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Baby boomers are the demographic group born during the post–World War II baby boom, approximately between the years 1946 and 1964. This includes people who are between 52 and 70 years old in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The term "baby boomer" is also used in a cultural context, so it is difficult to achieve broad consensus of a precise date definition. Different people, organizations, and scholars have varying opinions on who is a baby boomer, both technically and culturally. Ascribing universal attributes to such a generation is difficult, and some believe it is inherently impossible, but many have attempted to determine their cultural similarities and historical impact, and the term has thus gained widespread popular usage.
Baby boomers are associated with a rejection or redefinition of traditional values. Many commentators, however, have disputed the extent of that rejection, noting the widespread continuity of values with older and younger generations. In Europe and North America, boomers are widely associated with privilege, as many grew up in a time of widespread government subsidies in post-war housing and education, and increasing affluence.
As a group, baby boomers were the wealthiest, most active, and most physically fit generation up to the era in which they arrived, and were amongst the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time. They were also the generation that received peak levels of income; they could therefore reap the benefits of abundant levels of food, apparel, retirement programs, and sometimes even "midlife crisis" products. The increased consumerism for this generation has been regularly criticized as excessive.
One feature of the boomers was that they have tended to think of themselves as a special generation, very different from those that had come before. In the 1960s, as the relatively large numbers of young people became teenagers and young adults, they, and those around them, created a very specific rhetoric around their cohort, and the changes they were bringing about. This rhetoric had an important impact in the self perceptions of the boomers, as well as their tendency to define the world in terms of generations, which was a relatively new phenomenon. The baby boom has been described variously as a "shockwave" and as "the pig in the python."
The term "Generation Jones" has sometimes been used to distinguish those born from 1954 to 1964 from the earlier baby boomers.
The phrase baby boom refers to a noticeable increase in the birth rate. The post-war population increase was first described as a "boom" by Sylvia F. Porter in a column in the May 4, 1951, edition of the New York Post, based on the increase in the population of the U.S. of 2,357,000 in 1950. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of "baby boomer" is from 1970 in an article in The Washington Post. Various authors have delimited the baby boom period differently. The United States Census Bureau considers a baby boomer to be someone born during the demographic birth boom between 1946 and 1964. Landon Jones, in his book Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation (1980), defined the span of the baby-boom generation as extending from 1943 through 1960, when annual births increased over 4,000,000. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, well known for their generational theory, define the social generation of Boomers as that cohort born from 1943 to 1960, who were too young to have any personal memory of World War II, but old enough to remember the postwar American High.
In the U.S., the generation can be segmented into two broadly defined cohorts: The Leading-Edge Baby Boomers are individuals born between 1946 and 1955, those who came of age during the Vietnam War era. This group represents slightly more than half of the generation, or roughly 38,002,000 people of all races. The other half of the generation was born between 1956 and 1964. Called Late Boomers, or Trailing-Edge Boomers, this second cohort includes about 37,818,000 individuals, according to Live Births by Age and Mother and Race, 1933–98, published by the Center for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics.
An ongoing battle for "generational ownership" has motivated a handful of marketing mavens and cultural commentators to coin and/or promote their own terms for sub‑segments of the baby-boomer generation. These monikers include, but are not limited to, "golden boomers", "generation Jones", "alpha boomers", "hippies", "yippies", "yuppies", "zoomers", and "cuspers". Advocates of these "cultural segments" are often zealous and overstated in their attempts to redefine generational boundaries, often claiming wide adoption and sometimes advancing self-promotional agendas.
In Ontario, Canada, one attempt to define the boom came from David Foot, author of Boom, Bust and Echo: Profiting from the Demographic Shift in the 21st century (1997). He defines a Canadian boomer as someone born from 1947 to 1966, the years that more than 400,000 babies were born. However, he acknowledges that is a demographic definition, and that culturally it may not be as clear-cut.
Doug Owram argues that the Canadian boom took place from 1943 to 1960, but that culturally boomers everywhere were born between the late war years and about 1955 or 1956. He notes that those born in the years before the actual boom were often the most influential people among boomers; for example, musicians such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Rolling Stones, or writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who were either slightly or vastly older than the boomer generation. Those born in the 1960s might feel disconnected from the cultural identifiers of the earlier boomers.
Bernard Salt places the Australian baby boom between 1943 and 1960, while the Australian Bureau of Statistics defines the boom as 1946 to 1964.
Another definition for the baby boom is the decade after the Second World War, that is 1946 to 1955. This date range in the US correlates with some of the strongest cultural identifiers of the boomer generation, i.e., the involvement of the US in the Vietnam War and the draft. In 1973, the U.S. both ended its draft and moved to an all volunteer army (the other services were already volunteer only) and ended its military activity in Vietnam. Of course, males born from 1953 to 1955 could not have foreseen the end of the draft or the war, and "came of age" fully internalizing those events.
Size and economic impact
76 million American children were born between 1946 and 1964, representing a cohort that is significant on account of its size alone. In 2004, the British baby boomers held 80% of the UK's wealth and bought 80% of all top of the range cars, 80% of cruises and 50% of skincare products.
In addition to the size of the group, Steve Gillon has suggested that one thing that sets the baby boomers apart from other generational groups is the fact that "almost from the time they were conceived, Boomers were dissected, analyzed, and pitched to by modern marketers, who reinforced a sense of generational distinctiveness". This is supported by the articles of the late 1940s identifying the increasing number of babies as an economic boom, such as a 1948 Newsweek article whose title proclaimed "Babies Mean Business", or a 1948 Time magazine article.
