The Spirit of Woodstock, 50 Years Later

Millennials and Generation Z, not Boomers, are the true revolutionaries.

Posted Aug 16, 2019

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the music festival in upstate New York that drew half a million young people in the summer of 1969 and displayed the spectacular talents of an array of young performers, from Joan Baez to Jimi Hendrix. Even 50 years later, Woodstock still has a hold on the public imagination. To many people, it seems to represent the ideals of peace, free love, and openness to diversity that characterized the Baby Boom generation.

The truth is, the Baby Boomers were never as revolutionary as they seemed. There were revolutionaries among them, to be sure, and notable revolutionary movements such as the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society. However, most Boomers were far from radical. For every Boomer joining a left-wing movement in the 1960s and 1970s, there were several others volunteering to serve in the Vietnam War or in Richard Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign.  

Since then, the Boomers have continued to represent a strain of conservatism in American society, and today they are less liberal in every way than the younger generations. The Pew Research Center is a rich source of data on generational comparisons. Here are some recent Pew findings comparing Boomers (ages 54 to 72) to Millennials (ages 22 to 37) and Generation Z (ages 13 to 21):

Ethnic diversity. Only 30% of Boomers agree that it’s a “good thing” for people of different races to marry each other, compared to 53% of Millennials and Gen Z. Similarly, only 48% of Boomers agree that increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a “good thing” for American society, compared to 61% of Millennials and 62% of Gen Z.

Gay marriage. Although gay and lesbian marriages are now commonplace in the United States, 32% of Boomers are opposed to them, more than twice the 15% of Millennials and Gen Z.

Non-binary gender identifications. Only 36% of Boomers say that society is “not accepting enough” of people who do not identify as male or female, compared to 47% of Millennials and 50% of Generation Z.

Dreamstime, used with permission.
They may not look like revolutionaries...
Source: Dreamstime, used with permission.

Clearly, the true social revolutionaries of our time are the Millennials and Gen Z. Compared to the younger generations, many of today’s Boomers look like the defenders of the old order.

That said, it’s important to acknowledge that Boomers did initiate a lot of trends associated with a shift to more liberal social values, including cohabitation, divorce, single motherhood, dual-career couples, marijuana use, and “coming out” among gays and lesbians. All of these were rare and strongly disapproved before the Baby Boomer generation came along, and all are now widely accepted, for better or worse.

So, the Baby Boomers did inspire a variety of revolutionary trends in American society. But as a generation they were never as revolutionary as their most liberal leaders and provocateurs made them seem, and they are certainly not the most liberal generation now. If there is a “spirit of Woodstock” that’s still alive, of openness to diversity in ethnic, sexual, and gender orientation, it’s represented by the Millennials and Gen Z.