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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Boomers

Oh no! Not another article/blog about Baby Boomers! You may be right, but it’s my turn to have a say. Everyone is either a Baby Boomer themselves or is related to one somehow.
Demographic Definition
Establishing a beginning and an end to the post-WWII Baby Boom is fairly easy. Birth statistics are clear. In America, the demographic birth boom was from 1946 through 1964. Evaluating this generational cohort in a cultural sense is much more difficult. Some scholars believe that it’s nearly impossible to define a “generation” at all. But this one, maybe more than others, is defined the by events occurring during their prominence and by their values. This is especially true since the proceeding and trailing generations were markedly different.
People point to the superfluous things and think they have a handle on who the Boomers are. It’s not that simple. Tie-dyed clothes, Barbie, and singing Kumbaya couldn’t be further from their core culture. Even symbols like carrying peace signs, flag burning, and “make love, not war” don’t come close.
There was widespread rejection of traditional values or at least a redefinition of those values. The bitter conflicts with the “establishment” by college-age Boomers against the Vietnam military draft, free speech, women’s rights, and civil rights could be seen on TV nightly. Some counter-cultural movements advocated personal freedom (usually without responsibility), universal love, and rejection of monogamy.
Boomers had a profound sense of privilege. Parents of the Baby Boomers were encouraged to give their children positive reinforcement, full time parental devotion, and affectionate child-raising. This environment of permissiveness without limits would prove to be a double-edged sword.
As a result, many Boomers had a self-perception as a special generation. Many of the traditions of the prior generation (called the “Greatest Generation” by some), were no longer appreciated, or followed. Rules could be rewritten. The birth control pill was available, abortion was legalized. There was a sense of a person’s right to free expression whether it was about hair, music, clothing, or drugs.
There was, of course, the huge economic impact that Boomers had on America. It was the new medium of television that first recognized the potential bonanza of catering to the youth culture, and Boomers eagerly embraced this carefree consumerism.
Popular Perceptions
In the Economy
By the late 1950’s, mass media marketers had discovered the Boomers. The consumers targeted for clothes, toys, and convenience foods were the children and early teens; not their parents as it had been with the earlier generation. Do you remember the time when the televised Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade was sponsored chiefly by the toy manufacturers?  
During the 1960’s and 1970’s, “Boomer Brands” became popular. Whole companies had been created or transformed to satisfy the desires of young Boomers. Pepsi was the “choice of a new generation.” Levi’s, especially Bell Bottoms for a while, were on everyone’s shopping list. VW Beetles became the first cars of many Boomers. And who could ignore the Harley’s of “Easy Rider”?
(Believe it or not, today Boomers are the fastest growing group on “facebook.” A New York Times article indicates that women 55 and over have an increase of 175% in usage, men of the same age a 138% increase)
In Music
The Boomers cultural identity was tied to their music. Boomers liked what today is referred to as “mainline” rock and roll. Elvis, the British music invasion, surfing songs, and Motown all contributed to the immense commercialization of musical entertainment. According to a CNBC Poll, 65% of all Boomers still name the Beatles as their first choice.
Sometimes the musical culture and the political culture overlapped. In August of 1969, Woodstock or “Three Days of Peace and Music”, became a cultural phenomenon. It seems that today every film made about the 1960’s has a soundtrack of oldies. 
In Media
The Baby Boomers were the first generation growing up by the light of the TV screen. And when times got tough, Boomers turned on the TV both then and now. According to a 2007 poll, the two most meaningful cultural and historical events in the formative years of a Boomer were (#1) introduction of cable television (45%) and (#2) introduction of color television (40%). I have to admit that this is pretty shallow.
Whether it was Hoody Doody, Captain Kangaroo, Leave It to Beaver, The Mickey Mouse Club, The Twilight Zone, or Saturday Night Live, TV was a central part of their lives.
“In many ways, it’s not surprising that the first generation of Americans to grow up alongside television would embrace the TV Generation moniker more so than the Baby Boomer label” (Tanya Giles, Sr. V.P., MTV Networks). I’m not sure I believe that.  
Of the many landmark films relevant to the Boomer generation, two stand out. One was the coming of age comedy, “American Graffiti”, and the other an intense tour-de-force saga of Vietnam, “Apocalypse Now.” These two films differ in many ways, of course, but one difference is the age generation of the principal cast and crew members, an interesting anomaly.
