Is the Baby Boom generation really that different?
In many respects, the answer is no, but there are important ways the 78 million people born from the end of World War II to 1964 are distinguishable from all previous generations. The distinctiveness is not just in the numbers, but also in values, life choices, and longevity.
- Largest generation in American history, about 76 million born in the U.S.A. plus 2 million immigrants
- First generation to be raised on television (called by some a "surrogate parent")
- First generation to be raised on rock 'n' roll, top 40 radio, comic books, color movies, soft drinks, and fast food
- First generation to be raised largely in the suburbs
- First generation to be targeted aggressively and consistently by the advertising world, fostering a sense of identity separate from all others in the U.S. during the last 60 years
- Primary generation to fight in and protest about the Vietnam War, question authority, experiment with drugs and alternative lifestyles, and lead both the Civil Rights Movement and Women's Rights Movement
- Most affluent consumer group ever -- Boomers own 78 percent of America's financial assets, and 80 percent of all money in savings accounts, amassing $41.5 trillion in wealth
Even with all these facts, there are many Boomer myths floating around out there. Here's a clearer picture.
The media image of the typical Boomer as an affluent, aging hippie with silver hair who drives a BMW is simply not accurate. There is considerable diversity within this generation. For example, there are some significant differences between "leading-edge" Boomers (born from the end of World War II through 1955) and "trailing-edge" Boomers (born between 1956 and 1964).
Leading-edge Boomers lived with the nuclear threat, but the Vietnam War was their defining point in history. They also experienced unprecedented periods of economic growth and prosperity. They were heavily influenced by television such as The Mickey Mouse Club and Leave It To Beaver, and the music of Elvis Presley, The Drifters, The Everly Brothers, Bob Dylan, Ricky Nelson, Chuck Berry, the British Invasion music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and others. There were political and environmental protests, recreational drugs, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.
Trailing-edge Boomers were influenced by a somewhat different cultural experience consisting of the messy ending of the Vietnam conflict, followed by Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon, the Cold War, oil embargo, high inflation, more music (including disco, pop, heavy metal, punk), astronauts and moon shots, other civil rights movements (awareness of women's rights, gay rights, and rights for those with disabilities), personal computers, and "fast" everything.
Trailing-edge Boomers have larger families than leading-edge Boomers, but still considerably smaller than the previous generation, and 69 percent own their own homes. Leading-edge Boomers spend more on new clothes, hotels, and vacation homes (76 percent own their own homes), and are more likely to vote than younger Boomers (69 percent vs. 56 percent).
About 7.3 percent of all Boomers live in poverty, lower than any other segment of the population. But most Boomer families fall into the middle-income range, making about $58,000 per year.
Some are very wealthy. According to the General Accounting Office, the top quarter of Boomer households owns 86 percent of an estimated $7 trillion in stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other assets; the top 10 percent owns two-thirds of these assets.
Boomers are not all white, married with children, and affluent. Although Boomers represent 27 percent of the U.S. population and 48 percent of all households, more than half live in only nine states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and New Jersey, with the largest concentrations in Texas, Florida, and California. Here in San Diego, there are an estimated 1.1 million Boomers -- 37 percent of the population.
Demographically, there are slightly more females than males (51 percent vs. 49 percent), 17 percent are minorities, and 13 percent of Boomers never married (higher than any other generation). Boomers also have a higher divorce rate than previous generations.
Still working hard
Boomers are not retiring at the traditional age. An AARP survey found that 79 percent of Boomers plan on working at least part-time during the so-called "retirement years." At first, this may seem odd but there are several good reasons. Boomers are not "ready" to leave the playing field; their health, energy, and productivity levels are unprecedented. The cost of maintaining their current standard of living and health benefits, generally higher than their parents, is forcing many Boomers to continue working in some capacity in order to "live the good life," or at least maintain the one they currently enjoy.
Some Boomers are caught in an expensive "sandwich dilemma," that is, supporting their own "boomerang" children at some level, while caring for aging Senior generation parents with various life issues (social security, transportation, health care, financial challenges). These unique generational issues consume valuable resources, take time, and have an emotional cost.
Today, Boomers are the mainstream of American life. They are better educated, more productive, and healthier than all prior generations. They dominate the cultural, academic, economic, and political worlds across the nation. With their "generational gift" of longevity -— living two or even three decades beyond the arbitrary retirement age of 65 -— they are a powerful social force in the 21st Century.
In the year 2030, when the oldest Boomers reach 85 years in age and the youngest are 65, there will still be 61.4 million residents in the U.S. who are connected with and identify themselves as Boomers.
Demographics are destiny!