Who Are You Calling a Boomer?

Dear Editor,
How do I keep these rotten kids off my lawn?
Best, Abe Simpson

There’s been this trend of late, blaming this generation or that for all the world’s problems — “Boomers destroyed the economy!””Millennials are killing [everything]!” “Gen Xers all want participation trophies!” — and that’s not what this post is about. What it is about is recognizing and appreciating the influences and factors that contribute to some of the trends and attitudes associated with certain generations, and pointing out why some of those generational groupings may be too broad and/or inaccurate.

There’s also been this trend of referring to everyone over 50 as a Boomer, everyone under 30 as a Millennial, and everyone in between as Generation X, and we’re going to take a poke at that too.

My friend Tim recently posted:

Can we please put a moratorium on people talking about various generations if you don’t have a damn clue who the members are?
I’d venture over half the people pissing and moaning about “Millennials” couldn’t figure out what one is if you spotted them a decade.
And not everyone over 50 is a “Boomer.”
Leaving aside whether generational theory is useful…just don’t talk about shit if you don’t understand the very basics.

So let’s get the very basics out of the way. First, here’s what the experts are saying: The Pew Research Council has been doing a study on Millennials and Post-Millennials, and trying to figure out where the dividing lines between them fall. Personally, I think they are missing a key point, which I’ll get into here. I’m talking about Baby Boomers at the moment, but the same principles apply.

(To address Tim’s point, Joe Biden is part of the “Forgotten Generation”; he was born in 1942. Not a Boomer.)

There’s kind of a disagreement between the statisticians and sociologists about the generations; according to the statisticians, the Baby Boom is the period following WWII, usually cited as 1945 to 1964, so named because of the dramatic increase in the birthrate following the end of both the Depression and the war. This makes sense if you’re defining the group on the basis of birthrate, as the US Census does; births rose damatically after WWII, dropped precipitously in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and remain low to this day. It is of course utter nonsense if you’re talking about the defining experiences and attributes of a given generation. Defining a generation as a twenty-year span is absurd; this means early Boomers could actually be the parents of late Boomers, which rather contradicts the notion of a generation. I believe the time range for each of the generations is too long; we should be looking at 7-to-10-year blocks, not 16-20 year groups.

How Pew Research defines generations.

Sociologists recognize that it is shared experiences that define a generation, as cited by the folks at Career Planner. If you were old enough to understand the significance of a major event that took place during your childhood — for example, the 1929 Stock Market Crash, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Hiroshima, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, Watergate, Tianenmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11 — you are part of a particular generation; those older than you experienced it differently, and those younger didn’t experience it at all. What this means is, many of the things that define you as a member of a particular generation are things that occurred sometime between ages 6 and 15, when you are old enough to understand what’s happening and young enough to be affected by it.

According to the Pew Research people, the generation that preceded the Baby Boomers, “the Silent Generation,” spans from 1928 to 1945. But consider: On December 7, 1941, the US was forcibly dragged into World War II by the attack on Pearl Harbor. somebody born in 1928 would have been 13 years old; that event would have been far more shocking than for somebody born in 1938, who would have only been three, and for somebody born in 1945, it would be irrelevant.

My theory is that the events that occur when one is between the ages of 6 and 15 have the most impact on one’s worldview, and those shared experiences determine the attitudes of the corresponding generation. This 9-year window is when a person begins to explore the outside world, learning about society, culture, history, and finding the things that will define them for the rest of their lives. Think back on that period in your life, think about what was going on in the world at that time, and you may find some clues to why your generation does the things it does.

I believe there are “shadow generations” in between each of the famous ones. An example of a shadow generation would be the group between Baby Boomers and Generation X (I think there are actually more than one), which someone has dubbed “Generation Jones.” The name refers to the anonymity of this overlooked group, as well as the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” and the slang term “jonesing” (craving); I think a much better and more accurate name is one that a rock band used a while back, because it really refers to the fundamental defining factor of my generation. We’re Cold War Kids.

(For the record, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump are all Boomers; Barack Obama is a Cold War Kid.)

