Boomer Century

PrintPrintEmailEmailJust a matter of weeks from now, on December 31, as millions of Americans don party hats and pop champagne corks to usher in the New Year, Kathleen Casey, the Philadelphia-born daughter of a Navy machinist and his wife, will likely find her phone once again ringing off the hook. It happens every decade or so. Journalists and academics and earnest civic leaders, family and friends, all find their way to Casey’s doorstep, hoping for just a few minutes of her time, eager to glean a little bit of wisdom about what it all means and where it’s all going.

Kathleen Casey, you see, bears the unique distinction of having launched the baby boom.

Born at 12:01 a.m. on January 1, 1946, she was the first of 76 million Americans brought into the world between 1946 and 1964, when, in a sharp reversal of a steady century-long decline, the national birthrate skyrocketed, creating a massive demographic upheaval.

So this year the very first baby boomer, the vanguard of that endlessly youthful generation, turns 60. But hers is not like other generations. If its last, unrecorded member was born at 11:59 p.m. on December 31, 1964, he or she will just be turning 41. Certainly this person, the Unknown Boomer, will have encountered very different cultural signposts than did Kathleen Casey (say, Pat Boone vs. the Sex Pistols), but together the two of them bracket a group that, despite its immensity, is strangely unified, and whose influence today defines both the limits and the promise of American life—and will for years to come.

Last summer, 40 years after “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” climbed to the top of Billboard ’s singles chart and earned the Rolling Stones their first gold release in the United States, the Stones launched their 2005 World Tour at Boston’s Fenway Park. For tens of thousands of boomers who came to see Mick Jagger and Keith Richards perform the greatest hits of yesteryear, age really is just a number.

Their kids might have been mortified to see these graying veterans of the 1960s filling a ballpark for one last great rock ’n’ roll show. But in many ways, it all makes sense. There is still no more fitting anthem for the baby-boom generation than the Stones’ signature hit.

Raised in an era of unprecedented affluence and national omnipotence, but coming of age in a time that perceived more limited resources and diminished American power, the boomers have long been defined by a vain search for satisfaction. No matter how much they have, they can’t ever seem to get enough. This quest for satisfaction has at times led to nadirs of narcissism and greed. As a generation the boomers have always seemed to want it all: cheap energy, consumer plenty, low taxes, loads of government entitlements, ageless beauty, and an ever-rising standard of living. They inherited a nation flush with resources and will bequeath their children a country mired in debt.

But their quest for personal satisfaction has also pushed the boundaries of civic life in radical and unusual directions. In their youth, black and white boomers took to the streets to tear down the walls of racial segregation. They strove toward greater equality of opportunity between men and women, made it harder for policymakers to choose war over peace without first convincing a skeptical electorate of its merits, and created a nation that was more accepting of diversity.

For all their faults and all their virtues, they remain exemplars of what Henry Luce called the American Century. The social commentators Neil Howe and William Strauss got it exactly right when they wrote that “from V-J Day forward, whatever age bracket Boomers have occupied has been the cultural and spiritual focal point for American society as a whole. Through their childhood, America was child-obsessed; in their youth, youth-obsessed; in their ‘yuppie’ phase, yuppie-obsessed.” Maybe Luce had it wrong. It wasn’t the American Century. It was the Boomer Century.

The boomers, said one critic, were a distinctive “tribe with its roots in time, rather than place or race.”

Scholars continue to marvel at the phenomenon known as the baby boom. It seemed then, and seems now, to fly in the face of modern demographic and social history. Between 1800 and 1920 the number of children borne by the average American woman fell by more than half, from roughly seven to three. As America transformed itself from a nation of small farmers into an urban, industrial behemoth, increasing numbers of parents no longer needed small armies of children to work the family farm. In this new world of machine and factory, surplus children were a liability. They required much in the way of food, clothing, and shelter but contributed very little in turn to the economic well-being of their families.

The national birthrate, long on the decline, bottomed out in the 1930s. With unemployment running as high as 25 percent, many young Americans, facing an uncertain economic future, decided to put off marriage and parenthood until better days.

When those better days finally arrived in 1940, courtesy of America’s swift and total mobilization for war, most commentators expected only a temporary upsurge in births. The editors of Life magazine worried that by 1970 the Soviet Union’s population would outstrip that of the United States, Britain, France, and Italy combined. They were taken completely by surprise at the magnitude and duration of what actually followed.