The Boom Generation, "What a Long Strange Trip" (Part 4 of 7)
August 20, 2014 | By Neil Howe
This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.
This is part four of a seven-part series examining the rising (or falling) living standards of successive U.S. generations. Read part one here.
Boomers (born 1943-60) today comprise 65 million adults mostly in their 50s and 60s. As a social generation, in my opinion, Boomers are a bit older than the oft-cited Census Bureau definition (1946-64), which merely refers to a “baby boom” fertility rate hump. If you remember World War II, were out of college when JFK was shot, and recall Woodstock as something “kids” were doing, you’re too old to be a Boomer. If you can’t recall the moment JFK was shot, nor Jim, Jimi, or Janice when they were still alive, you’re too young.
However you date them, we all know the Boomers’ life story. It’s as though no phase of life means anything until Boomers pass through it and can tell us about it. They started out as feed-on-demand Dr. Spock babies, then grew into the indulged Beaver Cleavers of the ‘50s, then the college and inner-city rioters of the late ‘60s, and finally ended up as the young family-values moms and dads of the ‘80s.
Along the way—somewhere between LBJ and Reagan, between hippie and yuppie—Boomers shook the windows and rattled the walls (to paraphrase Bob Dylan) of everything their parents had built. In so doing, this “generation” (a word they repopularized) became especially well-known for its cultivation of self and its carelessness about material wealth. It’s no coincidence that Boomers mark first the apogee, and then the decline, in generational progress as measured by real-dollar income. First-wave Boomers born mainly in the mid-1940s have done best, but late-wave Boomers born mainly in the mid- to late 1950s are underperforming the first-wavers at nearly every age. First-wave Boomers in their 40s and 50s, for example, had a median family income nearly $10,000 higher than late-wave Boomers later had at the same age.
One explanation for this turnaround is simple age location. First-wave Boomers emulated the Silent: They followed the rules more carefully, went to school longer, and got married earlier. Late-wave Boomers—who hit the social turmoil of the ‘60s at progressively younger ages—got into more trouble, graduated less often from college, and married much later (if at all). The difference in age location also extends to the economy. Most first-wavers launched careers (in 1972 or before) during the revved-up go-go years. Most late-wavers launched careers (in 1973 or after) when the economy was stagflating.
Yet a fuller explanation require mentioning three collective personality traits that define Boomers as a generation—and that gathered force moving from first wave to last.
The first Boomer trait is their famous individualism. Boomers have long behaved as if they didn’t need institutions or each other. This is the first generation of women, for example, to regard itself as essentially economically independent. Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone explains most of the growing shift away from civic and group participation in postwar America as a cohort phenomenon—and one that started with Boomers. This individualism helps explain why Boomers have avoided the group security offered by unions or paternalistic benefit plans—and why, as voters, Boomers have been generally tolerant of a growing rich-versus-poor spread in America’s income distribution, which of course widens the gap between mean and median.
The second trait is their attraction to personal risk-taking. As youth, Boomers pushed the envelope on danger, propelling rates of accidents, suicide, crime, drug use, and STDs to unprecedented levels. Today, many of those indicators are rising swiftly for midlife Americans, even as they fall among youth. Risk-taking has obvious implications for economic decision-making—for example, portfolio selection. There’s also mounting evidence that Boomers have higher rates of lifestyle-related chronic disease than the previous generation at the same age. This would mark a reversal of health gains achieved by the G.I.s and Silent as elders, and it may portend a decline in the Boomers’ productivity and employability as they age—as well as a further acceleration in disability and health benefit spending.
Finally, there is the Boomers’ values orientation. This generation has always preferred dividing the world into right versus wrong, good versus bad. They came of age creating the “counter-culture,” whose purpose was to judge their parents. Now they lead the “culture wars,” whose purpose is to judge each other. This strong values orientation makes Boomers suspicious of purely material measures of life success. According to a recent MetLife survey, Boomers are considerably less likely than other generations to agree that the American Dream means “exceeding your parents’ standard of living.” And according to U.S. Trust, Boomers are a lot more likely than prior generations to say that giving their kids “good values” is more important than providing them with a material inheritance. Even high-end Boomers agree with this.
Today, Boomers are busy redefining retirement—or getting ready to redefine it. The G.I.s started a trend toward earlier retirement with more money than they expected in an era of expanding benefits. Boomers are retiring later with less money than they expected in an era of retracting benefits.
The G.I.s wanted to be away from their kids and near their peers—which led to the construction of vast age-restricted desert communities like Sun City and Leisure World. Boomers want to be away from their peers and near their kids—indeed, many of their Millennial kids just refuse to leave. As developers prep their active-adult communities for the coming late wave, they can expect less affluence, somewhat greater ethnic diversity, a weaker middle class, and, perhaps eventually, an abandonment of the very word “retirement.”
All their lives, Boomers have touted a lofty vision of the American Dream that eschews the material in favor of a deeper, more meaningful definition of both work and play. That’s a good thing, because many of them (late-wavers, especially) will have to work much longer than their parents did—or find fulfillment in “priceless” play that can be purchased at bargain prices.