Levittown: post-war boomer birthplace
Levittown: post-war boomer birthplace

Talking 'bout My Generation

The Middle-Age Bulge
Writer: 
June 1, 2005

Seth Grossman '71 attended Duke during the era of student unrest, joined the National Guard to avoid the draft, and went on to make a living as a lawyer.

Joyce Hobson Johnson '68 organized protests and was a founding member of the Afro-American Society in the late Sixties.

Julia Yang Bedell '85, a Chinese American, earned her master's in science from Duke in 1987 and became a scientist, teacher, and mother of two.

Despite the differences among them, these Duke alumni share one trait: They're all baby boomers. And all of them are, in their own ways, representative of this famous generation.

Most Americans think of baby boomers as white, middle-class suburban kids who grew up watching The Mickey Mouse Club in the Fifties and protesting the Vietnam War on college campuses during the Sixties and early Seventies. But that image is wrong, or at the very least, incomplete. Duke sociologists Mary Elizabeth Hughes and Angela O'Rand analyzed numbers from the 2000 census to learn more about the generation born between 1946 and 1964. Their research provides a snapshot of baby boomers at middle age: a diverse group of people whose experiences differ not only from those of previous generations, but also from one another.

Even the researchers were surprised by the differences they identified across the baby-boom generation--and that's the central message of their study, "The Lives and Times of the Baby Boomers." It is part of "The American People" series, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation of New York and the Population Reference Bureau of Washington, and is designed to put the results of Census 2000 in context.

"Who are the boomers? The boomers are a lot of people," Hughes says. "Ironically, we fall into talking about them as if they are a cohesive group. But they are the most heterogeneous generation so far."

When most people think about the baby-boom generation, they think about cultural and political touchstones--Leave It to Beaver, the Selma march, the mining of Hanoi Harbor, Woodstock--shared by those born in the early part of the baby boom. What they fail to realize is that the boom lasted nineteen years--far longer than is normally thought--and the experiences of the later boomers were significantly different from those of their older brothers and sisters. In some ways, 1964 is an arbitrary cutoff, "but there were some very clear markers that births were falling off after that," Hughes says. "It's different than people think of culturally, but if you're thinking in terms of social impact, it's significant."

The baby boom is defined by demographers as the surge of births that began after the war in 1946, peaked in 1957, and, fueled by postwar prosperity, continued through 1964. Although most people use the term "generation," demographers refer to it more precisely as a "cohort"--a group of people who experience a particular event at a specific time. Looking at how social change intersects with individual lives is at the heart of this kind of research, says Duane F. Alwin, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University who is familiar with the Duke study. "This is how social change affects society--it impacts on people as they are growing up," he says. "This is why the baby boomers are reshaping our society. They didn't think like their parents did.

"Because of the size of this set of cohorts, which is unprecedented, really, in the twentieth century, it's of sociological interest. We now have this bulge in the age composition of society, and the behaviors and beliefs of these groups are going to dominate things."

Hughes and O'Rand split the group into two--early boomers and late boomers. Early boomers were born between 1946 and 1955; late boomers between 1956 and 1964. The latest of the late boomers were born the year the of the Beatles' first American tour; the earliest of the early boomers would have been eighteen years old and screaming in the audience. "Just because of their sheer size, they were noticeable. They crowded elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools, colleges, and the labor market," Hughes says. Because of the size of the generation, its timing, and its impact, the lore of the baby boomer has grown. "We all create these myths. We need to make sense of the world."

In many ways the boomers' life experiences embody the postwar transformation of American society. Americans' ideas about gender, sexuality, and the family were profoundly altered; parenthood changed; the labor force was transformed; old age was redefined. And, even among those early boomers, there was more diversity than many people realize.

From left: Seth Grossman '71, Joyce Hobson Johnson '68, Julia Yang Bedell '85

From left: Seth Grossman '71, Joyce Hobson Johnson '68, Julia Yang Bedell '85 Photos from the Chanticleer

Like many others his age--and unlike the stereotype of his generation--Seth Grossman was a conservative during his college years, and continues to be a conservative today. "I thought it was kind of phony," Grossman says of student activism. And so, when materials at his 30th reunion included photos from the Vigil and other protests, they didn't really reflect his college experience.

Grossman wrote for The Chronicle briefly during his freshman year in 1967, "then I got fed up with all the liberals and joined a conservative group," he says. The group, Young Americans for Freedom, handed out leaflets, hosted speakers, and produced an alternative student newspaper for a while, but their activities didn't attract as much media attention as the protesters', he says. Their greatest success was forcing a referendum that resulted in the Duke student government's withdrawal from the liberal National Student Association.

