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Chicago Tribune
April 27, 2000 Thursday

Keeping Up With The Joneses; For Kids Of The ‘70s, It's Time To Talk About Our Generation

By Barbara Brotman

When Shari Pergricht saw NBC was going to air a mini-series called "The ‘70s," she couldn't imagine why.

"What are they going to talk about? What are they going to show?" said Pergricht, of the Northwest Side, who at 42 would presumably be part of the show's prime audience.

"The ‘70s were boring in some ways. It's hard to say what the essence was. It's like there wasn't much of one."

Such disdain is business as usual for what author David Frum, author of the ‘70s history "How We Got Here" (Basic Books), writes has been considered "a slum of a decade."

In fact, the generation that came of age in the ‘70s has heaped it with abuse ever since.

"Bad, bad clothes," shuddered Diane Kaercher, 43, of Western Springs. "Polyester shirts with printed flowers on them. And big bell-bottoms and high platform shoes."

"It's kind of embarrassing," said Pergricht, a counselor at Harper College in Palatine. "Yes, I grew up with the Brady Bunch and the Partridge Family. They were a big part of my life, but those aren't things you talk about proudly. People laugh."

But now people stage revivals of the Brady Bunch and wear big bell-bottoms and high platform shoes. And nostalgia has bred analysis. The ‘70s are the subject of an attempted rehabilitation.

The NBC mini-series, which begins Sunday, comes on the heels of the publication of Frum's book, subtitled, "The 70's: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better or Worse)."

And Jonathan Pontell, an entrepreneur-turned social commentator, has declared the generation that came of age in the ‘70s, those born between 1954 and 1965, a separate entity from Baby Boomers. He calls it Generation Jones.

Jones is a common name that evokes the sense of a large, unknown group, says 41-year-old Pontell. It is also a reference to having a "jones," or craving, for the ideals put forth in the ‘60s.

Pontell, who lives in Los Angeles, runs a Generation Jones Web site (generationjones.com) and has been been traveling the presidential campaign trail asking candidates to talk about Generation Jones' interests. His book, "Generation Jones," will be published by Vanguard Press in July.

To Frum, 39, a prominent conservative commentator who is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard, the attention to the ‘70s is overdue.

The ‘60s may have all the leftist romance; the Reagan '80s may still warm the conservative heart. But it was during the ‘70s, Frum says, that American society most profoundly changed into what it is today.

He cited such facts of modern life as drug use, divorce, sexual freedom and psychotherapy. "The ‘70s were not when these ideas originated," he said. "But this is the time those ideas became universal."

Pontell, too, sees the ‘70s as the more important decade for societal change. It was the ‘70s, he contends, when women entered the work force in large numbers. The ‘70s, not the ‘60s, was the decade of long hair, as evidenced by comparing the decades' high school yearbooks.

"Smoking marijuana was very unusual in the ‘60s; it was a small, albeit vocal, fringe," he said. "But by the ‘70s, it became a very small minority who hadn't smoked dope."

It was the 53 million Americans now between 35 and 46 years old who really changed the world, Pontell said.

"Yeah, there were Boomers who were putting ideas out there in the ‘60s," he said. "But it was our generation who lived out those ideas."

To Frum, a Canadian-born journalist who now lives in Washington, the ‘70s marked crucial changes in American economics and politics as well as popular culture.

He sees many as positive. Fewer Americans worked for large corporations, and smaller, more agile companies began to appear. "That decade saw the freeing up of the economy from government regulation, giant corporations and trade unions," said Frum, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank in New York.

Watergate-era reforms curbed the enormous powers the presidency had been acquiring since 1933, he said. And socially, it became unacceptable in the ‘70s to utter racial slurs or for children to insult a disabled or overweight classmate.

On the other hand, he said, Americans reeling from defeat in Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis essentially lost their faith in the institutions of society, leading to the pervasive cynicism that endures today.

The sense of ‘70s freedom that served the economy well, he said, did not do the same for the family. Divorce skyrocketed, along with, in the decade in which abortion was legalized, the numbers of abortions.

"A lot of what happened in the name of freedom of the individual was very destructive," said Frum. (Frum's wife, Danielle Crittenden, also a well-known conservative writer, argued that feminism was destructive for women in her own book, "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us.")

And though the sexual promiscuity of the ‘70s may look pretty attractive to a younger generation fearful of AIDS, the men and women who lived it don't remember it altogether fondly, he said.

"'Looking for Mr. Goodbar' and 'Saturday Night Fever' were very dark pictures," Frum said. "When a director wanted to portray single life as happy, he set it in the '50s and made 'American Graffiti."'

But all the analysis of the ‘70s comes down to this: If it was such a pivotal decade, why has it been so ignored?

"The Boomers have clung to the spotlight," he said. "There's a kind of decade-ism going on there by the Boomers who like to glorify the ‘60s as the time when all cool things happened. ... Somehow, this generation just got swept under the carpet."

Pontell contends that Generation Jones is substantially different from both the Baby Boomer generation it is demographically lumped with, and the Generation X that followed.

Boomers grew up in an idealistic time, had high hopes and have lived fairly easy lives, he said, while Generation X has been marked by pessimism.

But Generation Jones, he said, started out optimistic only to see idealistic dreams smashed by the financial hardships of the ‘70s. The character of the generation, he said, became a mixture of idealistic yearning and cynical alienation.

But no one wanted to hear from them. "I think the nation was too burned out from the ‘60s; they weren't ready for another generation," Pontell said. "And I think part of it is collective guilt on the part of Americans who talked about building this great American for the children, and then didn't."

It wasn't just outsiders who didn't acknowledge the ‘70s generation. Ask children of the ‘70s themselves what decade formed them, and they often come up with—the ‘60s.

"I think I have more memories of the ‘60s than I do of the ‘70s ... the Kennedy assassination, Martin Luther King," said Andrew Levine, 40, of Mundelein, who installs security and audio systems.

He was 3 years old when John F. Kennedy was killed. "I probably remember it from all the hype over the years," he said.

"I thought during my teenage years of my life choices being measured against the stereotypical hippie mentality of the ‘60s," said Eric Greenberg, 41, a lawyer who lives on the North Side.

"Everything you did was measured against the ‘60s. . . . You either were, or weren't, a rebel. You either were, or weren't, materialistic. And if you were, you figured out a way to apologize for it. By the time the '80s came along, no one felt embarrassed about saying, 'I'm going to make me a lot of money and have me a lot of toys."'

Pergricht knows she is a child of the ‘70s, but admits to a case of ‘60s envy.

"I feel like I just missed all the big excitement," said Pergricht. "We missed this huge, exciting revolution."

Seventies promoters, your challenge awaits.

© 2000 Chicago Tribune

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