The many faces of the baby boomers

Often pictured as a huge monolith, the baby-boom generation is actually quite diverse.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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."

For example, some differences exist in how boomers of various ethnic and racial backgrounds care for their aging parents. Many prefer to do so at home and may want Medicare to provide for in-home services, rather than just reimbursing people for nursing-home care, says Ms. Zapolsky.

The Duke professors found that racial inequality persists for baby boomers, in terms of education and wealth. Incomes of blacks are higher than in earlier generations, and more of them have moved into the middle class, says Hughes, "but on the whole, black boomers really did not improve their condition, relative to whites, compared to the generation immediately preceding them."

The reason boomer diversity is not talked about more often is that it's not as important as the other characteristics that define boomers, say some who track them. "These are definitely little important points," notes Ann Fishman, president of Generational Targeted Marketing, "but they don't achieve a level of prominence to qualify in my mind as 'Oh my goodness, we've been wrong about this generation.' "

Societal perceptions persist, however. At the Baby Boomer Generation website (www.aginghipsters.com), boomers discuss whether people born in the early 1960s are really boomers if they don't feel they fit in the generation. FoundersJan Reisen and Pete Kooiker field comments from 20- and 30-somethings who suggest that the boomers are a mass of greedy people who are taking all the jobs.

"There are so many of us ... that we'rebound, as a spending group and a bloc, to have more effect than the 30- or 20-somethings," says Ms. Reisen.

That's one way boomers are similar, but she is quick to point out that the group is plenty diverse. "I know as many Republican boomers as I do people who still think of themselves as socialists. I know plenty of millionaire boomers, and plenty of people who've been downsized out of work and are living on savings.

"I don't think there is any homogeneity," she adds, "except in the fact that we all experienced the same things in terms of what was going on in the world. But like any other generation, what we chose to do with that information is hugely diverse."

The baby boomers are more diverse than popularly recognized

• Twelve percent of baby boomers are black, 9 percent are Hispanic, 4 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, and less than 1 percent are American Indian or native Alaskan.

• Average number of people in households of younger boomers (those born from 1956 to 1964): 3.3

• Average number of people in households of older boomers (born between 1946 and 1956): 2.7

• Average number of children under 18 in younger boomer households: 1.3

• Average number of children under 18 in older boomer households: 0.6

• Younger boomers spend 11 percent more than average (among the population as a whole) on pets, toys, and playground equipment. Mortgage payments consume 38 percent more than average of younger boomers' budgets, and they spend 10 percent less than average on life and other personal insurance.

• Older boomers spend 11 percent less than average on children's items, but 50 percent more on china and silver, to upgrade their homes. They also spend 13 percent more than average on women's apparel and 11 percent more on men's apparel. In addition, older boomers spend 23 percent more than average on hotels and vacation homes and 20 percent more than average on life insurance and personal insurance.

• In the 2000 presidential election, older boomers were more likely to vote (69 percent) than younger boomers (56 percent).

• Baby boomers represent more than 30 percent of the populations of 17 states: Alaska, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, Virginia, Wyoming, Washington, New Jersey, Montana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Source: MetLife profile of American baby boomers

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