Twilight Of The Boomers

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ILLUSTRATIONS FOR TIME BY MATT MAHURIN

ILLUSTRATIONS FOR TIME BY MATT MAHURIN

Were you there, back in the beginning? Were you one of the 76 million children born in the most fertile years in American history? If you weren't, you're probably thinking that you really can't take any more boomer solipsism. You've already suffered through a lifetime of references to Woodstock and the Beach Boys and Vietnam. You've gritted your teeth as you endured the preening, self-congratulatory smugness that leads Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist who has lately made his living warning about the coming boomer bust, to say, "Boomers feel superior to the younger generations. It wouldn't even occur to boomers not to."

But if you were there, especially if you are part of that front-loaded cadre of boomers born between 1946 and 1957, the last thing you want to hear is that you aren't going to have it your way anymore. After all, as Ralph Whitehead Jr., a public service professor at the University of Massachusetts says, "The baby boom was a self-absorbed generation, a generation that defined itself not through sacrifice as its parents had, but through indulgence."

When you've been walking on water most of your life--when, since you reached adulthood, America has mostly been at peace, the economy has mostly been strong, and you've been part of a group large enough to call the cultural shots--harsh reality makes for a cold shower.

Did I say reality? In a recent survey conducted by the MacArthur Foundation, American 50-year-olds, when asked how old they thought themselves, ignored the evidence of the hairline, the waistline and the calendar, and said 40.

I have news for you, pals: you're not. (Neither am I. I'm 52, which, when I was a teenager imagining the far, far distant coming of the new millennium, is exactly the horrifying age I figured I'd be.) If you're like the overwhelming majority of boomers, your career has hit a brick wall, you haven't saved enough, your pension is underfunded, your health is deteriorating, even the medical advances that will probably extend your life will, in an especially cruel paradox, probably mean that late life will be meaner and more spartan. You'll have a hard time selling the house that you considered your nest egg (the generation behind just won't have enough buyers). And your neighbors' children, simultaneously burdened with the cost of your aging and victimized by the one thing you'll hold onto--your political power--will boil with resentment. Your own kids may get especially peevish: even today, says Rand Corp. economist James P. Smith, "half the adult children with parents who die over age 70 get zero. Parents are living longer, with more health expenses. The first thing to go...is bequests to children."

Need more? There are no movies made for people your age, the music on the radio is dreadful, television programmers behave as if you don't exist. In an astonishing merger of boomer aging with boomer self-involvement, Matsushita Electric has built a prototype smart toilet with built-in microsensors that can run an automatic, daily chemical analysis of the user's urine. Stock-market analysts are growing bullish on companies that build nursing homes or manufacture laxatives.

Coming soon: the Metamucil boom.

Here's looking at you, kid.

The slippage probably began on the turf that the boomers seem to have owned for more than three decades: popular culture. Listened to the radio recently? Do you feel any different than your parents must have felt when they first stood aghast as you fell in love with the Beatles? Of course you do--if you're a boomer, you knew then that your musical taste was superior, and you know it today. What about the movies--weren't you watching The Graduate at the same age that these kids are drooling their brains away over Scream XXVI?

Not having movies to go to, music to listen to or television to watch doesn't exactly rank with famine or pestilence as a besetting syndrome, but it is indicative of the larger phenomenon. You know you're fading when even advertisers of new products don't try to reach you anymore because they no longer care what boomers want, or think or spend their money on (unless it is a solution to pesky erectile dysfunction or your annoying estrogen shortage). Says Cathy DeThorne, executive vice president of the advertising giant Leo Burnett U.S.A.: "Whining baby boomers are mourning the fact that those rules they understood just don't apply anymore." Maybe we need to attend to the commercial wisdom of Hallmark cards, one company that has no problem marketing across generations. Hallmark simply adjusts the product line to conform to demographic trends. Consequently, says Marita Wesely-Clough, trends expert for the company, it will soon be producing more get-well cards for people with "extended illnesses."

But if pop culture has assumed an alien look, so increasingly has the workplace. In a word, says Chicago-based outplacement specialist John Challenger, "baby boomers are getting squeezed" on the job. "They're filling up the ranks of middle management and fighting each other for the executive-level slots. There are just too many of them."

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