He says he's not surprised that people like him aren't part of the boomer image. "It was tough to make noise." Going to class when other students were boycotting, for example, wasn't something that attracted newspaper headlines, he recalls. His activities may have been overlooked by the media, but he wasn't alone: Younger voters were more likely to support conservative candidates. In 1968, many of George Wallace's supporters were young, Southern, and rural. One-third of the early boomers served in Vietnam. "It's almost like we're the last of the old generation, not the first of the new generation," Grossman says.

Joyce Johnson's time at Duke overlapped with Grossman's, but unlike him, she was a student radical. Even after she graduated from Duke, she continued to do activist work as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But, because she is African American, she also is left out of the baby-boomer picture. "Woodstock was not part of my reality. Leave It to Beaver was certainly not my reality," Johnson says. "My grandmother and mother were maids in homes like that when I was coming up."

Born in 1946, Johnson was one of six African-American students who came to Duke in 1964, the second year that black undergraduates were admitted. Her father was a steel-mill worker in Richmond and her mother a domestic worker and a cashier in a tobacco factory. Along with the high expectations normally placed on all freshmen, she had an additional load to carry. "When I went to Duke, I went with the blessing and the responsibility of the whole community.

"Personal advancement was what I sought to do, but it was very closely linked with advancement for my entire race. It makes you very serious about your work, but it is an awesome thing."

The sense of community responsibility inspired her during her college years. She was one of the founders of the Afro-American Society, and was involved in some of the iconic events of the Sixties on the Duke campus. In 1967, she took part in the day-long "study-in" in President Douglas M. Knight's office that resulted in the administration's prohibiting the university's use of segregated facilities.

In 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, she marched with hundreds of other students to Knight's house, where they presented a list of demands that included calling for his resignation from the segregated Hope Valley Country Club. The protest moved to the quad in front of Duke Chapel, where as many as 1,500 students stayed for four days, in the now-famous Silent Vigil in support of striking Duke workers.

The following year, she was among the black students who took over the Allen Building and presented a list of demands that included banning Duke organizations from using segregated facilities and providing better working conditions for non-academic staff members of the university. The students also demanded that the university establish a department of Afro-American studies. They left the building peacefully at the end of the day but outside encountered a large crowd of mostly white students. The police were called in to handle the resulting conflict and fired tear gas on the crowd--including Johnson.

Johnson's career path reflects her ongoing interest in effecting social change. As a researcher and faculty member at North Carolina A&T University, she studied the public-transportation needs of low-income and handicapped persons. Now she is working with her husband, the Reverend Nelson Johnson, at The Beloved Community Center of Greensboro Inc., an organization that promotes racial, economic, and social equality. She is also involved in Greensboro's Truth and Community Reconciliation Project, based on the South African model. Members of a special conciliation commission are investigating the 1979 shooting deaths of five labor and community organizers at a Greensboro rally.

"My husband and I never gave up our Sixties activism," she says.

Johnson may have been one of just a handful of African Americans at Duke, but that tiny percentage is not representative of the generation as a whole. Nearly one-third of late boomers are minorities: Asian, Hispanic, or African American. In Johnson's early boomer group, the proportion of minorities is also very high--about 25 percent.

"We didn't expect so many of the baby boomers to be minorities and foreign-born," says researcher Angela O'Rand. "Nowhere was that image there. You didn't see it anywhere. You didn't see a group of highly ethnically diverse people in middle age."

One factor that contributed to the diversity of the baby boomers was immigration: 12 percent of early boomers and nearly 15 percent of late boomers are immigrants. The level of immigration in the 1990s was the highest since the turn of the twentieth century, and immigrants usually are between the ages of thirty and fifty. So, for the past thirty years, immigrants have been in the baby-boom category, O'Rand notes.

Julia Bedell, who earned a chemistry degree at Duke, came to the U.S. from Taiwan with her family at age eleven. She doesn't think of herself as a baby boomer. Born in 1963, she was just four years old when Seth Grossman was writing for The Chronicle and Joyce Johnson was taking part in the sit-in at the Allen Building.

Analyzing a generation: Hughes, left, and O'Rand

Analyzing a generation: Hughes, left, and O'Rand. Les Todd

"In my mind, I was thinking the baby boom was maybe a decade--into the 1950s, maybe, but not into the 1960s," she says. But like many immigrants of boomer age, she has spent more than twenty years in this country and thinks of herself as an American. "I've spent a much longer period in life as an American. I do feel that I identify first as an American but am very comfortable with my ethnic background and ethnic identity."

