of already tried that. I wasn’t terribly happy. I find more value in writing and teaching. So for the moment, I’m going to continue on this route. There is something to be learned from understanding how we got here. I’m not sure how useful my insights into the past will be for my own future.

But in the meantime, I can always take enjoyment in the fascinating stories of the people I study.