My parents were part of the two groups that fall between the GI Generation and the Baby Boom; Dad was from the “Silent Generation” and Mom was part of the “Forgotten Generation”; my father was born in 1932 and mother in 1937. Dad was 9 on Pearl Harbor Day, Mom was 4. They had very different thoughts on the subject; Dad had a much more specific and deeper animosity and bigotry toward the Japanese, while Mom was more occupied by post-war matters like the rise of Communism and the rising threat of the Soviet Union.

Let’s compare and contrast these two groups, using 9-year spreads.

Baby Boomers (1946-1954) were the children of WWII veterans, the so-called “Greatest Generation”; the Boomers were the first generation to have television in their childhood, and many of them remember when their family got their first TV; they were children when rock & roll was invented; later they were the teens who shrieked for the Beatles, then they were the young adults who went to Woodstock and/or Vietnam; they were the hippies, yippies, yuppies, and later some of them became the “greed is good” Wall Street sharks of the ’80s. Today they seem divided between the activist Senior Citizens leading the fight for health care reform and defending Social Security and the Trump supporters.

The Boomers’ parents, the “G.I. Generation,” were born between 1910 and 1924, meaning they were children between the ages of 5 and 19 when the stock market crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. That catastrophic upheaval had an enormous impact on those kids, which partly explains their desire to protect and indulge their Boomer children. Economic security was a primary value to them; they “wanted their children to have everything they didn’t.” If you go back further, there’s the impact of WWI and the way it affected their parents.

The Boomers were childhood witnesses to the rise of anti-communist paranoia; among the defining events of their young lives was the sudden confrontation with the threat that “the Communists are going to take over the US and enslave us all unless we stop them,” as emphasized by Nikita Khruschev pounding his shoe on the podium and screaming “we will bury you!”

On the other hand, Cold War Kids (1955-1964) were born after the discrediting of Joseph McCarthy, the Rosenberg trial, and most of the major events of the Red Scare, and were very young children or not yet born during the Cuban Missile Crisis; by the time we were aware of the outside world, the Cold War was primarily a dramatic setting for techno-spy entertainment like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. We weren’t afraid of communist infiltrators spreading treasonous political philosophies; we had been born into a world where the threat of missiles falling from the sky was just normal life. The Cold War, terrifying to the Boomers, was background noise to us.

While some Cold War Kids were children of “The G.I. Generation,” a large percentage of us are children of The Silent and Forgotten Generations, the people who were born during the Depression, were children during WWII, teens during the birth of rock & roll; they listened to Elvis, Bill Haley, and Fats Domino, while the Boomers’ parents were fans of Sinatra and the big bands. Our dads served in the Korean War, a pointless “police action” that in no way resembled the “good war” against fascism. As children, our parents were traumatized by Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima the way The G.I. Generation was traumatized by the Crash of ’29. Different experiences, different responses, and they raised their kids differently. Where the Boomers’ parents were concerned with financial security and worried about invasion, Cold War Kids’ parents were more concerned with physical security and worried about nuclear war.

From my own perspective, here are some other ways these generations differ:

War: Whether they went there or not, the threat of Vietnam loomed very large over the Boomers. It sprang up as a terrifying new possibility for them, but it was business as usual for us, until it abruptly ended. Saigon fell when I was 16, and the draft ended before that; while the chance of being drafted and sent off to war was an immediate threat to Boomers, it was a vague future possibility for my generation. Fortunately, the US never re-instituted the draft, so we never had to consider moving to Canada or making sure we qualified for a deferment the way Boomers did.

Politics: For the boomers, the escalating of the Cold War was a rising and terrifying new reality; as children, they were suddenly faced with the possibility that people across the ocean were trying to take over the world. They practiced the “duck and cover” drill while their parents dug bomb shelters in the back yard.

But we were born into the world of Mutually Assured Destruction; our “duck and cover drill” was “put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye.” By the time I was 12, I knew a couple of families that had converted their bomb shelters into a wine cellar or photography darkroom or just left it abandoned under the yard, because we all knew it was pointless to expect to survive a nuclear war.

The 1970 Duck and Cover procedure.

We weren’t afraid of the commies, because they had always been there and their threats seemed empty to us; we only saw Khrushchev in archival film clips. For us, the face of the USSR was Leonid Brezhnev looking like a doddering old man, leading the country that we were thoroughly trouncing in the Space Race.

