Young End of Boomer Spectrum Skews Right of the Middle

January 25, 2006 | By MacKenzie Carpenter

They staged sit-ins on college campuses, they protested against Vietnam, they grew their hair long, smoked pot, made love not war.

Politically speaking, the baby boomers were liberals, right?

Wrong. There’s a whole other group of boomers out there who wouldn’t know a love bead if it popped them on the head.

“I don’t remember ‘The Howdy Doody Show.’ I was 10 years old when Woodstock happened,” says J. Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. “And I was in college when Ronald Reagan was elected president.”

Timing is everything when discussing baby boomer politics, Mr. Coker argues. The first wave of baby boomers came of age during the 1960s, but the group born after 1954 or 1955 grew up with Watergate, Jimmy Carter and the hostage crisis, and for the most part, became voters during the Reagan presidency.

And they are markedly more conservative: In the last election alone, voters age 35 to 49 went for Bush by huge margins, Mr. Coker said.

“That last 10 years of the baby boomers is heavily Republican in poll after poll after poll,” he said.

Depending on which political scientist is talking, though, this sprawling group—78 million people strong, the first of which are turning 60 this year—can be divided into any number of subgroups, each with its own set of political leanings.

While Mr. Coker prefers to cut the group in two—before and after 1954—William Strauss and Neil Howe, who’ve authored best-selling books about generational politics, take a different approach. In their most recent book, “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy,” they push the beginning of the boomer generation back to 1943, when many soldiers were home on leave, and end it at 1960. (The most common definition of boomers is those born between 1946 and 1964).

“A baby boomer,” said Mr. Strauss, “is someone who is too young to have a personal memory of World War II.”

The earliest “victory babies” are referred to as the ” ‘43 cohort” in Strauss and Howe’s research, and they include such 1960s icons as Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison and football great Joe Namath. The leaders of the Free Speech movement at Berkeley were from the ‘43 cohort, Mr. Strauss noted. Far from being counterculture liberals, though, the ‘43 cohort includes conservatives Newt Gingrich and William Bennett.

Those born between 1943 and 1960, says Mr. Strauss, best fit the most common image of the baby boomer: children of suburbia, Sputnik, Dr. Spock and TV’s “Leave it To Beaver” who grew up to fight the culture wars of abortion, school prayer, gun control and other social issues. Those born after 1960 are lumped into Generation X (1961 to 1981) by Strauss and Howe: latchkey kids struggling with divorced parents who grow up to be slackers in the age of AIDS, suspicious of political affiliation, more inclined to volunteer than vote.

While Mr. Strauss agrees with Mr. Coker that the latter half of the baby boom generation—and the first half of the Xers—tend to be more conservative than the population as a whole, the earlier group of baby boomers born in the 1940s and early to mid-1950s cannot be described as particularly liberal. Rather, they split down the middle on issue after issue: Indeed, the red-state-blue-state battle is a boomer phenomenon. For example, boomers are evenly divided on whether the Vietnam War should have been fought in the first place, according to a 2004 survey by the AARP (which uses the 1946-64 boomer definition).

Still, William Mayer, a political scientist at Northeastern University, believes that, as a group, baby boomers are “a bit more liberal” than their parents were on race and gender issues:

“But far from sticking out in that way, that’s always been the pattern in American politics in the 20th century. Every incoming cohort is more racially progressive, a little bit more egalitarian about the role of women and minorities.”

More so than those who came before or after them, though, baby boomers view politics through the lens of their own strongly held personal beliefs, and, as such, find it difficult to reach consensus.

“The boomers are not a liberal or conservative generation,” Mr. Strauss said. “They are an argumentative, culture warrior generation that defines issues in terms of values and wants to defeat enemies rather than compromise with them or contain them.”

As youths, this generation may have been perceived as left-leaning, but those baby boomers who first ascended into national political leadership—those born between 1943 and 1953—were mostly Republican, he added. Republican boomers have controlled the House of Representatives for the last six terms and the Senate for the past three, said Mr. Strauss, noting that when Newt Gingrich’s 1994 revolution wiped out the U.S. House Democratic leadership, “you saw the biggest push out of office of one generation by another, the largest generational landslide since 1868.” And earlier, a widely documented shift of boomers—mostly men—turned a close Reagan-Carter presidential race into a Reagan landslide in 1980.

When it comes to voting habits, though, they’ve only been average—not as reliable as their parents and not as disengaged as Generation Xers. In the next 20 years, boomers will become increasingly politically active, though, according to a 2004 AARP survey. In fact, some experts believe that as baby boomers move into their 60s, voter participation in elections will spike dramatically because the most regular voters tend to be between age 65 and 75.

That may be true nationally, but not in Pittsburgh, which is experiencing a declining elderly population, said University of Pittsburgh researcher Christopher Briem. He noted that the percentage of people age 65 and over peaked in Pittsburgh around 1996, has been declining ever since and won’t reach the same level again for at least another decade.

“Most of the people who left Pittsburgh 20 years ago when the steel industry collapsed were baby boomers, and they’re going to be retiring elsewhere,” said Mr. Briem.

But others aren’t sure that this generation, so noted for political activism in its youth, will return to those days. David King, associate director of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is skeptical that legions of aging baby boomers will flood the polls in the years to come—even as problems with Social Security and health care reach crisis proportions.

For all their youthful idealism, the baby boomer generation is one of the least civic-minded in history, he said.

“All you have to do is go into a polling place,” said Mr. King. “Who’s manning the booths? The people who have been doing the hard civic work all these years, the World War II veterans.”

Don’t expect them to be replaced by baby boomers, he warned. Not only will that group not be retiring as quickly—if at all, as lifetime pensions and other benefits shrink—they will remain cynical, self-absorbed and disaffected.

“Just look at what they [the boomers] have been doing for the last 10 years. They’ve been busy focusing on themselves and not on the community,” Mr. King said. “And if and when they retire, they’ll probably spend those years out on the golf course, doing what they’ve always done—which is to complain about the government.”

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