Wednesday, March 30, 2011

François Ricard, The Lyric Generation: The Life and Times of the Baby Boomers, trans. Donald Winkler, Toronto: Stoddart, 1994.

François Ricard's The Lyric Generation is, as the book's subtitle states, a description of the baby boom generation, or at least part of that generation in Quebec. Beginning with an overview of the generation's childhood, Ricard offers a commentary on the inspirations, powers, and goals of the generation until the late 1980s. Written without footnotes or references concerning his sources, Ricard claims that he borrows from the fields of history, demography, sociology, psychology, political philosophy, and anthropology, and he offers no apologies for his eclectic approach to describing his own generation. A co-author of ... the McGill professor of French Studies divides his description of his generation into three sections, none of which allow for easy summary since each is a detailed description of the multiple factors which shaped the first-half of the baby boom generation during different parts of its existence.

Section 1: A Lucky Star

Ricard begins the first section of the text, "A Lucky Star," not by describing the baby boom generation, but by describing the generation which came before. Having grown up in the 1930s, either having their youth or young adulthood affected by the depression, this earlier generation had met the end of the Second World War with a sense of hope. With the prosperity of the post-war years, they could obtain the kind of life-style that they had only once dreamed of. Education and prosperity was no longer open to just a select few, but to everyone. In Quebec this optimism was furthered by less control from the Catholic Church and by workers who were more willing to make demands of the state and employers. Interestingly, Ricard notes that although the period between 1945 and 1960 is often referred to as "la grande noirceur" in Quebec, it was actually not a time of darkness in many non-political realms. Rather, it was an era of profound opportunity when compared to what had come before. However, weary of the precariousness of prosperity and wanting to spare the next generation the hardships which they had faced, the parents of the baby boom generation used this period to create a new generation which was to not only carry on their heritage, but also be something radically different.

In response to arguments that mothers of the baby boom generation only created that large generation as part of their traditional roles as producers of children, Ricard argues that the women of the post-war period were not as subjugated as is often believed. They had had experience working during the war, they were exposed to more information about their world than ever before, in Quebec many were leaving rural areas for the cities, and with this exodus and their better understanding of the larger world, the influence of the church over their lives decreased. Thus, the mothers of the baby boom, according to Ricard, did often wield some control over whether they got pregnant. Although society and the church still encouraged them to produce children, they only listened because they wanted to. They may have been conditioned to listen, but they did have agency in the process.

Ricard begins his second chapter by defining the specific sub-set of the baby boom generation with which he is interested. He begins by defining the baby boom as the generation which was born between the second half of the war, or just after the war, and 1960. However, what he terms the Lyric Generation can be seen as the vanguard of the baby-boom. Beginning with the rise in the birth-rate during the second half of the war and lasting up to the end of the 1940s, this generation consisted of the children who were in their late teens and early twenties during the 1960s. They were either the first children of the many marriages that occurred during the war, or were the later afterthoughts of older marriages. In this later case they almost constituted a second generation of children in the family since the circumstances of their birth were so different.

The Lyric Generation would not have been such a major force for change had the baby-boom not been so large. The very size of the baby-boom generation ensured that the Lyric Generation would drastically change society. Furthermore, as the vanguard of the baby boom, the Lyric Generation would also act as the generation's spokesmen. 

In comparing the baby boom of Quebec to that in other parts of the West, Ricard explains that Quebec, like the rest of the West, was influenced by American mass culture, the main conduit of influence of baby boom cultural revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. However, more than other Western populations, Quebec was structured around old, traditional institutions which resisted change. Yet, following the provincial election of 1960 the Quebec baby boom was given all of the tools it required to change Quebec society to be whatever it wished. Although the Lyric Generation was not old enough to vote in the 1960 and 1962 Quebec provincial elections, which initiated the changes in the province, Ricard explains that their parents were in tune with their demands. Wanting an unlimited future for their children, it was their parents who had decided to create the situation in which their children would be given the opportunity to recreate their society. Inheriting control over the province, the Lyric Generation was given all of the financial and physical resources to dismantle the old social institutions and structures and replace them with a modern, secular, socialist state.

