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My Generation: Who are the Baby Boomers?

Fifty Years of Sex, Drugs, Rock, Revolution, Glamour, Greed Valor Faith and Silicon Chips

Author Michael Gross Deconstructs Seven Major Myths

The Baby Boom has been the most celebrated and controversial generation in history. Yet for all the media play its members have received — from heroes of the “revolution” to the revolting Clinton-Lewinsky episode — its identity has been mired in misconception. As the new century dawns and the majority of boomers move into physical — if not psychological — maturity, My Generation author Michael Gross argues that it’s time to take stock of what really happened on the way to (and beyond) the revolution — and more importantly, what it all means. In order to do that, we first have to understand who the boomers really are. To do that, click a link on the left.


1. The Baby Boom isn’t what the Census Bureau says it is. Most people think of the boom as demographers define it, strictly limited to people born between January 1, 1946 and December 31, 1964. But generations aren’t so simple: many later-born members of the preceding Silent or Swing generation share beliefs, experiences and cultural references with the Baby Boom — and some early ’60s babies are closer culturally to the next generation, the spiky-haired kids snickering in the back of the boom room, the so-called Generation X. Cultural affinity is what really counts, so My Generation redefines boomers as people born between two historical markers, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II — December 7, 1941 — and November 22, 1963, the day of John Kennedy’s assassination.

2. “Youth” may rule the movies and magazine racks — but Boomers rule the country. Though trend mongers and movie marketers would have us believe that the world now belongs to 20 year olds, all you need do is look at the presidential primaries to see who really runs things. The leading candidates — Bill Bradley, Al Gore, and George W. Bush — are boomers. And while boomers may no longer live on the cutting edge of fashion, their economic power is unparalleled. More than twenty billion dollars per year is spent developing — and one billion dollars marketing — new products for boomers. Americans over fifty own seventy-seven percent of the nation’s assets, eat out three times a week, purchase forty-three percent of cars, account for ninety percent of all travel, and spend a total of about one trillion dollars a year. With life expectancy likely to pass 100 just as the last boomers start turning sixty-five (in 2028), boomers will be controlling the economic purse strings — and the voting booths — for a long, long time.

3. The Baby Boom is not synonymous with the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll-driven counterculture that flowered in the 1960s. Boomers are more diverse and accomplished than that admittedly fascinating minority. Although conventional wisdom has it that the Baby Boom peaked as a social force in summer 1969 with Woodstock, and began a descent into drug-induced paralysis and irrelevancy that winter after the famously murderous Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, California — the truth is that only the counterculture alliance of “anti-establishment radicals and freaks” ended in those eventful months. The true and lasting accomplishments of the boom generation, while forged in the fires of the 1960s, actually came later.

4. The Heroes of the Baby Boom are Not Who We Think They Are. Ask an early or middle boomer to name generational heroes, and you’ll likely hear the names of political figures like Gloria Steinem, Tom Hayden, and Abbie Hoffman, or of musicians like Joan Baez, John Lennon and Bob Dylan. But the truth is that none of these celebrities — or any major figures of the civil rights, antiwar or feminist movements — were boomers. And while they were undeniably trailblazers, they do not truly represent the generation that followed them, which counts among its numbers Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Newt Gingrich, Robert Torricelli, Al Sharpton, Garry Trudeau, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Milken, Michael Jordan, Rush Limbaugh, Jann Wenner, Ralph Reed, Madonna, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Andrew Weil and Maya Lin.

5. For all their rebellion against authority, most boomers have turned out far more like the parents they rebelled against than they care to admit. Most of the revolutionary pipe dreams of the radical minority have been overthrown not by any established “authority,” but by boomers themselves. The truth is, the generational majority has turned out to be vastly different than anyone expected. Like First Baby Boomer Bill Clinton, they are not so much committed moralists as morally flexible, ambition-driven pragmatists. This distinction eludes many boomers, as well as those who pontificate about them.

6. The Baby Boom cliché of “diminished expectations” is a joke. While they’ve certainly survived hard times, boomers don’t sit around bemoaning the halcyon days of big cars and backyard barbeques or of free love, cheap drugs and protest parties. It is no surprise to find Baby Boomers behind movements like Post-modernism and hip-hop music; they relish making once-”subversive” notions mainstream. The first generation to grow up with remote controls, they invented channel-surfing and attention-deficit living. And it is their restless hands and brains behind Microsoft, Apple, online trading, and the Internet boom. In an act of stunning cultural jujitsu, they have turned their “diminished expectations” into a thriving new economy.

7. The issue is not whether the Baby Boom is responsible for every modern pathology from drug abuse to AIDS to cultural Balkanization — but whether Boomers will find a way to turn the hard-earned lessons of their overripe past into a better future. The fact that this unique generation is arguably the most accomplished in history does not erase the undeniable damage that was done in the process. “Deny or dodge,” is more than the Clinton battlecry — it’s the Baby Boom way. So to gain the recognition they richly deserve — boomers must look to the dawn of the new century as their own time of reckoning. Instead of chasing eternal youth — no matter the cost — they’d better take the hard lessons they’ve learned and do some good before it’s too late.