THE BOOMERS ISSUE | GLOBE MAGAZINE
Bash the “Me Generation” all you want, but their legacy is more powerful — and positive — than you think.
photo-illustrations by ryan huddle/globe staff
PEOPLE LIKED US AT FIRST, the boomers I mean. Of course, for a while I wasn’t sure if I even was a boomer. They kept moving the goalposts on me. Once, I heard that boomers were only the people who were born between the end of World War II in 1945 and 1950. Then they pushed it to 1955, and I, born in Worcester in 1953, six months after a giant tornado had torn a swath through Central Massachusetts, officially became a boomer. And now that the dust has settled and we’ve all lived through Generation X, Generation Y, and the millennials — or, as some of us call them, the grandkids — the people who calculate such things seem to have settled on the span between early 1946 and the arrival of the Beatles on these shores, in 1964. This is a great relief for me. I couldn’t handle being born in a generation without a brand. I would be an orphan in history.
As I said, people liked us at first. There were almost 3.5 million of us born in 1946, a few hundred thousand more per year until 1953, and then about 4 million a year until the official cutoff date. Ultimately, there were 72.5 million of us born in those 19 years. We stood for something. We mattered. For 1966, Time named us the People of the Year, though it did lump in people born since 1941. Still, I was 13 and already sharing an honor also bestowed upon Hitler. We represented a country rising to be a superpower, living proof that the previous generation of Americans had come through the poverty of the Great Depression and the horrors of a worldwide conflagration to return home and get back to serious business, like making more Americans. The GI Bill and GI loans helped a lot of us grow up in the suburbs.
At the beginning there was even some propaganda cooked up that it was the bounden duty of American parents to have as many of us as possible so as to outbreed the Russian Communists who wanted to take over the world. (Of course, smack in the middle of the boom, at a laboratory about a quarter mile from my house in Shrewsbury, they invented the birth control pill, which my parents thought freakish. Being an only child, I never quite figured out what bothered them so about it.)
Make no mistake — the Russian Communists defined an awful lot about who we boomers were. We were the duck-and-cover generation. We Catholics were raised to believe that enough Hail Marys sent toward Moscow were the best missile defense the country could provide. In 1962, when I was 8, I spent the 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis toddling off to school in Worcester, all the while scanning the skies for the approach of the bombers. Wyman-Gordon in Worcester made the jet engines for the B-52 airplanes, so it was a prime target. Anybody who lived through those two weeks and tells you they weren’t afraid is lying to you. We were the children of one world war living under the shadow of the next. It turned out that the next war was a long, brutal one in a very small place in Southeast Asia that would come to signal the end of defining ourselves against the Russian Communists and the beginning of defining ourselves against things that were a little closer to home.
The fact that there are so damn many of us makes generalizing about boomers very difficult, not that everybody and his nephew hasn’t tried. The generation before us thought we were ungrateful wretches. The generations that came after us firmly believe that we’ve gobbled up the economy for the next 40 years. A Gen Yer named Jim Tankersley in The Washington Post ran down that bill of particulars:
Boomers soaked up a lot of economic opportunity without bothering to preserve much for the generations to come. They burned a lot of cheap fossil fuels, filled the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases, and will probably never pay the costs of averting catastrophic climate change or helping their grandchildren adapt to a warmer world. They took control of Washington at the turn of the millennium, and they used it to rack up a lot of federal debt, even before the Great Recession hit.
Whoa there, youngster. America was burning cheap fossil fuel for decades before we all came along. We stand convicted in this case of inadequate clairvoyance. And it also seems a little unfair to attack us for failing to pay the costs of climate change for our grandchildren just because most of us will not be able to live to be 120. (And the climate-change denial community has its share of Xers, Yers, and millennials, too.) I will grant you that too many of us responded to the snake-oil economics that became popular in the 1980s. But an awful lot of the people who charge us with robbing the future are simply arguing that there are too many of us. Hey, our births were a bulwark against the Russian Communists, you ungrateful wretches.
(In fact, there was no baby boom in Russia, largely because the country had been so devastated in World War II. The post-WWII baby boom was most pronounced in the countries that suffered the least damage — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.)
