March 16, 1999
Baby Boomer's Influence
by Roma Hanks
|Year of Older Persons
Aging in the Present
"God, I hope not," exclaimed one of my friends when I told her I was writing an article to explore whether Baby Boomers are passing their values on to their children. "You mean, like Clinton?" chuckled another. There it is -- the most influential group in the social history of the United States has far all of its adulthood been perceived as a "problem child." The generation that spawned the civil rights movement and women's liberation may well be remembered for its reckless behavior and moral insincerity. Now the Baby Boom is reaching middle age and the "Senior Boom" is on the way. Analysts contemplate the impact of 76 million new eligibles on the Social Security system. Peter G. Peterson's 1996 Atlanta Monthly article, “Will American Grow Up Before It Grows Old?”, is typical of discussion around Baby Boomers' "adolescent," self-centered values and lifestyles that dominate speculation about that generation's impact on the economy of an aging society.
For the next 18 years, a Baby Boomer will enter his/her 50s every 8 seconds! Recent research tells us that the "mid-life crisis" has been exaggerated by the media and that most people are happy and secure in their middle years. However, gerontologists agree that there is some realignment in the perception of self that occurs during life's middle years. People shift their orientation from thinking about what they have accomplished since birth to thinking about what they have left to accomplish before death. For most, this is a manageable personal transition; for others, it is all-out war with the universe! How Boomers will make the transition is going to be worth watching, when some argue that no generation before or after them has been more youth-oriented or adolescent-behaving.
Whatever middle age has meant before, it is likely to be redefined by the Baby Boomers. Cataloging their collective accomplishments might be called a favorite pastime of the Baby Boom generation. But looking to the future?
Baby Boomers have been represented as shortsighted and unconcerned about consequences, reputations, and legacies. Will they suddenly in mid-life become concerned about the future -- about how their generation will be remembered -- about what needs to be done before the so-called X-Generation succeeds them? What influence have Baby Boomers exerted on subsequent generations, especially their own children?
I am going to begin this analysis somewhat unconventionally (Hey, what do you expect, I'm a Baby Boomer) by including an excerpt from an e-mailed letter that my 20-plus-year-old son recently wrote to me. I think the letter captures some of the generational difference in Baby Boomers and their children, as well as one Gen-Xer's perception of the world of the Boomers. The letter is a response to my inquiry regarding my son's impression of middle-aged people who continue to perform in rock bands.
"one reason that your generation holds on to its art more than others is the simple fact that it's better -- not just rock 'n roll, but graphic art, fashion, literature, architecture, theater, film -- they all went through a certain Zeitgeist in the 60s. In the case of some -- rock 'n roll particularly -- that time witnessed a real artistic peak, but the unique thing about the 60s is that it all happened at the same time. I mean, you could make a pretty serious argument that the real 'golden age' of film and theater was earlier in the century, but those were singular events within western culture, not across-the-board ones. I've had a hell of a time coming to terms with the fact that this Zeitgeist occurred before I was around to enjoy it (before I was around period). but there's just no denying it; there will never be another Beatles/Stones/Dylan triumvirate -- it'd be impossible. For one thing, music is just lower on the cultural totem pole than it used to be. For a few glorious years there was no one on earth more instantly recognizable than, say, Bob Dylan or John Lennon. Now athletes, politicians, actors, even cartoon characters occupy a higher place than musicians do. I've been going through a pretty heavy Dylan phase lately, and I think his place in music history is the most unique, and the most unlikely. I mean, this guy was a real freak. He espoused the work of some seriously 'underground,' 'out there' people -- the beat writers, blues musicians from the deep south -- and you could hear all that in his work. I will never understand how music as challenging, sophisticated, cynical and biting as Dylan's connected with a mass audience. It was different with the Beatles. Musicologists might have discussed their work, but four-year-olds also walked around singing 'yellow submarine.' With Dylan, it was all so cryptic, so strange, so un-mass-marketable. My suspicion is that his success was really a product of momentum. I think a lot of people like Dylan because they think they're supposed to. I'm all for individualism, but I miss the days when rock felt like a movement, a revolution, even. Now it just feels like a little hobby.
"Yes, your generation did have some personality and create better art than other generations hence, but there's a flip side to this situation -- you're holding on to your art too tightly. Your generation controls the media (maybe not the internet, but certainly other aspects), you decide what is important to pop culture and what isn't. You are writing history as you go. For an example, you need look no further than that deplorable mini-series "The 60s" that's airing on NBC this week. I watched it last night. What a cliched, brainless (not to mention horribly inaccurate) waste of time. Still, I'm sure it will kick ass in the ratings. You don't see mini-series on 'the rip-roaring teens' or 'those oh so stable fifties' do you? Boomers have such a strangle hold on pop culture that they've stifled events that fall outside of their purview. And I don't think you'll ever let go. The 80s and 90s will probably be remembered as culturally vacant times, and that's wrong. There's some absolutely essential art being created these days, but it all flies under the pop-culture radar. Western art may enjoy another Zeitgeist some day, but I'm afraid it's gonna require 2 things: 1) a world war, and 2) complete chronological exclusivity from your generation. I may be alive for the world war (which sucks), but I probably won't be alive for the 2nd Zeitgeist (which also sucks). you see why I'm so jealous of your birth date now?
