Baby boomers are not all created equal

December 28, 2004|By SUSAN REIMER

BABY BOOMERS, it is assumed, were all conceived the night their daddies returned from World War II.

They all grew up in a brand-new, cookie-cutter subdivision in an Ozzie-and-Harriet family, watching The Lone Ranger on a brand-new black-and-white television.

Baby boomers all went to college, where they protested the Vietnam War, went to Woodstock and, embittered by assassinations and Watergate, dropped out for a while.

Now they are mainstream middle America, living in their own suburban subdivisions, finishing off the raising of 2.3 children and approaching a comfortable retirement.

The assumption that all baby boomers are alike comes, I think, from the pig-through-the-python impact we have had on every institution as we moved through life - from school construction to Social Security.

There are so many of us, our impact is felt every time we hiccup. And it always has been assumed that we hiccup at the same time, in the same way and for the same reason.

But a new study of baby boomers at midlife by researchers at Duke University suggests that we are not a homogeneous group. In fact, our life stories differ not only from the lives of those who came before and after us, but from each other's lives as well.

Mary Elizabeth Hughes and Angela M. O'Rand begin their assessment of 2000 census data by pointing out that the last of the boomers were just out of diapers when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated and when the Vietnam War raged most fiercely.

The baby boom was a statistical spike that began in 1946 and ended in 1964. That means the last of the boomers was born just as the first wave was hitting adulthood.

"The reason for the diversity among boomers is not just the 19-year age difference," said Hughes in a telephone interview from Duke.

Boomers have such different life stories because some of us went to college and rode the wave of an emerging and prosperous service economy while others did not go to college and suffered on the fringes of a fading manufacturing economy.

Boomers pride themselves in their role in the civil rights movement, but the truth is that, all these years later, African-American boomers continue to lag behind white boomers in education and wealth.

The result is what Hughes calls "unequal lives."

Boomers think they invented sex, but the recent release of the movie Kinsey dispels that notion, too.

But the fact is, boomers institutionalized cohabitation and that has meant life stories - including children out of wedlock or delayed childbearing, marriage, divorce and blended families - that are much more complex than those of our parents.

"All of these factors intertwine to make the lives of the boomers very different, not only from the previous generation's, but from each other's," said Hughes, herself a boomer.

All of this is a little tough to take if you are a baby boomer. We think we battled racism, sexism and poverty into retreat. We think we freed lovemaking from the constraints of pregnancy and marriage.

We think we are better educated than any generation and better paid. We think we reformed government, defeated Communism and disarmed the world.

We think we changed the nature of aging and re-invented family. But the truth is, we did none of those things, and it is a bit of a blow to the ego.

"One of the reasons that we think we changed the world is because we are so big. Things became visible because we were doing them and you can't miss us," said Hughes.

"The sheer size of this generation emphasized everything, amplified the differences, magnified modest changes and made them larger than life."

But we were simply responding to the changes in the world around us, just as each generation has. We are exceptional only for our size.

Hughes believes that the current divisiveness in the country, demonstrated in the presidential election, is a function of the enormous diversity - disparity, if you will - of the life experiences of all these boomers.

We are the grownups now, but we are not working of the same - or even a similar - script. There are a lot of us, and we are all coming from a different place.

"This is the point where we will see if boomers are truly pivotal," predicted Hughes. "Will we be able to make sense of all this diversity?"

One thing is certain: It will be hard to hide the result if we do not.

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