Baby boom talk

Who’s afraid of the Baby Boom?

I was a guest on the State of Things on North Carolina Public Radio (WUNC) this afternoon with Frank Stasio. The other guests were the social historian David Zonderman from NC State, author/blogger Beverly Mahone and poet Grey Brown.

From the show’s blurb:

If you were born between 1946 and 1964, you’re part of the single largest cohort in American history. Technically, the Baby Boom Generation is defined demographically, but culturally it’s defined by sweeping social change. During their youth, the Baby Boomers saw civil rights to fruition, gave birth to the women’s movement and popularized the environmental movement. They also invented the nonprofit model and spiked the divorce rate. As they age, the Baby Boomers stress every entitlement program from Social Security to Medicare.

Going into the show, I decided my emphasis would be on inequality, insecurity and instability for members of the baby boom generation. Splicing together two separate comments I made here is the story I told:

When we study generations in sociology we talk about this concept of “cohorts,” people who experienced historical events at a certain age. So, everybody may have lived through the Vietnam War, but only some people were of a certain age to have it affect them in a certain way, and that imprints them in a way that stays with them for the rest of their lives.

That period of prosperity that came to an end in the early 70s ushered in a major transition that lasted to the present — but for 20 years it was very rapid — from manufacturing to service, and this huge growth of white-collar and service-oriented jobs, and the bifurcation of good service jobs and bad service jobs, that left the old manufacturing people in the dust, pulled a lot of women into the labor force, and introduced an era of insecurity and instability and growing inequality that we have not left behind yet.

But it imprinted this group: So if you were born in 1960, graduated college in 1982, and entered the labor force in the middle of an awful recession, then managed to pull some kind of career together, got married and divorced, by the 90s it was time to be downsized already for the first time, you’re 40 in 2000, and it’s time for the dot-com bubble, you’re out of your job again, and here you are ready for your retirement, finally, you’ve been left in your own 401(k), having to put together your own pension, and of course now that’s in the tank and your house isn’t worth anything. So that insecurity and instability is really imprinted this group. We talk about the 60s, and civil rights and antiwar, and great music and everything, but that’s seeming like a long time ago now for people who are looking at retirement.

My preparation for the show included this report from the Urban Institute about Baby Boomers and retirement; and this excellent chapter by M. E. Hughes and Angela O’Rand, which covers all things demographic with the Baby Boom cohorts, mostly using the 2000 Census (it’s also included in this book).

You can listen to the show here.

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