The age wave theory suggests an economic slowdown when the boomers started retiring during 2007–2009. Projections for the aging U.S. workforce suggest that by 2020, 25% of employees will be at least 55 years old.
Baby boomers control over 80% of personal financial assets and more than half of all consumer spending. They buy 77% of all prescription drugs, 61% of over-the-counter drugs, and 80% of all leisure travel.
Boomers grew up at a time of dramatic social change. In the United States, that change marked the generation with a strong cultural cleavage, between the proponents of change and the more conservative individuals. Some analysts believe this cleavage played out politically since the time of the Vietnam War to the mid‑2000s, to some extent defining the political landscape and division in the country. Starting in the 1980s, the boomers became more conservative, many of them regretting the cultural changes they brought in their youth.
In 1993, Time magazine reported on the religious affiliations of baby boomers. Citing Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the articles stated that about 42% of baby boomers were dropouts from formal religion, 33% had never strayed from church, and 25% of boomers were returning to religious practice. The boomers returning to religion were "usually less tied to tradition and less dependable as church members than the loyalists. They are also more liberal, which deepens rifts over issues like abortion and homosexuality".
The early and mid-boomers were coming of age at the same time across the world, so that they experienced events like Beatlemania and Woodstock, organizing against the Vietnam War, or fighting and dying in the same war. Boomers in Italy were dressing in mod clothes and "buying the world a Coke". Boomers in India were seeking new philosophical discoveries. Some American boomers in Canada had found a new home after escaping the draft. Canadian Boomers were organizing support for Pierre Trudeau. It is precisely because of these experiences that many believe those born in the second half of the birth boom belong to another generation, as events that defined their coming of age have little in common with leading or core boomers.
The baby boomers found that their music, most notably rock and roll, was another expression of their generational identity. Transistor radios were personal devices that allowed teenagers to listen to The Beatles, the The Motown Sound, and other new musical directions and artists.
In the west, baby boomers comprised the first generation to grow up with the television; some popular Boomer-era shows included Howdy Doody, The Mickey Mouse Club, Captain Video, The Soupy Sales Show, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan's Island, The Twilight Zone, Batman, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, The Ed Sullivan Show, All in the Family and Happy Days.
In the 1985 study of U.S. generational cohorts by Schuman and Scott, a broad sample of adults was asked, "What world events over the past 50 years were especially important to them?" For the baby boomers the results were:
- Baby Boomer cohort number one (born 1946–55), the cohort who epitomized the cultural change of the sixties
- Memorable events: the Cold War (and associated Red Scare), the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., political unrest, walk on the moon, risk of the draft into the Vietnam War or actual military service during the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, social experimentation, sexual freedom, drug experimentation, the Civil Rights Movement, environmental movement, women's movement, protests and riots, and Woodstock.
- Key characteristics: experimental, individualism, free spirited, social cause oriented.
- Baby Boomer cohort number two (born 1956–64)
- Memorable events: the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., for those born in the first couple of years of this generation, the Vietnam War, walk on the moon, Watergate and Nixon's resignation, lowered drinking age to 18 in many states 1970–1976 (followed by raising back to 21 in the mid-1980s as a result of congressional lobbying by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)), the oil embargo, raging inflation, gasoline shortages, economic recession and lack of viable career opportunities upon graduation from high school or college, Jimmy Carter's reimposition of registration for the draft, the Iran hostage crisis, Ronald Reagan, Live Aid
- Key characteristics: less optimistic, distrust of government, and general cynicism.
There is often debate regarding the generational identity of those born from 1961 to 1964. Some demographers and researchers consider these individuals to be part of the younger demographic cohort, Generation X.
Aging and end-of-life issues
As of 1998, it was reported that, as a generation, boomers had tended to avoid discussions and planning for their demise and avoided much long-term planning. However, beginning at least as early as that year, there has been a growing dialogue on how to manage aging and end-of-life issues as the generation ages. In particular, a number of commentators have argued that Baby Boomers are in a state of denial regarding their own aging and death and are leaving an undue economic burden on their children for their retirement and care. According to the 2011 Associated Press and LifeGoesStrong.com surveys:
- 60% lost value in investments because of the economic crisis
- 42% are delaying retirement
- 25% claim they will never retire (currently still working)
In 2013, the early baby boomers (depending on birth years used) reached a common retirement age in the United States: 67 years.
Impact on history and culture
An indication of the importance put on the impact of the boomer was the selection by TIME magazine of the Baby Boom Generation as its 1966 "Man of the Year". As Claire Raines points out in Beyond Generation X, "never before in history had youth been so idealized as they were at this moment". When Generation X came along it had much to live up to in this author's opinion.
Boomers are often associated with the counterculture of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, and the "second-wave" feminist cause of the 1970s. Conversely, many trended in moderate to conservative directions opposite to the counterculture, especially those making professional careers in the military (officer and enlisted), law enforcement, business, blue collar trades, and Republican Party politics. They are also associated with the spending trends and narcissism of the "Me" generation.
People often take it for granted that each succeeding generation will be "better off" than the one before it. When Generation X came along just after the boomers, they would be the first generation to enjoy a lesser quality of life than the generation preceding it.
Baby boomers are still having a big effect on politics, the 2016 presidential election has come down to two controversial candidates in Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, with a majority of Trump's support coming from the Baby Boomer generation.
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