The United States History tells us how the baby boom generation got started. World War II ended in 1945. Most members of the armed forces came home en masse, numbering in the millions. To integrate millions of young veterans into the American economy, the 78th Congress passed the GI Bill of Rights on June 22, 1944. It was the most far-reaching item of veterans legislation passed in the nation’s history. VA loans for homes and farms were made available to GIs at low interest rates, and low or no down payment. In addition, the GI Bill made higher education a reachable goal with low-interest loans.
Preceding the war was the era of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Children of that era were a generation hardened by poverty; millions were deprived of the security of a home and job. Then they fought the greatest war in human history, World War II.
The American Dream.
A pent-up demand for achieving the American Dream was partly satisfied by the GI Bill. Reconnecting with families and loved ones, a large portion of returning GIs, backed by the GI Bill, married and started families, went back to school and bought their first homes.
Jobs, especially in the northeast and on the coasts, were plentiful. In 1947, the GI Bill helped more than a million veterans to enroll in college. More than half the nation’s World War II veterans, or 7,800,000 men and women, availed themselves of the GI Bill’s provisions.
The move to the suburbs.
With veterans benefits, including VA loans, the 20-somethings found suitable housing in the new tracts sprawling on the outskirts of America’s cities. Documentaries on the topic indicate that the postwar suburban housing boom began in a suburban “planned community” called “Levittown,”* in New York and Pennsylvania. In fact, large-scale, planned communities and housing tracts were being built on the outskirts of all major American cities, especially in California.
It was common that the young wives of virtually entire suburban neighborhoods were pregnant at the same time. In short order, new schools had to be built. Farm and ranch land became seas of similar-looking homes without town centers, jobs, or city amenities. Eventually, many isolated suburban tracts, numbering in thousands of homes, did become legal communities, albeit on a different model from traditional communities with a core downtown business center.
Interspersed throughout those new communities were “strip malls,” businesses lined up in a row along roadsides, usually in common and architecturally uninspired buildings fronted by a large parking lot with little or no greenery. Malls began to offer basic commodities, then became prime community meeting places, especially for the younger crowd. The famous quote, “There’s no there there,” uttered by Gertrude Stein about her birthplace, Oakland, California (a suburb of San Francisco), applies to most of America’s suburbs — seemingly isolated, cultureless, boring tracts of sameness. Suburbs were relatively safe, and suitable for children, perhaps, but a breeding ground for discontentment and mischief among teenagers.
Years of innocence. The 1950s were, in some ways, years of innocence. The Saturday movie matinee was only 35 cents on the West Coast. The drive-in theater became part of the young-family social scene, primarily owing to cheap tickets. The main movie genres were established: melodramas, westerns, horror films, comedies, and action-adventure films. Musicals and science fiction movies were popular by the 1950s. Westerns were especially popular with families, and many were created specifically for adolescents. Popular kid shows most often followed a serial format, appearing in the afternoon on Saturdays. At times, matinees played in several installments per week. Popular heros were Tom Mix, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger.
Early examples of the sci-fi genre featured male protagonists fighting for law and order in outer space. These early “space westerns” included Buck Rogers (ABC 1950-51), Captain Video and His Video Rangers (Dumont 1949-54), Flash Gordon (Syndicated 1953), Space Patrol (ABC 1951-52), and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet (CBS/ABC/NBC 1950-52).
A generation reared with television. On April 7, 1927, Bell Telephone Labs and AT&T introduced the first public USA television demonstration. Pictures and sound were sent by wire from Washington, D.C., to New York City. A wireless demonstration also occurred 22 miles away, from Whippany, New Jersey, to New York City. The demonstration’s main feature was a speech by Herbert Hoover, which originated in Washington, D.C., and was received on a two- by three-inch screen. Postwar television was still new in America, west of Chicago. Most shows were either live or were movies converted for TV — triggering a nationwide trend of theater closures that persists into the 21st century.
Popular kid TV shows were Buffalo Bob and Clarabelle, Captain Kangaroo, Lassie, and Leave it to Beaver. Other pastimes included malt shops, community swimming pools, and clubs. The most popular of the clubs were the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. By 1955, boomers were enjoying after-school sports at the junior-high level. The I Love Lucy show was unique — the longest continuously running show in television history, which continues to air daily. Now that’s entertainment!
Emulating wartime mothers, postwar American moms began to find jobs outside the home. Thus began an age of discontentment. Living in seemingly sterile neighborhoods devoid of urban diversions and the traditional extended family, many children were left to fend for themselves after school. They became known as “latchkey kids.” Television became a surrogate parent.
Dr. Benjamin Spock had written a runaway, bestseller “how to” book in 1946, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, for a mere 25 cents. During Dr. Spock’s long lifetime, his book was translated into 39 languages and sold more than 50 million copies, making it second in sales only to the Bible.
