Boomers Redux

It ain't easy being a Boomer.  From Tom Brokaw to Barack Obama, chastising the Baby Boomer generation is a national pastime.  We're vain.  We refuse to grow up.  We're irresponsible.  We were bad parents.  We're selfish.  We had everything handed to us on a silver platter.  We're druggies.  We're techno-impaired.  I thought about linking these stereotypes but couldn't choose from the thousands of references.  Even Obama,  technically a Boomer himself, has been adamant about distancing himself from our generation and wrote in The Audacity of Hope:
“In the back and forth between Clinton and Gingrich, and in the elections of 2000 and 2004, I sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation — a tale rooted in old grudges and revenge plots hatched on a handful of college campuses long ago — played out on the national stage.”
So as is my occasional wont, I thought maybe we should actually look at the facts.  What's true about Baby Boomers -- good and bad -- and what is pure myth?

The Basics (See 2006 US Census data)

  • We were a big bubble of births after World War II, though not as great a birth rate as before World War I.  The birth rates had been declining and we were the uptick.  We're still a heck of a lot of Americans, about 26% of the population.  (Check this cool graphic)
  • 65% of us are married, the highest proportion of any current generation.  We also have the highest proportion of divorces (17%).
  • 58% of us are college educated and 29% have a bachelor's degree or higher.  We are the most educated generation.
  • 11% of us are military veterans, while more than twice as many (23%) of the previous generation were.
  • 75% of us own our own homes.
The Ugly Facts about Boomers

There are certainly some nasty trends that we Boomers have to own.  We don't save like our parents' generation and we are guilty of abusing our too-easy credit cards.  While our parents learned from the Great Depression of their childhood to put away for a rainy day, we grew up in a time of plenty and held more optimism for the future.  We were such a giant bubble that K Street (the advertisers) couldn't pander enough to us.  We were the first generation bombarded with advertising for breakfast cereals, toys, make-up, cars, clothing, beer...whatever our age group might indulge.

We were also the convenience food generation.  My mother's total purchases of TV Dinners over her lifetime was maybe 50 for a family of 6.  Like her mother before her (well not exactly, my grandmother was a great cook), my mother prepared meals from scratch using mostly wholesome ingredients.  Though many of us Boomers have been faithful to the natural food movement of the 1970s, others succumbed to the over-packaged, over-processed faux food marketed to us.  Convenience foods, restaurant meals and junk food took increasing chunks of our families' diets.  But to be fair to my Boomer sisters, most of our mothers didn't hold full-time jobs and then come home to a hungry family.  Most women of the Greatest Generation were housewives.  Cooking's a simpler affair when you have time to plan it.

We were the first generation to experiment with marijuana, LSD and other illicit drugs en masse.  Sure, reefers had been around but few of my parents' generation tried them.  But then Timothy Leary (one of them) gave us the gift of getting stoned and we were off to the races.  Not all of us but more than half tried illicit drugs at some time and a few never weaned themselves from them (the government reports that about 6.3% of Boomers still use illegal drugs).  Of course, our use was handily eclipsed by the generations that followed. 

On the other hand...

But there is also much to celebrate about our generation.  When economists praise the exceptional productivity of the American worker, they're talking about us.  We are the workaholic generation, those who donate free overtime to our bosses, are committed to our jobs and take pride in our work.   We were twice the workforce of previous generations (adding women to the labor pool) and gave more time to our jobs than previous generations of workers.  Baby Boomer women have the distinction of inventing the tug-of-war between work and child-rearing.  According to Forbes Magazine, we are also the most active entrepreneurs, even in the high tech industry.

Yet because there were so many of us, we struggled competing for jobs and college.  I remember applying for teaching jobs early in my career where employers had hundreds of applicants to choose from.  By the time I was an administrator looking to hire, the pool of applicants had shrunk and I rarely had more than 10 or 15 applicants for a position.  The same held true for college admissions.  Selective colleges were able to raise their standards and take the cream of the crop because we were so plentiful.  By the 1990s, the colleges were competing with each other for top students' attention.  All this competition affected our confidence and we felt privileged to even have a job, driving our hard work.

So we worked harder but saw less for it.  Real income when many of us entered the workforce in the late 1970s and 1980s stagnated.  The assault on unions in the 1980s directly affected us and the pensions and health care our parents' generation took for granted began disappearing.  From a high of 26% union membership in 1960, the fall to 12% today had real consequences. (See The Final Relic of the American Middle Class)

When I look back at the significant social programs and benefits of my lifetime, they tended to target either our parents' generation or our children's.  The GI Bill, Social Security and Medicare became more and more generous as politicians courted our parents' votes. Special Education, Title IX, the School Lunch program, Title I and active and project learning all came after we graduated high school.  Few social programs targeted our age group, a curiosity given our enormous size.  What we did get were Pell Grants and the Peace Corps. We responded by going to college and creating lives of service.

Like many Boomers I'm an avid volunteer, active in four community non-profits currently.  Though I'm now retired, I have been a volunteer and community participant all my life.  On every board I serve and in every volunteer cadre I participate in, nearly every seat is occupied by a Boomer.  We actively seek diversity on our Boards and recruit younger members, but they rarely last long.  Baby boomers have the highest rate of volunteerism of any generation.  We grew up marching against a foolish war and participating in (or admiring from the sidelines) the Civil Rights movement and other major social movements of our youth.  For many of us, an obligation to stay involved, participate and share in the work of building a community is in our fiber. 

Now as Boomers approach or enter Retirement, we are chastised for our potential to bankrupt Social Security and Medicare.  Yet since Reagan, our contributions every year have paid for the benefits our parents received -- substantially more than their lifetime contributions.  (See Social Security and the BoomersThe fund has $2.5 TRILLION in reserve.  Our deposits into these funds will carry us until 2043, when I doubt there will be too many of us left.

One of the reasons I think few of us Boomers defend our honor is because of another label we've been tagged with:  Whiners.  Some day maybe we'll be missed and heralded.  For most of our lives, we've been maligned.  There.  The whine and nothing but the whine.

Well, one more thing.  Our music was the grooviest..