Where We’re Born in History Impacts How We Age and the Quality of Our Golden Years

May 24, 2004 | By Liz Taylor

Over a decade ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote a timeless book, “Generations,” (Perennial, $16.95) in which they discussed the intriguing phenomenon they call the “peer personality” of the generations. That is, every birth group has a personality, shaped by events that happened to its members when they were young. No matter how different we are from each other, we tend to think and react similarly to people our own age.

“You and your peers share the same ‘age location’ in history,” write Strauss and Howe, “and your generation’s collective mind-set cannot help but influence you—whether you agree with it or spend a lifetime battling against it.”

Why is this important?

Because where we’re born in history has a huge impact on how we age, which in turn has a huge impact on what will happen to us—and society. Let’s see what this means.

  • The World War II generation—around 35 million people, now in their 80s and 90s—are known as America’s “rational problem-solvers.” They were victorious soldiers and Rosie the Riveters, “men’s men” who knew how to get things done. Surviving the Depression, they experienced upward mobility and rising homeownership more than any other generation this century, say Strauss and Howe, becoming the most affluent elders of the 20th century. The entire modern growth in government spending coincided with their adult life-cycle. Valuing outer life over inner, they were stubborn, tight-fisted and lived by highly defined sex-roles in which men dominated.
  • Next in line is the “Silent Generation.” Born during the Depression in a birth “trough” (when many people couldn’t afford to marry or have children), this relatively small group is now in their 60s and 70s, numbering around 30 million people. These are the “adapters,” say Strauss and Howe, known for their gray-flannel suits and secure corporate careers (only 2 percent opted to be entrepreneurs). They were the earliest-marrying and earliest-babying generation in American history. Enjoying a lifetime of steadily rising affluence, they suffered relatively few war casualties (Korea) and held the 20th century’s lowest rates for almost every social pathology of youth, such as crime, suicide, illegitimate births and teen unemployment. Squeezed like the “stuffing in a sandwich between the get-it-done WWII generation and the self-absorbed Boomers,” the book says, they didn’t make waves but spent their lives refining and humanizing the world.
  • Then come the Boomers—76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, accounting for fully one-third of the American population. A vast and varied group, they are the “idealists,” say Strauss and Howe, pulling the rug out from under the nation on all sorts of issues that their WWII parents thought were set in concrete—war (Vietnam), work, sex roles, sexual behavior, music, drugs, race. From Hippie to bran-eater to Yuppie to Yoga Queen, the Boomers are—if nothing else—supremely self-confident, sassy and in-your-face. Plus, they aren’t savers.

So what do these differences mean as the generations grow old? The most important lesson is that the world we see now is not likely to be the same when we reach old age. Here are a few observations:

The WWII generation cruised into old age almost by accident. Never having planned to grow old—because few people did when they were young—they didn’t think about how they’d provide for their care someday. Undemanding as long as care was free or cheap (the residue of the Depression), they settled for the services they got, much of it poor to mediocre. Government funds provided a safety net unheard of in previous generations.

Today as the WWII group passes from the scene, the Silents are taking their place. Optimistic about the future, they’re more open to planning for their aging—but not more sophisticated or demanding. Many will have the money to cover their needs (which is good, since public funds will be drying up). With a high divorce rate, many of the women never remarried. What impact will this have? Perhaps many will opt to live in groups, such as retirement communities, for their safety and friendships, pushing the envelope of what exists. But will they demand better care?

On stage next are the Boomers, aging like no other generation in history. Easily living into their 90s and 100s, their appetite for Thai food one night and Ethiopian the next will drive caregivers crazy (if caregivers can be found, given the labor shortage expected in 20 years). Public funding will be gone, so Boomers—never good about saving—will be forced to come up with new attitudes and new inventions. What will they be? What will the world of eldercare be like when the largest, most demanding generation in history grows old?

The mind boggles just thinking about it. One thing is clear: the long-term care system is very large and unyielding, and 20 years go by in a blink. If the Boomers care about their futures, it’s time to think about it.