The Baby Boom generation matures

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The Switzerland-ization of America may still be some time off. But a striking change in values and work ethic is already under way in the United States as the Baby Boom generation matures.

Like most cliches, the Baby Boom label is both generally accurate and sometimes annoyingly oversimplified.

But certain statistical evidence left behind as the boom moves through the decades - like some large object moving through a boa constrictor - is fascinating.

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The latest batch of numbers is unusual: It's not statistics on how many classrooms were added and later left vacant. Not statistics on T-shirt, record, or Frisbee sales. Instead statistics on what Baby Boom-aged Americans say they believe in.

You may have seen the recently released poll commissioned by the US insurance industry. It questioned a scientific sampling of Americans born between 1946 and 1964. The answers show 93 percent of respondents favoring more stress on traditional family ties; 87 percent wishing more respect for authority; 70 percent opposed to acceptance of marijuana use; 76 percent advocating an equal marriage, with both spouses sharing responsibility for work, home, and child-rearing; 63 percent saying that nevertheless only financial necessity should cause a mother of preschool children to work outside the home; and 78 percent answering that religion plays a very or fairly important role in their lives.

What's quite remarkable is the degree to which this poll (made by phone last January) appears to confirm some musing that took place five years ago in the Office of Management and Budget in Washington.

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That OMB speculation departed from the usual budget statistics to look at how the 74 million Americans born in the two postwar decades had affected their country - and were likely to affect it in future.

In general it saw this impact sequence: (1) the great home and household equipment boom of the '50s; (2) upheaval in education - both overcrowded classrooms and youthful protest - in the '60s; (3) inflation and low productivity, as the first of the Baby Boom reached heavy-purchasing age and flooded into first-time jobs in the '70s.

Then, going out on the forecasting limb, the OMB study speculated that America would profit in the '80s from its earlier boomer turmoil.

It gave two reasons: First, that as the new generation of workers gained job experience, productivity would accelerate. Second, that as the generation matured it would save more, thus providing more capital for investment that increased productivity even more.

Less was said about the '90s. But there was a warning that the boom generation would be heading toward retirement in the next century. And that would tax the social security system once more.

The unwritten moral was that Americans should make the most out of the '80s and '90s in order to prepare for having more people borne on the shoulders of fewer after 2000.

And that brings us back to the insurance industry poll. Some 73 percent of respondents disagreed with the idea that hard work be deemphasized in American life. And 2 out of 3 said they would favor less emphasis on money in our society.

These attitudes - along with those cited earlier - may provide just the kind of populace to make the OMB forecast for the 1980s come about. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans is a member of the boom generation. So attitudes that emphasize hard work, equality in marriage and work, a religious inner gyroscope, and careful child-rearing are likely to pervade society if the boom generation matches actions to its words.

If so, we may yet see the higher productivity, greater savings, and increased investment that are forecast.

More important, the two-thirds who voted for less emphasis on money for its own sake give at least some hope that any increased investment may be aimed at more useful goals than simply producing more faddish, disposable, forgettable goods.

At the moment, neither the personal savings rate nor capital formation rate shows consistently improving figures. And our federal budget habits appear to be rocketing away from what the boomers say they want personally.

But politicians can read this type of poll as well as those that show their own standings. If they find the boom poll confirmed in their districts, they may decide they cannot tolerate projected superdeficits for the late '80s.

It's more than just a guess that we have already begun to correct course - both individually and collectively - on a lot of subjects that matter.

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