“Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…”
John F. Kennedy 1960 Inauguration Speech
Back then, it was time for the youth of America take that torch and run with it. It was time for a new direction. Away from the stodgy and conventional path of their parents and current leaders. To break convention and redefine life and society.
However now, in our later years, it is expected that we follow the conventional path that we rebelled against so many years ago. A path (and misperception) that we’re “done”, have nothing to offer and should just retire and be quiet.
Are we ready to fully relinquish our grip on the torch? Do we not still have the burning passion to be relevant, make a difference and reinvent? To live a fulfilling and active life?
In 1960 we as the youth of this country had something in us that many had not yet put their finger on: an undercurrent of desire to be relevant and make a difference. To do more than just work and procreate. To make the world and our lives the way we thought they should be.
John F. Kennedy became the spark that ignited that passion. The seminal moment was on October 17, 1960 at 2:00 in the morning on the steps of the University of Michigan’s Student Union. After the third television debate with Richard Nixon, candidate Kennedy flew to Ann Arbor simply to sleep before a whistle stop tour across the state the next day.
When he arrived an estimated ten thousand students were waiting in the damp cold, on a school night to see him. Most of these students were too young to vote in 1960. The women were violating curfew.
In a three-minute impromptu speech, Kennedy challenged the students to do more than get an education and pursue a career. That challenge activated the first student movement of the sixties, which led to the founding of the Peace Corps. The first volunteers landed in another country only eight months later!
I had the honor and pleasure of writing, producing and directing an Emmy Award winning documentary called A Passing of the Torch (watch it at: https://vimeo.com/73799145) about that night and what followed.
From my point-of-view, it wasn’t simply the birth of the Peace Corps; it was the birth of activism. Kennedy ignited a fuming desire to be relevant and pick up the torch.
Through interviewing the people who were there that night and who launched that movement (which included activist Tom Hayden who was editor of the Michigan Daily student newspaper), and Kennedy staff members (Theodore Sorenson, Harris Wofford and Bill Moyers) I discovered that “happening” was the beginning of the incredible transformation we went on through in the 1960’s. It was pure activism and led to great movements of change: The women’s movement, peace movement, Gay rights movement, and civil rights movement (among others) while creating a societal environment of change that later generations enjoy the fruits of.
There was a disenchantment with the world. As it always happens with the pendulum of time, there was an inevitable desire to re-enchant.
-Bill Moyers A Passing of the Torch
Is there a reason to be disenchanted with the traditional concept of “the retirement years”? is there a desire once again to re-enchant? Is passion smoldering in many of us?
Just as minorities, women and LGBT’s were and are still being discriminated against, undervalued and disrespected, so too is our generation as “people of age” as a whole. Throughout human history the “older generation” was revered and depended upon for support and wisdom. We still offer those.
But for the first time in human history, we are capable and motivated to also seek our own reward and our own signifying in this phase of life.
And let us not forget that we are living longer, healthier and that technology dramatically enables us to do so much.
This is a cause worth rising up and fighting for. It is our cause to remain relevant, to forge a whole new standard for what life means after the age of fifty, sixty, seventy and beyond. To afford us the opportunities to create, contribute and even profit.
And yes, pass the torch to a new generation of American’s. But this time, the passing is more like a relay race in which we can run together side by side, for a time, partnering the effort, imparting wisdom and perspective to the younger runner before we relinquish the torch.
Perhaps this effort is our magnum opus.
Just as Kennedy’s “New Generation of Americans” forged a new ethos for society, so too must we create a new ethos for what it means to be in this phase of life.
One that embraces the ways of today’s youthful generation and offers it support and wisdom. But also one that affords us the ability to contribute, profit and fulfill the passions that still burn strongly.
As we did so many years ago, where there is no trail, we will leave a path.