America is growing older - and perhaps kinder and gentler, too.
New figures released today from the Census Bureau show that the median age of the US population has reached the highest point ever recorded. It now sits at 35.3 years - up from 32.9 years in 1990.
The implications are huge. As the front half of the baby-boom generation reaches middle age - the real reason behind the increase - policymakers are focused on the effect on such things as Social Security and Medicare. But sociologists and market researchers find equally profound effects on American culture and politics.
Baby boomers, who once turned in their antiwar signs for Lexuses and 3,500-square-foot homes, are leaving behind "me generation" attitudes. Instead, they're searching for balance, lasting relationships, and spiritual values, sociologists say. More important, they're poised to explode several myths about aging.
Boomers "will have more effect on the images of aging than any generation in history," says David Wolfe, author and consumer-behavior specialist in Reston, Va.
The statistics reveal several different trends. Over the past 10 years, the number of 18- to 34-year-olds actually declined 4 percent. The number of people 65 and older increased at a slower rate than the overall population for the first time in history. But the number of 45- to-54-years-olds - encompassing the front half of the baby boom generation - jumped a whopping 49 percent.
Because of the aging of boomers, some observers foresee a less volatile electorate with more traditional family values.
"As people grow older, their attitudes...tend to become less changeable," says Norval Glenn, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "The baby boomers are more liberal and the subsequent cohorts that have matured in adulthood ... have changed in a conservative direction. [Thus] unless something really major happens to shift the tide toward liberalism, the prospects for the liberal point of view are not very bright."
But other researchers suggest that boomers, like the rest of Americans, are moving in both directions politically, depending on the issue. On the one hand, since the 1970s, they've become more conservative fiscally and "tend to do less wild and crazy things," says Tom Smith, director of the general social survey of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago.
On the other, boomers (encompassing the generation born from 1946 to 1964) have become more liberal on certain social issues, such as race relations and accepting euthanasia.
In fact, some researchers argue that baby boomers are set to change the preconceived notion that aging means growing conservative. If anything, says Stephen Cutler, a sociologist at the University of Vermont, the experience of the last three decades suggests seniors have become more liberal on several fronts.
In a not-yet-published study coauthored with Nicholas Danigelis, professor Cutler found that on 39 measures of cultural and political attitudes, NORC surveys showed an overall liberal shift on 24 of them between 1972 and 1998. In 18 of those 24 measures, the oldest age group (50 and over) moved to more liberal stances as rapidly as younger age groups. That doesn't mean seniors have become as liberal as younger people on all questions. It just means their shift in opinions has been as dramatic.
The same pattern showed up in areas where society became more conservative, such as questioning the legality of abortion and wanting to limit the role of government. In fact, the youngest group of adults has made the most dramatic shift in terms of identifying themselves as conservatives, Cutler points out.
Because of their numbers and assertive style, boomers may explode several other myths about aging. Among them:
* Aging means rigidity. Nonsense, Cutler says. In a few categories, the 50-and-over crowd moved to liberal positions more quickly than younger groups. "There have been so many concerns expressed: Are we going to become a socially stagnant society? Are we going to become stodgy, resistant to change?" he says. "The answer is very clear. Those assumptions are wrong."
* The "me generation" label will persist. Ever since the leading edge of baby boomers stepped onto streets to protest the Vietnam war, they've been mischaracterized, argues Wolfe. First seen as altruistic for their antiwar stance, boomers later got tagged as the self-absorbed generation. In reality, boomers are going through the same development stages their parents and grandparents went through, he argues.
As young people, their antiwar protests were acts of rebellion rather than altruism. The self-absorption of the yuppie years are common to all generations, Wolfe says. But as people reach middle age, they become less egocentric and more altruistic, more interested in relationships and spiritual values.
"In the second half of life, you begin to rely increasingly on your internal counsel and less on the influences of the external world," Wolfe says. "This is driving consumer researchers up the wall."
For example, when Coca-Cola aired edgy ads last year featuring people throwing tantrums when they learned there was no Coke available, consumers complained and the ads were pulled. As boomers mellow, Wolfe says, the "me generation" ads won't work anymore. On the other hand, running-shoe manufacturer New Balance has boosted sales with its tag line: "Connect with yourself. Achieve New Balance."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor