December 20 2004 - Baby boomers are popularly viewed as white suburbanites who protested
the Vietnam War, but they also include children who came of age during the Reagan era, according to
a recent study conducted by two Duke University sociologists.
"The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers" reveals that baby boomers are a group with experiences as different from each other
as they are from those of previous generations. The study looks at the generation born between 1946 and 1964 as they enter middle age - the youngest are just entering their 40s - comparing
census data from the year 2000 with four previous decades.
"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."
The main findings show that:
* Immigration has increased the diversity of the baby boomers with about 12%
of those born between 1946 and 1955 being foreign-born, compared to 15% of those
born between 1956 and 1964. There has been little change in the percentage of African
Americans percentages of Hispanic and Asian Americans have increased
* Diversity has not produced equality, with the same differences of income
based on race, ethnicity and country of birth as those born in earlier periods. For example,
African American babay boomers are no better off
relative to whites than their parents and grandparents.
* 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
The authors argue that the baby boom generation was pivotal. Born into a
nation transformed by the second World War, they
experienced social change as their lives unfolded 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."
Hughes and O'Rand's study challenges some of the common assumptions
about baby boomers:
* They did not all come of age during the turbulent 1960s as the
the baby boom stretched from 1946 to 1964, with the youngest of the late boomers leaving
college during the Reagan years.
* They were not all political radicals, with a third the early boomers
having served in Vietnam and younger voters being more likely to support conservative
* They were not the first to reject ttraditional family structures.
Late marriages, permanent single status, small families, childlessness and divorce
have a long history in the United States. The generation born before and during World War II, not the boomers,
had the sharpest increase in divorce.
With the oldest baby boomers approaching 60, there is speculation about their future.
"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."
Hughes and O'Randoffer 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.