Boston — George Bernard Shaw may not have anticipated the American baby boom when he deadpanned that line about youth being too wonderful to waste on children. But for the past two decades or so Americans have been intent on putting his aphorism to work.
The giant cottage industry that comments on, sells to, surveys, and generally lives off the baby boom generation has made youth the property of nearly anyone who wanted to play. And there appears to be no letup in sight. The so-called baby boomers seem destined to be characterized as if they were still reaching for a pacifier long after they have enlisted under Claude Pepper.
A lot of this lumping together of diverse individuals who happened to get drivers' licenses at the same time is sociological make-work. It's just as risky to pin a baby boomer generalization on an individual as it is to imagine that all individual Chinese are alike because 90 percent of the population is of Han origin.
But certain facts are clear about the demographic bulge that has gone riding through recent decades like a peccary through a boa constrictor. The baby boom (or BB) did tax the capacity of classrooms in the 1960s. It did add to inflation in the '70s as young people consumed a lot to start households and produced relatively less as novices in the work force. And its numerous members do appear to be adding to productivity, entrepreneurship, and investment capacity as they settle into careers and gain in skill in the '80s. How the boom will tax (literally) the future of the social security system also seems statistically quite solid.
So much for the BB at home in the USA. But there's another subject that seems curiously little explored. That is the impact of the BB on the larger world.
First, a look at background. In the 1960s there was student unrest in the United States and in Western Europe at the same time that the young Red Guards upset China. Japan had a brush with the phenomenon and even Moscow was slightly tweaked by long-haired ''hooliganism.'' No one looking at these events dispassionately would argue that they arose from the same causes. American protesters cited crowded classrooms, pollution, the Vietnam war, mass marketing, conformist society, and back-to-nature creeds as reasons for both thoughtful and Jacobin rebellion. China's youth were egged on by their leader, Mao, whose plan for perpetual revolution sent young people out to tear down teachers, ideas, family, and other traditional cement of civilization.
Not only were the causes of unrest different. There was no uniform post World War II population bulge in all nations. So one might conclude that it was only coincidence that youth protest toppled Lyndon Johnson, a host of university presidents, Charles de Gaulle, and, temporarily, Deng Xiaoping. But such a conclusion fails to note the degree to which trends of all kinds travel around the globe nowadays.
This look back at the 1960s and early '70s is, as you probably already suspect, only a warmup for an examination of the present. For the past few years I have been diligently asking professors, students, and heads of government, among others, where the new generation is going in their countries. The sampling was not rigorous. It involved North America, most of Western Europe, Japan, and China. Many of the responses indicate that while the statistics of the BB are primarily American, the attitudes spawned have traveled widely. And it's more than a matter of American blue jeans, Japanese sound systems, and British rock groups.
Much more important than these colorful surface signs of cultural spread are attitudes about work, family, participation in democracy, entrepreneurial spirit , religion, science, and education.
It would be patently wrong to assert that young Japanese, Germans, and Americans are suddenly sharing the same approach to all these basic pillars of civilization. But in most of the industrial democracies, there appears to have been a marked shift in attitudes during the first half of this decade. The population of the protest-prone, anti-institution segment of the generation has shrunk. The population of the segment that is serious about job, career improvement, education, voting, and working at family life has grown.
This shift appears to have occurred whether or not there was an actual population bulge in a specific country. No one will be surprised to hear that in almost every land leaders, students, and scholars agree that the worldwide recession of the early '80s played a major role. So did the swing away from some of the more obviously frivolous and unrewarding trendy movements that emphasized anti-knowledge in general, anti-science, occultism, mysticism, dropping out, and tilting at windmills via protests that went nowhere.
Helmut Kohl, Francois Mitterrand, and Margaret Thatcher perceived that this change was under way before some of their fellow politicians did. Each of them estimated that for every youth protester challenging government on some issue there were perhaps three or four students graduating and silently moving into a career.
The visible manifestations of this shift were the shrinkage of anti-Euromissile rallies after Germany and Britain went ahead with emplacement last fall, and divisions among Greens in Germany after they gained some electoral power.
Further evidence of the shift comes from polls that show attitudes about work and document agreement that Western Europe needs to foster more entrepreneurship.
But the pendulum swingeth not always in one direction. Before this solidifying of values can assume any permanence, several undermining factors must be dealt with. In Europe, more than the US and Japan, unemployment remains a threat. This problem, which has driven millions of new graduates to be more serious about education, work, competitiveness, and the creation of new industries, is - ironically - one that can also erode those new attitudes if it persists too long.
Beyond that, an overall sense of purpose is needed. West Germany and Britain provide prime examples. The first postwar generation in Germany had its work cut out for it. Rebuilding was an overwhelming necessity, and a rewarding one. Defeat and rebirth also brought a measure of labor-management cooperation that added to the sense of purpose. But once the ''economic miracle'' was completed and dividing up the pie became a preoccupation, the next generation had trouble finding a similar purpose. In a different way, this return to class struggles and lack of central purpose has affected Britain.
Some specialists studying the matter feel that trade competition, lagging innovation, and unemployment may be the goads that give purpose to the generation now in the early career stage. Others say that the challenge most likely to lend purpose to work is the attempt to discover how to have prosperity plus environmental safety in densely populated countries. Still others believe it will be the challenge of expanding world trade in a way that benefits not only Europe but also third-world countries.
In Japan, the problem of purpose is quite different. There is a surprising degree of worry about an educational system that is in many ways a paragon and produces superb engineers and managers for a society that needs both. Because Japanese planners realize their economy needs to be on the cutting edge of innovation, they are trying to adjust the schooling system to stimulate more creative thinking produce more pure scientists alongside the engineers.
China's new generation, starting from farther behind, has the potential for a strong sense of purpose - if party and bureaucracy loosen reins that restrict enterprise and career progress.
Obviously, having a job is not a be-all and end-all for any generation. The sense of purpose needed in all these different societies is what gives meaning to each individual career. For that, there needs to be a clear feeling of accomplishment, of benefit to family, locality, nation, and the larger family of mankind. In short, a feeling of morality and spiritual purpose. That is why it makes no sense for factories to turn out widgets while polluting rivers. That is why it makes no sense for Greens to protest and to cut off widgets that make home life easier.
What we should be seeing from the BB generation everywhere is the kind of entrepreneurial creativity that designs nonpolluting widget factories. And the kind of productivity improvements that create more world trade, not trade wars and constriction.