Every year I teach a course on the ’60s to a packed classroom. My students are deeply curious about that era, especially the music. They shut their eyes and sway as I play a hippie anthem like “White Rabbit.” They laugh and shout “That’s sick!” when I subject them to Jimi Hendrix’s slash-and-burn version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s up to me to explain the logic of classic rock and to show them why millions of people once followed its messages and did such awesomely sick things.
I tell them that the ’60s were a forge that shaped their world. Multiculturalism, feminism, identity politics, sexual freedom, the right to wear a bracelet if you’re a man or jeans if you’re a woman. (At the city college I attended, girls couldn’t wear jeans unless the temperature fell below freezing.) So much of what my students take for granted emerged from the ruckus of my youth. It was an age of foolish excess that led to many wise ideas. I have too many tragic memories to think the ’60s were just a groovy time, but I do understand why the era is still so mythic. It represents a set of values that have been largely repressed, but which remain potent, especially for the young.
When I was their age, I had an expectation of boundless freedom, a belief that my actions could change the world, and most importantly a willingness to take chances in order to create myself. To have sex with anyone whose “vibe” was right, to use drugs that shredded the ego and accessed the subconscious, to participate in sometimes violent demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Skulls were cracked, minds were blown, dear friends and adored rock stars died before their time. But despite this toll, I have an abiding sense that all I am today is a product of the gambles I took when I was young. I put my body on the line for civil rights. I lived in a commune with free love at its core. I courted hearing loss from listening to rock at peak volume. As I relate these tales I watch my students’ faces light up with astonishment. We talk about why such experiences seem so exotic now. Their responses can be summed up in one word: risk. For me it was a necessity. For them, it’s dangerous.
Perhaps I’m judging them by archaic standards, but I’d say that this generation is risk averse. It’s not a question of courage—my students are as brave and committed as I was. But they’re loathe to take chances, and this is true even though it seems to me that they live in a much less dangerous time. There’s no draft, and no chance of being arrested for having an abortion, or getting caught in a police raid on a gay bar, as several friends of mine were. The current crises, such as terrorism and environmental degradation, rarely touch their daily lives. Yet they worry much more than I did about threats to their safety. It’s not just that they have childhood memories of 9/11. The major reason for this anxiety is economic. They are all embarking on a terrible struggle to earn a living. Fitting into a role that leads to success is job number one. It wasn’t that way for me.
I grew up in an expansive decade, when the average salary rose by about $10,000. Wages are static now, wealth is far more concentrated, and the unemployment rate is shockingly high, especially for people of color. The Internet enriches some, but it isn’t producing a broad-based prosperity. You can’t cobble together a career from chauffeuring people in your car or renting out the futon in your apartment. A personal YouTube channel will earn you attention, but probably not a fortune. Alex from Target is a phenomenon, not a billionaire.
Many of my students are children of the working class, as was I. If statistics are any guide, less than a third of them will rise into the middle class. A college degree certainly raises the odds, but getting a B.A. is an expensive proposition. My students pay much less then they would at a private university, but I was given a college education by the city for free. When I got my degree, I had no student loan to pay off, so I felt fine about working for peanuts at a job I adored. I became the first rock critic at The Village Voice. “You’re bringing the whole earning curve of the class down,” my career counselor groused, but I didn’t care. I figured that, somehow, I would find the money I needed to survive.
In 1966, I lived in Manhattan for $120 a month. Today that wouldn’t buy me a closet in Bushwick. Living in the city is so costly that most of my students commute long distances to school. I was sure I would do better than my parents; my students have no such assumptions. They know that the deck is stacked against them, and as a result they must deal with stresses that sometimes overwhelm them. For all these reasons, they can’t afford to take the risks I did.
I get that it’s important to be safe, but I worry about the consequences of making that a priority. If you don’t take chances, how can you invent yourself? If you aren’t comfortable with instability, how can you create change? By suppressing the feeling that the world has ample room for you to do things differently, society stymies youth itself. I think this is the reason why the ’60s carry such meaning. It was a time when the imperatives of selfhood could be relied upon as a guide for life. My students still have that dream, but it’s not something they would dare to mention on a resumé.
“Good luck in the struggle,” I write on their final papers. But every semester, after they leave and I’m staring at an empty classroom, I lapse into a kind of survivor guilt. I entered adulthood believing in success as a birthright; failure seemed like a specter from the past. For my students, failure is a clear and present danger. And that’s why they love the ’60s. It is, in the richest sense, an escape from reality.
Richard Goldstein is an adjunct professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York, and the author of Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the Sixties.