“Occupy Wall Street” protests have made news, raised questions, and recently generated violence. They recall MY generation’s turbulent college years when politics and values took a sharp turn. During the era of “sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll,” I wondered how many were lost to the disciplined world of aviation.
In my time, Eisenhower-era military traditions and the “Organization Man” yielded to “Do Your Own Thing!” Early-1960s graduates had been welcomed by the World War II generation into IBM or other corporate careers. By ‘68-‘72, the generations were in bitter conflict amidst political upheaval and the end of post-World War II economic dominance.
Even as GA benefited mightily from Baby Boomer demographics in the later 1970s, I wonder how many more would have joined in if the generational ethic hadn’t swung so far. The free-wheeling “If It Feels Good, Do It” lifestyle was the opposite of disciplined formal training and rule-following in flying.
The Vietnam War was the break with America’s World War II ethic, of course. At my college, I was shocked when an early protest included signs denouncing FLYING magazine! I couldn’t understand it — until I saw they depicted FLYING’s cover story on Navy carrier operations off Vietnam. Damning an aviation magazine as war-monger? You’ve got to be kidding!
Things went from academic argument to much worse when four students were shot at Kent State. The 1970 Student Strike resulted as many asked, “Is This the American Way?” A poster I saved from the era (shown) depicts the question that cut through my generation to its core.
One classmate, my third year roommate, went off to live in a national park. Some others drove cabs. I drove a truck for a while. After 1974 and the recovery from the energy crisis, things began to improve. The ‘70s ultimately yielded GA’s greatest boom. Student starts peaked at almost 140,000 a year by 1978-79 as a massive cohort of young people now enjoyed jobs and some money in their pockets. Their new ethic was “Do It All” — wonderful but one-time demographic event.
It was a fickle crowd. They soloed and got a “license” to show to their friends. The next month, it would be kite-riding or surfing or something else. There was a developing trend towards non-motorized sports; it pushed sales for Hobie Cat sailboats and hang gliding. Then came 1981: Recession again and systemic economic uncertainty. And it was well past time for a “real” career, earning real money and settling down into the family formation stage of life. Belatedly, adolescence was over.
I admit this was just my experience and my take on it. However, all this did inform how I tried to help GA relate to (and be relevant for) my generation. I acknowledge that others were not so affected. They may have been on the other side of the issues or not in centers of change at colleges or on the coasts.
In fact, I almost hate to dredge up such old times, so divisive were they. Societal change was not a top cause of GA’s problems. Yet, I can’t shake the feeling: Distrust of government, disconnect with the military (or anything related to it), and an ethic to “do one’s own thing” seemed to define the age.
At least some of my generation were less dedicated to past truisms and (later) more focused on “getting mine” and keeping it. Witness a friend’s bitter 1980s-‘90s opposition to the decades-old Princeton, N.J., airport behind her nice new suburban house convenient to her nice new corporate job. Everyone had to defend their own — NIMBYs and the pilots/airport owners who battled them — as we were all both “invested” and hemmed in by suburbanization and economics.
I also think GA’s NIMBYs arose because they had no relationship to us and what we do. They didn’t get it and never would. Countless times I heard, “I can’t imagine myself getting into one of those things.” I thought to myself that we had lost much of my generation back when they first started exploring their world and forming their opinions. For these NIMBYs, the “out-of-date” followers of World War II’s pilot-heroes were now just noisemakers and miscreants.
That’s why public relations is so important to aviation, especially to GA. Along with economics, we live or die on public acceptance of the product. Infrastructure funding, airport preservation, tax policy and healthy participation in GA all depend on it. We often fell short of our potential here over the years.
PR can’t solve all of GA’s problems (especially now) and the turbulent ‘60s didn’t cause them all, either. There were (and are) “enough” people who want to fly if only they could afford to (and had the time.*) I just wonder how many more of the affluent, successful people of my generation would have joined in if 1) history had been different and 2) the generational ethic had not changed so much for so many.
*On a lighter note, I’ll muse on “time” next time.
© Drew Steketee 2011 All Rights Reserved