Ginny’s post got me to thinking about what exactly is a Baby Boomer. As she pointed out, a lot of people’s visceral reaction to those Boomer late-life goals are due to the very inward looking nature, given that generation’s hubris and threats to change the world (for the worse, in hindsight). Us Gen Xers take great delight in pointing out the hypocrisy there, but really, how much of that generation fits our stereotypical Boomer image? There is a very large core group that does, but there are significantly large minorities in that generation who do not fit the stereotype of the narcissistic leftist. None of the Boomers I work with fit in that mold, but then they are all scientists. When we talk about generational characteristics and how they impact society, we have to put our prejudices aside and look at what is true, rather than what we’d like to be true.
So the first task is to define what exactly one means by the term “Baby Boom”. When does one start counting? 1946? 1943? 1950? When exactly does one cut them off? 1964? 1960? Or my personal favorite, 1966? A lot like obscenity, I’ll know a late Boomer when I see one, right? Well, not really. A lot of my negative perceptions of that generation get mapped onto any particular subject, and the whole definition thing is kind of nuts anyway, to group a generation in a nearly 20 year block. Let’s take the most common definition of 1946 – 1964, a period of 18 years. I graduated high school in 1987. Do I have anything generational in common with a graduate of the class of 1969? No freaking way, man. My generation had waaaay better taste than to take to something like Disco in our 20s (cough Hair Bands cough). Not to mention that I was born in 1969.
So, 18 year blocks are ludicrous. In the words of an actual tailing edge Boomer, here’s why in this particular case:
I don’t think there’s a neat demographic system for answering the question “Am I a boomer?”. I, like Kathy, was born in 1964, in the last year technically considered “boom”. But I’m actually the child of a boomer – a teenager born in the prime, post-war years that define boomerness.
This gets at the heart of what I consider to be the definition of a Boomer. The kids that followed the social movements of the 60s in droves were the children of the WWII generation – people whose parents were of age to have served in war. The WWII generation people lived life on a slowly, but steadily rising tide of history. They saw very hard times when they were kids in the depression, but they were not really responsible for the family’s welfare yet, except in certain cases. They then saw the New Deal turn things around, and even after the crisis of WWII, things got better for them, not worse, unlike their generational counterparts in the USSR. This led to a habit of thinking that things would always get better, despite temporary setbacks, a habit of thought which they passed on to their Boomer kids. Boomers, too rode a wave of steadily rising economic and educational opportunities.
My blog-buddy CW once pointed out to me that we Gen-Xers (the original “slackers”, not the tailing edge Xers) were the children of another generation. Our parents were born in the late 30s and early 40s, pre-Boom. Our grandparents were adults or teens during the Depression, and still hoarded canned food in their basements because of it. Our parents inherited, and passed on to us, a more gloomy, more conservative, and less self-centered worldview because of their parents’ experience. This was re-enforced by us Xers having to clean out the nest that the Boomers had shit in. The Boomers’ parents voted in the student loan system that fueled their college matriculations in record numbers, and we Gen-Xers were left to deal with the inevitable economic consequences of the rent-seeking those programs inspired from Universities. The Boomers got themselves ensconced in Corporate America in the 1970s, and blocked (and still block) advancement for us Xers.
Scientists are always concerned about the boundary conditions of a phenomenon, because the boundaries often contain a lot of information helpful to testing theories. If CW’s theory of Boomer identity is correct, you ought to see a lot of confusion around the boundaries of the Boom generation, because the end of reproductive life cycle of my grandparent’s generation overlapped with the beginning of that of the WWII generation. And so you do.
You also have confusion about the end date of the Boom, when the pre-Boomers began to have kids at the beginning of their reproductive life, while the WWII generation were having the last of their broods. Here’s Boomer Deathwatch again:
Moreover, I have no memory of the economic portion of the “boom”. My adoptive parents were adults in the Depression, and passed on their memories of hard times, which turned out to be revisited when my father died when I was four, leaving my mother to raise me on a pension while my (boomer) sister and brother caught the fortuitous economic train that – to me – defines a boomer: a period of “socially significant” rebellion and experimentation in college, a few years of “finding yourself”, then the serendipitous slide into a job or career that allows you to buy a home, raise a family, and even save money.
I dabble in demographics in my current job. A very large part of my job involves quantitative market research and quantitative prediction of consumer behavior. A fair number of consultants try to
bamboozle convince people with jobs like mine that they can help us by identifying generational consumer behavior traits. Most of this is pure, unadulterated horse shit, because the intra-generational variations are greater than the inter-generational ones. (Remember, McGovern only beat Nixon by 1% in the youth vote). In other words, the standard deviation is larger than the mean. Statisticians have words for models like that, and “underpowered” and “non-predictive” are the kindest ones I can think of right now.
A non-predictive model makes for some very fancy footwork on the part of the consultant trying to hype it. The Demographers of the US Government define the Boom as 1946 – 1964. But the definition of the Boom Generation coming out of the
shysters consulting firms such as Ann Fishman generally regard 1943 – 1960 as the Boom period. Why? Well, first of all because they base their shtick on the work of these bozos, who try to squeeze generations into categories based on shared experiences that are cherry-picked from a range available in history. Then people like Fishman repackage it and market what amounts to some common sense observations, layering on the BS until the whole thing becomes one giant turd.
The other reason that 1943 is included in the consultant’s definition of “Boom” is that the major characteristic, and the thing I hate most about the vast majority of the Boomers aside from their self-righteous narcissism, is that they are amazingly lemming-like for all their protestations of “doing their own thing”. The Boomers did not invent the social rebellions that they so identify themselves with. The beginning of the post-war peak fertility years do not necessarily correspond to the birth years of the movers and shakers of the defining Boomer decade, the 1960s. While a senior in college in 1968 was born in 1945 or 1946, the grad students who led the “movements” were born well before that. A senior in 1966 (still part of the late 1960s) was born in 1943 or 1944. The leading edge of the social phenomena associated with them was not born during the demographic boom. And so, if you are going to try to make a case for generational marketing, you have to play fast and loose with the definition of the Baby Boom.
I tend to agree with these guys:
In practice, generational marketing often amounts to little more than an undisciplined hash of age and period-event driven marketing rather than a well-considered appeal to the unique tastes and sensibilities of a whole cohort. That is, when marketers talk about a generation of consumers they frequently speak of how consumers at a particular life-stage respond to key events. Strictly speaking, this is not generational marketing because neither life-stage nor the experience of events is unique to any one generation. Yet, even pure generational marketing is delusional if it assumes a generation will be homogeneous in outlook or behavior.
So one is still left casting about for an operational definition of Boomer and Xer. When CW first pointed out his definition of Xer based on the age of our parents, it made immediate sense to me. My friends and I all had parents of the pre-Boom generation – we had little in common with the kids of the touchy-feely Boomers who shared our birth years but were really the leading edge of the Millenial Generation. This leads one to the marketing concept of segments, which I think is a lot more useful way to approach the generational divide.