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Baby Boomers Are Still Reshaping U.S., but Now They're Middle-Aged

December 17, 1987|CHERYL RUSSELL | Washington Post and Cheryl Russell, the editor-in-chief of American Demographics magazine, is the author of "100 Predictions for the Baby Boom," to be published by Plenum, from which this is adapted. and

When the first baby boomer turned 40 this year, it changed the way Americans thought about themselves. How could a baby boomer be middle-aged?

The middle-aging of the baby boom was inevitable. Equally predictable are the changes this generation will force on U.S. culture as it ages.

The last time the country's mood changed so dramatically was in the 1950s, when the baby boomers--then children and teen-agers--first used their enormous numbers to disproportionately affect the culture.

Politics and Culture

For the past 30 years, the baby-boom generation--all those born in 1946-64--has shaken U.S. economics, politics and culture. Without the baby boom, the Vietnam War would have lasted longer. Rock 'n' roll would be less pervasive. And the civil rights movement would have changed laws and attitudes more slowly.

But if there hadn't been so many boomers entering the job market, women might be further ahead in job status and pay. Housing would be cheaper. The economy would have done better in the 1970s, and people now in their 20s, 30s and 40s would be making more money.

The baby boom was the generation in which 17 million more people were born than would have been the case if U.S. women of the post-war years had followed the traditions of their mothers. It is a third of the population of the United States, and it is a diverse generation, linked only by its dates of birth. But that link is critical. The generation spans 19 years, which means many boomers experienced the same things at the same time: going to college, getting a job, marrying, divorcing, buying a house, starting a family.

Sweeping Influence

Because of this, the baby boom influences what America's businesses produce, what the media write about, and what politicians support. It focuses the nation's attention on itself; its concerns become the nation's concerns. Whatever age the baby boom is becomes the nation's age.

Because the baby boom is aging, the era of the rule of the young is over. But the full effect of the baby boom is yet to come because the generation is just now gaining the economic and political power to determine events. The baby boomers will continue to wield power for the next 20 years, but they will do it with the values of the middle-aged.

Of course, middle-age does not mean what it used to mean. The baby boom is changing midlife just as it changed teen-age life, making middle-age more diverse than in the past.

Marriage and Children

Twenty years ago it was almost a sure bet that a middle-aged American would be married and have teen-age children. Today, the middle-aged are single, married or divorced. Their children might be teen-agers or toddlers, and many have no children at all.

The baby boom's middle age will transform the United States in three important ways: More people will be affluent, more people will be conservative and the home will be the focus of U.S. life.

The United States stands at the brink of the most well-off decades in its history because of the middle-aging of the baby boom.

In a few years, the oldest members of the generation will be at their peak in earning power. Their affluence will benefit U.S. families, communities and businesses. But it will also tighten the nation's purse strings.

Economic Issues Important

Until well after the turn of the century, middle-age Americans will anxiously protect what they have. Bread-and-butter issues will be important--taxes, jobs, houses, wages, investments and schools will top the nation's economic and political agenda.

Live-for-today was the philosophy of the freewheeling teen-age culture that dominated the United States for the past three decades. Middle-age culture will be more stable, serious, and careful.

Teen-agers and young adults experiment with life; the middle-aged know more about what they like and don't like.

The moderations of middle-age are already evident in the nation's growing concern over drinking and driving, drug abuse, pornography and crime. The huge baby-boom generation now has children to rear, property to tend and communities to protect.

Right and Left

The baby boom is more conservative than it used to be because that's what happens to people as they grow older. But as it actually becomes old, it will both return to liberalism and redefine it.

In 1975, 46% of the oldest baby boomers, people 20-29, called themselves liberals, according to an analysis of the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago. But by 1985, just 29% of 30-to-39-year-olds said they were liberals, a loss of 17 percentage points.

Although the older baby boomers are still more likely to be liberal than older Americans, they are not as liberal as they used to be. They are even less liberal than people 30-39 were in 1975.

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