The Boomers were traumatized by the assassination of John F. Kennedy; if we remember it at all, it’s because we got out of school early that day. We were rendered cynical by Watergate. The Boomers were the law students assisting in the Watergate hearings, while we watched them in our high school civics classes. The Boomers felt their JFK-era idealism betrayed by Nixon; we never had any.

Culture: The Boomers were “the Love Generation,” the hippies in Haight-Ashbury, the Students for a Democratic Society; they protested and went to Woodstock and were the subject of the Broadway musical Hair. Meanwhile, Cold War Kids were children playing with Major Matt Mason toys and reading MAD; we were the teens of the ’70s and ’80s, while the Boomers had by then reinvented themselves as Wall Street Yuppies and disco lounge lizards.

TV shows on vintage TV sets
What we watched, depending on when we were born.

TV: Boomer kids watched Howdy Doody, Space Patrol, Sky King, Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, I Love Lucy, and all those family shows (Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie & Harriet) in their original network runs. Cold War Kids watched those shows in reruns in the afternoon as latchkey kids, because a lot more of our moms worked while the Boomers’ moms were home every day. They were teenagers and young adults watching Star Trek, Batman, Lost in Space, the Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, and a whole bunch more, while we were all in grade school.

Batman on Life magazine
It was reaction to this image that created Zack Snyder.

It was the Boomers who established the snarky and faintly embarrassed antipathy toward Adam West’s version of Batman. They had watched George Reeves’ Superman as kids, which was played straight as an action-adventure show, and they were simultaneously both too old and too young for this version of Batman; old enough to see that the show was mocking the comics, but too young to enjoy the mocking. As teenagers, the nerdy ones burned with resentment at how Batman had misrepresented comics. Those of us who watched it at ages 5-10 were embarrassed by it in retrospect when we got old enough to absorb the attitude of the older kids and felt ashamed of having liked such a “baby” show. Most of the Boomers got over it eventually, but many of my generation are still fighting the battle to have comic book heroes taken seriously, dammit, because they still feel that shame.

Movies: For Boomers, all movies were for all ages. There were kid movies and mature movies, but there was no rating system until 1968 and families went to the movies together, at least until the Boomers got old enough to date, and then there was a grand array of movies aimed right at them, from cheesy horror movies like Night of the Living Dead to important “issue” films like Easy Rider. When I was about 10, the ratings system was invented. By the time we were allowed to go to the movies without our parents, we had to make sure our parents knew what the rating was, or try to conceal it from them, as the case might be. Of course we all had that one friend whose parents would take him to see anything, and he would then describe Barbarella in incredibly lurid detail. (Years later, we’d be shocked to discover that semi-naked Jane Fonda could actually be boring.) In 1970, the minimum age for an X-rated film was 16, and it was applied to movies like A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy.

Boomers may have more affection for Star Trek, and Gen X may love Star Wars, but my generation’s sci-fi nostalgia is more about The Omega Man, Soylent Green, and Planet of the Apes. (Yeah, Charlton Heston is our Harrison Ford.) We came of age just as the “great big beautiful tomorrow” was turning into today’s dystopian future.

Comics: Baby Boomers were the target of Fredric Wertham’s faux-concern; Seduction of the Innocent was about the allegedly harmful effects of comics on the innocent minds of Boomers. The Comics Code Authority directly affected them, and they remember when EC Comics went away and MAD became a magazine. The Boomers were the kids who read the westerns and funny animal comics that preceded the Silver Age of Superheroes. They were the college students who embraced Marvel’s new superhero line and made it a Pop Art phenomenon.

Cold War Kids learned to read in the middle of the Silver Age, after the establishment of the Comics Code, as Batman was transitioning away from Bill Finger & Dick Sprang’s giant props and silly gimmick costumes and into Denny O’Neill & Neal Adams’ return to being the Dark Knight. We were the actual target audience for the Marvel Age of Heroes.