 “Apocalypse Now” was released 15 years AFTER the last Boomer was born. Yet of all the key cast members and important crew members (director, writer, cinematographer, etc.) only two out of 15 were members of the Baby Boom. They were Laurence Fishburne and Sam Bottoms. All the rest were older. I realize that one explanation is that the primary characters would have been older when the story took place in 1968, but come on.
In “American Graffiti” released six years earlier, ALL of the principal cast were Baby Boomers except for Harrison Ford. Even writer-director, George Lucas missed being a Boomer by only 18 months.
Not A Monolithic Group
Baby Boomers were not a unique American phenomenon. Almost all countries in Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand experienced their own post-war Baby Boom. These countries report that it began for them in 1946 for all except for Germany which had a nine year delayed start (beginning in 1955). While most saw an end to the boom around 1965, France, the UK, and the Netherlands continued until about 1974; an Ireland until 1982, a 36 year boom. Canadian soldiers were repatriated later than American servicemen so this country’s boom was from 1947 to 1966.
Divisions Within the Generation
Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott, both sociologists from the University of Michigan, put forth a new theory in 1989 that split the generation into two sub-groups, early and late Boomers.
The Early Boomers, born from 1946 through 1955, more closely fit the characterizations discussed above. These early Boomers are also known as “Core Boomers” and as “Cohort #1.” They represented the cultural change of the 1960’s that many people associate with the Boomer generation as a whole.
Schuman and Scott drew the distinction between the sub-groups primarily based on each group’s “collective memory” of events, especially from adolescence to early adulthood. Early Boomers grew up with the threat of nuclear war (Cuban Missile Crisis), the war in Vietnam, the draft, man’s landing on the moon, rock and roll, and assassinations of notable Americans (Martin Luther King and the Kennedys).
These Boomers displayed a heightened awareness of social causes and were inclined to experiment socially and politically.
The Late Boomers, born from 1956 through 1964, are different than the Early Boomers to some degree. Late Boomers are also known as “Generation Jones” and as “Cohort #2.” American society at large and their parents seemed to have changed somewhat in their upbringing. There was less permissiveness and they were not seen as quite the “ideal children” their older siblings were.
Late Boomers grew up in the era of Watergate, Nixon, the Cold War, oil shortages, high inflation, disco/punk/new wave, and MTV.
This group withdrew from assertive political activity. They turned slightly inward and looked for peer groups to which to belong. Sexual liberation and the women’s movement had some influence in moving these Boomers toward new social issues that included minority rights, gay rights, and the environment. Recreational drug use increased. Many displayed cynicism about their future.
Boomers Today: A Half Century Later
In present day America, Boomers can still be divided into two sub-groups. There are the working Boomers (still in the labor market) and the “Golden Boomers” now retiring.
Frequently, the Boomers (once the culture of “youth”) are accused of denying their own mortality. Their lack of planning for the retirement years and the worsening worldwide economic crisis will dramatically alter their lifestyle, which is just over the horizon. Almost half (42%) are planning to delay their retirement, and 25% will never be able to retire as self-sufficient. This group will depend almost completely on government assistance.
A Mixed-bag Legacy
It seems that Baby Boomers have always accelerated societal changes, both for the good and the bad.
There is no question that during their prime, individual freedoms and civil rights were advanced probably more than at any other comparable time in our history.
The American economy grew at an enormous rate fueled greatly by the consumer driven demand of the Boomers. Home construction and other major purchases, such as automobiles, have increased employment for decades. A stable American middle class reached its apex during the prime of the Boomers as well.
But, according to columnist Paul Vallely of The Independent (UK) he states, “Some say the Baby Boomers are the most spoiled generation in history. They squandered what their parents left to them and they seem intent on leaving little behind to their offspring. . . By contrast, the younger generation is paying for its university education, building up high levels of debt, finding it tough to get a job, even tougher to get on the property ladder and not even thinking about building up a pension.”
What’s Ahead
Beginning this year, the post-war Baby Boomers are retiring and there are fiscal and cultural implications of this.
As of July of 2011, 47 years after the last one was born, Boomers are still responsible for more than half of all consumer spending in America. They also control 80% of personal financial assets and 50% of discretionary spending power.
As more Boomers begin to retire, some experts see this as a factor in slowing down the economies of Europe and North America as consumer spending will decrease significantly. In the United States alone, 10,000 Boomers will reach retirement age every day.
Even more ominous, the tensions between ageing Baby Boomers and the generations after them, that will have to fund Boomer retirement, may become “the” huge political divide, even more than class, race, or religion.
So, while we celebrate the past, we also have concern for the future.

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