WITH the election of a baby boomer president, American politics and culture begins a transformation likely to be as dramatic and profound as the era of innovation triggered by the election of John Kennedy in 1960. As the postwar era belonged to the generation formed by the Depression and World War II, the coming era will likely be shaped by the generation born in the two decades of peace immediately following that war. Their very different life experiences have imbued them with a different set of values and will ultimately yield a very different country.
What do we know about the generation now about to reach its majority not only in politics but in business, culture, the media, and the arts? We know, first of all, that it is an astonishingly large generation, perhaps the biggest this nation will ever produce, since the US birthrate is falling. Definitions of the parameters of this cohort vary, and may depend more on a sense of personal identification than chronological age. But most demographers count all those persons born in the 18 years between 1946 and 1964 - more than 100 million people, 43 percent of the US population.
Born at the singular period when the nation was reaching the pinnacle of its power, boomers were blessed with gifts that only princes knew in former times: freedom and opportunity seemingly without limit, ever-growing affluence, lives so secure as to be almost stifling. Unhappy as some families may have been beneath their standardized exteriors, most boomer children had full-time mothers tutored by Dr. Spock to be attentive to their every need. Abundant food and a still- unstressed environment sent boome rs soaring over their parents' stature.
They are also the best-educated generation in American history, attending schools and universities in record numbers and attaining test scores still not equaled in succeeding decades. Passing through the system before public education fell victim to ruinous neglect, boomers were imbued with a remarkable sense of optimism about human possibilities and a pragmatic approach to social problems.
Arriving in adulthood at the peak of American affluence, many sought fulfillment elsewhere than in their parents' Depression-driven pursuit of material security. Many took time for social causes, spawning a panoply of citizens' movements for civil and human rights, the environment, and women. With audacious self-confidence, they demanded the nation's attention for their activist agenda - and got it, leading the culture 30 years before their time.
THEN came Vietnam, evis-cerating their idealism and sundering their generational unity. Like a second Civil War, it left memories too traumatic to be forgotten, scars too searing to be forgiven. One generation became two, utterly unable to communicate across a yawning cultural divide. Nearly 30 years later, fellow boomers Al Gore and Dan Quayle still clash over contrasting memories of Vietnam and competing visions of country and family.
Given these unique life experiences, who do baby boomers believe today? A 1991 Gallup Poll revealed an astonishing optimism despite a deepening pessimism in the larger society. Boomers exhibit extraordinary confidence in their ability to affect the course of their lives and of history, a confidence not widely shared in the previous or succeeding generations. An overwhelming majority believe that they will be better off than their parents financially (76 percent) and in their personal lives (84 percent). Surprisingly, though they are just now entering their peak career years, most boomers actually plan to spend less time working and more time at home with family and friends, pursuing "the meaning and value of life."
With their scant spare time, boomers hope to busy themselves with such activities as self-health, fishing, environmental issues, travel, and "getting involved in the homeless situation." Some have deliberately accepted "downward mobility" in return for the chance to do work they believe in.
This changing pattern of generational priorities appears to be a trend, not only in this country but throughout the industrialized world. University of Michigan sociologist Ronald Inglehart, drawing on vast archives of values research performed over 20 years in dozens of countries, concludes that a very large and long-term "culture shift" is now under way in most modern societies, with the pursuit of material security gradually being supplanted by concerns about the quality of life.
Raised in scarcity and war, the generation just now retiring from power has been preoccupied with assuring life's tangible essentials. Raised in peace and prosperity, boomers are more concerned with the sources of emotional sustenance that have often eluded those who single-mindedly pursue career, power, and prestige.
But the shift is far from complete. "Postmaterialists" will only outnumber "materialists" around the turn of the millennium, says Mr. Inglehart. But to judge by the Gallup poll, post-materialist values are already deeply embedded in most boomers. How are these values likely to be expressed in politics?
Studies indicate that boomers tend to be "fiscally conservative but socially liberal," which may be a political oxymoron. Most oppose higher taxes but support costly social programs like health care, education, and protecting the environment. How they resolve these apparently contradictory policy goals will critically affect the politics they make. Boomers will also greatly influence cultural preferences, consumer habits, and personal lifestyles. To judge by the data, most will be more accepting of diffe rences in belief and behavior and more inclined to give women a leading role in politics and business than the wartime generation now relinquishing power.
Growing up as history's most prosperous generation and habituated to the gourmet lifestyles of the "yuppified" '80s, boomers are reaching their pinnacle of influence in a time of apparently diminishing possibilities.
Will they respond with resentment or resourcefulness to their shifting fortunes? Having once demanded a new world of peace and justice "Now!," has this impetuous generation learned anything about patience and persistence in the 30 years since its youthful insurrection? Will its members find ways to remain true to their first and highest values, forged in the cultural cauldron of the '60s or will they - have they already - "sold them out" for a more comfortable life?
Having been given so much, this favored generation is now called upon to give much in return. Attaining its majority at a moment of national and global crisis, it has the opportunity - some would say the responsibility - to help heal the wounds of a society that gave it that most precious gift, a belief in the ability of individuals to make a difference in their own lives and the life of the world. Will this generation be willing to accept the personal sacrifices that effective change will require? On ju st such questions will their success, and our shared destiny, depend.