For those interested in cultural milestones, here is one to contemplate: The products of the postwar baby boom begin to turn 40 this year.
The baby boom is one of the great demographic achievements of U.S. history. After making it through the Great Depression and World War II, Americans decided to try something different. They bought automobiles, built houses, moved to the suburbs and raised a bumper crop of children, all with the help of government subsidies (highway construction, VHA and FHA loans, tax exemptions). Between 1946 and 1964, the birthrate soared. More than 70 million Americans were born--the most affluent, best educated and most self-conscious (and self-absorbed) generation in American history. In 1988, baby-boomers will represent almost half the electorate.
Now that the entire generation has reached political maturity, political strategists are asking, "So what?" For years, politicians, advertisers and media programmers have known that winning the baby boom meant controlling the market. Marketing specialists have had some success, but no one in politics seems to know how to reach the Pepsi generation. Many have tried, with limited success: George McGovern, Edmund G. Brown Jr., John Anderson, Gary Hart, even Ronald Reagan. One of the most striking facts about the 1984 presidential election is how undistinctive younger voters were; they voted 59%-41% for Reagan over Walter F. Mondale--the same way everyone else voted.
Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have a particular advantage among baby-boomers. When asked their party preference, baby-boomers tend to be more independent than other voters. Nor does their ideology tip consistently left or right. On economic issues, baby-boomers tend to be free-enterprise-minded and suspicious of the big government, big labor commitments of the traditional Democratic Party. On social issues, however, they are strongly libertarian. Baby-boomers grew up with the civil-rights and women's-rights movements and are deeply antagonistic to the Moral Majority strain of thinking in the GOP.
Is there anything characteristic of the baby-boom generation--something a political figure can grab and ride to victory in 1988? There is, and it has less to do with ideology than with political style. It stems from the baby-boomers' particular generational experience. The simplest way to characterize that style is anti-Establishment. Baby-boomers reached maturity in an era when nothing worked the way it was supposed to--not government, not business, not labor, not the military, not religion, not even education. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was a dividing point. Baby-boomers experienced a sharp dislocation between the naive idealism of the early 1960s and the dismaying failures of the late 1960s and 1970s. They became distrustful of ideologies as well as institutions. First their music and later their politics gave them a sense of generational distinctiveness, of seeing the world as "us" and "them."
The early baby-boomers grew up during the 1950s, the era of affluence and conformity. It was rock music that first gave them a sense of generational identity--music "we" appreciated and "they" didn't. From Elvis to Madonna, the whole point of rock music has been to shock the Establishment and make fun of bourgeois values. Music gave young people a feeling of identity, a sense of being a distinctive subculture. Interestingly, rock music also caught hold in another anti-bourgeois subculture--working-class England. (The French, on the other hand, have no talent for rock music. That is because they are the most completely bourgeois culture on earth.)
Is there an anti-bourgeois subculture in the United States? Of course there is--blacks. Rock music started out as black music (rhythm and blues), and the appreciation of black music went hand-in-hand with the earliest political experience of the baby-boom generation--namely, civil rights. From the civil-rights movement, baby-boomers learned about protest and idealism. Civil rights was one of the great moral revolutions in world history, and it raised the aspirations of an entire generation of Americans. They could make a difference. They decided the system could be changed.