The explosion heard round the world

The 76 million baby boomers in America have remade family, faith, business, and retirement

Ever since Americans began nesting big-time after World War II, welcoming a new baby every eight seconds, baby boomers have commanded headlines and spotlights.

Yet who could have imagined then, except in the most theoretical way, what a profound influence these 76 million offspring, born between 1946 and 1964, would have on society? Historian Steven Gillon calls it "the single greatest demographic event in American history."

As he explains in his fascinating "Boomer Nation," Americans have "grossly misunderstood" the ways in which baby boomers have changed the tone and character of modern life. Today, he notes, "boomer culture is American culture."

Baby boomers specialized in firsts: They were the first generation to spend their formative years in front of television. The first to grow up in the suburbs. And the first to go to college in large numbers, becoming the best-educated and wealthiest group ever.

Unlike their parents, whose lives revolved around sacrifice and self-denial, boomers honed an ethic of self-fulfillment and personal freedom. Gillon, a host on the History Channel, calls them "the most self-involved, self-aware generation" ever.

As boomers made their energetic, sometimes raucous way through the 1960s - all that sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll - they revamped relationships and rewrote the rules of marriage.

By the end of the 1970s, Gillon explains, three-quarters of the group said they preferred an "equal marriage." Only 10 percent wanted a traditional marriage, with clearly defined male and female roles.

But all that freedom and change brought sobering consequences. Boomers are five times as likely to be divorced as their parents. Their struggles with parenthood also inspired a national debate about "family values." Once famously liberal, they turned conservative when it was time to worry about their own children.

They also returned to religion, though often on their own terms. As Gillon writes, "Many congregations multiplied their membership by going light on theology and offering worshipers a steady diet of sermons and support groups that emphasized personal fulfillment."

Boomers rewrote the script in Hollywood, too, as young directors replaced the old guard and produced films and TV shows appealing to younger audiences. From "Laugh-In" to"Saturday Night Live," they spurred seismic shifts in popular culture.

With Bill Clinton's election to the most powerful office in the world, the boomers won the ultimate prize. Today, they control most major institutions. Yet perhaps their greatest influence, Gillon says, has been their economic power: Baby boomers are shop-till-you-drop consumers.

Now graying boomers are gearing up for their next starring role - changing the nature of retirement. Bring on the antiaging creams, Viagra, plastic surgery, and adventure travel.

Not everyone loves this generation, of course. In the late 1990s, boomer-bashing became a popular sport. Critics accused them of being "obnoxious," "self-centered," "rude," and "narcissistic." One columnist, perhaps hoping to lob the ultimate insult, sputtered, "they're everywhere."

"Boomer Nation" refracts nearly 60 years of tumultuous social and political change through the prism of six boomers' lives:

• Donny Deutsch, an advertising executive, transformed Madison Avenue.

• Bobby Muller, a marine paralyzed by a Vietcong bullet, founded the Vietnam Veterans of America.

• Architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk designed Seaside, Fla., leading a "new urbanism" that reflects boomers' longing for community.

• Alberta Haile, who grew up in a black working-class neighborhood, overcame addictions to become a Christian educator.

• Marshall Herskovitz reshaped sitcoms with his long-running show, "thirtysomething."

• Fran Visco, whose life was forever changed by feminism, devoted years to advocating for women's health issues.

Occasionally, Gillon's narratives of these emblematic boomers seem too long. Yet as he chronicles their hopes and disappointments, successes and failures, he offers a rich historical overview of the second half of the 20th century. The assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, Woodstock, Watergate - all march through his pages in illuminating detail.

The result is a clear-eyed, deftly drawn portrait of a generation and an era that is sympathetic but not nostalgic. Gillon would probably agree with Donny Deutsch, the advertising mogul, when he says, "We were the lucky generation. We had a lot of wind at our backs."

Marilyn Gardner writes about social issues for the Monitor.

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