Topics: Ethical Living, May 2019 | Opinion

Boomers need to rekindle their activism

Too many of us are wasting our final years ticking items off self-absorbed bucket lists

(Photo: Jane Campbell)

I remember walking pilgrim­ages for peace, protest­ing nuclear weapons and washing feet in the shadow of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. As a young Christian, I was a follower of rebel priests and radical thinkers. I wondered whether a night spent in jail for your faith should be a prerequisite for ordination in ministry.

For Christian and non-­Christian baby boomers alike, ours was to be the generation to eliminate racism, end the arms race and save the planet. We organized sit-ins on college campuses, fought poverty, volunteered abroad, declared peace on war. We raged against the military industrial complex, mocked capitalism and extolled communitarianism.  

But what a difference a few decades can make. During the 1980s, kids, single-family homes and the demands of earning an income led many of us to sign on to individualism as the highway to happiness. Now, the sun has set on the “dawning of the age of Aquarius,” and the hopeful optimism of young boomers has succumbed to cynicism and downsized aspirations.

Some of us continue to blow a little air on the dying embers of our countercultural dream. We may make donations to Greenpeace or Doctors Without Borders, or take the occasional shift at the food bank and drop our clothes off at the thrift store. But it’s not enough to change the world.

I once asked Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest and founder of the Fox Institute for Creation Spirituality, if he would ever retire. “I prefer the term ‘re-­firement,’” he said. “While we’re raising families, earning a living and becoming more balanced human beings, our deepest creativity and passions get sidelined.” As middle-aged adults, we sacrifice some of our so-called “impractical” ideals. Our deepest sense of purpose gets set aside, but it is not lost.

Protesters march in support of Wet’suwet’en anti-pipeline camp
Protesters march in support of the Wet’suwet’en anti-pipeline camp earlier this year. (Photo: Elizabeth Wang)

“Re-firement,” Fox told me, “is a chance to return to our early passions about the meaning of our lives.”

When the boomers were young, we had high ideals and a seemingly limitless passion to pursue them. Now, we have more wealth, free time, education and political influence than any other generation ever. To be clear, those privileges are not spread equally across racial divides, or around the world. However, too many boomers are wasting their final years ticking items off self-absorbed bucket lists, worrying about stock portfolios, redeeming seniors’ discounts, golfing and irritating our friends with pictures of our grandkids.

According to some economists, Canadian boomers are in line to inherit an estimated $750 billion over the next dec­ade. That kind of money could kick-start a green energy revolution or help to equalize the distribution of wealth in this country. Instead, we’re spending our children’s inheritance in plan­etary proportions as we dither on climate change.

We also have power. Polit­icians pander to us because we vote, so let’s elect representatives who really put the planet first, and who treat global political tensions as a grave responsibility, not a market for arms sales.

And we have time. We are mostly healthy and living long­er. If envelopes need stuffing or someone needs to get arrested at a pipeline protest, why not us? Are our plans for the next few days as important as curbing climate change?

It’s time for the boomers to boomerang, and return to the hopeful, justice-based love that hairy hippies and clean-cut activists alike used to espouse. Im­agine — as I have been doing lately — the legacy we could leave by returning to our roots. “You may say that I’m a dreamer,” as we sang with John Lennon in 1971, “but [maybe] I’m not the only one.”

This column first appeared in the May 2019 issue of Broadview with the title “Talkin ‘Bout My Generation.”

For more of Broadview’s award-winning content, subscribe to the magazine today.

David Giuliano is a writer and lives in Marathon, Ont. He was the 39th moderator of The United Church of Canada.


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  • says:

    Activism is much like the Western Church today. With what we have (as you listed), we have become lazy in our approach to everything. In the Church, as congregants, we say: "the minister or leader is in charge let him/her witness, it's what they get paid to do." We also live in a culture that has become polarized, it seems impossible to have everyone "on board". Climate change - God driven, or man made? Muslim faith in North America - fear mongering or fact? Oil pipeline in the west - good for the economy or bad for the environment? Things may seem better now than in the 60's, but Western Culture was more defined and coherent than it is today

  • says:

    I was never a person who marched anywhere for anything. I can only remember 3 times. 2001 "Stop the War" & twice in 2010 in Vancouver with the question: if we have so much knowledge and funds that we can spend a pile of money on the Winter Olympics then we should be able to put all that force behind ending homelessness. Sadly the Human Condition seems to always have the last word. Or does it?

  • says:

    I definitely agree with David; we seniors have become complacent and self-serving, and have stopped taking risks. Although never been arrested or incarcerated, I have come close enough to know it is a real possibility for living out my faith in that incorrigible Nazarene who got himself killed at half my age. Where are the "risk-takers" in the institutional UCC these days - appears to be so-much game-playing and being polite, no matter what the social conditions encountered. My youngest daughter and early grand-kids are genuine 'risk-takers' - I can learn from them and their peers. My primary hope these days, and I'm ready to follow their lead.

