Baby Boomers Got the Blues
July 10, 2008 | By Monica Hesse
The baby boomers—that prominent group of middle-agers whose massive numbers invite never-ending dissection and speculation—have once again spoken. What they have said is, " Waaaaaahhh."
This is according to a social and demographic trends survey released recently by the Pew Research Center. The survey measured the pessimism, dissatisfaction and general curmudgeonliness of 2,413 adults in various generations.
The results validate any member of the Greatest Generation who ever looked at his or her offspring and sadly thought, "soft." Simply put, boomers are a bunch of…whiners.
More than older or younger generations, boomers—born from 1946 to 1964—worry that their income won't keep up with rising costs of living. They say it's harder to get ahead today than it was 10 years ago. They are more likely to say that their standard of living is lower than their folks' but that things don't look too good for their kids either (67 percent of younger generations, meanwhile, feel they have it better than their parents).
Everything stinks, except for the things that stink even more, and it's not exactly clear why, considering that this is the population with the highest median income. Boomers also have fewer difficulties affording housing or medical care, the survey says, and they enjoyed greater job security last year than older or younger generations.
So what is their deal?
"I'll tell you," says Mary Furlong, who runs a California consulting firm helping companies reach out to boomer consumers, and who fits the demographic herself. "Basically, it's because we were always on the front end of opportunity and optimism until now."
Now, they are the sandwich generation. Now, they are caring for aging parents who live longer and longer and longer, and for boomerang children who graduate from college and then move right back home, sans rent or rules. Now, boomers must deal with what Furlong calls "exogenous shocks that hit you midlife."
Oh, the drama! Oh, the anguish!
Nice try, Mary. The Pew study acknowledges many of these (totally valid) points, and it's all very well and good except for this: A recent University of Chicago sociology study compared the results of happiness surveys going back more than 30 years and found that boomers have never been happy. In 2004, 28 percent of respondents born in 1950 considered themselves "very happy," compared with 40.2 percent of those born in 1935. Back in 1972, the figures for those same generations were 28.9 and 35.4.
A whole lifetime of whining.
(Pew has also seen a pattern of gaps in the two decades it has performed quality-of-life surveys, though at times the differences have been too slight to be considered significant.)
Furlong reformulates her position. Back in the 1970s, "we were going to build an idealistic culture. We weren't going to be alone. We were going to leave the world a better place." And now? "The hope has been eroded." In other words, boomers used to be gloomy because the world needed change. Now, they're gloomy because change didn't work out quite as they'd hoped.
Sigh. Those poor, tortured boomers, slouching around like our angsty brother who insists on being called "Holden."
Perpetually restless, utterly mysterious and so very multitudinous—76 million—that the rest of us are doomed to study them, analyze them, wave shiny objects around for them. We write scores of books about them, with titles like "Age Power" and "Boomer Consumer: Ten New Rules for Marketing to America's Largest, Wealthiest and Most Influential Group."
It's all part of the frantic tap dance of figuring out how to raise boomers' tender and flagging happiness, when what we want to say is, BUCK UP ALREADY.
But according to some sociologists, there is no cure for a collective funk that exists simply because of when you are born.
Yang Yang, an assistant professor of sociology and author of the Chicago study, says the generation's malaise has less to do with circumstance and more to do with the cohort effect, an argument that goes something like this: Boomers, born into families riding the American Dream, expected that such easy living would always come naturally. Happiness was seen as a right and inevitability.
Unfortunately, their hopes were foiled by their own gargantuan, globby size, says Yang: Lots of people born at once made for lots of competition for school slots, jobs and resources. That competition resulted in dashed expectations, turn after turn.
"They experienced pressure that is likely to follow them the rest of their lives," says Yang.
It's a cyclical downer that follows many generations born after times of crisis, says Neil Howe, an author who gained fame for his theories of recurrent generational behavior. It plagued the Transcendental generation, born on the heels of American independence, and the Missionary generation that arrived after the Civil War.
"People born in times of cultural renewal tend to take an overt attitude of pessimism," Howe says.
They see their pessimism as a tonic that will wake up the world, then they just end up drunk on disappointment.