And, anyway, where the hell are all the rest of you? In 1972, the first time 18-year-olds were able to vote, 52 percent of the eligible voters between 18 and 24 — dead in the heart of the boomer generation — cast their ballots. Forty years later, according to a report by the US Census Bureau, the percentage of 18- to 24-year-old voters had dropped to 38 percent. And Tankersley’s time frame — that boomers “took control of Washington at the turn of the millennium” — is mired in the margin of chicanery. The first true boomer president was Bill Clinton (born August 19, 1946), and through his eight years the country went from deficit to surplus and the national economy was good enough that it helped save him from that most boomerish of phenomena — an embarrassing sex scandal. As the millennium actually turned, Clinton left the White House and another boomer, George W. Bush (born a little more than a month before his predecessor), took office and, well, things didn’t exactly sparkle, I will admit. (It might have helped if young people had gotten off their couches; barely a third of voters aged 18 to 24 bothered to show up at the polls. Maybe we could have ducked that bullet.) We now have had three boomer presidents in a row, and by my reckoning, boomers are 2-1 in that office. This is a pretty decent batting average (next up, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, both boomers). You youngsters left it to us. It’s a little late to complain about what we did with it. Am I defensive? Of course I am. I’m a boomer. We do that.
A report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) presents a somewhat more balanced picture. It says that boomers earned record amounts of income and that we spurred unprecedented economic growth. (Some of this, of course, had to do with all of us being born in one of the few countries in the world that hadn’t been bombed into rubble.) According to the MGI report, what are called early boomers — those who were born in the first nine years of the boom, like me — will earn a peak income of $90,000 a year and the late boomers $106,000. And the whole generation will earn more than twice as much as the generation that came before. The MGI researchers cited three reasons for this, well, booming prosperity: our sheer numbers, the rise of two-income households, and a general movement toward a more educated workforce. However, the same study points out that we all didn’t save worth a damn. We carry more debt than any generation before us. A great deal of this has to do with the steady change from a manufacturing-based to an investor-based economy — a shift from, say, defined-benefit pensions to 401(k)s, which tied our personal economies more closely to the stock market. When the market soared, we spent more, and we borrowed to do it. When it cratered, as it has done at least four times since the last boomer was born, we borrowed more to cover what we’d spent. “Our analysis,” the MGI report reads, “shows that almost half of the increase in net worth for Early Boomers has come from asset appreciation, whereas at the same age the Silents [born between the 1920s and 1940s] relied on saving to increase their net worth.”
So a lot of the economic slander aimed at the boomers is based on circumstances beyond our control — at least beyond the control of us grunts in the generation. It’s been some of us who have created the globalized economy that has done so much to disarrange the economies of so many people in so many places. Michael Milken (born in 1946) made it cool to borrow, John Meriwether (born in 1947) almost single-handedly blew up the world economy via his hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs is a boomer (born in 1954) and so is Dick Fuld (born in 1946), the guy who augered Lehman Brothers in. But so is Senator Elizabeth Warren (1949), so maybe it will balance out. People of our generation rigged the financial markets, polluted the landscape, heated the planet, and ran up the debt. All the rest of us have to live with those consequences, and with climate change, and with the disruption in our culture that the boomers have wrought with their expansion of personal freedom. We just won’t have to live with those consequences quite as long as some other people will have to live with them. In many ways, because there are so damn many of us, boomers are the victims of other boomers. To eliminate the possibility of cannibalism is to leave out a good part of the American economic philosophy, at least in the second half of the 20th century and the first half of this one. We are just a target-rich environment, that’s all.
GENERATIONS BLEND. That’s the difference that nobody ever takes into account. If you look at the true icons — political, social, and cultural — of the Boomer Age, very few of them even were close to being boomers. Neither John nor Robert Kennedy, nor Martin Luther King or Malcolm X, nor even Jesse Jackson (born October 8, 1941). Not one member of the Chicago Seven was a boomer. Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Germaine Greer all were born too soon, as were Harvey Milk, Larry Kramer, Barney Frank, and both Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were the first gay couple to be married in San Francisco under an order from the city’s then mayor, Gavin Newsom, who, by contrast, is too young to be a boomer. Mary Bonauto, who won the Goodridge case here in Massachusetts, the one that really got the ball rolling on marriage equality, is a boomer, born in 1961, so there’s that.
