In 1945, America and the rest of the Allied Powers claimed victory in World War II. Soldiers came home; the American economy found renewed strength in supplying the free world with goods to rebuild their economies; and people settled down and started to have babies. Lots of babies. In 1946, birth rates rose sharply, beginning a steady increase that wouldn't subside for almost 20 years.
This population explosion created what came to be known as the Baby Boomer Generation. This generation has remained the single largest grouping of people at every stage of their lives, and has dominated the national landscape the entire time.
When Baby Boomers were young, they created the youth movement of the ‘60s. When they entered their 20s, they created the culture of excess in the ‘70s. In the ‘80s, they were the “Yuppies,” finding their way in the corporate world for the first time. Today, the oldest Boomers are approaching their ‘60s, and once again, America is preparing for a paradigm shift.
The most commonly accepted definition of the Baby Boomer Generation is that it comprises people born between 1946 and 1964. 1946 marked the start of the increase of births in America, and the numbers, while peaking in 1957, remained steady until they finally began to drop in 1965.
But how much do these people really have in common? How can two people be lumped into one category when one of them was 18 years old when the other was born? In this article, we'll take a look at who the Boomers are, what they've done, their impact on society, and what's in store for them as they approach the final chapters in their incredible saga.
Baby Boomers by the Numbers
On January 1, 2006, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling turned 60 years old. She is the nation's very first Baby Boomer. In many ways, Casey-Kirschling is a microcosm of the Baby Boomer generation. She's been married, divorced and remarried. She has children and grandchildren, and she has carved out a career for herself. In almost every way, Casey-Kirschling is the typical Baby Boomer.
She has also been studied and documented, much like the generation for whom she has become a reluctant spokesperson. No generation has ever been put under the microscope like the Boomers, and mountains of data have been accumulated to enable folks to get a handle on this society-changing generation.
What have we learned?
- There are 78.2 million of them in America, and 50.8 percent of whom are women.
- African-Americans make up 9.8 percent of Baby Boomers, and 8 percent are Hispanic.
- The most common Baby Boomer names are James and Mary.
- There are over 9.8 million Baby Boomers in California, the largest grouping in any one state.
- The only state where Baby Boomers don't count for at least 25 percent of the population is Utah, where they only make up 23 percent of the state.
- By the year 2005, 68.8 percent of Baby Boomers were married, , and another 14.2 percent divorced. The percentage of divorced Baby Boomers is almost twice the rate of their parent's generation (6.7 percent).
- Around 12.6 percent of Baby Boomers have never been married, which is over three times the percentage of their parent's generation who never married (3.9 percent).
- Almost half (48 percent) of all households in the U.S. are headed by Baby Boomers.
- Forty percent of Boomers expect their adult children to move back in with them.
- Thirty percent of Boomers expect their parents to move in with them.
- By the year 2030, Baby Boomers, who will be between the ages of 66 and 84, will make up 20 percent of the population.
But numbers alone can only tell us so much about the Boomers. Next up, we'll take a look at who these people are by their cultural, political, and economic legacies.
Who are the Baby Boomers?
The easiest description of the Baby Boomer generation is that it comprises people who were born in the United States between 1946 and 1964. However, they are often broken down into two distinct groups: Those born between 1946 and 1954 (often called Leading-edge Boomers), and those born between 1955 and 1964 (often called Shadow Boomers, or Generation Jones).
The single, defining historical event of the Baby Boomer Generation was the Vietnam War. Since Shadow Boomers born after 1955 were not eligible for the draft, they had a much different experience than the Leading-edge Boomers, creating a generation gap in the middle of a single generation.
In 1985, Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott asked people "What world events over the past 50 years were especially important to you?" The answers for the two groups of Boomers were very different. Leading-edge Boomers mentioned the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; man walking on the moon; the Vietnam War; sexual freedom; the civil rights movement; and protests and riots. The Shadow Boomers, on the other hand, mentioned Watergate, Nixon's resignation, the Cold War, the oil embargo, massive inflation and gasoline shortages.
All differences aside, there is one thing that culturally unites the Boomers like no other: television. The Baby Boomers were the first generation raised on TV. They could share cultural events and milestones with everyone in their age group, no matter where they were geographically. They all watched “Bonanza” or “Leave it to Beaver,” and saw the Vietnam War in their living rooms while they were coming of age. These shared moments helped craft a generational bond like no generation before them.
Another cultural element that separated Boomers from their parents was Rock and Roll. Artists like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and later Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who took over the airwaves and gave the Boomers a generational identity.
