Boom Time

The generation that wrote its own rules now looks to redefine the concept of aging

The Middle Ages

A new feature about staying young, growing old and what happens in between

October 15, 2006|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,[Sun Reporter]

When I turned 40, my mother gave me a birthday card with an illustration of knights jousting and a message that said "Welcome to the Middle Ages."

Frankly, I was offended. That's a card you give to someone turning 50, I thought. The 40s are just some sort of pre-game warm-up.

Does that sound like a typical baby boomer response?

At the time, our daughter was still in preschool and my husband and I were juggling several different jobs. Now our daughter is applying to college and we're still "multi-tasking." After a prolonged youth spent avoiding activities that made me sweat, I've added marathon running to the mix.

Marathoning at midlife may be my version of the red sports car. Or it may be a way to remain fit to enjoy my 70s, when I may be semi-old and finally able to retire.

Or you might just say it's a baby boomer thing.

The 78 million baby boomers -- Americans born from 1946 to 1964 -- continue to challenge traditional notions of religion, spirituality, social activism, politics, art, intimacy, fashion, sports and, too often, good taste.

This is not a conventional group. Some of my boomer friends are first-time parents in their 40s, and graduate students in their 50s. We're also an old subject, one that's getting older each day. It's hard to pass a week without hearing some official in public life opine what the aging of the largest-ever generation will mean for this country.

Will we entertain second, perhaps third, careers? Will we stay at home or move into senior communities? Will we continue to play club lacrosse ... or strain the health care system in other ways? Will we go back to school? Can we be drafted into volunteering? Will we pile onto cruise ships? Will we need to keep our day jobs well into our 70s?

All of the above, say Mary Elizabeth Hughes and Angela O'Rand, Duke University scholars who studied the population group for their 2004 report, "The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers," part of a study funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and Population Reference Bureau.

Next to its size, the only definitive thing about this generation, they say, is that it's the most diverse generation the country has known. Born into a world forever altered by World War II, boomers inherited, encountered and redirected social change. Defined by a sustained surge in the annual number of births, the generation even surprised the world by lasting for 19 years.

Among other cultural milestones, the baby boom period encompassed the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, the shift to an information and service-based economy and the emergence of increasingly competitive globalized markets.

Baby boomers grew up in the era of television and formed many of their earliest impressions from it. They went on to redefine marriage, family and parenting -- not to mention the culture of the workplace. Now they're scrambling to keep up with the changes technology is producing.

But most boomers didn't hatch from suburban ranchers.

And they aren't all the upwardly mobile, health-conscious, cosmetically altered, Me-generation people that the media and many marketers would have you believe.

For instance:

Due to the 1965 restructuring of U.S. immigration laws, as many as 15 percent of the country's youngest boomers (1956-1964) were born outside the United States.

Thirty percent of baby boomers belong to a minority group, due mostly to the increase in Hispanics and Asians.

One-fourth of boomers earn less than $35,000 a year.

Widely depicted as political liberals, the baby boom generation may be remembered more for the "triumph" of conservatism that rose to oppose the radicalism of the 1960s, says Vanderbilt University historian Gary Gerstle. Republicans have won seven of the 10 presidential elections since 1968, when the oldest boomers became eligible to vote, and have controlled both houses of Congress for most of the last 12 years. George W. Bush, Karl Rove and many other prominent conservatives are baby boomers.

In Maryland, there are about 1,652,000 boomers, almost one-third of the state's population. Many hold positions of power and high visibility, such as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Constellation Energy CEO Mayo Shattuck, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor Marin Alsop, Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick and Dr. Benjamin Carson, director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Some studies say that boomers have the greatest concentration of wealth in history: One-fourth have yearly incomes greater than $95,000. And others point out that the youngest boomers have the highest levels of poverty since the generation born before World War I.

Yet marketers refer to the "demographic tidal wave" as a single unit, says Nancy Schlossberg, author of Retire Smart, Retire Happy.

It's as tempting to oversimplify the boomers, she says, as it was to create "the one-size-fits-all midlife crisis."

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