Quantcast

As Last of Baby Boomers Turns 40, New Study Debunks Myths

The popular image of baby boomers is of white, suburban kids who grew up watching ”The Mickey Mouse Club” and protested the Vietnam War, not the children who came of age during the Reagan era. But a new study by two Duke University sociologists, released as the last of the boomers is turning 40, shows the Baby Boom as a diverse group of people whose experiences differ not only from those of previous generations, but also from each other. Called ”The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers,” this study takes a look at the generation born between 1946 and 1964 as they enter middle age.

From Duke University:

As Last of Baby Boomers Turns 40, New Study Debunks Myths About Celebrated Generation

The study by two Duke sociologists shows Baby Boomers as a diverse group whose experiences differ not only from those of previous generations, but from each other

The popular image of baby boomers is of white, suburban kids who grew up watching ”The Mickey Mouse Club” and protested the Vietnam War, not the children who came of age during the Reagan era.

But a new study by two Duke University sociologists, released as the last of the boomers is turning 40, shows the Baby Boom as a diverse group of people whose experiences differ not only from those of previous generations, but also from each other.

Called ”The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers,” this study takes a look at the generation born between 1946 and 1964 as they enter middle age.

”There hasn’t been a systematic assessment of the state of the boomers, in contrast to all the folklore and mythology we have about the baby boom,” said Mary Elizabeth Hughes, one of the co-authors. ”Looking at the boomers at midlife tells you where they’ve been and where they’re going. This can tell you something about the boomers’ collective old age.”

Among the findings:

— Baby boomers are diverse: Immigration has played a major role in increasing the diversity of the baby boomers. About 12 percent of the early boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) are foreign-born, compared to 15 percent of late boomers (born between 1956 and 1964.) The percentage of African Americans has not changed a great deal over time, but the percentage of Hispanic and Asian Americans has increased dramatically.

— Diversity has not led to equality: Baby boomers are the first generation to come of age after the Civil Rights era. Yet the authors found differences of income according to race, ethnicity and country of birth so entrenched that, in effect, they are ethnic classes. Blacks in the boomer generation, for example, are no better off relative to whites than their parents and grandparents. And educational levels also are unequal across the baby boom generation, which is often described as the best-educated generation in history.

— Many boomers live in poverty: At midlife, boomers have the highest wage inequality of any recent generation. Late boomers have the highest levels of poverty since the generation born before World War I. One in 10 late boomers lives in poverty at middle age.

”What surprised us the most was how racial inequality persists among the boomers compared to other generations,” co-author Angela M. O’Rand said. ”The figures are quite dramatic regarding the continuing relative disadvantage of African Americans.”

TALKING ‘BOUT MY GENERATION

Hughes, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke, and O’Rand, a professor of sociology, analyzed data from the 2000 Census to describe the baby boom generation at midlife and compare the baby boomers with four preceding generations using earlier census data.

It is part of ”The American People” series, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation of New York and the Population Reference Bureau of Washington, D.C., and is designed to put the results of Census 2000 in context. Each report is written by an author or team of authors selected for their expertise with the data and broad understanding of the implications of demographic trends. For more information about the series, including ”The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers,” visit here.

(The researchers themselves illustrate these differences: O’Rand, born four months before the official start of the baby boom, is a grandmother; Hughes, a late boomer born in 1962, has a child in preschool.)

They look at baby boomers’ position in history, education, work life, families, income and wealth to provide a comprehensive picture of this complex generation, and to offer a look at what to expect as this group enters old age.

BABY BOOMERS AND THE POST-WAR TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN SOCIETY

Hughes and O’Rand argue that the baby boom generation was pivotal. Its members were born into a nation transformed by four years of war, and as their lives unfolded they experienced social change and responded by creating new lifestyles that set the patterns for later generations.

”We all fall into talking about the baby boom as if it were a homogeneous group, but it’s a very heterogeneous group,” Hughes said. ”And it’s not just a semantic issue. If we are worried about the future as the boomers age, we need to be prepared for a very, very heterogeneous group of people.”

The study challenges some of the assumptions that have grown up around the baby boom:

— Baby boomers did not all come of age during the turbulent 1960s: The demographic anomaly is that the baby boom stretched from 1946 to 1964. While the oldest of the early boomers graduated from college during the Summer of Love, the youngest of the late boomers left college during the Reagan years.

— Baby boomers were not all political radicals: Even for those boomers who were young adults during the late 1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War was far from universal, for example. One-third of the early boomers served in Vietnam, and younger voters were more likely to support conservative candidates. In 1968, many of George Wallace’s supporters were young, Southern and rural.

— Baby boomers were not the first to reject the traditional family: Late marriage, permanent single status, small families, childlessness and divorce have a long history in the United States. The Ozzie-and-Harriet family of the 1950s was not the norm, but an extraordinary — and temporary — shift in historical patterns. It’s the generation born before and during World War II, not the boomers, who had the sharpest increase in divorce.

BABY BOOMERS IN OLD AGE:

GOLDEN YEARS OR TARNISHED YEARS?

As the oldest baby boomers approach 60, their future has been the subject of much anxious speculation, especially since inequities in wealth and income can be expected to persist — and even increase — as boomers age.

”In many ways, old age is a continuation of income inequality that begins at younger ages,” O’Rand said. ”Given that the baby boomer generation is now more unequal than others at the same ages, we can expert them to be more unequal in old age than previous generations.”

The two sociologists offer some expectations for the future:

— Baby boomers are likely to extend midlife well into what used to be considered ”old age.” They will continue working longer, and responsibilities such as paying for college or having children at home will extend to older ages. They also are likely to enjoy good health and remain ”actively engaged”longer than previous generations.

— Economic inequalities are likely to become more important as the boomers age. The least well-off may face higher risks of unemployment and worse health at a time when policy changes are encouraging them to remain at work longer. Low wages and job instability also may mean they have less saved than previous generations.

— Nontraditional families may pose new problems. Those who never married, had no children or were ”absent fathers” may not be able to rely on family as part of their social safety net.

For more information contact: Sally Hicks (Duke University) | (919) 681-8055 | [email protected] or

Suzanne Nichols (Russell Sage Foundation) | (212) 750-6026 | [email protected]




The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.