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.

32 thoughts on “Ka-Boom”

  1. It’s also useful to remember that many perceptions of past generational experiences are based on film and television products from those eras — but those films and television programs were often wildly inaccurate and unrepresentational at the time they were made. Many of the media products made at that time were written, produced, and directed by men in their forties, fifties, or older — that is to say, born in the administrations of Harding, Taft, or Teddy Roosevelt, and having almost no contact with anyone actually experiencing the Sixties as a youth. To the extent they did, they tended to look at a very small segment of the most flamboyant and self-publicizing of the hippie/student left worlds, and generalize wildly from that.

  2. I have an easy test to determine an individual’s generational affiliation: Ask them about their favorite saturday morning TV cartoon.

    If they say Howdy Doody, they’re a boomer.

    If they say Scooby Do, they’re a gen-Xer.

    If they say, “whats so special about saturday morning?” they’re a gen-Yer.

  3. Jim Bennet,

    Many of the media products made at that time were written, produced, and directed by men in their forties, fifties, or older …

    And as proof of this, I would extend my mentioning of Scooby-Do above. The character shaggy is a textbook stoner yet it appears that the writers and developers of the series never spotted this in film characters they used to inspire the character. Their own generational naiveté about marijuana caused them to see a goofy, stupid character who was oddly always hungry, instead of someone stoned out their gourd with the resulting monstrous case of the munchies.

    Even if the original writers were in on the joke, it still says a lot that Scooby-Do survived the censors and the hordes of “public interest” groups that hounded the producers of children’s television at that time.

  4. Being a Boomer makes you think that things got better during the New Deal. If you talked to any farmers, they would tell you 1938 was worse than 1932. My great uncle rode the rails from a farm with no mortgage to Omaha to try and get work. The New Deal was a failure for many people. FDR to his credit would try anything to try and make things better. Not that much worked. The Depression did not end for most until the War.

  5. I’m on the far side of the Boomer Gaussian-curve and graduated in ’76. I have no affinity to the the Boomer generation, having suffered the humiliation of their awful trends. I’ve never seen an episode of Howdy, but thought Scooby-Doo was retarded and the animation quality was poor. Sesame Street might be a better divide, but I was too old to be bothered with fuzzy puppets.
    What censors? As far as I can tell Shaggy was a dream creation of a Boomer Marketing Genius, who sold a lot of Lucky Charms and other sugar-bomb cereals and after-school snack-food that have since led to type-II diabetes, asthmatic invalid kids, and ADHD. Meanwhile and prior to all that, Howdy-Doody watchers and socialist stoner-activists Peter-Paul-and-Mary were singing, “Puff the Magic Dragon,” pretending it was some kind of happy folksy kiddie song. God I hate that sanctimonious Hippie crap. Stoners have always done the work of undermining things. That is the Boomer’s real legacy.

    Where I fit in I don’t know, but I look at the hiring-cycle.
    The Boomers are still in charge, they’re the Management Team running companies. They hire in the junior level X-er’s at the second tier, and those guys hire each other to fill-out that level.
    In my last job interview as a Graphics-and-Design Guy, my prospective boss came down the hall to meet me on a skateboard, wearing cargo shorts, and with a *haircut* and set of piercings from ear to eyebrow – hey it’s graphics and design stuff and that’s practically a uniform today. I was talking to a Marketing Suit and wearing one – I was dead. It was not gonna be a “good fit” as the HR people (who’re mostly Boomers) say. At 48 I’m out of work, have none of the Boomer-level power or wealth accumulation, and won’t get hired to my old career because it’s now occupied by a younger strata and I’m not cool enough. The Boomers expect me to threaten their level and don’t hire-in among each other – they’re homogeneous. So really I hate Boomers more than Xers, and I gotta find another career.
    Maybe that’s a better index – how many careeer/job changes have you undergone. How many economic cycles separate Boomers and Gen X-ers?