Yet, Ricard also notes that not all of the baby boom generation benefitted equally from the new society. He argues that the baby boom consisted of two sections, a point which he believes many commentators on the generation often forget. Ricard claims that the Lyric generation was the generation of change that was followed by the second section of the baby boom, who lent support to the demands of the first wave of baby boomers. Having no choice but to give in to their demands, society offered free education as well as quality employment to the first section of the baby boom to come of age. The jobs the Lyric Generation took only required the education they had been given and allowed for considerable upward mobility. Those positions often also included considerable benefits and job protection. However, when the second half of the baby boom came of age, it did not precede large numbers of children. Thus, it did not have the reinforcements that would give it the leverage to get the employment opportunities it wanted. Rather, the first wave of the baby boom, now in control, demanded additional qualifications of the second wave, often only rewarding the later baby boomers with short-term contract positions. Having reaped the fruits of the revolutionary force of the baby boom, the Lyric Generation was not willing to offer the same advantages to those who followed them.

In discussing how the Lyric Generation changed society, Ricard begins by looking at their childhood. Theirs was the first childhood which included a normalcy of riches. Consumer goods, food, toys, and entertainment were all geared to them. Furthermore, their childhood was a wholly new phenomenon. Ricard claims that up until the 17th century, while birth and newborn life was idealized and mythologized, children were not distinct from the world around them. They were expected to work and were understood to be wholly of their world. Then, up until the 1930s, childhood was considered a kind of probationary period, where children were understood to be distinct from adults, inhabiting a world which was not fully mature. They were not expected to participate within society as adults, but they were expected to spend their childhood learning the ways of adulthood, so that they could eventually graduate into full adults. After the Second World War, however, childhood became a world unto itself. It became an idealized time of life, with its own culture and rules. Children were no longer pushed into adulthood, but the innocence and sheltered nature of childhood was maintained for as long as possible.

As the largest section of the population by the 1960s, the baby boom generation's perpetual childhood caused the society as a whole to be increasingly youth oriented. Childhood had traditionally ended by fourteen or sixteen. However, with children spending more time in school, and encouraged to do so for as long as possible, to benefit both themselves and their eventual careers, by parents who were more willing to support their children fro longer periods, the baby boom generation had less need to fully embrace adulthood. Furthermore, as the jobs of the 1960s and early 1970s dried up, that dependency began to extend into the children’s' 20s and 30s.

Section 2: Youth 

Ricard begins the second section of his book, "Youth," by noting that, while the Lyric Generation created a revolution of youth in its society, changing its norms and institutions, there was surprisingly little resistance to this generation's demands. While the generation's elders did occasionally chastise the ideals and actions of the baby boom generation, war never broke out. There were occasional skirmishes, but the Lyric Generation was largely allowed to do whatever it wanted. Although the Lyric Generation likes to identify itself with radical change and with large rallies and uprisings, their rebellion was directed at nothing in particular. There were festivals and demonstrations where the young expressed their existence and their ideals, but apart from few specific issues, there was no real resistance to the ideas and demands of the generation. Given that there was no benefit to trying to stop this massive section of the population from gaining what it wanted, the parents of the baby boom either simply gave in or joined in. Furthermore, Ricard repeats his earlier claim that the parents of the baby boomers had had their children so as to give birth to a new generation which would not know the problems and horrors of the past. Thus, when those children offered new ideas about improving the world, their parents believed the best thing they could do would be to step aside. Knowing that their children were better educated and in better financial positions than they had been, the parents could do little more than cooperate.

Although Ricard does concede that, in the case of Quebec, a real revolution did occur, he argues that this revolution was not led or conceived by the Lyric Generation. Rather, it was planned by what he calls the "frustrated reformers." These were older progressives who wanted to modernize the province. These reformers, who included the Cité Librists and Neo-Nationalists discussed by Beheils in The Prelude to Quebec's Quiet Revolution, had grown up during the 1930s and 1940s. Their advancement in Quebec society had been frustrated by an inability to take leading positions in an economy which was dominated by foreign ownership, as well as by a government and a church which conspired to reject any social reforms. However, with the support of the Lyric Generation and its demands for political representation, as well as economic and political control of the province, the frustrated reformers were able to finally gain the positions of influence they had long sought. The frustrated reformers did hold positions of standing and/or had the credentials necessary to lead their society, and thus they were able to guide the youth in their protests. They were able to give shape to the demands of the youth and direct the Lyric Generation. Indeed, the political, artistic, and other revolutionary works of 1960s Quebec were often conceived of by the older generation during the 1940s and 1950s.