That identity is, in many ways, deeply skeptical. Boomers in their 20s coined the famous phrase "Don’t trust anyone over 30" at the height of the Vietnam War. The events of Nixon and Watergate cemented the skepticism of authority. Instead, Baby Boomers put their trust in themselves. They have been called the "Me Generation" because they were the first generation to take a breather between childhood and adulthood and explore being young. They got married later, had kids later and spent lavishly on themselves.
Conversely, they are also one of the most active and selfless generations ever. Their continual fight against injustice created the women's movement, the civil rights movement, Vietnam War protests and much more.
How Boomers have shaped the World
In 1992, Bill Clinton (born in 1946) became America's first Baby Boomer President. He was followed eight years later by America's second Baby Boomer President, George W. Bush, also born in 1946.
They won't be the last Baby Boomer Presidents. It's quite conceivable that a Baby Boomer will be in the White House for another 20 years or more. Combined with the Boomer Generation's majority in Congress (62 percent in the House of Representatives, 46 percent in the Senate), Governorships (74 percent), and State Legislatures (between 54 and 58 percent) the generation that once vowed to fight authority has suddenly become the authority.
However, long before they controlled the halls of power, Baby Boomers shaped the political arena. As leaders in the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, gay rights, handicapped rights and the rights to privacy, the Baby Boomer generation has been at the forefront of the expansion of individual freedom.
But it's very difficult to pin Boomers down as being either liberal or conservative. A 2004 nationwide survey by the AARP found that a solid majority of Baby Boomers support abortion rights, gun control and stem cell research -- strongly liberal causes. At the same time, the survey found strong support among the Boomers for the death penalty and fiscal conservatism -- strongly conservative positions. The survey also found that nearly 60 percent of Baby Boomers believe the government has a responsibility to provide health care to all citizens, and more than 70 percent say the government must protect the environment.
So while we aren't quite living in an all-Boomer world, it's safe to say the Baby Boomer generation, having spent its youth fighting power and demanding change, has become the dominant force in the political arena. Time will tell what they do with the power they now wield.
A Generation of Consumers
If there's one thing that unites Boomers of all shapes and sizes, it’s consumerism. From the very beginning, marketers recognized the possibilities presented by this uniquely large generation. At every age of their lives, Baby Boomers have been the largest demographic to target, and marketers have perused them diligently.
In the 1950s, teenage and younger Boomers bought hula hoops and Frisbees. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, they settled down and sent housing prices soaring Today, there’s an explosion in computer gadgets meant to ease a generation into their golden years. Baby Boomers have driven the economy as they aged with their massive spending power. Now, as they oldest Boomers hit 60, marketers are tasked with keeping up with the unrelenting demographic shift.
In the 2000 Census, there were an estimated 35 million people in America 65 or older. By 2030, that number is expected to more than double to 71.5 million Americans. That group will contain almost 20 percent of the nation's population, where today the 65 and older group makes up only 12 percent.
Not only will they be the largest Golden Years demographic in history, they will be the richest, controlling 40 percent of the nation's deposable income and 77 percent of private investments. Clearly, this is the demographic that advertisers will want to tap.
So looking ahead, where are the growth industries for companies wanting to market to the Boomers? One good guess is health care. The Baby Boomers have spent their lives being healthy, eating healthy, exercising and basically refusing to grow old. Just because they are becoming chronologically older doesn't mean they intend to let go of their fit and healthy lifestyle. Also, the generation that followed them is much smaller and won't provide nearly enough elder care workers to help take care of the Boomers in their golden years. Many companies see a huge opportunity in the making.
But these are the Boomers we're talking about, the generation that fell in love with gadgets and computers. So a company that can create a seemingly futuristic gadget that deals with health care is at the top of the game.
In Japan, where the percentage of seniors is rising even faster than in America, you can purchase a toilet seat that will weigh you, take your temperature, and test your urine and blood for blood sugar and cholesterol levels. The seat then automatically sends the results to your doctor's office.
It may sound like something out of “Star Trek,” but as more Baby Boomers cross into their 60s and 70s, the need for more high-tech health-care devices will become a reality.
The Boomer's Second Act
Now that the Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age, the world's golf courses and cruise ships are going to be overbooked, right?
Not so fast.
A study by Cornell University found that about a third of all Baby Boomers are planning a second career in their Golden Years. With over 78 million Boomers in America, that's 26 million sexagenarians planning to re-enter the workplace. That's a lot of workers.