So what does all this mean? It’s not just about nostalgia, though that’s part of it. Mike Carlin once told me, “the Golden Age is eight.” Whatever comics you first discover are always the best, and the same is true of TV, movies, cartoons, books, and any other shared experience. This affects fandom when writers and artists decide to return comics to the greatest period, but what they consider the greatest period is probably not yours. Very soon now, there will be a wave of nostalgia for the comics of the 1990s, and those of us who ran from them then will run from them again.

For the generations that follow mine, the dividing lines are similar. How old were you when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed? Do you remember when everybody suddenly got home computers and AOL brought everyone online? When home video and cable TV became ubiquitous? When video stores shriveled up and died in the face of Netflix? Were you old enough to see the tanks rolling into Tianenmen Square, or watch the Rodney King Riots on TV? Were you an adult, a teen, a child, or not yet born when those planes hit the towers? What are the defining cultural moments of your life?

As you see, I don’t actually include Generation X on my chart, because it neatly divides into two distinct groups: The first group, which I call “Jedi Generation” because they were just in time for Star Wars to blow their minds. The second group I’m labeling “the Birth Dearth” because it’s a comparatively small group; the US birthrate took a sudden and dramatic decline beginning in 1973 that lasted for about a decade.

Speaking of the Jedi Generation, here’s an interesting cultural landmark, which was once used as a plot point on a 2011 episode of How I Met Your Mother: Barney Stinson’s Ewok Line. He suggested that if a woman was born before May, 1973, she would have been over 10 years old when Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, old enough to see the Ewoks as an annoying attempt to pander to little kids. If she was under 10 when the film came out, she would think of Ewoks as cute teddy bears. He argued that if a woman didn’t like Ewoks, she must be at least 37, hence unacceptable for his predatory dating policies. (Spoiler: He was wrong about her age, because she never saw the movie as a kid.) The point remains, Star Wars, and one’s relationship to the franchise, is connected at least partly to one’s age. This might be the dividing line for who is or is not a Millennial; if you were too old to laugh at Jar-Jar when Episode 1 came out in 1999, you’re probably a Millennial.

I have three children, all grown adults now, and the oldest and youngest had such different formative experiences that they might as well be considered different generations, though they all fall in the Millennials date range. My eldest was born in 1986. She was three when the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended; almost 6 when the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict happened (we could see the smoke and fire from my office window); and almost 15 on September 11, 2001. She barely missed voting age in 2004. She was in first grade when we got our first computer, which she mostly used to play Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? She was barely online until she was at least 10 or 11, didn’t have an email address or phone of her own until she was a teenager. Clearly a Millennial.

Her sister, nine years younger, was born in 1995. She was almost six on 9/11. She went to school online, attending a virtual charter school from second grade through graduation. Her birth announcement was a web page. She had a Club Penguin membership in first grade. She has a lot more in common with the generation that follows, iGen. She was born into technology that her sister encountered in fifth grade.

In between them, my son was born in 1990, with a foot in both worlds. He was 3 when we got our first computer, and when he started using it, he was way into Neopets. He was 11 when the towers fell, so that may have impacted him far more than either of his sisters. There are dozens of other events large and small that they experienced differently, showing that even a gap of five years can be significant.

I fully expect some real sociologist to grab this theory and run with it. Please give me a mention on the acknowledgements page of your book.

7 Comments

  1. Slam Bradley

    That Tim guy must be pretty smart (I keed).

    I tend to agree with the 9-12 year semi-generations than the traditional model. My brothers and my sister were born in ’58, ’60 and ’62 respectively. I’m a ’67 model. I have a whole lot more common experience with them, for all that we are different generations than I have with my brothers-in-law that were born in the very late 70s. And they have infinitely more common experience with me than they have with my Aunts and Uncles that were early Boomers.

    And beyond not understanding even the basic nomenclature and timelines of broader generations people fail to recognize that these are generalizations and statistical similarities. No, not all Boomers had the same experience, act in the same way, etc. This is a tool to look at patterns based on similar experiences.

  2. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, I think the use of descriptors for the various age groups is little more than a convenient short-hand that sort of falls apart if they’re subjected to any serious (scholarly) scrutiny. You just can’t paint whole swaths of the population with such a broad brush, so I see them, and use them, more as a tongue-in-cheek pop culture thing than anything else.