Those who came after the Lyric Generation would not have the feeling that the world was under their control and could be shaped however they wanted. Rather, they entered the world of the Lyric Generation and would be unable to alter the world until that generation was gone. Thus, Ricard claims that the late-baby boomers and the children of the baby boom would live under constraints which even their grandparents had not seen. Where as older generations would always ascend to control, no one controls, or will control, society until after the Lyric Generation is gone. No other generation will be able to shape the world until the first half of the baby boom is no longer able to wield its power.

In discussing the student movements of the 1960s, Ricard argues that with the increase in the student population, its demands for the ability to study society and for the financial support to do so, its desire to use its new knowledge to remake the world, student life became something new. The ideas of students and youth came to be interchangeable. Furthermore, the universities were no longer places which had utilitarian functions. Universities now produced increasing numbers of students who followed degrees which were traditionally seen as the least useful. They did not acquire skills to allow society to continue as it always had, rather, they gained the tools of critical thinking and used them to scrutinize society and propose new solutions.

The revolution of the Lyric Generation student movement was thoroughly optimistic. They had no fear and did not doubt their cause. They knew the results of their actions would be positive. Their revolution was not driven by despair or anger, but by joy, laughter, sexual freedom, and a euphoria which made the whole movement reminiscent of a carnival. The youth recognized that the scope of their power would allow them to overturn the world without violence or bloodshed. They knew that they were the beautiful ideal of their society, that they were blessed with fortunate circumstances, and that they could then challenge any aspect of their society. They also knew that the society which they were challenging was corrupt and would not be able to defend itself.

The student movement did not aim at overturning a specific injustice or changing a specific situation. Rather it demanded the overturning of everything and initiating a new beginning for society. However, because of this desire to rebel against all authority and all authority structures, the student movement had a strained and tenuous relationship with other revolutionary organizations, including the traditional left. This student revolutionary movement did not see revolution as a means of taking power. To take power was to betray the true revolution and the destabilization of all forms of authority. Thus, student radicalism had an uneasy relationship with certified revolutionaries of the old left, including Quebec's frustrated reformers. While the older reformers could count on the student revolutionaries for support in removing oppressive regimes, the youth/student radicals could not be counted on to assist in establishing new power structures. While useful, radical youth could not be made to serve the purposes of the frustrated reformers.

In addition to having an imperfect relationship with the old left, the student movement also had an uneasy relationship with the new left. The new left was associated less with the traditional working class than with minority groups, including those oppressed both within and outside the West. In Quebec, the nationalist movement, using the rationalization of oppression from both within and without, was able to gain support of many in the student movement. Yet, while the student/youth movement could help raise public consciousness about the situation and oppression of various groups, its unpredictability, its vagueness, and its activism could also act to harm those causes. Ricard argues that student militancy in the 1960s did not have a specific program or goal, although it did wish to change the world.

Given that they had all of the rights, means, and freedoms they required to do whatever they wanted, the insubordination of the youth of the 1960s was not so much a demand for freedom, according to Ricard, but an expression of the freedom they already had. Their rebellion was an expression of their confidence and their knowledge that they could remake the world however they wished. Furthermore, their actions were bolstered by their generational solidarity. The individual members of the Lyric Generation had all the same cultural references and were well aware of their numbers and the power those numbers could wield. Within the crowd, the individual member was able to loose him/herself and become one with the rebellion of the generation as a whole.