  6. Off-topic, but this played out differently.

    Even given the effect of television & movies, place still had a strong effect in some ways (and I suspect to a lesser degree still does). For instance, in rural Nebraska, we had only one network for much of my childhood. People who grew up in one area remember CBS & in another NBC. I don’t remember Howdy Doody at all, nor Mickey Mouse Club. We did have Captain Kangaroo. Antonioni & Bergman affected me, but my siblings who stayed in Nebraska were unlikely to see much of them. (Not that in the end it affected us all that much – today we are likely to choose the same television shows & clothes, etc.) Growing up next to a military school or growing up next to a liberal arts one is likely to make a difference — and the culture in the high schools reflect those differences.

    And some parents got stoned with their kids & others denounced the sixties at the dinner table every night – surely that made a difference, too.

  7. “….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.”

    This statement may be an example of one of the worst things (a lot of) Boomers did, which was to raise whiners with an exaggerated sense of self-worth. One imagines that John Jay doesn’t believe that young folks haven’t been impatient with older generations before; the generational rift is a common thing, common in literature from the time of Dickens and, likely, much before.

  8. The Boomers got themselves ensconced in Corporate America in the 1970s, and blocked (and still block) advancement for us Xers

    Interesting to see this perception. From the viewpoint of the Boomers, it seemed like the GI Generation were in charge forever, so much so that Boomers had to go out and start their own enterprises to get anywhere. As have subsequent generations, for that matter.

    I ‘m sure somebody can quote real statistics and show that this wasn’t so. But it seemed that way at the time.

  9. Well, John, we’re out of your way now. I was on a job where there were about 50 middle-aged men & women doing contract Sarbanes-Oxley work. Most had been controllers or CFOs who were downsized or offered a package. I’m not whining on my own behalf, I like what I do and I like not having to be a boss, but many of these people had had some very scary experiences trying to get back to work.

    If you think it’s tough waiting for a position to open, try being the guy who was the opening.

  10. Oh, and George of the Jungle and Rocky & Bullwinkle for me. Clutch Cargo, just because the animated mouths were so eerie. Scooby-Doo sucked. I put that show with Josie and the P***ycats or Magilla Gorilla.

    My goodness, the comment filter has a dirty mind.

  11. Tyouth –

    The Boomers reaped the great discounts in public education that came with student loans, but by the time I got to college, tuition had been rising faster than inflation for quite a while.

    I’m not whining about the state of affairs, I’m making my own way in the business world thankyouverymuch. But I dang sure am not going to give Corporate Boomers the benefit of the doubt either – every time I need to get something done and have to fight the system, it’s a Boomer (actually several) in my way. One of the hallmarks of their generation’s management has been the management fads that spring up and die (six sigma, anyone?) like diseased mushrooms. That is a big part of their lemming-like quality. Not that management programs like Dale Carnegie were not around for the GI generation, but it seems like the Boomers sit in middle management in huge numbers and do nothing but make life harder than it has to be in order to justify their existence. The fault there can’t all be laid at the Boomers feet – the GI generation built those layers of middle management and staffed them with Boomers in little fiefdoms to enhance senior management prestige, as measured by staff size.

    That there are so many Boomers means that, unlike when GI generation CEOs gave up the helm of a company, one Boomer CEO gets replaced by a slightly younger Boomer CEO. Ideas then, do not change radically, which is fine when things are going well, not so fine as we adjust to the information economy.

    Part of this the Boomers can’t help. Having a generational cohort bigger than either the preceding or succeeding one warps the social space-time continuum around them. As Ilyka Damen said:

    You know, if you know anything about me at all, that there are few things I love better than blaming shit on Baby Boomers. But even I can’t pin this on them, or at least I wouldn’t do it as harshly as Caldwell does. It isn’t “twist[ing] all society’s institutions into the shape of [your] needs” when your demographic is that large–at that point, your demographic IS society. Why shouldn’t institutions adapt to it?

    But that does not entirely mitigate the fact that Boomers are now in the declining years of their productivity, and getting in the way all the time. Hopefully, that will allow Gen X entrepreneurs to clean their clocks. And if you want to see whining, watch the Millenials.