Dr. Spock also taught child development at Case-Western University and wrote additional books on the subject. The influence of those books on the parents and children of the Baby Boom Generation is difficult to overstate. Dr. Spock’s philosophy was liberal in the sense that children reared as idealistic individuals would achieve happy and productive lives. Dr. Spock had always been a part of that generation’s lives and continued to influence them in their college years, which happened to coincide with the the 1960s and 1970s.
As the Cold War heated up and American troops were sent to Vietnam, Spock became a vocal political activist, speaking out for disarmament and against the war in Southeast Asia. To Spock, that was just another way of defending the young people to whom he was so devoted. His political views made him unpopular in some circles and hurt the sales of his baby and child care book, but he persisted, convinced that politics was an essential part of pediatrics. He participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations well into his 80s and 90s, and ran for president on a third-party ticket in 1972, speaking out on issues concerning working families, children, and minorities.
During the Cold War Era, many families fatalistically built bomb shelters in their backyard. Youngsters were taught in school to “duck and cover” when air-raid sirens sounded, in preparation for a nuclear blast. The boomers were the first of all human generations to be reared under the real threat of Armageddon. Sometimes sirens were tested after school when mothers were not yet home from work — that was scary. In California, many children knew how to stand clear of the chimney and go to the nearest door frame for safety, during the occasional earthquake. That was scary as well. The suburbs were not the paradise many parents had imagined they would be.
Accelerating change. The 1960s was the decade that defined the boomers. The music, events, and social changes left a permanent imprint. Boomers born between ’46 and ’51 were young teenagers. Those individuals born during the peak boomer years, ’52 to ’57, were in their formative years during the Sixties. The televised pseudo-realities of Lassie, Leave It to Beaver, and the Nelson Family, portrayed innocence lost, then were replaced by the sad realities of the Cold War and the civil rights struggle, all to a rock ‘n roll beat. So many changes occurred in the Sixties that an individual’s age during the decade greatly affected how he or she turned out. The year 1961 was a great deal different from 1969.
The Sixties were turbulent, owing to the unrest of civil rights marches, “free love,” rock music, drug experimentation, long hair and disheveled clothes, and the winds of war in Indochina. As an celebrity antiwar protester, Dr. Spock was again in the national limelight.
California was a magnet for disenfranchised dreamers, often called “hippies.” They came in droves, many having dropped out of school; they came on the bus and train; they hitch-hiked from Everytown, USA. Such seminal rock ‘n roll performers as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, and Pink Floyd, resembled the mythical and fabled pied piper.
A Scott Mackenzie tune, sung by The Mamas and the Papas, lyrically advised: “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Harvard professor Timothy Leary’s advice: “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out,” delivered at a press conference in New York City in 1966, urged youth to create countercultural change through the use of psychedelic stimulants (especially the drug LSD), and by removing themselves from the prevailing society. The phrase was derided by conservative critics and most other adults.
And they came, idealistic, euphoric and hopeful, ragged and broke. Most were disillusioned by what they found, then returned to the communities they came from, or just moved on. A few sampled the rural life in communes or on farms, but most of those became disillusioned with the tough work. Nevertheless, the idealism of the Sixties and some alternative rural communities survive and thrive in the 21st century, thanks to aging boomers with enduring values.
Social dreams. Those born at the early end of the boomer continuum were in their early 20s by 1970. The deaths of President John F. Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Beatle John Lennon, and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; the Vietnam War; moon pioneer Neil Armstrong, the Woodstock Festival, the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation and pardon (by his successor, Gerald R. Ford), all left psychic footprints in boomers’ heads.
As teens and young adults, many boomer activists pushed for new federal legislation to fulfill the old social dreams of the Bill of Rights and FDR. Chief among those thoroughly American social upheavals were the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements.
One federal response was Affirmative Action, the mandated encouragement of increased representation of women and minority-group members, especially in higher-education admittance and job-hiring practices. Proponents believed that a boost for women and minorities would help equalize access to the American Dream.
An argument against Affirmative Action was that preferences towards minorities and women produce “reverse discrimination,” especially against white men — a punitive approach that was not inadvertent.
In the 1979 United Steelworkers of America, AFL-CIO-CLC v. Weber case, the Supreme Court ruled that the private sector could apply voluntary racial preference programs in hiring. Another Supreme Court landmark case supporting Affirmative Action was Grutter v. Bollinger (June 1993), in which Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and the majority of justices upheld the constitutionality of the University of Michigan Law School’s Affirmitive Action program, as long as each application was processed individually.
In both cases, conservatives accused the high court of endorsing reverse discrimination. Many argued that employers and schools that preferentially favored women and minorities were committing the same injustice against whites that the Jim Crow laws had committed against blacks.
Political sea change. The 1980s were the “payback” years. Many “twenty- something” and “thirty-something” adults who numbered among the earlier social-movement supporters, now swung to the political Right by supporting conservative President Ronald Reagan.
