How the Baby Boom Generation Works

Who are the baby boomers, and why do the media love to write stories about them?
Who are the baby boomers, and why do the media love to write stories about them?
Comstock Images/©Getty Images/Thinkstock

Media outlets like to poke fun at the baby boom generation. Headlines such as "Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65" mock this famously self-reflective demographic. From their diaper days to their approaching dotage, the boomers have been history's most documented generation. In the '60s, when the first boomers were entering adulthood, their civil rights sit-ins and Woodstock antics made headlines. In 1986, the first boomers turned 40, and Time Magazine ran a cover story on them. As boomers reach retirement age, the media frenzy continues with article after article on how youth-minded boomers are redefining old age.

What have baby boomers done to warrant such attention? First, they were the first generation weaned on television. Documentation itself was revolutionary. Second, their sheer numbers give them a huge market share; it's no wonder the media -- and their advertisers -- are interested in scrutinizing and catering to one of the largest demographics alive today. Finally, boomers started off with a bang. In their youth, many of them marched for civil rights and some protested the Vietnam War.

Now that the first boomers are retiring, however, some pundits claim the boomer legacy will prove more mixed than messianic. "Better educated (twice as likely to go to college as their parents), idealistic and assertive, baby boomers were expected to remake the world," read Time Magazine's 1986 cover story, "but… a lot of shadows have fallen between the dream and the reality" [source: Time Magazine]. Author Jeff Gordiner puts it even more bluntly in his nonfiction book "X Saves the World": When it comes to changing the world, the boomers choked." Other social commentators beg to differ. Boomers are not merely "a collection of self-absorbed, latte-drinking narcissists who threw a tantrum in the 1960s and haven't stopped whining since" argues author Leonard Steinhorn, who has authored many works about the baby boom generation, including "The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy." Instead, Steinhorn asserts that the world has the boomer generation to thank for the increased tolerance and career opportunities enjoyed by women and minorities today [source: Steinhorn].

So, who exactly are these baby boomers? We'll examine a slew of baby boomer facts in the next section.

 

Baby Boomer Facts

Yep, he's a boomer.
Yep, he's a boomer.
Mark Wilson/News/Getty Images

After World War II, young families settled down to the business of making babies -- lots of babies. From 1946 to 1964, America saw an unprecedented increase in birthrates. These U.S. kids became known as the baby boomer generation. This huge bunch spans the gamut socially, politically and economically; nevertheless, boomers share a few common ties. Here are a few of our favorites, courtesy of a 2006 survey of baby boomers conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau:

  • Baby boomers make up about 26 percent of the general population, making them the second largest demographic alive today, right behind the Millennials.
  • Boomers make up at least 25 percent of the population in every U.S. state except Utah, where they account for 23 percent of the population.
  • More boomers live in California (8,992,331 as of 2006) than any other state. In terms of percentage, however, Vermont takes the prize: Baby boomers comprise more than 30 percent of Vermont's population.
  • More than 65 percent of boomers are married.
  • More than 28 percent have graduated college.
  • Approximately 75 percent own their own homes.
  • Baby boomers are about 50/50 male to female, with female boomers gaining the edge as the generation ages.
  • In general, boomers are healthier and wealthier than previous generations.

Though it's impossible to know for sure which child was the very first person born into the baby boomer generation, there are a couple of strong contenders. USA Today credits Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, born one second past midnight on Jan. 1, 1946, as the original baby boomer [source: Welch.] The New York Times, on the other hand, credits Aloysius Nachreiner (known as Al, or sometimes Butch) of Buffalo, N.Y., with the distinction [source: Barry].

The past three sitting American presidents -- Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama -- are baby boomers; however, Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney, two of the most famous musicians of the boomer's heyday, actually belong to the pre-boomer "silent" generation.

Numbers and facts can only tell part of the boomer's story. We'll fill in the gaps with some baby boomer characteristics on the next page.

Baby Boomer Characteristics

The Equal Rights Amendment was one of the major causes that many boomers championed.
The Equal Rights Amendment was one of the major causes that many boomers championed.
Barbara Freeman/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Probably more than anything else, boomers are known as social and political rabble-rousers. As author Leonard Steinhorn argues, "A better America is the true legacy of the baby boom generation." Here are just a few of the noteworthy causes associated with the baby boomer generation:

  • Civil rights: Boomers cut their teeth on civil rights in early adulthood. The nonviolent protest tactics they practiced foreshadowed the way boomers (and countless others) would approach the challenges of the future. As Time Magazine said, "[the boomers'] reformist energy surfaces in grass-roots movements aimed at curing everything from drunken driving to the arms race."
  • Antiwar demonstration (Vietnam): The antiwar movement may not have technically ended America's involvement in Vietnam; however, Vietnam was the cause that defined the baby boomer generation.
  • The Equal Rights Amendment: After pouring countless hours into the civil rights movement, the women of the baby boomer era tired of making coffee and printing pamphlets. They set out to lead their own workshops, make their own speeches and fight for their own rights. Title IX and the increasing number of career opportunities available to women stand as testament to the tireless work of the boomer generation's female leaders.

Disillusioned by the Vietnam War and the dire economic climate of the '70s, baby boomers traded revolution for recreation as the '70s came to a close. Rock 'n' roll made way for disco and the sexual revolution took hold. Dubbed the "me" and the "now" generation, the idealists of the '60s became the yuppies of the '80s. Nevertheless, the old optimism still informs the media's portrayal of the boomer generation. "Jack & Bobby," a short-lived WB television series, starred Christine Lahti as professor Grace McCallister, the quintessential baby boomer: an active, youthful, ultraliberal history professor devoted to feminism and her many other pet causes.

