Baby boomers: What were their contributions?
TOM MCMAHON , Staff Writer 03/14/2004
They pushed the divorce rate up to 50 percent, making the once-whispered practice normal.
They marched for civil rights for racial minorities and equal rights for women. Some went to war, some name-called those who did, demanding their return.
They started the sexual revolution, were known for smoking dope and dropping acid. For some, demonstrating was their passion and pride.
Many of their elders shook their heads, wishing they could turn the clock back to the peaceful days of the 1950s.
If the World War II generation is, as Tom Brokaw claims, the nation's greatest, where do the baby boomers rank? What contributions can they lay claim to? What sins will their heirs endure?
Theirs is the largest generation ever. Today they are 76 million strong, between 40 and 58 years old, and comprise about
29 percent of the U.S. population. Born between 1946 and 1964, they are the product of post World War II America - of a baby-making explosion when the troops came home.
But Deborah Carr, assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University, said most on either end of the boomer age spectrum do not identify with the other, making their generational contributions a debatable endeavor.
A boomer born in '46 was 17 years old when President John Kennedy was assassinated, a pivotal event for those on the front end of the "boom." Those born between '59 and '64 have little or no recollection of it.
These second-wavers, as they're sometimes called, hardly seem to belong to the same generation. They are more conservative politically, worse off financially, too young to have fought in or against the Vietnam War, the defining event typically associated with boomers.
Carr said the diversity between the front and back ends of the boomers is great.
"They are all identified as baby boomers because of the high birth rate during those years," she said.
Carr said between 1946 and 1964, the average American family had three children or more, hitting its peak in 1961, when the average was 3.7.
"Compare that with today's 1.8 rate," she said.
The professor suggests a more valid discussion about the boomers' social and cultural contributions should focus on those born between 1946 and the middle 1950s.
For those boomers, Carr said, television was their favorite toy and affected their growing up experience in profound ways.
"They were catered to on television," she said.
Seven million TV sets were manufactured in 1953, up from 6,000 in 1946. The boomers watched "The Mickey Mouse Club," "Howdy Doody" and sometimes just stared at the test pattern on the small, black-and-white screen.
TV did not just entertain. It educated and it sold. Kids wanted Wheaties, not because they tasted good, but because it was the breakfast of champions. Barbie was the doll that told little girls how they should look, only later to become the target of feminist boomers protesting the busty blonde's looks-only appeal. Davy Crockett hats, slinkies and hula hoops all found their way into boomer households via the marketing power of the boob tube.
"Because of their numbers, this generation has always been heavily marketed to," Carr said. "They drove the culture via media, advertisements, music and other pop culture items."
But their happy TV times were tempered by an ever-present danger. They were the first generation to live with a fear of no tomorrow, with the knowledge that the entire world could be blown apart by nuclear missiles. They lived through air raid drills, crouching under their school desks, innocently believing it would protect them from attack.
They witnessed via television the assassination of three of their leaders. The shootings of John Kennedy in 1963, followed by Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, ushered in a dark time for the generation who believed they could change the world.
"It was as if someone changed the television channel," one boomer has said. The days of "Howdy Doody" and "American Bandstand," of belief in a perfect America and hope for its future, were blasted away by those bullets.
Further adding to their disillusionment was the Vietnam War, which split their generation and the country. Many of them "tuned out" government and "turned on" to pleasure, be it through sex, drugs or rock and roll.
Vietnam was a very significant event for this generation," Carr said. She said it was a war the American public was not clearly behind. "There was not a clear division of right and wrong, as in World War II," she said.
Carr said the boomers were the ones called on to fight the war, and it became a moral issue for many.
"They grew up in the happy times of the '50s, and this was a jarring experience," she said. "You hear about the loss of innocence and, to some extent, this was very true."
As some teenage and early-20 boomers took to the streets to protest Vietnam, they became the "stars" of the TV screen they were raised on.
Carr said television helped shape one of the boomers most important societal contributions - questioning its leaders and institutions.
"They saw it all on TV," she said. "Vietnam, the assassinations, Watergate. It affected their trust in big institutions like government, religion and commerce."
Carr said the boomers' childhoods were relatively affluent, allowing them time and freedom to explore their inner selves through transcendental meditation and therapy and to work on changing their outer world via protest.
"Unlike the previous generation, they did not have to focus on how they were going to put food on the table," she said.
Additionally, Carr said, boomers were a generation that was treated like children rather than an economic resource.
"The need for children to help on the farm or business was fading," she said. Mothers, most of whom were in the home full-time after the war, nurtured and took care of the children.
"They (the boomer children) had a lot more time and energy to focus on self, independence, and righting injustice." Carr said this shift is also reflected in parent surveys.
"When they asked parents what qualities they most wanted in their children, prior to about 1960, the predominate ones were obedience and religion," she said. After that, it was tolerance and independence, the professor said.
She said boomer critics question whether this generation was coddled too much.
"The World War II generation is seen as stoic and sucking it up when times got tough," she said, "while the boomers are more introspective and seen by some as whiny."
Carr said the boomers are known for challenging boundaries and convention. She said, as a generation, they had a different value system than their parents.
Carr said boomers also differed from their parents in their personal lives.
She said they married older and had children later. For many, it was a "prolonged adolescence." Carr said for many post-World War II couples, it was not uncommon to marry and have a child by 20. Most men looked for jobs, which were plentiful after the war. But more boomers went to college, seeking a vocation rather than a job. Their parents' economic status and hopes for their children's futures allowed many of them that opportunity.
"One of the ideas they challenged was the role of women," Carr said.
The women's movement was another of the boomers' drives to right perceived wrongs. It was no longer a woman's job to "fry" the bacon, they also wanted to bring it home. The nation heard them roar; and the societal, economic and cultural impact was profound.
The effects are seen in the numbers of women in the workforce and the scope of their employment. Traditional occupations of nurse, teacher and secretary expanded to include the military, police work and business executive. Today, more than half of law students and 49 percent of those in medical school are women. Sixty percent of married couples have two incomes.
If the "greatest generation" is known for keeping the world safe for democracy and personal sacrifice, what claims can the boomers make?
"I think one contribution is a belief people can make a difference - that you can fight city hall," Carr said. She said the boomers led the fight for civil rights for minorities and women, and their actions influenced the gay rights movement, as well.
"I think, too, this generation will redefine how we view old age," she said. Carr predicts the boomers will be much more active as they age and will question stereotypes about growing old. "You can already see it in health care, where boomers question their doctor and seek out health information on their own."
And the downside?
While she said she does not agree, Carr said many point to this generation as leading the country down a path of moral decay, with increased divorce, premarital sex, abortion and acceptance of gay relationships.
The final history of the boomers is still to be written. But they definitely grew up and shaped an era that shook the culture.
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