Saturday, May 14, 2011

Born at the Right Time, 1996

Doug Owram, Born at the Right Time : A History of the Baby Boom Generation. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

As Douglas Owram admits in the Preface to his 1996 book, Born at the Right Time, his research focuses specifically upon the history of the baby-boom generation in English-Canada. Thus, it complements François Ricard's 1994 book, The Lyric Generation, which examined the first wave of the baby-boom generation, paying special attention to what he termed the "Lyric Generation" in Quebec. However, unlike Ricard, who did not cite any of the information included in his work, Owram offers extensive documentation. While many of the themes raised by Ricard reappear in Born at the Right Time, Owram's use of national and local statistics allows the reader to see how his conclusions are actually based upon evidence, and that they are not simply the reminiscences of beliefs of someone who happened to be a member of the baby-boom.

In addition to offering detailed references, Owram's text differs from Ricard's in that he examines all of the baby-boom generation. Covering the first quarter century of that generation, be defines the generation as beginning in 1946 and ending in 1962, although he does acknowledge that such beginning and end dates fail to include those born before 1946 who considered themselves to be part of the baby-boom generation, as well as those born during or before 1962 who identify more with Generation X.

Like Ricard, Owram begins his book by examining the generation which spawned the baby-boom. Coming to the same general conclusions as Ricard, but with the documentation to make his case, Owram asserts that the generation which had reached their twenties and thirties in the 1930s and 1940s had, by the end of the war, experienced a decade and a half of financial and domestic instability. With the Great Depression and then the Second World War, the goals of many to obtain steady employment, get married, have a home, and start a family, had been disrupted. Many were either unable to afford to, or had the opportunity to marry and/or start families prior to the end of the war. Thus, with the end of hostilities and the economic growth of the post-war years, these children of the First World War readily embraced the dream of a stable home-life and family. The result was a dramatic rise in the birthrate which contrasted sharply with the steady drop in the birth rate during the 1930s and relatively slow rise of the early 1940s. Peaking in 1959, the birthrate only began to fall significantly in 1963.

The result of this rise in post-war pregnancies is the focus of Owram's second chapter. In particular, he is concerned with the structure of the post-war family and how it was, in theory, more permissive than the Victorian or early twentieth century family. Mothers and fathers were instructed by experts in the new fields of sociology, psychiatry, and psychology that they were to create and maintain a nurturing environment for their children in which the child dictated his/her needs and was free to safely make mistakes and learn about the world. In an era which completely rejected inheritance as a significant factor in development, parents and their society were responsible for exposing children to positive influences and shield them from negative ones. Problems of development were thus traceable to exposure to negative environments and could only be corrected by ensuring that such negative external factors were removed and replaced with those deemed to be beneficial to the child.

Owram's third chapter concentrates upon the development of the North American, and by extension the Canadian, suburb in which children were promised a positive and protective environment. Here he examines the allure of suburban living to the parents of the baby-boom generation, the design of suburban homes and neighbourhoods, the technology which helped the suburbs develop and that which suburban life spawned, and even typical decoration of suburban homes. Great attention is paid to the rationale behind why such a life style became popular, why the technology of the automobile and household appliances were attractive to the parents of the baby-boom, why they furnished their homes in the way they did, and what those choices meant for their children.

Play, the products sold to the baby-boom as toys and childhood necessities, how such marketing was done, and the accepted ideology behind the necessity for play and healthy socialization environments are the focus of Owram's fourth chapter. This is followed by an examination of the content and structure of schooling in the 1950s and early 1960s, and especially how new post-war emphases upon democracy and tolerance, as well as the steeply rising numbers of Canadian grade-school students radically transformed the country’s education systems.

While the first half of Owram’s study offers valuable information about the development of the generation which would be most involved in the counterculture and protest movements of the 1960s, it is the book’s last five chapters which focus specifically upon the development of youth culture, the counterculture movement, its interconnection with the protest movements of the decade, and the sexual revolution. Unlike the other books read for this class, Owram uses the information from the first half of his book to explain how a youth culture which was distinct from the rest of Canadian society, was able to develop in the post-war years, and how that social position of youth was then used by the large and influential baby-boom generation to demand and make significant social, political, and economic changes to Canada. He begins by explaining the development of youth culture during the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually understood as a legitimate segment of society and period of human development, what he terms "the cult of the teenager" was eventually influenced by the lifestyle and writings of the Beat generation, developments in music and fashion, as well as a tarnishing of the moral and ideological position of Western society, particularly that of the United States. The result was a generation of youth in the 1960s who questioned the cultural, ideological, economic, sexual, and political norms of their society.

Although only a small segment of the generation fully embraced a questioning of all aspects of Canadian/North American culture, most members of the baby-boom generation did participate in the countercultural movement in some manner, be it through the music they listened to, their clothes, or their political and social views. Furthermore, this countercultural movement dovetailed with the existing peace movement which in Canada had evolved out of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament as the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA). However, as was evident from Brian Palmer's Canada's 1960s, many of the baby-boomers who were interested in and/or participated in the countercultural movement were not particularly interested in sustained political protest. Those that were, lacked one or more objects of protest which were specifically Canadian. While local or international social and political issues were of concern, there was no major Canadian issue which united the protest/peace movement across the country. In addition, as is also noted by Myrna Kostash in Long Way From Home, the youth-organized SUPA was eventually overtaken/taken over by the federally funded Company of Young Canadians. Like Kostash, Owram suggests that this development was in some way a failure of Canadian youth action and a government directed means of quieting voices of protest.

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