"Of course, another factor here is the fact that your generation was one of, if not the first to enjoy the time and prosperity to think about culture on a mass level. [the generation before] were motivated by necessity and obligation. Boomers, on the other hand, had the leisure time and the leisure income to explore other motivations. Other generations have enjoyed the ability to look at things from the same perspective, but I think boomers feel they own the patent on it. This is the kinds of things I talk to my friends about, it's frustrating. love, Matt"
Certainly, rock music is a hallmark of the Baby Boom's coming of age. The interplay of music with expressions of political ideology and social change is an important legacy of the period. Researchers in the Netherlands in 1997 looked at causes and consequences of the influence of music on culture during the 60s and concluded that "rock music was not only an expression of new values, but represented a model for a new lifestyle of hedonism, idealism, romanticism, and freedom, thus providing the new generation with a cultural format in which to develop new identities." But are the Baby Boomers holding onto their art and dominating popular music and films? Are Generation-Xers following the lead of Baby Boomers in the arts or, as Matt suggested in his letter, being overshadowed by the artistic achievements of Baby Boomers? Using data taken from the National Endowment for the Arts' Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA) which were conducted in 1982 and 1992, researchers looked at the effect of age on adult arts participation in seven core art forms: classical music, opera, ballet, musicals, jazz, plays, and art museums. The report looked closely at the participation of the Baby Boomer generation. The results indicated that Baby Boomers and their successors, Generation X, participated in most of the seven core art forms at lower rates than their elders. Many Baby Boomers participate in the core art forms, and especially music, through popular culture. Their rates of participation in formal settings are highest in jazz -- the art form closest to popular music -- and in art museums, with which popular music competes least.
What about other values? Are Baby Boomers influencing the sexual behavior, health and lifestyles, work ethic, or religion of younger generations? A group of Spanish researchers compared Baby Boomers with their parents and children and concluded that values of culture and happiness have changed over time, but values of family and honors have not. Further, they found that grandparents more than parents influenced the values of young people in their sample. Similar research in England suggested that the values of the X-Generation may be attributable to poststructural idea of diversity and discourse, rather than direct influences of their Baby Boom predecessors.
Baby Boomer religious choices have been explained as an outcome of a "consciousness reformation," linked closely in the United States with sociopolitical tensions of the 1960s and early 1970s. Advocates of the consciousness reformation thesis see "individualism" as a defining feature of the "new consciousness." Parents usually have the strongest influence on a child's religious choices, both directly and by selecting activities that determine friendships, educational experiences, and the like. But the placement of the Baby Boom in historical time, along with the size and diversity of the group, strengthened non-familial influences on religious beliefs and choices of that generation. A recent study of Baby Boomer religious participation over time looked at counter-culture membership and involvement in protests during the 60s and 70s. Compared to nonactivists, having been a protester reduced the odds of a Baby Boomer holding more traditional views of the Bible by roughly 65 percent. Declining religious participation during the adult years of Baby Boomers has reduced their influence on their children's religious beliefs and participation. However, religion is not dead among Generation-Xers or younger children of Baby Boomers. A 1987 study of Canadian contemporary values found no evidence that the dominant values among young people originated in the Baby Boom generation, refuting the idea that the size of the Boomer generation assures the weight of its influence.
Politically, the Baby Boomers' influence seems to be toward diversity, rather than fitting the stereotype of liberalism and activism that is often applied to that generation. Consequently, there is little evidence that succeeding generations are strongly influenced secondarily by the activist past of the Baby Boomers. Among African Americans, there is some evidence that children of Baby Boomers are alienated from the civil rights movements of their parents and are strongly influenced by their peers and grandparents. A 1998 study reported inconsistency in political ideas and voting patterns of Baby Boomers. When compared to earlier generations of voters, Boomers are more liberal regarding gender and racial issues, but more conservative in party preferences and attitudes about governmental roles in social reforms.
Baby Boomers do appear to be influencing at least a couple of aspects of lifestyle choice of their children -- drug use and spending! A 1996 Time magazine article reported these observations from a drug rehabilitation program:
"Then comes the afternoon that is set aside for atonement on the subject of marijuana. Now the chastened air gives way to argument. The house divides along generational lines. The oldest of the sinners (mostly age 50 or older) nod agreement with the official message...Yes, indeed -- devil weed. The baby boomers, however, with their rich pharmaceutical histories, begin to snigger and squirm. "Give me a break!" rings out in the hall. The youngest members of the congregation (some in their teens) sit in bewilderment, trying to decide whether to support the geezers or the boomers. There it is again: the Marijuana Exception...the Reefer Loophole. All the idiots who drank Canadian Club and Heineken for breakfast, or wrecked themselves on smack or meth -- they know they done wrong. But "merely" smoking pot? Well..."
A 1996 survey of 18,000 Americans concluded that marijuana use among youths rose 105 percent from 1992-1994, and gained 37 percent between 1994 and 1995. Research shows that 49 percent of Boomers tried marijuana in their youth and 92 percent say they would tell their teens about their own marijuana use. Analysis has questioned whether these parents are holding onto their youth in true Baby Boomer fashion, or are trying to "be cool" with their kids, but there is scarce evidence that they are using their own experiences with marijuana to discourage its use among their children.
Similarly, Boomers may be identifying with their children's spending patterns. Always heavy spenders, Boomers are now involving their children in shopping experiences at record levels. Younger children of Baby Boomers, sometimes referred to as the Net Generation, in the U.S. alone already have $105 billion in purchasing power. More important, they influence another $500 billion in family spending. They have greater power in households than Boomers had as children and adolescents because of their command of the new technology, which often gives them better access to comparative product information than their parents enjoy.
Are Baby Boomers influencing the next generation? Yes, but in unexpected ways. The Baby Boom generation continues to demonstrate that its influence is not only in its size, but also in its diversity and unpredictability. As we celebrate 1999 as the United Nations International Year of Older Persons, we are publicly reminded of the importance of intergenerational harmony. But let's not forget that the older generation that will dominate policy during the early part of the new millennium is one of the most heterogeneous in our history. Should their legacy be any less than diverse -- and enormously interesting?
Roma Hanks, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department of the University of South Alabama and director of the Programs in Gerontology.