Copyright © 1997 Henrietta W. Hay
January 30, 1996
The vanguard of the Baby Boomers will be 50 this year and the weeping and wailing can be heard across the land. It was inevitable that when the largest generation in American history approached middle age it would be an Event, but to read all the stories about it, one might think that they are the first generation to do so. Let's not tell them, but actually people have been turning 50 for quite a while. I did it myself with no serious negative results. I felt a little like Gloria Steinem who reached that magic age much later. Somebody said, "You don't look 50." "What does 50 look like?" asked Gloria.
I am the mother of a baby boomer, and many of my friends are boomers. That makes me as much of an expert on the subject as anybody and it does give me some perspective. The so-called "official" boomer birthdays are between 1946 and 1964 and there an estimated 80 million of them.
It was a fascinating generation to watch, back in the sixties. They grew up with Micky Mouse and the Leave it to Beaver. They can still sing all the words from most of the Beatles songs. They wore bell bottom pants and butch haircuts. They raced in Soap Box Derby carts and had scarcely heard of soccer.
We think of them as a bunch of wild eyed hippies with flowers in their hair, but in reality they are as diverse as any other group. They marched in Selma for civil rights. They marched in Washington against the Vietnam War. They wept for their comrades at Kent State. They started a revolution in drugs and free sex, although now that their own children are teenagers they wish they hadn't.
Jacob Brackman writing in 1968 called his generation hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima "the first to grow in the shadow of extinction and the first...that could imagine declining its bid to inherit the earth." As young people they watched the assassinations of three national leaders, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The world was shifting under their feet.
And then they grew up. Now they're us. They have children and grandchildren and jobs and worries. They wear suits and ties and yell at their kids because the kids are as sloppy as they were once. Now they have suffered the ultimate indignity. They are featured on the cover of a magazine: no, not Playboy, but Modern Maturity, the official magazine of AARP, the American Association of Retired People.
But they are still the boomers. Now instead of marching and throwing bombs, they are 50 year old men and women in Congress, still insisting that the world must behave exactly the way they think it should. I watch this phenomenon with bemusement - and fear. I find it hard to realize that huge numbers of those wild eyed rebels have turned into right wing fanatics.
The generation is still defining itself and trying to reform the rest of us as it goes. The boomers believe that they have invented everything -- self-esteem, morality, parenthood, religion, menopause, conflict resolution - all those things we've been doing but certainly not talking about. And now they're busy inventing old age. One of my boomer friends calls all this self-absorption generational narcissism.
We are told that by their sheer numbers they are about to sink Medicaire and Social Security. They are being told that their futures are bleak, that they are not saving any money, that they will have no retirement. They are looking at the rest of us with wary eyes.
Actually, statistics don't bear all that out. According to the Brookings Institute, the current income of baby-boom households is substantially higher on a per capita measure than that of their parents at the same age. They are having fewer children and baby boom women are more likely to be working than were their mothers.
Don't worry, boomers. Fifty isn't so bad. You may even find more time to have fun.
But where did we go wrong? How did our rebels turn into the back-to-the- future conservative generation?