What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been

Melissa Beattie-Moss
March 13, 2006
Sixties paraphenalia (boomers)
James Collins

As the clock hand swept us into the first moments of 2006, the "leading edge" of the Baby Boomers—a group 78 million strong, born between 1946 and 1964—began to turn 60. In response, the media has turned its anxious attention to analyzing the Boomers' physical, mental, and fiscal health, prognosticating the impact of this milestone birthday on the nation.

Though aging itself is nothing new, the graying of the "youth culture" kids may merit the attention it's receiving. Those who came of age in the '60s and '70s spent their formative years in an impassioned era of social change that encompassed the Moon Landing, the Vietnam War, Watergate, feminism, the Black Panthers and the Stonewall Riots. And while today they dominate the nation's political, academic, business and cultural leadership positions, in a few short decades, Boomers will be rarer than Elvis-sightings.

In retrospect, is there truly anything different about their generation? Will their legacy include a lasting impact on American politics and values—or will they mostly be remembered for giving the world a few catchy "oldies" tunes? (My strangest time-warp moment? Realizing that the elevator-music I was hearing was, in fact, an orchestral version of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction"—sung by Mick Jagger, whose birth in 1943 makes him too old to be a Boomer.)

The topic hits close to home. Despite missing official Boomer status by one year, I'm married to an uber-Boomer born in 1950 whose life path—sixties hippiedom, multiple careers, divorce, remarriage—is shared by millions of Americans. Sandwiched between the needs of aging parents and school-age children, many of the Boomers' concerns are my own. I set out in search of a broader perspective and, fortunately, didn't have to look too far. Sociologists David Almeida, Duane Alwin, and Melissa Hardy—all at University Park—were eager to share their different takes on the Boomer phenomenon.

Talkin' bout my generation

Though it's ubiquitous to call Boomers a generation, don't throw the term around lightly when talking with Duane Alwin.

Duane Alwin
Paul Ruby

Director of Penn State's Center on Population Health and Aging, and McCourtney professor of sociology and human development,Alwin says emphatically, "It's very common for people to talk about the Baby Boom generation but that's a misnomer, at least from a sociologist's perspective."

Instead, what we have, explains Alwin, is a set of cohorts. "There's a separate birth cohort for each year of the Baby Boom. If we date the Boom from 1946 to 1962,"—(like much about the Boomers, there's little consensus about the actual dates involved)—"we're actually talking about a set of 17 birth cohorts."

"Think about it," says Alwin, leaning back in his chair. "Sharing a birth year isn't enough to make you part of the same generation. Generations stem from social movements." Some Boomers might think of themselves, as I do, as being part of the civil rights generation, but certainly not everyone in my birth cohort fought for civil rights—some opposed it."

While Woodstock hippies might be the iconic image of Boomer youth, the sheer size of the group means its members grew up in vastly different times. The older Boomers—or "the leading edge"—were young adults during the Vietnam war but "the youngest of the Baby Boomer cohorts, what we call the trailing edge, were attaining maturity in the early 1980's and the Reagan era." Boomers don't share "a monolithic set of experiences," reminds Alwin, adding "They experienced everything from the predominance of the Democratic Party to the current Republican administration."

So although our first Boomer presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, were born within months of each other in 1946 and thus share the same birth cohort, an argument could be made that they're members of different generations, sociologically speaking.

"The diversity of the Boomers is indisputable," says Alwin. "The question I'm concerned is whether there is anythingdistinctive about these cohorts in terms of their attitudes,beliefs and political behavior."

Step to the right

To answer that question, Alwin conducted a three-year study titled "Stability of Individual Differences" that examined how people change—or don't—over decades. Funded by the National Institute on Aging, the study looks closely at explanations (generational, life-cycle and historical) for shifts in an individual's political ideals and actions.

"What I've found," notes Alwin, "is that there's a growing conservatism among the Baby Boomers."

In his study—using data from the National Election Studies, a large national sample conducted every two years since 1954 at the University of Michigan—Alwin looked at party affiliations from 1968 to 1982.

peace square

The Boomer cohorts "all started out relatively independent," Alwin tells me. "In fact, in the period 1968 through 1978, about 50 percent of the Boomers responded 'independent' to the party preference question." Beginning in 1980, Alwin explains, there was a systematic decline in that identification. "Their independence went down, their identification with the Democratic Party remained about the same, but their allegiance to the Republican Party went up."

