The Baby Boomers and Their Times

“I hate the Baby Boomers. They’re the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history . . .” Those words represent the assessment of Paul Begala, a former advisor to President Bill Clinton, himself the first Baby Boomer president. Evidently, it takes one to know one–Begala is a boomer himself.

The Baby Boomers represent the largest generation in American history, and their full impact is yet to be fully realized. After all, the first Baby Boomer will turn sixty years of age in just a few weeks. In one sense, the generation is just hitting its stride.

The designation of the Baby Boomers is a statistical abstraction, of course. According to those who track population trends, the Baby Boomers were born between January 1, 1946 and December 31, 1964. As such, they represent a generation that reaches all the way back to the conclusion of World War II, and is just now entering generational maturity. Of course, some would argue that the boomers are redefining maturity.

The current edition of American Heritage magazine considers the “Boomer Century,” and offers an interesting analysis of the boomers and their age. In the cover story, writer Joshua Zeitz observes: “Raised in an era of unprecedented affluence and national omnipotence, but coming of age in a time that perceived more limited resources and diminished American power, the boomers have long been defined by a vain search for satisfaction. No matter how much they have, they can’t ever seem to get enough. This quest for satisfaction has at times led to nadirs of narcissism and greed. As a generation the boomers have always seemed to want it all: cheap energy, consumer plenty, low taxes, loads of government entitlements, ageless beauty, and an ever-rising standard of living. They inherited a nation flush with resources and will bequeath their children a country mired in debt.”

The beginning of the boomer generation is found at the conclusion of World War II. As the war came to a conclusion, the American government expected only a temporary upsurge in births. Nevertheless, when the GIs came home, they began making up for lost time, reversing a century-long trend towards smaller families. Nine months after V-J Day, an American child was born every eight seconds.

The baby boom was not limited to the United States, of course. As Zeitz notes, the population boom was also experienced by Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. A British observer traveling in the United States in 1958 observed that “every other young housewife I see is pregnant.” He wasn’t exaggerating.

In truth, the nation was taken by storm as the Baby Boomers filled the cribs, schools, and playgrounds of America.

Zeitz suggests three trends that produced the generation. First, couples in their thirties who had postponed marriage and children during the Great Depression started building families. “They crowded the field 10 years after they would normally have contributed their share of progeny to the national population,” Zeitz observes.

Second, the recently demobilized GIs came home to participate in a time of economic prosperity and “optimism born of conquering global fascism.” As Zeitz explains, “For these young victors, many still in their early twenties, it made little sense to put off marriage and family.” A third factor may also have contributed to this remarkable rise in the nation’s birth rate. Zeitz suggests that “the general euphoria that drove up the marriage and birth rates was soon complemented by Cold War-era anxieties over nuclear competition. In an uncertain world, the comforts of home and hearth could provide a salve against atomic angst, just as the stabilizing influence of marriage and parenthood offered a strategic advantage in the nation’s struggle against Communism.”

Other considerations also played a part. Columnist John Steele Gordon notes that the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944” (better known as the GI Bill of Rights) contributed to the rise of the baby boom. Interestingly, Gordon notes that the “underlying aim” of the GI Bill was to delay the entry of returning GIs into the workforce for as long as possible. After all, most economists were predicting a return of economic depression at the end of the war.

Of course, the reality was exactly the opposite. Instead, the post-war period became the longest sustained period of economic growth in American economic history. This period of prosperity allowed the Baby Boomers “to grow up nestled in the bosom of an economic prosperity such as the world had never seen.”

Writer Kevin Baker thinks that this prosperity may have taught the boomers all the wrong lessons. “The baby boomers started life in a society where a great material security provided the foundation for a series of daring cultural upheavals,” he notes. “In their maturity, they have used a dynamic culture to demolish that security. This is all they have in common, and ultimately they will be judged as all generations, and all individuals, are–by their ability to reach some synthesis between the idealistic dreams of their youth and the appetites of their maturity.”

Those appetites have been huge. Zeitz asserts that the “cornucopia” experienced by Baby Boomers as children was “translated into billions of dollars’ worth of hula-hoops, Davy Crockett raccoon-skin hats, Hopalong Cassidy six-shooters, bicycles and tricycles, Slinkys, Silly Putty, and skateboards (and, in California, the shining allure of Disneyland).”

