BROOKE GLADSTONE Whether or not you're sold on these generational labels, the length of our lives undeniably determines which bits of history we encounter up close and which are passed down to us. This month in a series titled News That Defined Your Generation. WNYC host Brian Lehrer embarked on a kind of oral history project where callers described the events that changed their lives forever. He began with listeners in their nineties, like Sheila, who rang to tell him about the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy on December 7th, 1941:
CALLER I was nine years old, and I had no idea at that time that anything bad could ever happen to me. I just thought that I lived in this perfectly protected world, and suddenly I grew up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Then Brian heard callers in their eighties, seventies, sixties and fifties.
CALLER My father was born in 1915, and I could never understand why he couldn't get over the Great Depression until AIDS happened to me. It completely changed everything about how I live my life. It brought a lot of miracles and a lot of connection to my life, but as I'm talking to you, I can see the faces of those 200 people I lost.
BROOKE GLADSTONE People in their forties and thirties described how 9/11 or the stock market crash of 2008 altered their lives. The series ended with callers in their twenties. This is Zara, who said she was changed forever by the shooting of Michael Brown in 2014.
CALLER I was about 14 at the time 15 and I remember that being the first time that I was ever viscerally mad at a news story. That was really defining because it had really solidified a lot of the conversations that my parents had had with me about how to conduct yourself as a black child or a black person living in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The idea for the series began with TheBrian Lehrer Show's coverage of the midterms. Back in the summer, Brian had asked callers to tell him which issues they cared about the most.
BRIAN LEHRER I was noticing how a lot of the issues that were coming up seemed to be very age-specific. Senator Rick Scott of Florida was proposing to end Social Security as we know it. President Biden wanted to forgive some student loan debt. The Supreme Court's Dobbs decision was obviously so relevant specifically to women of childbearing age. Ron DeSantis and others were running on what you could and couldn't teach to kids in pre-K through third grade. So there were all these age-specific issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what did you learn about the limits of peering through a generational lens?
BRIAN LEHRER The biggest thing that I think we learned was that callers were not stratifying by age so much. Callers in their nineties were as likely to say democracy and climate change and abortion rights were their top issues as callers in their twenties and thirties.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've built up such a special community of listeners across generations and nationality. Was one of your goals to encourage generations to talk to one another?
BRIAN LEHRER Absolutely. You know, talk radio, as you've been exploring in such revelatory depth on your show recently, tends to run people into echo chambers of people who are very much like each other. And one of the big ways that the commercial media business stratifies people is by age. Openly and explicitly, one show is for 18 to 34 year old women. Another is for 25 to 54 year old men interested in sports. All that demographic marketing speak. And part of our mission is to bring people together from different kinds of backgrounds, not just to talk, but also to listen to each other. So we're always looking for ways to bring different groups to the same talk radio party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was pretty clear most of the generation defining news was bad news. We are wired to be changed more by bad news. Some cited the election of Obama as a notable good news event. But wars, assassinations, pandemics, that stuff predominated.
BRIAN LEHRER Yeah, I was struck by that. I guess if I had thought about it in advance, I would have predicted it. And maybe it's just a reflection of what makes news. You know, we don't report every day that thousands of commercial airline flights took off and landed safely. Bad news drives politics and drives policy because it's the bad news that we have to do something about. But a minority of people did also call in with some iconic good news events. One guy remembered a block party breaking out on his block in New York City on V-E Day at the end of World War Two. Another caller remembered when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. So there were these iconic positive events that people remembered. But I guess it's really bad news that drives change, and that's why people remember the assassinations and the wars.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So, Brian, you must have come up with your defining news events.
BRIAN LEHRER You know, it's funny, Brooke, even though I ask the question on the air for two weeks, I have a very hard time coming up with a single one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That is a cheat. I know you live in the news. I'm going to lean on you a little here.
BRIAN LEHRER Then I'm going to say the year 2020.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Okay.