"It appears," concludes Alwin, "that the Republican Party is the principal beneficiary of the aging of the Baby Boom."

Doesn't this run counter to expectations of these supposedly liberal cohorts? Alwin smiles and says, "You explain it to me." A few seconds later, he muses, "Is the whole society becoming more conservative as a whole? The answer to that question is yes. Is it a backlash to the Sixties or just a consequence of aging? We don't know."

The conservative liberal

Despite the Boomers'' rightward political trend, it''s premature to write a post-mortem on their liberalism, cautions Alwin.

"This is a case in which the Baby Boom cohorts may be distinctive," Alwin says. "When asked whether they believe in the value of such things as affirmative action programs, government helping minorities, they top the distributions. This is one measure of what I would call liberalism." On the other hand, he adds, "there''s an overall downward tilt to the graph—everyone''s liberalism is declining, but the Boomers are more liberal than so-called Generations X, Y and Z that followed them."

Another surprise: "They may have once said 'Don''t trust anyone over 30''," jokes Alwin, "but on questions measuring trust in government, the Boomer cohorts are actually a little more trusting than generations after them."

Stress: Age Matters

Dave Almeida
James Collins

Dave Almeida loves stress. Not his own, per se, but the field of study—how people process daily pressures as they age; the impact of family and work factors; and the physiology of our stress responses.

Almeida, associate professor of human development and family studies, has been researching the Boomers from this angle for the past twelve years.

"I''m a developmentalist," he explains, "so I''m most concerned with where people are in their life course." Boomers include people moving into their senior years as well as people just entering midlife—"and that''s a big difference," he asserts. "Some people are having grandkids and others are still having their own kids. The stage of life you''re in greatly impacts the types of stressors you''re going to experience."

One of Almeida''s current projects—a telephone diary study called the National Study of Daily Experiences or NSDE—involves collecting, coding and analyzing over 3000 telephone interviews with a cross-section of Americans, aged 25 to 74. "We ask people detailed questions about many aspects of their day," describes Almeida, "from how they slept, to how they spent their time, their moods, physical symptoms, and a lot of questions about their stressors."

"When we look at stress for Boomers, we have to know whether they''re part of the older 'leading edge'' or younger 'trailing edge,'" Almeida adds. "What I find in general is that the content of older adults'' stressors—the daily frustrations of their lives—is different than that of younger adults."

Older Boomers are more likely to have what he calls "network stressors," having to do with challenges facing their network of close friends and family members. "Sick friends or spouses, grown kids having financial difficulties, these are the things that really stress them out...In general, older adults are less focused on themselves and more on the people around them."

"Younger adults, on the other hand," says Almeida, "are more focused on work, family, and juggling responsibilities. Their daily frustrations come from interpersonal tensions—not getting along with other people. And they report far more stressors than older adults do."

It turns out experience makes a difference in managing life''s curve balls. "In some cases, it doesn''t take much to tick off a younger person, whereas older adults have had a lifetime of experience in dealing with daily frustrations and have learned to avoid arguments and tolerate stressors better."

Not sweating the small stuff may have an impact on one''s health, Almeida notes. "There are real, measurable consequences to stress adaptation," he points out. "We''re built to cope with stress but if your blood pressure and cortisol rates are spiking frequently, it''s going to take its toll on your body over a lifetime."

The double-edged sword of education

Ican't resist asking Almeida: What is the most stressed out group in the United States?

Without hesitation, he tells me what I dread hearing (but sort of suspected): "Educated middle-class women entering midlife with young children are reporting the highest number of daily stressors."


How many millions of Boomer women does that encompass? My shoulders tense just thinking about it. In my mind, thoughts of workdeadlines, dinner dishes, homework, and medical appointments for ill parents vie for attention. I fall smack into the "sandwich generation," the shorthand for midlife adults who are spread too thin between the needs of young and old family members.

But why should my Masters degrees make me more vulnerable to stress? As Almeida sees it, "Education qualifies people for increased workplace responsibilities, including managerial positions. And educated people are typically engaged in many different spheres and activities that will expose them to more stressors."

Yet, Almeida tells me, there's an up side to the education/stress equation. There's a difference between reporting stressors and reacting negatively to stress, he clarifies. "Educated people typically want challenges in their lives and that brings stress. But studies show us that they have more coping skills than those with less education."

