First baby boomers to turn 60
December 11, 2005 | By Jim DeBrosse
From the Mickey Mouse Club to the culture wars of the new millennium, it’s always been about the boomers.
But if younger generations expect baby boomers to ride off gently into their golden years, they can turn up their iPods and forget it.
The generation that morphed from parties and protests to careerism and can-do politics is just now reaching the peak of its civic dominance—an era that will continue for at least the next 20 years, generational analysts say.
“The major post-war generations fill similar positions in our history, and they are remembered much more for what they did when they were old rather than young,” said William Strauss, a political consultant and co-author with Neil Howe of a series of best-selling books examining generational differences in America, including Generations and The Fourth Turning.
That’s good news for boomers—you might even say “far out”—because their oldest members will turn 60 next year.
“I don’t think we’ve had our full impact yet,” said Jeff Rutledge, 53, a sculptor and director of the Rutledge Gallery in downtown Dayton. “Our parents were caught up in the Great Depression and World War II, and left the world a much better place than they found it. It would be nice if we could carry on that legacy.”
The boomers—78 million of them born from 1946-64—are wealthier and more numerous than any generation before or since. They have controlled political power long enough to stack the financial deck in their favor.
Having first secured the presidency with Bill Clinton in 1992, boomers turned the congressional and state elections of 1994 “into the largest generational landslide since the 1860s,” Strauss said.
Strauss noted that the top leaders of the generation that won World War II—President Franklin Roosevelt, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gen. George Patton and general and statesman George Marshall—were born during the post-Civil War era and made their biggest contributions toward the end of their lives.
“Today, the (baby boomer) generation that took risks as youths are prepared to have their society take larger civic risks, and they’re going to push society into the next great gate of history,” Strauss said.
The danger is that boomers, more than any generation since the Civil War, are divided over what course the nation should take. The growing culture wars over abortion, family values, intelligent design and foreign interventions, as well as the nation’s widening economic rift between rich and poor, “should give us pause,” Strauss said.
“The Red Zone-Blue Zone states are very much a boomer-created phenomenon, and we have not seen such a sharp divide in this country—politically, culturally and socially—since the 1860s” when the nation was torn asunder over the issue of slavery, he said.
That division is reflected in how boomers feel about their legacy so far. Liberals revel in the generation’s tolerance and freedom. Conservatives decry its self-indulgence and moral relativism.
Julia Reichert, a Yellow Springs-based filmmaker who turns 60 next year, says boomers will be remembered most for creating life choices, especially for women.
“My daughter is much freer to do what she wants than I was,” she said. “Growing up in the ‘50s, what could I be? I could be a teacher, a nurse, a secretary. That’s it. I turned out to be a filmmaker. Could I have done that if I had been born 10 years earlier? I don’t think so.”
Dayton City Commissioner Dean Lovelace, who also turns 60 next year, credits boomers with carrying on the civil rights movement begun by their mentors, especially Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. As a result, “ doors were opened up, and opportunities expanded” for people of color, he said.
But Keith Moore, 47, senior pastor at Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, sees a much gloomier picture of what his generational peers have wrought. “The legacy of the baby boomer generation will be that we watched American morality slip away and did nothing about it.”
In his view and that of many other conservatives, values from the 1950s to the 1990s shifted from saving to spending, public virtue to personal well-being, duty to divorce and Mom and Dad to nannies and day care.
The battle lines for the nation’s soul have been drawn, Strauss said. What distinguishes post-war generations from others is a strong belief that the inner life can overcome the realities of the world. And that’s true for both liberal and conservative boomers, he said.
Post-war generations “grow up—by the standards of their time—as relatively indulged children, and they come of age as youths launching a spiritual awakening,” he said. “As they enter middle age and beyond, they carry their values regime into the realm of civic life.”
John Mohler, associate pastor at Patterson Park Church, agrees. “Change must start with individuals and move to families, churches and into society.”
Mohler criticizes what he calls the boomer generation’s glaring inconsistencies. “Many of us subscribe to the value of time-honored absolutes—God, family, marriage, fiscal responsibility—(yet) we also tolerate the erosion of these absolutes in our society. We enjoy the highest standard of living in American history, (yet) we are leaving our children in debt, as a government and as families.”
Strauss says it is a myth that baby boomers are more liberal than previous generations. While the generation that grew up just before and during World War II pushed for economic equality and tended to vote Democratic, boomers have shown since the Reagan years that the majority favor individualism and market forces over government intervention and social parity.
Among nearly all boomers, “there’s a substantial belief in markets and market outcomes,” Strauss said. “Certainly, boomers dominate Wall Street right now. And a liberal institution like Harvard spends $30 million a year just to manage its endowment. The aspect of accumulating wealth has become a very dominant thing in our society.”
Even the most liberal baby boomers can have regrets about the excesses of their past, whether it be drugs, free love or failing to pay off their student loans. Most don’t want to encourage their own children to take the same risks, Strauss said.
Mick Montgomery, owner of the Canal Street Tavern downtown and a boomer on the cusp of turning 60, lauds his generation for creating “a lot of opportunity to assert yourself as an individual,” but adds that “we tolerate things which should not be tolerated, even in society today.”
Montgomery admits that in his youth, “I went out and jumped on every train that went by,” but he doesn’t want his own two teenagers to follow the same risky pattern. “I think it’s typical to pull back a little bit when people get older and, as the cliche goes, wiser,” he said.
Strauss said the cliche is a historical pattern. “An emerging generation pushes society in the direction of risk as young people, and in mid-life they lead the pull back,” he said. “Once their children see that, they tend to correct for what they see as the major mistakes of their parents.”
Younger generations aren’t chasing after the footsteps of the boomers.
Nick Juszczak, a 24-year-old campus minister with Athletes in Action, said he admires the success that baby boomers have achieved in their careers, “but it has turned our society into a very materialistic one.”
Other young adults at the University of Dayton expressed a similar admiration for the drive of their parents, but vowed to have other priorities.
With boomers, “everything is more career-oriented. So what are you going to make of yourself?” said Katie Matteson, 19, a sophomore at UD.
Matteson says her generation will be successful too, but without sacrificing family and a fuller life. “The context in which we do (succeed) will be a lot different.”
Young people seem to agree that boomers opened the way to greater personal fulfillment, but also strapped them with the largest national debt in history and a growing burden of health care.
“We’re not going to have any Social Security when we’re older because we’re going to have to work to take care of them,” Matteson said of aging baby boomers.
Many young people applaud boomers for pointing the way to racial equality, but said it will be up to their own generation to erase the vestiges of racism in America.
“Things have gotten better, but overall there’s still tension,” said Matthew Rankin, a 21-year-old senior at UD. “With our generation, we’re just not talking about (better race relations), we’re acting on it. People are actually stepping forward and trying to confront the issues that are still there.”
But if the nation’s racial divide has begun to close, the culture wars between boomers on the political left and those on the right may be just beginning. The fight for control of the Supreme Court is just the latest example.
“Where do the culture wars lead? That’s the five-act play of which we’re now in the third act,” Strauss said. “We don’t know what the consequences will be.”