When the boomers lose control of the media.

Media criticism.
Nov. 15 2005 6:09 PM

The New Power Generation

How you'll know when the boomers have lost control of the media.

Glenn Garvin recalls his first hint that the baby boomers were about to take over the media. While lounging at home on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1977, he received a call from his co-worker Terry Jackson, a 25-year-old news editor at the Austin American-Statesman.

Because Sundays are days of minimal adult supervision at most papers, Jackson had been put in charge of picking A-1 stories for the Monday edition and laying them out. Austin had endured an unusually hot and dry spring, and Jackson had just the hed for his drought story. He called fellow boomer Garvin at home to confirm the lyrics to the Temptations' 1967 hit, "I Wish It Would Rain."

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When Jackson arrived for work the next day, at least two big bosses chewed him out for placing on Page One the hed "Sunshine, Blue Skies, Please Go Away." No American-Statesman reader would understand the headline, they said, and they damned him for polluting the newspaper with rock 'n' roll lyrics.

"This was Austin, the home of UT and the youngest, hippest city in Texas," says Garvin. "If it had happened in Dallas or Houston, I'm sure Jackson would have been shipped straight to death row in Huntsville."

Had they sent Jackson to Huntsville, the boomers would have soon freed him. That generation, born between 1946 and 1964, was taking positions of authority and control throughout the media, injecting their ethos into newspapers, magazines, television, book publishing, and advertising. By 1979, you were as likely to hear the tune "Good Vibrations" in a Sunkist TV commercial as on the radio.

By sheer force of numbers, boomers quickly toppled the martini-drinking, WW II generation and substituted their cultural references. In recent years they've repelled the next generations—let's call them the post-boomers for lack of a satisfying rubric that encompasses Gens X, Y, and Z—from taking cultural control.

That's not to say boomers have locked out the post-boomer sensibility. Quite to the contrary—they've co-opted post-boomer references to maintain their position. For instance, Madison Avenue boomers happily mashed up the generations that came before and after them with that Lee Iacocca-Snoop Dogg Chrysler commercial, which alerted everybody in the nation to izzle-speak. But the cultural frame of reference—the odd couple of the duffer meets the ghetto-slangster—remains distinctly boomer.

Demographics should dictate how long boomer cultural hegemony will hold on. While still the largest single generation, the boomers are steadily dying off—or at least going to pasture. They peaked as a percentage of the population in 1980 at 35 percent and currently stand at about 27 percent, or 77 million self-absorbed individuals. But sooner or later, the post-boomers will give them the necessary nudge, push, and shove to sweep their rotting culture from the scene, and references to Beatles tracks will become as irrelevant as references to Mills Brothers songs.

But what post-boomer reference in a mass-media headline or TV commercial will signal the cultural coup? I polled a panel of post-boomers for markers, ruling out all Seinfield, Saturday Night Live, and R.E.M. references as too cross-generational. I sought references outside enough to exclude the majority of boomers, but inside enough to elicit recognition from post-boomers. I awarded extra points to slightly transgressive suggestions on the theory that the ruder the headline, the more obvious that a new generation had taken charge.

The provisional findings of my under-40 panel:

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