There was a decade called the sixties, which began in January 1960 and ended in December 1969, but there was also something called The Sixties, of which rock music, hippies, drugs, sex, student protest and radical politics were some of the outward signs. Not everyone who lived through the sixties fully experienced The Sixties, but there were few who were not affected in some way. The Sixties didn't begin until the sixties were about half over; as for when, or indeed whether, The Sixties ended, there are probably as many answers as there are people who went through them.
Why did The Sixties happen in the sixties? Writing in Compass five years ago, historian Modris Eksteins suggested that something very like The Sixties was taking shape in the 1910s when it was cut short by the First World War. The war was followed by the failed attempt to return to "normalcy" in the 1920s, the Great Depression, the Second World War and the paranoid Cold War of the 1950s. By the 1960s the tragic cycle of the early and mid-twentieth century had finally run its course.
At the same time, post-Second World War prosperity was still at its height, fuelling the optimism that underlay The Sixties. There were also the sheer demographics of the era: the accession of the first wave of the baby boom to young adulthood. The powerful experiences of that stage of life were made even more powerful by the circumstance that so many of us were undergoing these experiences all at once--and larger numbers of us were congregated on university campuses than ever before.
Nor would the sixties have become The Sixties without the war in Vietnam. For people seeking evidence of the corrupt nature of the System, the Vietnam War was the smoking gun. I'm not sure whether it was because Vietnam was uncommonly foolish and futile as wars go, whether was appeared less palatable as television showed us more of it, or whether a generation had simply arisen that decided to take Isaiah seriously and Just Say No to war. In any case, one of the slogans of the antiwar movement was "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" In unprecedented numbers, people--young people especially--declined the invitation to participate in or support the Vietnam War.
The images that The Sixties most commonly evoke are American ones (Haight-Ashbury, Students for a Democratic Society, Woodstock), perhaps with a few British rock groups and Paris street marches thrown in. I spent most of the decade in Quebec, which had its own Sixties, intertwined with the American Sixties but not identical to them. As the name of a magazine of the time had it, Quebec was almost America: Presqu'Amerique.
The 1960s began in Quebec with the defeat of the hidebound Union Nationale provincial government, the election of Jean Lesage's Liberals, and the burst of energy that became known as the Quiet Revolution. In retrospect, many of the reforms of the Quiet Revolution were part of a wave of provincial affirmation that swept Canada at the time--in Ontario very similar reforms occurred in the name of Tory continuity under John Robarts. But as with most things, this affirmation had an extra dimension in Quebec, a dimension that was provided by nationalism.
In any case, the Quiet Revolution was already on the wane and conservative forces in the Lesage government had gained the upper hand by the time Quebec's Sixties really got underway in 1964. A number of things happened within a few months that signalled the start of a new era. One such event in Quebec was the confrontation between demonstrators and police during a visit by Queen Elizabeth that became known as "Nightstick Saturday." Another sign was the formation of the Union Generale des Etudiants du Quebec (UGEQ), the Quebec student union that split off from the Canadian Union of Students. UGEQ adopted a Paris-inspired philosophy of student unionism, according to which students were young intellectual workers whose proper role was to be in solidarity with fellow members of the working class. …