    Mitch – I deal with several Boomer “consultants” who were downsized and went on to form their own companies. A few of them are worth their salt, but an awful lot of the ones I deal with were probably incompetent at their former jobs and should have been let go long before they actually were. I spend a bit of time every week turning down their solicitations for business. Not to say that all, or even most Boomers fit in that category, but the sheer size of their cohort means that in absolute numbers, there are a lot of Boomer bozos hanging about. Like I said at the end, it’s segments that we should be looking at, not entire generations. The Boomers had a huge parasitic, lemming segment in their midst, and it’s that segment that gives them all a bad name.

  12. As a real tail-end boomer, we really need to specify 60s boomers -which I despise our my end.

    I don’t remember HD, but I did watch the reruns of TMMC. Watch the 1st 5 minutes of Miracle on Ice, that was my world til 1980. Then came Ronnie and it was morning in America again. I remember when the market was in the 2400s. Heck, I remember when the market was in the 700s in 1973, we studied the stock market in econ. I actually had some econ in grade school.

    What’s interesting is some are redefining the beginning of the boomers from 1946 to 1943.

    Best guess 46-60 or 46-64.

    We tail-enders are quiet after those yammering navel-gazing narcissists, but there are more of us.

  13. Oh – and Mitch – the jury is still out, but I’ll wager that Sarbanes-Oxley is just another round of Boomer bureaucratic nonsense, passed by Boomers in government, and doing little to combat the accounting scandals that was already not being done by Wall Street. Yet another parasitic layer of consultants and bureaucrats – just what American business needs.

  14. Ok so maybe I’m in denial, that’s a Boomer characteristic if there ever was one… I’m stil on the off-side of the curve, and Scooby Doo sucked and Sesame Street sucked too. I can’t believe it’s still on. ;-)

  15. Sesame street sucks even worse now that Cookie Monster is off the all-cookie diet. Bring back Easy Reader and the Electric Company!

  16. Bicentennial Edition: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970: Part I Chapter B Vital Statistics and Health and Medical Care and
    Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006 Edition

    Actually, the Baby Boom was a very simple demographic label. During the Great Depression and WWII, births and birth rates in the United Sates were low by comparison to the 1920s. For instance in 1924 there almost 3 million live births and the birth rate per 1,000 was 26.1. By 1936 the numbers had dropped to 2.4M and 18.4. During the war years, the rate went up a bit, reaching 22.7 in 1943 and 3.1M births that year. In 1946 the numbers jumped. Births that year reached an all time high of 3.4 million (a 19% improvement over 1945) and the rate jumped to 24.1 from 20.4 the preceding year. The Baby Boom had begun.

    In 1947, there were 3.8M babies and a birthrate of 26.6, the highest it had been since 1921. The next few years were not that fertile, but by the mid-50s there were more than 4 million babies a year and birth rates seemed to stabilize between 24 and 25. In 1957, there were 4.3M live births (rate 25.3), a number which has not been exceeded in any subsequent year (data ends in 2003) despite the vast increase in size of the population.

    The early 60s looked much like the 1950s, and through 1964 there were more than 4M births per year, although the birth rates started to drop back into the lower 20s. However, after 4M births in 1964, there was a fairly large drop in 65 to 3.8M and the rate dropped under 20 for the first time since before WWII. This marked the end of the Boom.

    Total numbers of births and birth rates dropped for the next few years. By 1973 births dropped to 3.1M and the rate had plunged below depression levels to 14.8. Rates did not go up hugely thereafter, but the number of births began to recover after 1976. The 80s saw total births of about 3.6M, and for the last 15 years it has been fairly steady around 4M.

    Marketing, Political and Sociological analysis trailed demographics by a few years. In my view it is futile to try to dice to finely with your sociological knife.

  17. As far as Electric Company/Sesame Street type shows go I think 321 Contact was the best. Especially episodes with the Bloodhound Gang.

