A baby boomer is a person who was born during the demographic post-World War II baby boom between the years 1946 and 1964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The term “baby boomer” is sometimes used in a cultural context. Therefore, it is impossible to achieve broad consensus of a precise definition, even within a given territory. Different groups, organizations, individuals, and scholars may have widely varying opinions on what constitutes a baby boomer, both technically and culturally. Ascribing universal attributes to a broad generation is difficult, and some observers believe that it is inherently impossible. Nonetheless, many people have attempted to determine the broad cultural similarities and historical impact of the generation, and thus the term has gained widespread popular usage.
United States birth rate (births per 1000 population). The red segment from 1946 to 1964 is the postwar baby boom.
Baby boomers are associated with a rejection or redefinition of traditional values; however, many commentators have disputed the extent of that rejection, noting the widespread continuity of values with older and younger generations. In Europe and North America boomers are widely associated with privilege, as many grew up in a time of widespread government subsidies in post-war housing and education, and increasing affluence.
As a group, they were the wealthiest, most active, and most physically fit generation up to that time, and amongst the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time. They were also the generation that received peak levels of income, therefore they could reap the benefits of abundant levels of food, apparel, retirement programs, and sometimes even “midlife crisis” products.
One feature of Boomers was that they tended to think of themselves as a special generation, very different from those that had come before. In the 1960s, as the relatively large numbers of young people became teenagers and young adults, they, and those around them, created a very specific rhetoric around their cohort, and the change they were bringing about. This rhetoric had an important impact in the self perceptions of the boomers, as well as their tendency to define the world in terms of generations, which was a relatively new phenomenon.
The baby boom has been described variously as a “shockwave” and as “the pig in the python.” By the sheer force of its numbers, the boomers were a demographic bulge that remodeled society as it passed through it.
The phrase baby boom has been used since the late nineteenth century to refer to a noticeable temporary increase in the birth rate. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of “baby boomer” is from 1970 in an article in the Washington Post.
Various authors have delimited the baby boom period differently. The United States Census Bureau considers a baby boomer to be someone born during the demographic birth boom between 1946 and 1964. Landon Jones, in his book Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation (1980), defined the span of the baby-boom generation as extending from 1943 through 1960, when annual births increased over 4,000,000. Authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, well known for their generational theory, define the social generation of Boomers as the cohorts born from 1943 to 1960, who were too young to have any personal memory of World War II, but old enough to remember the postwar American High.
The generation can be segmented into two broadly defined cohorts. The Leading-Edge Baby Boomers are individuals born between 1946 and 1955, those who came of age during the Vietnam War era. This group represents slightly more than half of the generation, or roughly 38,002,000 people of all races. The other half of the generation was born between 1956 and 1964. Called Late Boomers, or Trailing-Edge Boomers, this second cohort includes about 37,818,000 individuals, according to Live Births by Age and Mother and Race, 1933–98, published by the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics.
An ongoing battle for “generational ownership” has motivated a handful of marketing mavens and cultural commentators to coin and/or promote their own terms for sub‑segments of the baby-boomer generation. These monikers include, but are not limited to, “golden boomers”, “generation Jones”, “alpha boomers”, “yuppies“, “zoomers”, and “cuspers”. Advocates of these “cultural segments” are often zealous and overstated in their attempts to redefine generational boundaries, often claiming wide adoption and sometimes advancing self-promotional agendas.
In Ontario, Canada, one attempt to define the boom came from David Foot, author of Boom, Bust and Echo: Profiting from the Demographic Shift in the 21st century, published in 1997 and 2000. He defines a Canadian boomer as someone born from 1947 to 1966, the years that more than 400,000 babies were born. However, he acknowledges that is a demographic definition, and that culturally it may not be as clear-cut.
Doug Owram argues that the Canadian boom took place from 1943 to 1960, but that culturally boomers (everywhere) were born between the late war years and about 1955 or 1956. He notes that those born in the years before the actual boom were often the most influential people among boomers; for example, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stonesand writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who were considerably older than the boomer generation. Those born in the 1960s might feel disconnected from the cultural identifiers of the earlier boomers.
Another definition for the Baby Boom is the decade after the Second World War, that is 1946 to 1955.
Size and economic impact
Seventy-six million American children were born between 1945 and 1964, representing a cohort that is significant on account of its size alone. In 2004, the UK baby boomers held 80% of the UK’s wealth and bought 80% of all top of the range cars, 80% of cruises and 50% of skincare products.
