You’ll be reading a lot this year about baby boomers.
The New York Times set the tone on New Year’s Day with a front-page article noting that the eldest of the generation are turning 65 in 2011. That automatically shoves them into Medicare health care coverage, like it or not, where they are expected to test the limits of the federal entitlement program.
The Times’ headline, “Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65,” reflects some of the popular perception of the baby boom generation, of which I’m a member.
Boomers have a reputation as self-involved whiners who view themselves as special and different from prior generations. Sociologists love boomers, those born in the post-World War II era population bulge from 1946 to 1964, and they study them incessantly.
Among other conclusions they have reached is that boomers are often unhappy with the way their lives turned out, which doesn’t strike me as particularly emblematic of any particular generation.
At least some social scientists divide the baby boomers into two cohorts — those born between 1946 and 1955 and those between 1956 and 1964. (Some also include those born between 1943 and 1945 in the first group because, though they were born before the war was over, they have no memory of it and generally have the same life’s experiences as those born soon after the war.)
Those experiences include the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the landing of a man on the moon and the call to social activism manifested in the antiwar, civil rights and women’s movements and environmental causes. They also include cultural changes in the area of the arts, sexual freedom and alternative lifestyles. One study found that more than 40 percent of baby boomers had left the organized religion in which they were raised.
While rock ’n’ roll music wasn’t the invention of baby boomers, it was embraced by them. (The later group of boomers liked disco.)
There are 79 million baby boomers in the country, and the Pew Research Center says approximately 10,000 of them will turn 65 every day for the next 19 years. Where the baby boomers are truly different from prior generations is in the state of their health. Thanks to better nutrition, more exercise, better science and medicine, they’re in a lot better shape than their parents were at the same age.
Some of them are already retired. But many of them are not and aren’t particularly ready to do so, which can be a different kind of problem from that posed by those who are testing the resources of federal retirement programs. These well educated, experienced and healthy boomers can be viewed as obstacles by younger people who want to move up the career ladder.
The generation has been referred to inelegantly as “the pig in a python,” a big bulge moving slowly. Whether apt or not, it isn’t a particularly flattering image.
Also unfair is the “whiny” description that is frequently applied to the generation. I don’t notice any more whining going on among baby boomers than in Generation X’ers, for example.
There is always a problem when one tries to apply labels to any particular group of people, and when it’s a group that’s 79 million strong, labels are downright laughable.
Irv Dean is the Gazette's city editor. Reach him by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.