  18. 1946-1964 is a totally wrong dating for the Baby Boom. Boomers are called boomers because people made boom boom right after Pearl Harbor and clear through the War whenever they got the chance because they felt tomorrow they’d die. In 1946 they made boom boom to celebrate being alive. There was a mini boom boom after Korea because Korea was only a minor effort.

    The Baby Boom caused a surge of home buying after the war, station wagon sales skyrocketed. Beginning in 1948 the first surge overfilled the schools and caused a major school building surge.

    As the children of 1942-1953 passed each stage of life, the economy and social structure changed.

    The children of 1954-1962 were the Lost Generation
    so named because they had zero impact and less purpose. As you have so ably demonstrated, no one remembers them and they are usually klumped forward or backward.

  19. Oh great, Lost Generation…it figures. But it wasn’t just home buying, there was a tremendous building boom. And what was once a sleepy valley of apricot and prune orchards became housing tracts for engineers’ families.

  20. It’s interesting to me, as a Boomer (b. 1950; biggest influence: Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett; most profound traumatic childhood moment: Davy dying at the Alamo in Episode Three), how the perception here seems to be that the Boomers are politically mostly left-wing. Do we know that’s true? I admit I’m peculiar, in that the rock music and collectivist counter-culture had little influence on me. (The “Me Generation” and sexual revolution of the Seventies had much more influence on me; or rather, I felt more at home in it. I actually may have started it. One day I started getting into physical fitness and reading self-help books and the next thing I know everyone seemed to be doing it.) Instead of “left-wing narcissism” (as the Boomer zeitgeist is described here), I discovered “right-wing narcissism”, and proudly remain a libertarian egoist to this day. However, even the Boomers I know who were influenced culturally and politically by the Sixties are much more conservative these days. A couple of years ago Clintonista Paul Begala–the real-life Wesley Mouch–wrote an article for ESQUIRE denouncing the Boomers for being too reactionary and “materialistic.” (Apparently a code-word for being pro-capitalist and–alas, this part eluded me–successful in the private sector.)

  21. I was born in 1950. I never boomed a baby and therefore cannot be labeled a baby boomer. The one TV show I got into Saturday mornings was a local one (Chicago’s Community Space Theater, sponsored by the Community Discount department store) which ran Cody/Gordon serials. Mostly I read books.

  22. Boomer here. Well, officially anyway. But I think there were many phases within Boomer-dom. My own bunch (graduated from college in ’76) came along a few years after the self-centered, chest-beating, change-the-world mid-’60s bunch, and we felt we had almost nothing in common with them. (Well, the easy sex and cheap dope were fun …) They’d whistled through, having a great old time, claiming to do it for the world’s good, often living on the parents’ credit cards. And we came along and were stuck with making do in the mess they left behind. We griped about ’em in almost exactly the same terms that Xers used many years later. (And then had our own brief moment in the sun with punk.) The cliche Boomers – Woodstock, Berkeley, etc — were really a narrow slice of that big population bulge.

  23. –As you have so ably demonstrated, no one remembers them and they are usually klumped forward or backward.–

    That’s because we’re not loudmouthed whiners.

    But there are more of us.

  24. –If the draft ended before someone turned 18 can that person really be considered a boomer?–

    Draft has nothing to do w/it. My dad had to go. Spent 2 years in Germany in the mid-50s.

  25. “Draft has nothing to do w/it. My dad had to go. Spent 2 years in Germany in the mid-50s.”

    I was born well after the baby boom. From my limited knowledge I was always under the impression that the boomer existence revolved around the war in Vietnam. Would they evade or avoid the draft, or would they go (for the males at least)?

  26. –boomer existence revolved around the war in Vietnam.

    The 60s boomer existence revolves around themselves.

    They are God’s gift to us all, after all.

    Didn’t some sociologist speculate they hate their fathers? They couldn’t live up to them so they had to destroy what their fathers stood for.

  27. To shannon love-
    I never thought about it that way, but the cartoon analogy makes sense to me. It seems to me that a boomer should be described more by their lifestyle, and actions then a certain birthday.

Comments are closed.