Boomers, in a reaction against the way Affirmative Action had been implemented, the Reagan administration cut funding for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department. Reagan believed that the government promoted reverse discrimination and stated that it should relax its efforts to reach employment equality on behalf of African Americans and other minority groups. He also felt that compensating African Americans and other minority groups for past discrimination with hiring quotas, numerical goals, and timetables, ought to be eliminated. As a result of those cuts, the EEOC filed 60 percent fewer cases by 1984 than it had at the beginning of the Reagan administration. In addition, cases against segregation in schools or housing, prepared by the Justice Department, virtually disappeared.
The 1980s also experienced the worst recession since the 1930s, and economic growth in the 1980s was lower than in the 1970s.
The personal computer. The Eighties were the decade of the personal computer (PC). While computer technology had matured parallel to the boomer generation, the PC differed from previous computerized settings in that it brought full control of the computer to the individual. PCs were then wired together (networked), which created a new standard for business and government knowledge access and communication. The new PCs attracted many boomers into the computer industry, which sparked another career opportunity for that group.
Divorce. The American divorce rate peaked at 50 percent in 1979; the new divorcees were mostly boomers. Boomers were getting back into dating. They wore polyester “leisure suits” to the discotheque, and smoked marijuana, while some graduated to cocaine and other more powerful drugs. Until early in the decade, for the boomer generation, dating and sexual intimacy had become synonymous across America, nowhere more than on the East and West coasts. New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles were magnets for singles and “alternative lifestyles.”
At the other end, those born after 1959 have no direct recollection of the assassination of President Kennedy; they were not yet listening to rock music by the time the Beatles broke up. They were much more likely to use illegal drugs, often to great and disturbing excess. And they were never subjected to the military draft. Any attempt to lump together early and late boomers probably would not work. There is much that ties them together, but also much that separates them.
HIV/AIDS. Early and late boomers shared common ground on the topic of sexual activity beginning in the 1980s, through the first part of the 21st century. HIV/AIDS began to affect boomers in their sexual prime by a virus that remains latent for up to 10 years. The mysterious disease first began to ravage male homosexuals, whose sexual practices were outside the societal norm. The atmosphere of “free love” began to chill when it was realized there was no cure for a disease that began to kill thousands of people each year. In the absence of understanding about how the disease spread, fear prevailed, and it was perceived that unprotected intimacy had become an invitation to die. The response of people of all ages was to practice monogamy, abstinence, special precautions during intimacy, and even distrust of partners, past and present. The “free love” party was over.
Into the mainstream. The boomers were now trickling into the demographic mainstream; their age range was 26 to 44 at the decade’s beginning. They were still sexually active, but much more cautious. HIV/AIDS infections continued to increase throughout the decade, but were no longer confined to marginal groups. The users of illegal drugs tended to reuse needles, some of which had been used by an HIV-infected person, thus spreading the virus beyond its original hosts to the general population. HIV/AIDS left a permanent impact on the boomer generation, forcing many of them toward a more traditional view of life.
2001 and beyond
Now middle-aged (37-55), the Baby Boom generation comprises the mainstream of American demographics. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are boomers, as are many in Congress and the judiciary. However, many of the most powerful people in America are still of boomers’ parents’ generation. Examples include U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska and U.S. Senator William Byrd of Virginia.
Boomers represent 26.75 percent, or 77 million of the American population. As they move into the senior citizen age group, such government programs as Social Security will be more heavily impacted as that generations’ expectations of government services become dominant in the American economy.
Senior citizens are noted for their interest in voting. In the 2000 presidential election, approximately 59 percent of baby boomers voted. Older boomers were more likely to vote than younger boomers by 69 to 56 percent. The 55-64 and 65-74 age groups produced the highest turnouts at 70.01 and 72.2 percent respectively.
In the Election of 2000 and the Election of 2004, seniors thought highly of President Bush. Fifty-five percent of voters 60 and over held a favorable opinion of him, while 54 percent of that group approved of his job performance. Tellingly, nearly all the key swing states broke according to seniors’ preferences. In Florida and Colorado, where Bush received support from a majority of seniors, he won. Conversely, in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Minnesota, where Bush failed to secure a majority of seniors, he lost.
Baby boomers enjoy a higher level of education than any generation before them. About 88.8 percent of boomers completed high school, and 28.5 percent hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Increasing every decade, life expectancy has changed substantially over the last century. In 1900, life expectancy at birth was 47.9 years for males and 50.7 for females. In 2003, life expectancy at birth was projected to be 74.8 years for males and 80.1 for females.
As boomers head for retirement, it is well to remember that most Americans who fit within the Baby Boomer designation have lived responsible lives: working, paying taxes, rearing their children. They just happen to be the ones who surfed on the crest of runaway change.