    Otherwise, as a 68-er, I see that I’m a member of the ‘Jedi generation’ according to your chart. I suppose I can see the validity in that, as I was bitten by the Star Wars bug like most of the kids I knew (although by the time I hit my teens I was fully committed to Team Trek and never looked back). However, I sometimes jokingly consider that little age bracket I’m in, i.e., people born in the US from roughly 1966 to about 1972 or ’73, the Brady Bunch generation. That has nothing to do with the first run of that show from 1968 to 1974 (although I am old enough to remember watching the first run of the last season on our family’s grainy black-and-white TV with my older sister and brother). Rather, it’s because the Brady Bunch was in heavy rotation in after-school syndication pretty much everywhere in the country from the mid-/late-’70s to the early ’80s, and when I was in college in particular, I noticed that all of the kids my age, and a few years older or younger, had, if absolutely nothing else, that common experience of watching that show constantly when we were kids. You could quote any better-known line from the show, like “Pork chops and applesauce” or “Oh, my nose!” or mention ‘Johnny Bravo’ and anyone in that age bracket immediately got the reference.

  3. I should have mentioned that most of these generalizations are pretty much applicable only to white suburban middle-class people. People of color, immigrant families, the very rich and the very poor, had wildly different experiences and influences. The kids my daughter’s age who saw the LA riots happen in their own neighborhood are quite likely to have a very different worldview than she does.

  4. Alaric

    Thank you. While I don’t completely agree with your specific alternative system, it’s definitely an improvement, and this always bothers me. I was born in 1965. I’m definitely not a Boomer- Boomers were already talked about as an older generation than mine when I was a kid- and I’m definitely not a Gen Xer- I think of Gen Xers as growing up in the ’80s, while I grew up in the ’70s. I think culturally I’m somewhere between your cold war and Jedi generations- which is actually just where I should be, by my birth date, so on that level it works. The trouble is, you can always start your 9-year spreads at any arbitrary point, and it will work just as well. It’s never going to really work for the people (like me) at the ends of a given spread, because they’re (we’re) always going to have more culturally in common with the beginning or end of the next/previous generation (depending on which end you’re on) then with people at the other end of their own. For example, I’ve got more culturally in common with people born in 1963 or 1967 (the years my brothers were born) than I do with people born in 1956 or 1975- and yet, by your system, I must belong to the same generation as someone born in ’56 (I’m definitely not) and I’m not part of the same generation as my younger brother (I definitely am).

    1. Good points. So here’s a way we can expand upon this concept: What are the significant cultureal/social/historic events, large and small, that occurred within 3-4 years of your 10th birthday? The things that traumatized, excited, inspired, demoralized, or otherwise colored your worldview? For you, Nixon’s resignation, the fall of Saigon, the rise of the Ayatollah, Iran Hostage Crisis, and the attendant oil embargo, to cite a few examples, may possibly have had more impact on you than on somebody 5 or more years older or younger.

      One could argue that there are overlapping “cusp” generations in between/on top of each one I mentioned. I really just started with the Boomers and counted outward from there, but the overlaps are very real.

  5. This is an interesting idea. As someone born in ’79, the cultural events from when I was about 6 to 15 span from the Challenger disaster to the death of Kurt Cobain, which seem to point out how I was formed well 😉

    It’s also been interesting talking about this stuff with my girlfriend, who’s actually a couple years older than I am, but seems to have embraced more of the things of the younger set. As in, we’re both sort of on that Gen X/ Millennial cusp, but I seem to have taken up more of the Gen X stuff while she embraced the Millennial digital stuff, if you will.

    Anyway, that’s my brief thing to say yes, I agree with your schemata!

  6. Dredd

    The concept of a “generation” being approx 20 years is roughly based on the average age people started having the 1st children, which is actually going up instead of down. That said, lumping everyone together doesn’t really work very well.
    https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/04/upshot/up-birth-age-gap.html

    It is much easier to see your siblings and (1st) cousins in a close family as your own generation, but once you compare the oldest and the youngest in a large family, the gap between ages seems more dramatic. I’m the oldest of my siblings by quite a bit, because my parents had me really young and then split up shortly afterwards. They both started new families when I was nearly 9, and on one side my youngest sibling came along when I was in my early 20s!

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