If you notice someone who looks to be about 60 staring off into space, that far-away expression might not be the result of forgetting.
It could be the product of remembering, and wondering “What if?”
In at least one regard, baby boomers truly are special. You could argue that never before has there been a gray-haired generation that had faced so many choices and opportunities along the way.
So now, aging boomers can find themselves with an unprecedented abundance of second thoughts. What if I had done this? What if I had tried that? What if I had really let my freak flag fly?
Feel free to dismiss this as yet another chapter in the famous generational self-absorption. Still, the first population bulge raised to “Do your own thing” cannot help but be pioneers when it comes to looking back.
“Is this how I pictured my life turning out?”
Boomers did not invent regret. They were not the first to second-guess decisions made decades before.
People grew old in Ohio or Missouri long ago wondering if they should have joined a wagon train headed to the West. Or married someone else. Or opened that hardware store when the chance presented itself.
Down through history exceptional people have been able to chart their own course. Still, for many in the past, society’s constraints and expectations challenged any notion that a person was truly free to go his or her own way.
The parents of baby boomers often experienced lives that had more to do with survival than with letting it all hang out.
Then things changed.
The social mutations that transformed American life after World War II were so fast and so sweeping that boomers grew up with a previously unimaginable variety of choices. What to study? Where to live? Who to love? How to define family? What to do to make money? And on and on.
They are the first to arrive at theoretical retirement age gently haunted by memories of countless paths not taken.
That does not have to be an onerous burden. It does not necessarily involve angst.
Retrospection can conjure an affirmation that the 21-year-old you had pretty decent judgment. Or not.
In any event, it’s hard to resist wondering.
What if you had tried harder in school? What if you had not gotten married the first time when you were so young? What if you had realized sooner that all bets were off about race, gender and family station absolutely dictating your roles?
One reason this is worth noting is that a case could be made that all of us are, in part, defined by the options we did not pursue. And boomers now find themselves looking back on a lifetime of endlessly varied multiple-choice questions.
What if I had gone to Canada to avoid the draft? What if I had decided to move to New Mexico when I was 18? What if I hadn’t washed my hands of my religious upbringing the moment I left home? What if I had taken LSD?
Sometimes such flashbacks produce a smile, sometimes a nostalgic longing for do-overs.
It’s sort of like looking in a mirror and seeing alternative visions of who you could have become.
For baby boomers, there is no escaping the past because it was so exhaustively chronicled and continues to be recycled in movies, music, books and television.
What does it mean to be a baby boomer? There are, of course, millions of answers. Economic circumstances, abilities and social connections can be so wildly different that real-life diversity renders any notion of generational uniformity absurd.
One thing boomers share, though, is the fact of their having been witness to change.
That can translate into personal potential. The recognition that life is a fluid situation can come in handy when a particular “What if?” seems to weigh a ton.
For those who believe in the possibility of reinvention, certain echoes of yesterday can be heard as the opening notes for the soundtrack of tomorrow.
So, yes, boomers have a lot to see in the rear-view. But that doesn’t mean all of them have stopped moving forward.
There’s a signpost up ahead. It says that there are new memories still to be made.