What Does It Mean to Be a "Baby Boomer"?
And why do I suddenly feel so out of step with my g-g-generation?
Suzanne Gerber is the editor of the Living & Learning channel for Next Avenue. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @gerbersuzanne.
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This is particularly distressing because, since I came into this world I have always been the perfect embodiment of the day’s larger demographic currents. My birth announcement featured a picture of a familiar infant’s face and the words “Welcome the newest Gerber baby.” I was born in the peak year of the “boom” and was given a name that’s a variant of the second most popular girls’ name of the year.
Like John Mellencamp, I was raised in a small town, which happened to be home to the largest manufacturing plant of one of the top manufacturers in the country. Back in the day, as the families of IBM’s “Plant No. 1,” our dubious distinction was being on the Ruskies’ short list of top U.S. bomb targets. School air raid drills — repairing single file to the basement gym — were conducted with a heady mix of utter terror and youthful pride.
My friends’ dads were bespectacled engineers who car-pooled to work in their boat-size Chevys and Buicks since they were all headed to the same place. I didn’t get around much as a grade-schooler, and it came as a shock to discover that all downtowns were not populated by ominous, window-less gray-white buildings and that other kids could just visit their fathers at work whenever they wanted. Endicott, NY, might have been the quintessential "company town," a noble experiment of the mid- to late-20th century that flourished for decades but ultimately, because of economic downturn, failed.
Like most of my peers, I attended public school, summer camp, drivers ed and a state university, and did all the rest of the things a child of the ’70s was supposed to do, pretty much in accordance with the unspoken timeline we randomly but uniformly managed to follow without Mark Zuckerberg’s helpful assistance.
After college, I moved overseas and taught English to Germans, and English and other subjects to surprisingly enthusiastic American soldiers. In between sessions, my college sweetheart and I hitchhiked across Europe, camping by night, and by day, immersing ourselves in European art, history and cuisine, and learning to roll our own cigarettes.
From there, I pretty much stayed on statistical track: married, had a child in my 20s while, as a good feminist, pursuing a career and attempting to have it all. (And though we’d never dare call ourselves Yuppies, we were, in fact, young, urban professionals.) And then, right on cue, we moved to the suburbs (ok, so technically Brooklyn isn’t a suburb, but in the ’80s it still represented a giant leap out of Manhattan’s epicenter of grooviness, the East Village). Divorced, rebounded — swearing marriage was a bridge I wouldn't jump off twice — I lived as a single soccer mom and sent my own kid to NYC public schools.
So I figured the rest of my life would unfold like Everybody Else’s. And sure enough, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, though with his eccentric personality, it took a while for us to be absolutely convinced. (To the end we were never sure when he was truly out of his frontal lobe and when he was just yanking our chain.) And, predictably, my son graduated from college and boomeranged home not once but twice (leading me to wonder whether that made him an overachiever or an underachiever).
And then something unpredictable happened. I fell out of step with my peer group. My son got a job overseas. My mother is, touch wood, healthy and living happily and independently. I have a job that I love, with supportive bosses and boomer-age colleagues who don't think I stole their future, and we share a mission to do meaningful work in the world. My home is not under water (it’s almost paid for). I don’t have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, arthritis or insomnia. I don't carry debt, paid cash for my son's private university and have been saving for my retirement since I was in my 20s. I’ve never taken an anti-depressant, I don’t wear reading glasses, and I’ve yet to experience a hot flash.
In a way, I do feel a little out of synch with the things I see my peers grappling with. But when I stop and really think about it, how could we be lumped together under one big tent? Assuming we share the same preferences and fears and hopes and dreams might be convenient for younger or older folks or people trying to sell us stuff, but it’s ludicrous. In their seminal book Generation Ageless: How Boomer Are Changing the Way We Live Today, Yankelovich pollster execs J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman slice and dice our generation into many different categories and argue that not only is there no way to refer to a "boomer cohort," but that it does us a grave disservice.
If there is one thing our generation has always stood for, it’s individual expression and freedom, from anti-war campaigns and rock ’n’ roll to women’s rights (and a wobbly men's movement), eco-awareness and being ever-vigilant in our defense of civil, sexual and reproductive rights. So on second thought: Maybe being out of step isn’t uncharacteristic after all. Maybe this is exactly what it means to be a product of the baby boom generation.