The research findings cut across years of education, explains Almeida. College grads cope better than high school grads and high school grads cope better than drop-outs. Although people with less education "report fewer stressors in their lives," says Almeida, "when a stressor does happen, they're much more likely to report both psychological stress and physical symptoms resulting from the event."

Boomers—often described as the most educated generation in history—may be coping with stress better than their predecessors, but longevity and a prolonged post-working life comes with a price-tag, both for them and their children. With enormous numbers of Boomers hitting pension age in the coming years (the leading edge will start taking a bite out of Social Security in 2008) how will this shift impact on the nation's economy?

Boom or bust?

Melissa Hardy is the bearer of some tough news. Director of the Penn State Gerontology Center and distinguished professor of human development and family studies, sociology and demography, Hardy's interdisciplinary research on the social and economic aspects of aging is internationally recognized. When it comes to the Boomers, there is no single answer, she says firmly: Some Boomers will enjoy a great retirement, some will be okay, and the rest may be disappointed by broken promises.

Melissa Hardy
James Collins

I ask her whether—as Boomers start hitting traditional retirement age—they'll get what is due them financially. "For some Boomers, getting what's due them is not even on the table," Hardy replies. Instead, "Finding a compromise and adjusting their expectations is what's ahead; whether these adjustments are required before or after they've already entered retirement is a big question."

Why the gloomy fiscal forecast? "At this point it looks like the Boomers have saved at least as much as their parents did," acknowledges Hardy. "But Boomers—more than any generation before or after—were counting on defined benefit pension plans throughout their careers...The leading edge of the Boomers will be retiring with those plans and expecting full payments to continue—and the question is 'Will they?'"

Default lines

For Hardy, the escalating number of companies defaulting on, freezing, dissolving or converting their pension plans doesn't bode well. (According to the Washington Post, more than 20 companies have defaulted on pension funds of more than $100 million in the past three years.)

Broken Piggy Bank

Hardy points to Enron's 2002 collapse as an example of how hindsight can reveal huge mistakes in workers' investment strategies. Workers were led to believe that investing their pension dollars in company stock was safe, and instead of giving them a chance to salvage their savings, they were among the last to learn the truth.

United Airlines' 2005 default on its $9 billion dollar defined benefit pension obligation is the most recently publicized example of this disturbing trend. "United's 120,000 employees and retirees are all affected by the company's default," says Hardy, "but it is particularly devastating for the older workers, many of whom are 'leading edge' Baby Boomers, because switching to other retirement options will not replace their pensions at the same level; all they can do is slowly rebuild their nest egg, which means they will probably have to retire later than they had planned—perhaps much later."

This breach in trust will inevitably have a larger impact, she continues. "When workers sign on with an employer, they're not signing on for just wage and salary—it's a whole compensation package they're accepting. Research suggests that workers who are able to accept deferred compensation, like a pension plan, are workers who not only are willing to invest in their futures, but also are more likely to invest themselves in the future of the corporation."

Loyalty begets loyalty—"or at least it should," notes Hardy.

Social insecurity

Social Security continues to be one of the pillars of retirement planning. It isn't clear whether it will support the Boomers the way it did their parents, or how the contract will be renegotiated with subsequent generations; it all depends on what kinds of changes are made, Hardy notes.

The first Social Security payroll taxes were collected in 1937—a year in which the ratio of workers paying in to soon-to-be-retirees taking out was 42 to 1. Today that ratio of contributors-to-beneficiaries stands at just over 3:1
and "when youngsters retire," forecasted President Bush in a 2005 speech, "it's going to be 2:1—two workers per beneficiary."

Because Social Security is primarily a pay-as-you-go system, today's workers are paying in not for their own retirement, but to provide for society's current and near future dependents, largely retirees and children. The combined number of people age 65 and older and those under 18 is what's known as the "dependency ratio"—and with the number of Americans over 65 jumping from 35 to 70 million by 2030,there's serious concern about how this shift will affect the solvency of the program.

Social Security Card

Now-retired Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan remarked in 2003 that "Because the baby boomers have not yet started to retire in force and accordingly the ratio of retirees to workers is still relatively low, we are in the midst of a demographic lull." Short of an "outsized acceleration of productivity...or a major expansion of immigration," Greenspan predicted that "the aging of the population now will end this state of relative budget tranquility in about a decade's time."