As far as cultural influences go, Jack Kerouac was too old to be a boomer, and so were Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, and all four of the Beatles. None of the original Rolling Stones, Temptations, or Booker T. and the MG’s qualified, either. The Who’s Pete Townshend, who hoped he died before he got old, is too old by a year, although his band’s drummer, Keith Moon, who actually did die before he got old, made the cut (in the UK, the boom is called, unkindly, the bulge; in Canada, they’re boomies). Moon was born four days after Bill Clinton was. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and Jim Morrison, all of whom died too soon, were also born too soon to be boomers. So were all four of the men who organized the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
Boomers didn’t really hit music until disco and punk broke through in the 1970s. All three of the original BeeGees were boomers, and so was every member of The Clash and all of the Sex Pistols. Before long, the children of the boomers were listening to these other boomers for the purposes of aggravating their parents, which is as it should be.
Meanwhile, the people who followed those older politicians, and who listened to those artists, were boomers. Slogans aside, we really did trust some people over 30. And some of us paid for it. All four of the students killed at Kent State were boomers, as were the two students killed at Jackson State 11 days later, and as had been Meredith Hunter, who famously was stabbed to death during a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont in 1969. Even as the youth vote fell off post-1972, the children of the boomers helped carry boomers Bill Clinton and, especially, Barack Obama, into office. Over the last year, many young people lined up behind a 74-year-old socialist from Vermont. Young people do trust people over 30. Even us boomers, sometimes. Generations blend, you see.
TO BE PERFECTLY HONEST, I don’t know what to make of us, either, now that we’re all dying off, except those of us (like Ray Kurzweil, born 1948) who are trying to live forever. I do know that many of us seem to be obsessed with what our legacy will be, what We All Mean, and I can see where that might harsh the mellows of the generations that came after us, the people who we quite literally created and whose world we created for them to live in. We do have a gift for self-dramatics that can make the teeth of rational young people itch. We do tend to look at ourselves as outliers in the great passage of the generations, even as many of us revere our parents as having been the greatest of them all. (Tom Brokaw, not a boomer, is the one that we can credit for memorializing — and monetizing — that idea.) There’s a strange mixture of hubris and humility in there that can baffle you. Do we call our parents the Greatest Generation because of what they did or because they were the generation that produced, you know, us? Did any other generation ever even ask that question? Surely, our parents’ generation is matched for greatness objectively by the generation of Americans that came of age between 1861 and 1865, to say nothing of the powdered-wig set of the 1770s. (Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence when he was 33, roughly the same age as Kerouac when he published On the Road.) Did the children of the 1870s and the 1780s feel the same way?
There actually was a kind of baby boom in the wake of the Civil War, as couples were reunited after long separations, and also because the end of slavery allowed African-Americans to freely marry and have children. Those children grew up in a country trying to recover from having almost committed suicide. Many of their parents never recovered from what they’d seen at Gettysburg, or Shiloh, or Chickamauga. Their children grew up in what became known as the Gilded Age, when technology, innovation, and immigration created the world’s biggest economy by 1890.
Baby boomers were the children of the veterans of another war, and some of our parents never recovered from what they’d seen at Saipan, or Normandy, or Okinawa, or the Ardennes. But, instead of coming back to a devastated and divided country, as the veterans of 1865 did, they came back to a bustling economic giant, the only large economy in the world that hadn’t been bombed to smithereens, and one that dwarfed even the industrial revolution of the Gilded Age. They came back to the GI Bill and good manufacturing jobs and an American prosperity that seemed destined to last forever. They came back to a largely united United States.
But power lay elsewhere. That’s what their children learned, anyway. You had to go find it, and then you had to grab it for yourselves. The civil rights movement may have been led by members of an earlier generation, but boomers made up the grunts. They were the ones who faced the fire hoses and the dogs and, too often, the end of a gun. The same thing was true of the push for women’s rights and for gay rights and the long struggle against the Vietnam War, a war planned by the members of the Greatest Generation but fought, on the ground, by boomers. Today, more and different kinds of people can vote, marry, and work in their chosen fields because of the boomers. This is not an inconsiderable legacy. But it doesn’t define those of us born between VJ Day and the coming of the Beatles to these shores. Nothing really does.
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