Baby boomers not all alike

1946, 1964 classes don't always agree

The Wall Street Journal


There's a great distance between Barry Manilow and Barry Bonds.

Manilow, the singer, was born in 1946, the first year of the postwar baby boom. About 76 million births later, Bonds, the baseball slugger, became one of America's last boomers. That was in 1964, when demographers say the boom ended.

Typically, those born within that period are lumped together as the "baby boom generation," as if their values, beliefs and habits are unified. In fact, as the "late-wave boomers" turn 40 this year, it's clear that the classes of 1946 and 1964 are often very different, at times resulting in alienation and even finger-pointing.

John Dieffenbach, a 40-year-old attorney in Pleasantville, N.Y., says many of the oldest boomers are "a self-aggrandizing" bunch who treat him like an auxiliary member of their generation. "I'm part of their club but don't get the benefits." He doesn't get the "benefit" of nostalgia - being able to say he recalls when Kennedy was shot or the Beatles arrived in America. And people his age might not receive full Social Security benefits when they retire because the oldest boomers may strain the system.

The oldest boomers came of age at a time of affordable housing, easier acceptance to colleges and better job markets. The youngest boomers struggled through deeper recessions, crowded workplaces and, now, outsourced jobs.

Younger boomers also worry that in the next decade or so, their 401(k) values will fall as retired older boomers cash out of stocks.

"I share very little culturally with a 58-year-old," Dieffenbach says. In 1986, when the media declared "Boomer Generation Turns 40," he was just 22. In 1996, when newspaper articles celebrated "Boomers Turn 50" - counting the candles on their cakes (400,000 a day) and the cash spent on their birthday presents ($1 billion that year) - Dieffenbach was just 32.

"I'm waiting for the 'Baby Boomers are Dead' stories," he says, only half-jokingly.

This month, a new book, "Kill Your Idols," features essays in which rock critics who are young boomers and Generation Xers tear down allegedly classic boomer albums such as "Tommy" by The Who, released in 1969, and "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys, out in 1966.

"I grew up with the notion that I missed out on the greatest party ever because I wasn't at Woodstock," says the book's co-editor, Jim DeRogatis, born in 1964. "Well, I've seen the movie, and it's a stone-cold bore."

In his essay, DeRogatis slices up The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." He mocks one of the 1967 album's songs, "Fixing a Hole," which he says embodies the myopia and self-centeredness of older boomers: "It really doesn't matter/If I'm wrong I'm right/Where I belong I'm right."

The song reminds DeRogatis of two boomers born in 1946: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In his autobiography, "Clinton takes 957 pages to say he really didn't do anything wrong," DeRogatis says, while President Bush "still won't say he was wrong" about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

Dennis Peterson and his daughter, Dee Ann Haibeck, are boomer bookends, born Jan. 1, 1946, and Oct. 28, 1964. Peterson of Bellevue, Wash., says people from his era "opened the door for a lot of discussions America hadn't been having" - about such divisive matters as race, women's rights, the Vietnam War. He says those of his daughter's era "didn't have the testosterone to get involved in social issues. I don't think they had our sense of responsibility."

Haibeck feels some of her dad's hippie contemporaries "changed our culture for the worse" by making society too liberal.

Dieffenbach has a suspicion about why he and others born in the early 1960s are counted in the boomer generation. As the oldest boomers continue to lobby for power and their legacy, they think there's strength in numbers, he says. "They're just using us to increase their volume."