Three Boomer Icons We Lost in 2019

Shepherding Boomers to adulthood

Do you remember your first Happy birthday! You’re not old, you’re a classic card?

The senders think you see the funny side, but you wince and wonder where the time went and why your high school classmates seem to be doing better than you.

But one mellows over time. New life stages emerge, new doors open and a steady flow of new brands, products, technologies and modes of entertainment imprint a new context that will drive your decisions in the years ahead.

Doors not only open, they close: 2019 saw the passing of three icons who helped shape the Boomers on their journey from kids to counterculture rebels to grownups: Alfred E. What, Me Worry? Neuman, Peter Easy Rider Fonda and Valerie Rhoda Harper.

It turns out that Alfred and his comic book contemporaries still speak to the eternal inner kid, so we’ll leave him till last and begin in that most fateful of Boomer years, 1969.

Peter Fonda: February 23, 1940 – August 16, 2019

Peak counter-culture arrived in 1969 as Woodstock was followed by the largest anti-war demonstration ever – 250,000 marched in Washington, DC. But it was Easy Rider that captured the essence of anti-establishment Sixties youth. Conceived and produced by Peter Fonda, like his sister Jane, a real-life Hollywood rebel, it still resonated so powerfully 30 years on that it was enshrined in The Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1998.

Backed by a hard-driving rock soundtrack, memorialized by Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild, the movie follows two bad boy bikers, Wyatt and Billy (Fonda, Dennis Hopper) as they roam the southwest flouting just about every societal norm in their search for personal freedom.

Whether brawling, drug-dealing, dropping LSD, hanging out in hippie communes or sampling the wares at the House of Blue Lights in New Orleans, Wyatt and Billy were seen as cool outsiders doing their own thing, living by their own rules, looking to be left alone by The Man but standing up for the underdog.

This was not just another biker flick. It was both a metaphor and a capstone for the turbulent times in which the oldest of the Boomer generation (born 1946-1964) entered adulthood. No one knew it at the time, but 1969 would be the counterculture’s last hurrah.

That year, the Moon Landing gave a divided nation a reunifying sense of pride and the Vietnam war intensity began to cool – 81% of the 58,193 US casualties were suffered before 1970. Public attention switched to events at home.

But Boomer rebels refused to rumble off into the sunset. Deeply imprinted by Easy Rider, they became the progressive vanguard in succeeding decades; Fonda would remain true to his outspoken bad boy persona until the last.

Valerie Harper: August 22, 1939 – August 30, 2019

If Peter Fonda symbolized rebellious youth, Valerie Harper, in her role as wise-cracking Rhoda Morgenstern, represented the adult phase of Boomer life in which managing work and relationships takes center stage.

Her sitcom, Rhoda (1974-1978), followed Morgenstern’s ups and downs, a whirlwind romance with divorced charmer Joe, their marriage, its breakup and her re-entry to the dating scene.

The show paralleled mores that were changing rapidly in the wake of the sexual revolution.

Rhodas coast to coast discovered that too many silver-tongued Sixties dudes had aged into self-absorbed Seventies duds, less interested in commitment than “finding themselves.” Like her onscreen character, Valerie’s own marriage broke down, tracking with a national divorce-to-marriage ratio that doubled between 1960 (25%) and an all-time high (50%) in 1981.

But external events of greater importance than counterculture fallout nagged at the nation’s self-confidence during the Seventies.

Energy crises disrupted the economy, ending the era of cheap fuel, shocking America and throwing Detroit into a tailspin. A president resigned in disgrace, the Vietnam War ended in stalemate, climate experts warned a new ice age was here and television slid into an unprecedented pattern of societal examination and recrimination.

Despite the angst, Boomers remained buoyed by youthful optimism. They mooned over muscle cars, swapped Beetles for Toyotas, went gaga for granola, were taken with technology and reshaped America for succeeding generations.

Chipper Valerie Harper handled it all in style, reinventing her career and enjoying a 32-year 2nd marriage that ended only with her passing. So, thanks Rhoda, for helping Boomers put their lives into an adult perspective.

Alfred E. Neuman: November, 1954 – August, 2019 … or?

Alfred E. Neuman, MAD Magazine’s mascot, eternal optimist and all-around goofball, arrived in November, 1954. Since then, generation after generation, he successfully polluted gave an irreverent voice to the truculent teenager lurking inside us all.

MAD mocked everybody, giving lefties and righties alike plenty of snarky material to yuk it up at the expense of the other side. Easy Rider was a perfect example.

Although Boomers grew up embracing change and progress, outright dropouts and druggies were a tiny fringe group – good for hand-wringing headlines but far from typical or, truth be told, admired.

Neuman had a field day, both ripping Sleazy Riders for its unrelenting hipness and putting down the small-minded bigotry of those who cannot handle dissent.

So, when, in mid-2019 – with 50th anniversaries coming fast and furious – the magazine announced the end of its print edition, we could almost hear the chorus: what, me worry? Alfred E. Neuman will live on, rent free, in the minds of people of all ages as long as the presumptuous, the pompous and the proud need to be taken down a peg.

In terms of socio-cultural imprinting, comic books became the catalyst for a Boomer-driven tipping point after rivals DC Comics and Marvel Comics established superhero sci fi as the dominant genre in the Sixties. They couldn’t get enough after Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk segued to television.

Soon, in the Seventies and Eighties, Gen Xers found resistance is futile; Millennials were colonized in the Nineties and Aughts, and Gen Z is now saving the universe, one galaxy at a time.

Along the way, the enterprising Boomers who founded San Diego Comic-Con in 1970 saw it explode to supernova scale – 135,000 fans from 80 countries attended in 2019 – and inspire hundreds of similar events in cities around the world. Over 50 are scheduled in January 2020 alone.

Oh yes, wandering the halls among the costumed throngs, you’ll be sure to see an Alfred E. Neuman or two – laughing with them or laughing at them? Well, who knows …

Boomers and Gen Xers: still crazy after all these years

Advertising to those what, me worry kids hidden inside the Boomer and Gen X consumers who control the destiny of million dollar brands, billion dollar industries and trillion dollar economies is tricky business.

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