  • says:

    My sentiments exactly and thank you once again David. It is the message I was already planning this Sunday. Too many boomers are looking around their and asking "Where are the youth and young adults? They seem to be missing in action." Well they are walking in protest and speaking the moral voice to those who "don't have the maturity to tell it like it is." Thank you activist Greta Thurnberg. And they are asking of us boomers and Christians, "Where are you? You seem too be missing in action." It is time to walk the road of our faith with voices raised and extravagant love. David recalled the hymns of our youth. Another one is 'They will know we are Christions by our love.'. David you are not the only one.

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  • says:

    How can this column first appear in May 2019 issue of Broadview with the title "Talkin 'Bout M Generation." ..... Its April 6th 2019.....

  • says:

    Thank you for your article. I don't know many Boomers who fit your description of self-absorbed leisure-seekers. Most of the people I know are still working because they have mortgages (theirs and/or their children's and/or grandchildren), are actively involved in or are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren, spouse/ex-spouse, siblings and other significant others, dealing with their own health issues, trying to keep the bills paid at their local congregation, trying to keep any number of other local volunteer organizations afloat with their money and time, and are creating and running local/regional emergency and disaster response programs. Oh and don't forget the community arts programs we are funding, managing and protecting. We get to the protest marches when we can. Otherwise we are busy living at the front lines.

  • says:

    The baby boomers David Guiliani describes in his article are quite unlike those I know. Not all members of the generation that came of age in the 1960s are on easy street, absorbed in their stock portfolios, golf and the like. Instead of boring others with photos of their grandkids, they are often taking care of these grandchildren while their own children work. Some boomers are in ill-health. Others are grieving at the loss of friends as time takes its toll. In an increasingly right-wing political atmosphere, with erosion of the social safety net, we are not all financially secure; many of us are being careful with money as we look ahead to the inevitable infirmities of extremely old age. Some of us are looking after very elderly parents, and not all of these aged parents have substantial legacies to leave to their baby boom children.

    The author says that "we" dither over climate change. I have never been part of a "we" that has had any say over climate change. All my political party wants from me is money to spend on getting elected. I've never had a voice in it - and this party is probably the most progressive one in Canada. At my age, taking part in meetings dominated by men in love with the sound of their own voices is not my idea of a worthwhile way to spend precious hours of time. (Incidentally, advocates of measures to combat climate change must take into consideration that Canada is a cold country lacking in public transportation.)

    We boomers were criticized in the 1950s for putting a train on the school system and in the 1960s when the establishment regarded our disinclination to accept the status quo as dangerous and subversive. Since then, younger generations have complained that we were holding down all the good jobs instead of fading away into the sunset so they could have their turn. (No one ever pointed out that women in our age cohort earned less than 70% of what men earned, and that the sheer size of the post-war generation meant that there were never enough well-paying jobs for everyone.) We've also been described as a "grey tsunami", a destructive force of nature that will suck up social services and be a burden on the country. We've always been hectored and found fault with, and here it comes again from Mr. Guiliani.

    Many of us, despite disillusionment and disabilities, are still trying as best we can, often in a small, unspectacular way, to make the world a better place. That being said, to quote a popular song from the '60s: "I've learned my lesson well/you can't please everyone/you've got to please yourself."

  • says:

    It's volunteering boomers keeping most of the congregations I know of alive. It's both a blessing and a curse - lots of boomers who want church to be like "the good old days"; wonder where the young people are; complain about how those being baptised never come back to worship on Sunday. Sounds a lot like what I remember of the 1980's...We each choose our battles; and I keep losing to the little white ball on the golf course.

  • says:

    Hi Broadview! Glad you're shifting things for a new generation in this great magazine. After reading David Guliano's piece encouraging my Aquarious generation to rev-up their social activism I wonder if there is a group(s) somewhere who could advertise, instead of holiday tours, habitats for humanity type gatherings. Educational tours might lead to some action and understanding but perhaps there is a way the Broadview could help with opening up to a variety of offerings.

  • says:

    A thought-provoking challenge to all of us over 55. Now if you are mainly challenging us to take up the social justice warrior causes I think that is too narrow a baseline to judge the good we boomers might do (or not) within our communities. There is so much more to contribute to the Canadian community than demonstrating. But your point is taken. Your article caused me to read the statistics Canada 2010 report on the state of volunteering in Canada which I believe is a broader measurement of virtue and selflessness than simply the niche activity you have in mind. It turns out the over 65 group statistically speaking are not volunteering as much but the reasons are not as simple as your intuition suggests. Its not necessarily because we are lazy or unmotivated though it is true for some. and more broadly speaking, we are changing how we contribute. Kind of makes sense to me. The very good news is that those between 15 and 40 (ages that we boomers were during the 70s to 80s) are very active volunteers. Incidentally, according to the report, there is a direct link between faith in God (ie: religiously committed persons) and the rate and number of volunteers. More faith more volunteers makes for better communities for everyone. Thank you for the article.