Even fact-driven CNN begins an article on the boomers' precarious financial situation as they reach retirement with an anecdote about aging boomers acting like youngsters "dancing wildly and waving their arms in the air to the unintelligible lyrics of 'Louie, Louie'" [source: Trickey]. Indeed, as the first baby boomers approach retirement age, the evidence suggests that they don't plan on going quietly. Read all about baby boomers retiring in the next section.

Baby Boomers Retiring

What will retirement look like for the baby boom generation?
What will retirement look like for the baby boom generation?
Comstock Images/Comstock/Thinkstock

On Jan. 1, 2011, the first baby boomers began turning 65. For the next 19 years, nearly 10,000 boomers will reach that milestone every single day [source: Barry]. Boomers aren't going gently into that good night, however. Instead, they are, as Dan Barry says in The New York Times, "redefining what it means to be older." For one thing, they aren't retiring from the workforce at 65 the way their parents did. For another, exercise, healthy eating and preventative medicine make them the healthiest bunch of fledgling retirees the world has ever seen. They don't look old, and they don't act old. For baby boomers, 60 is the new 40 and "Grandma" is "Glam-Ma" [source: Zissu].

Not everything is coming up roses for boomers, however. In 2008, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study on depression showed a nearly 20 percent increase in suicide rates for adults aged 45 to 54. For women in this age group, the rate increase jumps to 31 percent [source: Clark]. Researchers are investigating the increased used of prescription drugs as a possible cause. Another hypothesis is that boomers simply haven't lived up to the lofty aspirations of their youth. Boomers are also ill-prepared financially for retirement compared to their predecessors. Whether because of poor planning or because their best-laid plans were derailed by inflation in the '80s, the dot-com bust of the '90s and the recession of the '00s, many boomers are approaching retirement age without a significant nest egg.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that they're approaching the end of life with a fizzle. Countering the news about increased suicide rates for baby boomers are the results of a recent Gallup poll, which show a marked increase in overall happiness starting around age 50 [source: Cohen]. With a generation as large as that of the boomers, it is completely plausible that their moods might range from happy to despairing, just as they themselves span the gamut between liberal revolutionary and staunch conservative.

One thing's for sure: As boomers retire and begin to affect the resources of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, they are once again forcing a national conversation on public policy. Who knows? Maybe the debate will spark some of that old ingenuity, and the boomers will come up with a novel way around or through the question.

Still curious about this famous (and sometimes infamous) generation? Head over to the next page for a wealth of baby boomer-related content.

Related Articles

Sources

  • "A New Generation Shapes A New Era." NDN.Org. April 2, 2009. (June 1, 2011)http://ndn.org/node/4009
  • Barry, Dan. "Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65." The New York Times. Dec. 31, 2010. (May 25, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/01/us/01boomers.html
  • Clark, Carol. "Baby Boomers Raise Midlife Suicide Rate." Emory University. Sept. 27, 2010. (June 1, 2011)http://www.emory.edu/EMORY_REPORT/stories/2010/09/27/mid_life.html
  • Cohen, Patricia. "In Midlife, Boomers Are Happy - and Suicidal." The New York Times. June 12, 2010. (June 1, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/13/weekinreview/13cohen.html?scp=1&sq=in%20midlife,%20boomer%20are%20happy&st=cse
  • Cohen, Patricia. "Midlife Suicide Rises, Puzzling Researchers." The New York Times. Feb. 19, 2008. (May 27, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/19/us/19suicide.html?scp=4&sq=depression%20baby%20boomers&st=cse
  • Gordiner, Jeff. "How Generation X Got the Shaft But Can Still Keep Everything From Sucking." Viking Press. 2008. (05.07.11)http://books.google.com/books?id=oERbuOnpmFMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=has+generation+x+already+peaked&hl=en&ei=BsTGTeqlH43rgQeZ_tjLBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCoQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=has%20generation%20x%20already%20peaked&f=false
  • "Growing Pains at 40." Time Magazine. May 19, 1986. (May 25, 2011)http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,961401-1,00.html
  • Steinhorn, Leonard. "The Legacy of Baby Boomers? Social progress." New Castle News. Feb. 14, 2006. (May 25, 2011)http://www.ncnewsonline.com/opinion/x681182228/Leonard-Steinhorn-The-legacy-of-Baby-Boomers-Social-progress/print
  • Trickey, Helyn. "Baby Boomers or Bums?" CNN. Feb. 20, 2006. (May 25, 2011)http://articles.cnn.com/2006-02-15/us/babyboomers.planning_1_greater-generation-boomer-generation-dance-styles?_s=PM:US
  • U.S. Census Bureau. "Selected Characteristics of Baby Boomers 42 to 60 Years Old in 2006." 2006. (May 24, 2011)http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/age/2006%20Baby%20Boomers.pdf
  • Welch, William M. and Emily Bazar. "N.J. Woman Enjoys Celebrity of Being 1st Baby Boomer." USA Today. Dec. 30, 2005. (June 1, 2011)http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-12-29-first-boomer_x.htm
  • Zissu, Alexandra. "Who Are You Calling Grandma?" The New York Times. May 11, 2011. (June 1, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/12/fashion/noticed-who-are-you-calling-grandma.html?scp=6&sq=baby%20boomer&st=cse