The question to ask is: Why? Why, when they could be planning years of leisure and travel, are these Boomers sending out resumes and re-entering the workplace?
For some it is a matter of finances. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 25 percent of Baby Boomer households don't have enough savings put away to retain their standard of living upon retirement. Even though the Boomers have, on average, earned more money than their parents, many have spent it all already. They can't afford to retire and need income, so they're heading back to work.
But starting a second career isn't something limited to the oldest Boomers. Many are finding new careers in their 40s and 50s due to circumstances beyond their control, like losing their jobs. New York Times economics reporter Louis Uchitelle estimated that more than 30 million workers--mostly Baby Boomers--have been downsized out of a job since the 1980s. So instead of decades of leisure and relaxation, many Boomers are facing years of hourly wages in part-time jobs to make ends meet.
On the other side of the coin are Boomers who have plenty of money. Yet many of these affluent Boomers are also going back to work. Why? They cite a chance to do something more meaningful and fulfilling with their lives.
Tired of years working a thankless job that brought in a steady paycheck, Boomers are branching out in their mature years. Some are answering a desire to give back to the society that enriched them. They’re turning their experience in the corporate world into a $38,000-a-year job teaching public school or trading in a six-figure salary to head a non-profit company. Others are chasing their own dreams, turning a beloved hobby into a start-up company, or interning at the bottom rung of a new career. For these, money is not the object; personal satisfaction is the driving motive.
But going back to work is just one way the Baby Boomer generation is changing the way we look at retirement.
The Baby Boomer Redefines Retirement
Baby Boomers are healthier and better educated than their parents were at this age. And they're living longer, well into their 80s. That's a lot of time to sit back and take it easy. But Boomers aren't interested in relaxing.
A 2005 study by Harris Interactive for Merrill Lynch found that 76 percent of Baby Boomers intend to continue working and earning in retirement. However, not all want to work full-time -- 42 percent plan to cycle back and forth between periods of work and periods of leisure, while 35 percent who plan for regular full or part-time work. Only 17 percent expected to be done with working altogether once they retire. This is a generation that intends to stay active.
Aside from work, one way Boomers are staying active is through volunteering. The web site http://www.getinvolved.gov, sponsored by the Corporation for National and Community Service, specifically appeals to Boomers who grew up in the age of John F. Kennedy, who famously called their generation to service.
And the appeal seems to be working. A 2005 study by researches at RTI International found that nearly one-third of all Baby Boomers serve as volunteers in one way or another. This involvement spreads across both genders. The study found that while women are 25 percent more likely to volunteer than men, Baby Boomer men were more likely to volunteer than men in any other age group.
This Baby Boomer Volunteering Boom is being felt in all areas of the non-profit world. Boomers have a lot of experience, and are spreading that experience around. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Boomers are more apt to volunteer with more than one organization than any other generation of volunteers. So not only are more Boomers volunteering, but they're involved with more organizations, and helping more people.
So as the oldest Baby Boomers cross over into their 60s, the "Me" Generation is turning into the "We" Generation.
Social Security and Medicare: The Boomer Crunch
In 2006, Kathleen Casey-Kirschling and the rest of the initial Baby Boomers officially turned 60. In 2008, they will turn 62 and be eligible to start drawing early retirement benefits from Social Security. Three years later, they'll be 65 and eligible for Medicare.
And this creates a problem.
According to the 2007 Annual Report from the Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees, Social Security will start to cost more money to run than it takes in by the year 2017. There is currently a large surplus, but it will be drained by the year 2041. At that point, Social Security will only be able to pay out 75 percent of its benefits.
The news on Medicare is even worse. We dip into the Medicare surplus in 2013, and drain it by 2019. Then Medicare can only pay for 79 percent of its costs.
The reason for this short fall? The Baby Boomers.
Social Security and Medicare are paid for mostly through payroll taxes. The more people that work, the more money that goes into the systems. For many, many years, the Boomers did their part, worked their jobs, and put money into the system. Since there are so many Boomers, there were a lot more people putting money into the system than taking it out.
But when the Boomers start to retire, we will lose a huge group of people putting money into the system and replace them with a huge group of people taking it out of the system.
Getting Their House in Order
Like everything else they've touched, Baby Boomers are redefining how people prepare for the end of their life. One new trend is the ethical will. Instead of just preparing a legal document that divvies up their loot, Boomers are creating something that will leave behind not just their valuables, but their values. These ethical wills are part family history, part personal story and part guidepost through the dearly departed's value system. They allow the dead to be remembered for who they were, rather than just what they had.
