The many faces of the baby boomers
Often pictured as a huge monolith, the baby-boom generation is actually quite diverse.
Jerry Benston is in his mid-50s, African- American, and a baby boomer. While in college in Oshkosh, Wis., in 1968, he participated in a protest to make his university more culturally diverse. He counts himself among those boomers who helped to raise awareness about important social issues of the day.Skip to next paragraph
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But almost 40 years later, he points to advertising and other media aimed at boomers that often include only a token black - which to him is not an accurate reflection of people born between 1946 and 1964.
"It's better today than it was, say, 15 years ago," says Mr. Benston. "But ... it seems to me there could be a lot more room for inclusion."
Much is made of the similarities among boomers - that they were the first generation to grow up with television, that many of them lived through the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. Finding out what events they share is as easy as opening a history book. But what distinguishes them from one another is not always apparent from their public image.
Researchers and advocates are trying to correct that, to combat generalizations that depict the 77 million-strong group as all retirees, or suburbanites, or Woodstock groupies. Understanding boomer diversity across age, ethnic, and economic lines is necessary, they say, for accurately assessing the needs and actions of the members of the group.
"The harm [in overgeneralizing] comes from a policy standpoint," says Mary Elizabeth Hughes, a professor at Duke University and coauthor of a recent analysis of boomer lives, including their diversity. "[Our report shows] the income inequality, or the wealth inequality in the boomers. And that suggests that some boomers are going to be very well off in retirement, and other boomers are going to be really struggling."
The media often lump boomers into one big homogeneous category, the report notes, including suggesting that they all have similar upbringings, are well-educated, affluent, or are married with children.
Professor Hughes and others argue that thinking of the boomers in too-general terms could produce retirement policies that affect some boomers adversely. Stereotypes also mask the reality about the group, whose diversity reflects that of society, they say.
"I don't think that's a message that can be overemphasized," says Sarah Zapolsky, senior research adviser at AARP, which frequently researches boomer differences.
She is often put off by those who talk about the "tsunami" of boomers heading for retirement. "They made it sound like 77 million people are all going to retire in one day.... That's the clearest example of where the fallacy of thinking of the boomers as one unit comes in."
An obvious example of diversity among the boomers is their age range, which spans 19 years and means that while some boomers are grandparents, others are still getting kids into preschool. Some female boomers go to a website, Boomer WomenSpeak.com, to discuss their varied experiences.
"Just like any other generation, we've had different experiences based on the choices we've made," says the site's founder, Dotsie Bregel. "While there were plenty of [women] who climbed the corporate ladder, there were also women who chose to stay at home."
Marketers are already honing their pitches to try to reach particular segments of the boomers - such as those in their late 40s and early 50s whose kids are leaving the nest. But some findings in the Duke report, which is based on census data from 2000 and earlier, suggest more fine-tuning across cultural lines may be needed. Significant numbers of immigrants have joined the boomers, the analysis shows: Immigrants now make up 12 percent of early boomers (those born between 1946 and 1955) and 15 percent of late boomers (1956 to 1964).
While technically not part of the post-World War II baby boom in America, immigrants are nonetheless significant, argues Hughes. "Our point is that if you are concerned about people who are right now between 40 and 59, and you're concerned about what their impact on the US is going to be as they age, you need to consider the people who immigrated into that group."