The Baby Boomers were the first generation to grow up with television in almost every home. Between 1948 and 1952, the number of American households with television sets increased from 172,000 to 15.3 million. The Baby Boomers watched family dramas and sitcoms, westerns, and cartoons. They were pampered, entertained, and coddled.

The generation was also shaped by the influences on its parents. In 1946, Benjamin Spock published his best-selling book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. As Zeitz recounts, “His book instructed the parents of the baby-boom generation to go light on punishment and heavy on reason and persuasion, and bear in mind that their daughters’ and sons’ happiness was the paramount objective of child rearing. If Johnny steals someone’s toy, don’t hit him. Explain that stealing is wrong, and buy him the toy that he coveted. If Suzie misbehaves at the dinner table, don’t worry. Table manners are overrated.”

A 1961 study revealed that two-thirds of new mothers had read Spock’s book. “He made permissive or child-centered parenting mandatory for millions of new postwar middle-class families,” Zeitz observes. “By the mid-1950s his message was routinely echoed from the pages of Parents magazine and found confirmation in countless sociological studies.”

Accordingly, historian Richard Hofstadter was concerned that America was about to be taken over by the “overvalued child.” Zeitz offers context: “Hyperbole aside, millions of boomers did grow up in prosperous, nurturing homes in which the children formed the core of the family. Raised amid plenty, taught to value their needs and satisfy their wants, and imbued with a sense of national greatness and purpose, it would have been odd had they not entered young adulthood with at least some sense of entitlement.”

And so they did. The Baby Boomers have been engaged in a generation-long search for self-fulfillment. Furthermore, the permissiveness of their parents has been translated into a permissiveness of their own. As Zeitz observes, “Boomers are certainly more tolerant than their parents of looser personal mores. In 1983, 44 percent of them approved of cohabitation outside marriage, 29 percent supported legalizing marijuana, and 37 percent endorsed casual sex. Whereas only a quarter of Americans approved of premarital sex in the 1950s, by the 1970s that figure had climbed to three-quarters.”

Many of the older boomers were involved in the civil rights movement and in protests against the war in Vietnam. They would later extend that call for social transformation into other areas of life. “Enforcing a new liberalization of sex and romance, they insisted on everyone’s right to satisfaction and self-realization–not just married couples but also unmarried partners, no matter what their sexual orientation,” Zeitz explains.

Now, the Baby Boomer generation stands at the height of its political influence. As Zeitz reminds, the 2000 presidential election was the first race between two Baby Boomers. Commentators Neil Howe and William Strauss estimate that the boomers will represent a plurality in Congress until the year 2015.

Zeitz also understands that the boomers did not emerge out of a vacuum. Many of the social forces that produced the boomers, including a trend towards permissive parenting and a desire for mass prosperity, have deeper roots in our national culture. Nevertheless, the boomers may represent the most quintessentially American generation yet to have appeared.

“The boomers–a generation born into national wealth and power, raised on the promise of their limitless potential and self-worth, reared on television and advertising, enthralled by the wonders of modern science and medicine–are, for all their differences, a most potent emblem of the long American Century,” Zeitz concludes.

From a Christian worldview perspective, the boomers represent a significant missiological challenge. The earliest boomers were born in an extended era of cultural Christianity. Their children were born into a far more secularized culture. In their seemingly endless quest for self-fulfillment, many boomers have turned from one spiritual and psychological fad to another, seeking a path to self-fulfillment that avoids hard issues of truth and deep commitment.

The Baby Boomers gave rise to the Jesus Movement and came of age as everything from the pastors of megachurches to the leaders of activist movements. Their expectations continue to frame the American reality. Now, as the oldest boomers head toward retirement, they are about to redefine old age.

Generational analyses are, by their very nature, overly generalized. Nevertheless, a good look at the Baby Boomers serves to remind us all of the challenge we face in reaching a generation that was, in the main, perhaps overly coddled and pampered. The younger generations look back at the boomers with a sense of amazement and wonder. What are these people going to be like as grandparents?