In addition to the size of the group, Steve Gillon has suggested that one thing that sets the baby boomers apart from other generational groups is the fact that “almost from the time they were conceived, Boomers were dissected, analyzed, and pitched to by modern marketers, who reinforced a sense of generational distinctiveness”. This is supported by the articles of the late 1940s identifying the increasing number of babies as an economic boom, such as a 1948 Newsweek article whose title proclaimed “Babies Mean Business”,or a 1948 Time magazine article.
Currently, in peak earning years where they purchase food, apparel, and retirement programs—the so‑called “midlife crisis” products.
The age wave theory suggests an economic slowdown when the boomers start retiring during 2007–2009. Projections for the aging U.S. workforce suggest that by 2020, 25% of employees will be at least 55 years old.
Baby boomers control over 80% of personal financial assets and more than half of all consumer spending. They buy 77% of all prescription drugs, 61% of over-the-counter drugs, and 80% of all leisure travel.
Boomers grew up at a time of dramatic social change. In the United States, that social change marked the generation with a strong cultural cleavage, between the proponents of social change and the more conservative. Some analysts believe this cleavage played out politically since the time of the Vietnam War to the mid‑2000s, to some extent defining the political landscape and division in the country.
In 1993 Time magazine reported on the religious affiliations of baby boomers. Citing Wade Clark Roof, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the articles stated that about 42% of baby boomers were dropouts from formal religion, a third had never strayed from church, and one-fourth of boomers were returning to religious practice. The boomers returning to religion were “usually less tied to tradition and less dependable as church members than the loyalists. They are also more liberal, which deepens rifts over issues like abortion and homosexuality“.
It is jokingly said that, whatever year they were born, boomers were coming of age at the same time across the world; so that Britain was undergoing Beatlemania while people in the United States were driving over to Woodstock, organizing against the Vietnam War, or fighting and dying in the same war; boomers in Italy were dressing in mod clothes and “buying the world a Coke“; boomers in India were seeking new philosophical discoveries; American boomers in Canada had just found a new home and escaped the draft; Canadian Boomers were organizing support for Pierre Trudeau. It is precisely because of these experiences that many believe those born in the second half of the birth boom belong to another generation, as events that defined their coming of age have little in common with leading or core boomers.
The baby boomers found that their music, most notably rock and roll, was another expression of their generational identity. Transistor radios were personal devices that allowed teenagers to listen to The Beatles and The Motown Sound.
In the west, baby boomers comprised the first generation to grow up with the television; popular Boomer-era shows included The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island, The Twilight Zone,The Ed Sullivan Show, and Happy Days.
In the 1985 study of U.S. generational cohorts by Schuman and Scott, a broad sample of adults was asked, “What world events over the past 50 years were especially important to them?” For the baby boomers the results were:
- Baby Boomer cohort #1 (born from circa 1946 to 1955), the cohort who epitomized the cultural change of the sixties
- Memorable events: the Cuban Missile Crisis, assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., political unrest, walk on the moon, risk of the draft into the Vietnam War, anti-war protests, social experimentation, sexual freedom, drug experimentation, civil rights movement, environmental movement, women’s movement, protests and riots, Woodstock.
- Key characteristics: experimental, individualism, free spirited, social cause oriented
- Key members: Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, Former U.S. President George W. Bush
- Baby Boomer cohort #2 or Generation Jones (born c. 1956–1964)
- Memorable events: Watergate, Nixon resigns, the Cold War, lowered drinking age in many states 1970–1976 (followed by raising), the oil embargo, raging inflation, gasoline shortages, Jimmy Carter’s imposition of registration for the draft, Ronald Reagan, Live Aid.
- Key characteristics: less optimistic, distrust of government, general cynicism
- Key members: Douglas Coupland who initially was called a Gen‑Xer but now rejects it and President Barack Obama who many national observers have recently called a post-Boomer, and more specifically part of Generation Jones
Aging and end-of-life issues
As of 1998, it was reported that, as a generation, boomers had tended to avoid discussions and planning for their demise and avoided much long-term planning. However, beginning at least as early as that year, there has been a growing dialogue on how to manage aging and end-of-life issues as the generation ages. In particular, a number of commentators have argued that Baby Boomers are in a state of denial regarding their own aging and death and are leaving an undue economic burden on their children for their retirement and care. According to the 2011 Associated Press and LifeGoesStrong.com surveys:
- 60% lost value in investments because of the economic crisis
- 42% are delaying retirement
- 25% claim they’ll never retire (currently still working)
Impact on history and culture
An indication of the importance put on the impact of the boomer was the selection by Time magazine of the Baby Boom Generation as its 1966 “Man of the Year“. As Claire Raines points out in Beyond Generation X, “never before in history had youth been so idealized as they were at this moment”. When Generation X came along it had much to live up to in this author’s opinion.