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Posts Tagged ‘boomers’

Suicide Boom?

Charles Fischer [no relation to your blogger] arrived in New York City in 1890. A well-educated clerk from Stuttgart, Germany, he struggled in America, failing in real estate, in the saloon business, and finally in china plate decorating. He divorced and lost touch with his only child. Fischer wrote his mother, “I cannot stand this much longer. If I don’t get work within two weeks I will have to go out on the street and work as a laborer.” At 10:00 pm on a Saturday evening in 1896, he entered his small rented room on East 3rd Street, sealed up every crack, and turned on the gas without lighting it.[1]

Fischer’s suicide puts into historical context news reports from this past week of a “startling” (to quote the PBS Newshour) rise in suicides among the middle-aged over the last ten years. (Actually, it’s not such new news; essentially the same story was reported three years ago.) Fischer’s case illustrates that suicides often come in waves – his was one of many committed by immigrants in late 19th-century American cities. It also illustrates the role of technology – gas became a common tool of suicide. And it illustrates the importance of financial strains – he took his life in the middle of the Panic of 1896. The 21st-century suicide spurt has an additional twist, however: Boomers.

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The ’60s Turn 50

We have a commemoration going on about the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the great social changes, such as the Emancipation Proclamation, which accompanied it. There’s another anniversary coming up over the next 12 months or so: the 50th anniversary of “The ‘60s,” by which I mean the 1960s as a distinct social, cultural era. It did not really begin in 1960 nor end in 1970. It began, culturally speaking, roughly in 1963-64 and petered out in the early-to-mid 1970s. If one is looking for a start date, perhaps the March on Washington, August 28, 1963, is a good marker (video); or President Kennedy’s assassination, November 22, 1963 (video); or the Beatles’ arrival in America, February 7, 1964 (video). Somewhere around then.

People often think that their time – particularly the period of their youth – is the fulcrum of history (see this study). Everything before we were about 14 or 15 is old, everything after is totally new. (Novelist Willa Cather famously wrote that “the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts”; historian Warren Sussman preferred 1905.) We are usually wrong. Some periods, however, are distinct and fateful for different reasons. For the generation that grew to adulthood in the 1960s, it was about rapid cultural change, a change apparently set off by earlier, rapid demographic change.

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