But Hardy argues that it's not only an issue of the number of workers relative to the number of beneficiaries. The proportion of adults in the labor force has remained fairly constant over the past century, she notes, largely because of increasing employment rates for women. The more relevant change in the dependency ratio, she suggests, is a result of the workforce getting older.

Expected increases in worker productivity and average wages, how the Social Security trust fund is managed, and changes in the structure of contributions and benefits are only some of the factors that will shape the future of Social Security, Hardy adds. In fact, she suggests, one of the most important factors for Social Security may be the return to large deficit spending by the federal government. "Deficit spending, escalating national debt, and the utility of the trust fund are all connected."

While there's no consensus on how this program's crisis will unfold, most concur that responsibility for the future financial security of the so-called Generations X and Y—Boomer offspring—will rest more heavily on the individual.

The birth dearth


Alwin, Almeida and Hardy all agree on this: America's 1946-64 Baby Boom cohorts would probably not have created such an economic challenge if the post World War II cohorts had continued the procreating trend. Instead, they tended to delay marriage until later in life and had comparatively small families, causing the overall population balance to tilt below "replacement rate" levels of 2.1 babies per woman.

This "birth dearth" may have been influenced, says Hardy, by the number of Boomer women juggling careers and motherhood as well as environmental concerns about overpopulation. "The leading edge of the Boomers will be the first where many married women have a continuous work history," she remarks, adding "I'm a Baby Boomer and when I started my career, I had a child who was not quite three. There were few choices in daycare programs."

Hell no, we won't go

As we contemplate the Boomers' future, Hardy reminds me, it's important to acknowledge that retirement is not an option for everyone. Whether by choice (in defiance of the aging process itself) or by financial necessity, many Boomers will continue working well past the typical retirement age of 65.

Says Hardy, "It used to be that the labor market was something people moved into for 30 or 35 years and then exited through disability or retirement." But that's not always the case any more. "A growing number of workers move in and out of retirement, in and out of employment, through stages of partial retirement. The transition to retirement has become more prolonged and more complex."

There are several reasons for the shift, she explains. The Boomers divorced in greater numbers than earlier generations, and "if you want to see your wealth plummet, get divorced."

Another factor behind having to work past 'normal' retirement age: failure to save. "What saving really means," Hardy asserts, "is being able to vividly imagine yourself ten or twenty years from now and think about who you want that future person to be and what kind of circumstances you want that person to be able to enjoy. People who can't defer their wants into the future contribute to a credit based, high debt society—and that's what we have today."

Teach your children well

Piggy Bank

We pause in our conversation for a moment while Hardy takes a call from her grown daughter. It seems a good moment to ask a question lingering on my mind. "What legacy have the Boomers handed down to their children?"

Hardy smiles. "As a child, I had both a savings account at the local bank and a coin bank in my room. Saving was something I was taught to do at a young age." But according to a January 2006 Commerce Department report, the 2005 national savings rate was minus 0.5 percent. Although the savings rate has been declining for 15 years, it hasn't been negative since the early 1930s.

"Many Boomer parents bought everything for our kids without showing them how to save for what they wanted; we gave them allowances, but gave them no responsibility for chores; so we helped form their expectations of immediate wish fulfillment." As a result, by the time a kid graduates from college today, they may have a car, a stereo, a TV, and lots of other electronics, but it's also not unusual for them to have thousands of dollars of credit card debt and thousands of dollars in student loans."

"I always ask my students at what age they envision retiring," Hardy concludes, "and their answers keep getting younger and younger. But that's not going to happen. Isn't it the Boomers' responsibility to help the younger generations to get real about their expectations?

"I think our biggest challenge is to find a way to pass the country on in at least as good shape as it was when we inherited it. We're currently on a track of increasing cynicism, broken promises, and false expectations. I don't think Baby Boomers want that to be their legacy."

David Almeida, Ph.D. is associate professor of human development and family studies. He can be contacted at dalmeida@psu.edu. Duane Alwin, Ph.D., director of Penn State's Center on Population Health and Aging, and McCourtney professor of sociology and human development, can be reached at dalwin@pop.psu.edu. Melissa Hardy is director of the Penn State Gerontology Center and distinguished professor of human development and family studies, sociology and demography. Her email address is mah38@psu.edu.

Last Updated March 13, 2006