Boomers are all about their own individuality, and the end of their lives is just one more chance to place their own stamp on the world. Gone are the days of the quiet, somber memorials and reading of the will. Instead, Boomers are putting on a show. They don't want to be memorialized -- they want to be celebrated. What Boomers want is an experience that they feel will best sum up their life. They don't see themselves as stuffy, somber entities -- they're young, they're hip -- they're the Boomers. So they're taking matters into their own hands to ensure they get the service and experience they want, bringing new consumer expectations and fewer attachments to churches and time-honored traditions. This shift has funeral directors scrambling to double as party planners.
One factor that is playing into this reinvention of the funeral is the rise in popularity of cremation. According to the Cremation Association of North America, 31 percent of Americans were cremated in 2004, up from just 6 percent in 1975. And that number is expected to rise. Cremation means no body at the service, which makes it easier to forgo the somber tone.
Also, Boomers are rethinking what to do with the remains that they leave behind. One idea is the concept of the eco-cemetery. People are buried un-embalmed in a shallow hole without a casket, then their body becomes fertilizer for the wildflowers that grow. This option also helps preserve the land by designating it a cemetery, which ensures that no developer can build on top of you.
For Boomers looking for something ever-lasting, a company in Chicago, LifeGem, will extract 8 ounces of someone's cremated remains and compress it to create an actual diamond. You could wear your loved one and keep them close to your heart for the rest of your life!
For more information on Baby Boomers, check out the helpful links on the following page.
Related How Stuff Works Articles:
More Great Links:
- Strauss and Howe (1992) Generations, ISBN 0-688-11912-3
- The Status of Social Security and Medicare Program 2007 http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/TRSUM/trsummary.html
- USA Today "N.J. Woman enjoys celebrity of being 1st Baby Boomer" http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-12-29-first-boomer_x.htm
- U.S. Census Bureau Baby Boomer Facts and Figures https://www.census.gov/population/international/files/97agewc.pdf
- MetLife Demographic Profile "American Baby Boomers" http://www.metlife.com/WPSAssets/34442486101113318029V1FBoomer%20Profile%202005.pdf
- EscapeHomes.com "Baby Boomer Statistics on Empty Nests and Retirement" http://www.escapehomes.com/main.aspx?tabid=45&itemid=186
- Schuman, H. and Scott, J. (1989), Generations and collective memories, American Psychological Review, vol. 54, 1989, pp. 359-81.
- Senior Journal.com "New Political Survey of Older Americans Finds Boomers Want Third Party, Seniors Focus on Candidate's Personal Qualities" http://www.seniorjournal.com/NEWS/Politics/2004/4-07-20Survey.htm
- The Baby Boomers Dominate the Halls of Power - Lisa Hoffman and Sarah McBroom / Scripps Howard News Service. Monday, April 9, 2007 http://www.abqtrib.com/news/2007/apr/09/baby-boomers-dominate-halls-power/
- USA Today "Gadgets help Baby Boomers Navigate Old Age" http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2003-11-16-gadgets-cover_x.htm
- Newsweek "Midlife: Time to Start a New Career - Boomers at 60" June 19, 2006 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13249472/site/newsweek/
- Cornell News "Survey by Cornell researchers indicates one-third of baby boomers plans to keep working beyond retirement" October, 2001. http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Oct01/boomer.retire.ssl.html
- CBO: Economic and Budget Issue Brief "Retirement Prospects of the Baby Boomers" http://www.cbo.gov/showdoc.cfm?index=5195&sequence=0
- ABCNews: "Baby Boomer Challenge Notion of Retiremnet" http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Business/story?id=1491624
- Merrill Lynch "The New Retirement Survey" February 2005 http://www.ml.com/index.asp?id=7695_7696_8149_46028_46503_46635
- RTI International "Baby Boomers Most Likely Age Group to Volunteer" http://www.rti.org/page.cfm?nav=500&objectid=A8B55488-1EA2-4AF9-B472D7DBB17D6C27
- Senior Journal "Boomers More Caring of Aging Parents than Earlier Generation" http://www.seniorjournal.com/NEWS/Boomers/6-12-01-BabyBoomersMoreCaring.htm
- Arizona Republic, May 2007 "Boomers Putting new Spin on Funerals" http://www.azcentral.com/business/articles/0504death0504.html
- Associated Press, January 2007, "Cremation's Rising Popularity runs into Community Resistance." http://www.tucsoncitizen.com/ss/weird/38841.php