BRIAN LEHRER Because even having been in the news business for decades, in addition to living my own life, the fact of the Big Lie, the intense election campaign of 2020, after having gone through four years of Trump as president and the pandemic coming right at the same time, and George Floyd, there was nothing in my experience like 2020. I think I've come to the conclusion that it might be the most intense time of anyone alive today. The number and magnitude of the shocks we've seen here in the 21st century. 9/11 was in 2001, right, then the financial crisis and Great Recession, the Trump era and all of its implications. The pandemic, O-M-G. If the people who came of age when the depression was first brewing, let's say the late 1920s had epic life challenges, so do the millennials and Gen Z today in the 2020s, I think there's been nothing like it. What was yours?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, my first one was when I was 13, the assassination of Martin Luther King. I certainly was aware of the assassination of President Kennedy before that — I was eight. But the one that really, really hit me was King. I followed his movements throughout the South. I listened to his speeches. He really was a hero. And that was devastating. The next time I was devastated by an assassination was John Lennon. I'd grown up with him. He felt like an older sibling, and he was sort of clearing the brush so I wouldn't make maybe the same mistakes or perhaps make some of them, you know what I mean? It was just really personal. But in terms of huge historical impact, mine is very similar to yours in that it was the pandemic. And in the pandemic, what I saw as we were following all the different repercussions was the change in attitude. I don't think George Floyd would have excited the kind of anguish and rage that his death did across so many communities without the pandemic. I think that there wouldn't be a changing feeling about work, reinvigoration of the union movements. I just think so many things came out of the pandemic, even aside from the tragic death and how it pointed out the weaknesses in how we address varying degrees of risk across communities. So I guess as weirdly imbalanced as all that would be, it would be the assassination of Martin Luther King, the murder of John Lennon, and the pandemic.
BRIAN LEHRER And one of the things that you touched on, that the pandemic forced a lot of, let's say, white or more affluent people to confront was who we considered, quote, essential workers. The concentration of people of color still in those lower paid service industries and how much everybody else depends on them. So hopefully there will be a positive ripple effect that is still only beginning and a push for more economic equality as well as other kinds. And when you talk about the RFK assassination and the Martin Luther King assassination, if there's one year that rivals 2020, it's probably 1968 with those assassinations and student protests and the election of Richard Nixon, for heaven's sake, and the Vietnam War. 1968 and 2020, may be the historical tentpoles through which we view the lifetimes of people alive today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We both belong to the boomer generation. Here's a clip from a caller called Nick.
CALLER We've failed the World in so many ways we've helped to propagate climate change. We are learning about our racist history that we should have sought out decades ago. The list goes on and on, and the selfishness is stunning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Here's Trudy in her seventies.
CALLER What has happened to all my boomer buddies? I am so frustrated. I still love all the things I've always loved rock music. I love social media. I love current events. And I'm a lot more radical than I was when I was younger. And this has caused a great divide between me and my fellow boomers, in my humble opinion.
BRIAN LEHRER I was glad to hear those calls. Anything that makes a generation or any other group look critically at themselves. But one thing I knew about our generation is that the baby boomer generation was never all idealistic hippie college students. It was a generation divided along the socioeconomic and demographic lines that we still largely see today. Reagan did very well among baby boomers. Trump won by a few points among boomers, at least in 2016. So if you are a boomer from Brooklyn or a boomer from Wyoming, pretty different experiences. So I'd say generation is not the most defining demographic in terms of what our generation has succeeded at or failed at in setting up future generations. It may be that some people were fighting for one set of things and other baby boomers were fighting for other sets of things. And it's been a divided generation, just like the country is divided today in every generation. And so left—right might be much more relevant than old—young to tell that story on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Brian, thank you very much.
BRIAN LEHRER My pleasure, Brooke. Keep up the great work.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You, too.
Brian Lehrer is the host of The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC's daily call-in program covering politics and life.
And that's the show! On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang and Suzanne Gaber with help from Temi George. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Andrew Nerviano, Sham Sundra and Jason Isaac. Katye Rodgers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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