Bedell and her husband, Christopher Bedell '85, have experienced many of the economic changes that have shaped baby boomers' lives. While the early boomers emerged into a surging economy and vibrant job market, later boomers have had to adjust to economic shifts. The service sector has grown, middle-class jobs have become less stable, and workers are changing locations and careers to adjust to the market.

The Bedells moved around for the first years of their marriage as Christopher served in the Army. He then went to work for a Cincinnati firm as an environmental engineer, left there to go to law school, and eventually returned to his old firm as house counsel. Julia also has switched careers from research to science teaching. (She earned a master's in pathology and biochemistry from Duke in 1987.)

"There were definitely certain points during our marriage that were turning points where we had some pretty lengthy discussions about 'Where do we go from here?' " she says. " I still remember very clearly a conversation that occurred during a long car ride, knowing on one hand that we were going into uncharted territory, but at the same time feeling pretty confident that we could work it out."

For many baby boomers, however, economic security has been elusive. Baby boomers are the first generation to come of age after the civil rights era. Even so, the study found differences of income according to race, ethnicity, and country of birth so entrenched that, in effect, they create ethnic classes. Blacks in the boomer generation, for example, are no better off relative to whites than their parents and grandparents. And education levels across the baby-boom generation--often described as the best-educated generation in history--are also unequal.

Johnson in many ways made the move from working-class childhood to professional, middle-class status: The first job she was offered after college would have paid her more than her father made. He was appalled, she says, when she turned it down and went on to graduate school. But things have changed in the ensuing thirty-seven years. Through her work with low-income people, Johnson has seen firsthand how the transformation from the industrial economy to the service economy has blunted opportunities. It's especially noticeable in Greensboro, where now-moribund textile and tobacco factories once provided a good income for people without a college degree.

"Those are places where a lot of folks worked hard, sent their children to school, and acquired a modest home," Johnson says. "Those jobs are not there right now. And that affects everyone, not just black people. But it impacts African Americans more."

Study co-author O'Rand, an expert in economic inequality, agrees. "The historically disadvantaged found disappearing before their eyes the kind of jobs that had been steps on the ladder," she says. "There's not as much opportunity for upward mobility. In the Nineties, the high-school diploma became almost worthless."

Other ingredients of American middle-class life that baby boomers have come to expect are harder to come by. Fewer baby boomers are homeowners than in their parents' generation. Education as a key to upward mobility has been exaggerated in this "best-educated" generation. While the vast majority of baby boomers have high-school diplomas, far fewer hold college degrees, the study found. Among late boomers, for example, only about one in four has graduated from college.

At midlife, boomers have the highest wage inequality of any recent generation. Late boomers have the highest levels of poverty since the generation born before World War I--one in ten late boomers lives in poverty at middle age. "I know folks who are struggling to put their kids through college at a disproportionate rate to their white counterparts," Johnson says. "I think it's linked to the fact that we had so many things to overcome, being the first college-goers in our generation, not coming out of a tradition of home ownership and land ownership."

For the researchers, the study does more than simply point out demographic curiosities. Gaining a deep understanding of the baby boom will be vital as the generation advances into old age. While President George W. Bush and Congress debate changes to the Social Security system, understanding whom that system is designed for will be key.

While Grossman, at age fifty-six, is old enough to move into a retirement community, Bedell, age forty-one, says she's thinking more about sending her children to college than about her own retirement. Johnson cares for her aging mother every morning, works, and continues to be involved with her children and grandchildren. "I'm officially retired, but working more than ever," she says.

As this demographic bulge continues to move through the system, the differences among boomers--particularly economic differences--will persist and may even be exacerbated as the generation ages. "In many ways, old age is a continuation of income inequality that begins at a young age," O'Rand says. "Given that the baby-boomer generation is more unequal than others, we can expect them to be more unequal than previous generations as they age."

While some head into old age wealthy, others will remain poor or even be pushed into poverty. Other postwar changes will have implications for aging boomers as well. Families cannot necessarily be counted on to take care of the aged. Baby boomers are likely to extend midlife well into what used to be considered "old age." Some will seize the opportunity to remain active and involved; others will have to stay in the work force to meet responsibilities such as paying for college or supporting children at home.

All of these factors mean there's no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how to deal with retiring boomers. Policy makers will have to take into account the Wal-Mart cashier as well as the lawyer; the immigrant with no savings as well as the wealthy bond trader.

"This study will tell you something about the boomers' collective future," Hughes says. "If we are worried about the future and what happens as the boomers age, we need to be prepared for a very, very heterogeneous people. And that makes setting policy very, very difficult."