Section 3: The Age of Reality

In the third and final section of the book, "The Age of Reality," Ricard explains how the arrival of the Lyric Generation to positions of power in the 1970s saw a continuation of their self assurance. The eternal youth of the 1960s, in which they were the most important members of society and a generation of young adults which was radically different from all which had come before, continued even as they turned 30 and 40. They confidently believed that their views were correct and now began to impose them upon society through both positions in the public and private spheres. In these positions of power - which the earlier generation quite easily gave over to the new, highly educated, confident, and energetic Lyric Generation - the new leaders assured themselves that the satisfaction of their wants and their happiness would fulfill the wants and happiness of all. Thus, in the case of the public service, which had supported policies and programs that largely benefitted the Lyric Generation in the 1960s, the government began investing in areas which were of importance to the aging baby boomers of the 1970s and 1980s. This included investments in health care, increased old age assistance which would remove the burden of caring for aging parents, a reduction in parts of the public sector which could be privatized, daycare, insurance, etc. Ricard emphasizes that the new programs and policies, especially measures designed to help the Lyric Generation of the future, were made for purely well-intentioned reasons. The Lyric Generation, convinced that it was central to the population, and that the community must reflect its own interests, sincerely believed that such changes would benefit all of society. In the 1980s, when the trend of state interventionism was replaced by neo-liberal notions about the role of the state, they also believed that a reduction in the size and scope of the government, as well as a reduction in one's tax burden, would benefit society as a whole. Although the Lyric Generation were those who benefitted most from the social programs of the 1960s and 1970s in Quebec, they were the first to accuse the state of being bloated, expensive, and ineffective. However, all such changes would not affect the jobs of the Lyric Generation, since their positions were well protected. It would only affect those who came after them.

Ricard argues that this ability of the Lyric Generation to abandon many of the policies and programs which they had supported and benefited from in the 1960s and 1970s was a result of the generation having changed their society into a truly modern society. Ricard defines the "modern," not as a particular attribute, or group of traits, but as a mistrust of all stable or inherited knowledge and information, and an attempt to replace it with something new. The modern rejects the eternal, always trying to replace it with new ideas which allegedly offer a better perspective of the world. For much of the twentieth century modern ideals were confined to philosophical thought and the arts. It was only with the rebelliousness of the baby boomers, and their innate desire to remake society, that it came to challenge aspects of most people’s daily lives. They acted through their newly acquired positions of power to eradicate the ideology and institutions of tradition wherever possible. However, while just as willing to remake society to reflect the latest modern ideology as they had been in the 1960s, the Lyric Generation of the 1970s and 1980s was following increasingly conservative ideologies.  Although one might argue that the Lyric Generation of the 1970s and 1980s had given up upon the ideals of the 1960s, failing to demand peace and the destruction of traditional power structures in their struggle to obtain wealth, power and status, Ricard claims that they simply exchanged one set of ideologies for another.

In discussing the Lyric Generation's demands for a less interventionist state in the late 1970s and 1980s, Ricard makes the odd claim that the Lyric Generation took a "postmodern" position of pure liberalism. For Ricard, the purely individualistic position, which did not care for the fate of society as a whole, was essentially postmodern. However, this is completely contrary to the view expressed by most postmodern writers. As Jean-François Lyotard explains in The Postmodern Condition, individualistic views, which give priority to the Self, constitute the imposition of a metanarrative. A postmodernist would recognize that all individuals have unique perspectives of the world, and that the privileging of one of those perspectives over others would result in what Lyotard refers to in The Differand, a "wrong." 

Finally, while demanding less government intervention, as well as less taxation, Ricard notes that the Lyric Generation has often used its wealth, resources, and power to conserve their youth. They have not needed to compromise their interests and acknowledge their place and role in the world. Instead, the Lyric Generation, with disposable income, job security, and a society which is constantly either changing for their needs/desires, or being changed by members of the generation, have been able to continue living as they had when they were young. They have maintained their spontaneity, their consumption of what were once luxury items but are now objects and ideas which they understand to be disposable, their dedication to change, progress, and the discovery of what is new. Yet, Ricard also argues that the Lyric Generation has been able to remain young forever because its members never recognized that they had to give up some of their freedoms. Their parents had created a situation where the Lyric Generation was raised without want. Having obtained control of their society without having to make any sacrifices, the Lyric Generation changed society to ensure that their youth would be perpetuated. Part of maintaining this eternal youth was through not fully becoming parents. Many of the Lyric Generation simply did not have children, or at least not on the scale of their parents. This allowed them to maintain their spontaneous, consumptive life style. Those that did have children would often raise them well, and even spoil them, but not to the extent that it would affect their own freedom to change and to fulfill themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment