The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Oct 042010

Two interesting points made in this recent article.

First, when Carroll O’Connor played Archie Bunker, starting in 1971, he clearly played an middle- or even early wave G.I. (born 1901-1924)  The guy looked smoked, somewhere (we Boomer (born 1943-1960) would have guessed) around 60.  Yet O’Connor, age 46, was just barely a G.I. (last cohort, George Bush Sr’s birthyear).    Now flash forward to this new show.  Shatner, age 79 (first-wave Silent (born 1925-1942)), is actually playing the role of somebody younger, somebody age 72.  (The new show is modeled after a wildly popular twitter site,, wherein a 29-year-old relates 140-character epigrams given to him by his father.)

So, I guess I’m just amazed.  These two shows are about the politically incorrect sayings of “old guys.”  One appears nearly 40 years after the other.  But the leading “old guy” actor of the more recent show is born only 6 years after the actor of the first.  Wow.  And Shatner actually looks younger now than O’Connor did back then.

Second, Stuever complains that Shatner’s character is much too tame compared to Archie Bunker and that the show passes up the opportunity to portray a tea-partying Boomer in his 50s today.

These are a couple of serious charges.  Yet it would totally against archetype for Shatner—the very definition of a hip, postmodern Silent elder—to voice the  gruff, hard, unenlightened, and unironic thoughts of Archie.  And why not launch a show about Boomer culture warriors—right or left?  The problem for TV drama is that this phenomenon is simply too serious and too central a part of America’s mood today to be treated in a light mood.  With All in the Family circa 1973, everyone knew (and Boomers certainly knew) that Archie was weak, that his generation’s values agenda was toast, and that Boomers were taking over the culture.  Therefore, Archie could be the butt of jokes.  No one today believes that Boomers are weak in the culture or that their values-wars are unimportant.  Americans of all ages are practically holding their breath.  A funny, mocking TV sitcom about Boomer culture wars today would be like a funny mocking movie about the Great Society or the Apollo Moon Landing or the War on Poverty back in 1970.  Simply unthinkable.  Yes, one could launch a serious, well-reasoned critique of either.  But no one would have considered it funny.  G.I.s are supposed to build, Boomers to think.  Those are the archetypes, and there is nothing to smile about.  Reverse the terms (G.I.s thinking, Boomers doing), and sure you get a ton of laughs a minute.

An interesting generational take-off on All of the Family was That 70s Show—which was also very successful and ran for even more years.  Red, the father, is (probably) a first-year Silent who fought in Korea rather than WWII.  But he is very much a G.I. in nearly all of the same ways as Archie, though not with Archie’s really nasty edge.  Red’s wife, Kitty, is also the G.I. female like Edith, except she’s smarter.  The sadistic/pathetic moments between Archie and Edith are missing, which lightens the comedic effect.  Red and Kitty’s next-door neighbors, Bob and Midge, are total Silent, with all of the outrageous midlife passages and youth-outbreak awkwardness (when they aren’t just playing the bland conformists) you would expect.  The kids of course are all late-wave Boomers.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Interesting, indeed, Mr. Howe. So, if G.I.s/Heros “build” and Boomers/Prophets “think,” what do Nomads and Artists do? I’d say Nomads/GenX “do,” but Artists/Silent, what is their one verb? Improve?

  • Mttdrn83

    I second the idea that G.I.s were not “thinkers”. I don’t think you could say such a thing about J. Robert Oppenheimer, Howard Zinn, or Arthur Miller.

  • Neisha ’67

    What about Stephen Colbert’s show? Isn’t that a comedy about the culture wars? Does it fly because Colbert, and his satirical character, is an Xer?

  • Vandalhooch

    Kids on That 70’s Show as Boomers? Really? I’d have thought to label them early Xer’s.

  • Vandalhooch

    Eric – uses friends as support group, “geeky” hobbies
    Jackie – child of divorce, mother never actually mothers
    Kelso – drifts through life, has immigrant best friend
    Hyde – complete counterculture without the drive to express it, abandoned child who lives on his own, works hard without trying to impress anyone else
    Donna – child of divorce, actually spends time “parenting” her father and mother
    Fez – member of the generation but not born in America

    All of them are born in the early 1960’s according to the pilot and first season. The final season shows them “becoming young adults” just as the 1980’s begin.

    Is it me, or is that not a definition for X?

  • herbal tee

    Good post and good blog David. I’ve been reading your postings here for a while now even though this is my first post here.
    You’ve penned O’Conner and Shatner well. When I was a kid in the early 70’s, the character Archie Bunker was if not the silent majority, at least very representative of many middle aged GI’s who were burned out from trying to cope with all of the changes that came out of the awakening.
    And Shatner, especially after he left Star Trek behind, has been the epitome of a silent actor playing roles that fit hm well
    There’s only one point that I have to disagree on, and it’s more technical than really in disagreement. And it concerns the 70’s show. In one episode of the 70’s show the kids actually graduate from high school. The year of the episode is of course 1979-the same year I graduated from high school. Granted a lot of my classmate, including my girlfriend at the time were 1960 cohorts, but the majority like me were ’61ers.
    I know that you really don’t like to venture into the topic of cusps too much, but the kids in That 70’s Show are pure jonesers. And the writers of the show nailed our high school years as well as anyone likely ever will.

  • Briadear

    I don’t think you’ll get much TV shows depicting Boomer thoughts, values, etc. – whether comedic or serious – b/c Hollywood is starting to be more and more run by Gen Xers. Gen Xers, by and large as you have commented on numerous times, are “over” Boomers and their ideals, values. We’ve heard enough of it for the 40 years. We’d rather they just go away and are counting down the days until their presence fades into the sunset. Ahhhh, peace and quiet. lol. So, rather than putting them in the spotlight – which Gen Xers feel they do so enough already – you’ll probably see the Gen Xers of Hollywood moving on to topics that interest them. If people want to come along for the ride, so be it. lol

  • Ssgconway

    Actually, Archie turned 50 in one of the episodes, which would fit with having an early-20s daughter and grad student “Meathead” son-in-law. I’d like to mention Clint Eastwood’s character from “Gran Torino,” Walt Kowalski, a Korean war vet, as an example of the old-school archtype more in keeping with what we’d expect from the GI Generation’s values and actions.

  • Cohort74

    I think you are right. I guess they graduate from high school in 1978 or 1979, so they are quite possibly very early wave Xers.rnrnGiven that they have obviously Silent parents, it makes sense to me that the show is aimed at Xers. I guess it is true that they *could* be extremely late wave Boomers, ca. 1960 cohort.rnrnI suspect this is reflection of the Boomer tendency to identify anything popular or interesting as Boomer driven. Boomers are nothing if not narcissistic.

  • Josiesewsy

    i think Nomads/Xers complain! Maybe ‘rail’ is a better word. Rail against the old way, rail for change. I know that as ’74 xer (my partner is a ’65 xer), we both do/did/and currently still are!!! And artists, well they follow.nheroes: build, prophets: do, nomads: rail, artists: follow