To genealogists, a generation spans twenty-five years, but sociologists refer to cohorts – a ten-year span encompassing those who are five years older and five years younger than an individual. So to call the Baby Boomers a generation is a misnomer, as it refers to everyone born between 1946 – the year after the end of WWII – and 1964 – about two years after the Pill became widely available. The oldest, however, could be the parents of the youngest, and there is a big difference between the experiences of someone born in 1950, for example, and 1960.
I first became aware of the major differences between the older and younger members of the Boomer Generation on the fortieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. I mentioned the date to a friend, whose son was good friends with my older one. I was six weeks shy of my fifteenth birthday on November 22, 1963. My friend said, “It doesn’t really mean anything to me. I was a year old at the time.”
Another difference between older and younger Boomers can be seen in our attitudes towards health care. The older Boomers may expect to live longer, but, let’s face it, we’re falling apart. When I get together with friends these days, after they pass around the pictures of their grandchildren, we begin to compare symptoms, medications, and therapies – and I’m not referring to psychological or marital, but physical. As a friend of mine noted, once we finally become comfortable in our bodies, accepting our bodies as they are, we lose them. It is the younger Boomers who are involved in exercise and health foods, who don’t accept their mortality. And it’s not surprising. I grew up in a world that still had childhood diseases. I’m not sure how I ever finished first grade, as I managed to have measles, mumps, and chicken pox during that one year; in between, my tonsils and adenoids were removed. I can remember being told I couldn’t go swimming and the concern if I sneezed in the summer. Yet my brother-in-law, seven years younger than I am, never knew a world with polio: the first vaccine was developed two years before he was born. When he was in first grade, the vaccine for measles was licensed, and by the time he was in his early teens, vaccines for mumps and rubella were added to the mix. The younger the Boomer, the less likely he or she even knew what childhood diseases were. They grew up in a world where there was a shot to prevent – or, at the very least, cure – the majority of common ailments. No wonder they think they’re invincible.
A few years ago, I was at a long-established synagogue waiting for a meeting to start, and looking at the pictures on the wall of the confirmation classes through the years. I noticed that the teens of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s looked older than the teens of the second half of the twentieth century. And I realized why – those teens of an earlier time were imitating the dress and hairstyles of their parents, while those of the later decades were being emulated by their parents. Teens have long tried to shock their parents by the way they dress – witness the bobbed hair and short skirts of the flappers – but for the first time, the parents began copying their children, wanting to look younger. My grandmothers would never have worn slacks, even to do housework; I wear them to work. The Boomers, by the force of their numbers, dictated styles for so long they cannot relinquish the idea that they may no longer be trendsetters.
Tom Brokaw in his book Boom! focused mostly on the political shifts of the 1960s, defined by Brokaw as the decade between JFK’s assassination and Nixon’s resignation, although I think it can be extended two more years to the fall of Saigon. While reading the book, I realized that most of the leaders of those movements – Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam, feminist, environmental – were not Boomers but their older brothers and, in the case of the women’s movement, sisters. Sometimes, much older. In fact, some could have been the Boomers’ parents or even grandparents. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in 1929; Stokely Carmichael in 1941; Rap Brown in 1943; most of the Chicago Seven were born in the late 1930s, while the oldest, David Dellinger, was born in 1915 and the youngest, Rennie Davis, in 1941; Betty Friedan was born in 1921 and Gloria Steinem in 1934; Mario Savio, whose protests in 1964-65 morphed into the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, which many consider the beginning of the student movement, was born in 1942; Senator Gaylord Nelson, who established the first Earth Day in 1970, was born in 1916. Those of us who are the older Boomers were foot soldiers in the struggles, and the younger ones were the benefactors. But seldom were we the initiators or the leaders.
I mentioned before that my friends pass around pictures of their grandchildren, but in actuality, more of my friends are shopping for dorm supplies than are spoiling their grandchildren. For various reasons – getting married later in life, spending more years getting degrees, infertility – people have been delaying child bearing, including my husband and me. We’ve been married for over thirty-six years – an accomplishment at a time when some people don’t stay married thirty-six days. Our older son is twenty-four; our younger is almost 19.
It has led to some interesting experiences:
In a “getting-to-know-you” written exercise on the first day of fifth grade, my ten-year-old son asked his teacher how old she was. She wrote back, “Twenty-five.” My immediate reaction was, “I’m old enough to be her mother.” My husband of 27 years amended, “We’re old enough to be her parents.”
A New York Times Book Reviewer once described a character as someone who was “now a grandmother but still beautiful, still sexy in her forties.”
Huh? Is the reviewer incredulous that a grandmother is beautiful and sexy? Or that a woman in her forties is still desirable? And wasn’t he aware that if sixty was the new forty, then forty must be the new twenty?
You would think that after twenty-four years of being an “elderly” parent, I’d be used to being mistaken for my kids’ grandmother. A few years ago, I even shopped around a proposal for a book called Is that Your Grandchild? A Guide for O.P.T.I.O.Ns (Over-40 Parents of a Toddler, Infant, or Newborn). Publishers and agents all told me that the book was too “niche,” that there wouldn’t be a large enough audience for it.
What a surprise to all those parents who will be paying college tuition from their Social Security checks.
I have not yet given up on the idea of writing a book about being an older parent, and have come up with a list of how you can know if you’re an O.P.T.I.O.N. In addition to paying college tuition from Social Security checks, you know you’re an O.P.T.I.O.N if:
- You qualify for a senior citizen discount at museums while your under-three-year-old child gets in for free;
- You are beginning to wear diapers just as your toddler is getting out of them;
- You need to find your bifocals to cut your kids’nails;
- You enroll your child in preschool the same week you become eligible for AARP membership;
- You’re paying for orthodonture and dentures at the same time;
- You can’t retire yet because you can’t stretch your pension to cover the cost of preschool;
- Your repetitive stress wrist injury is from picking Play Doh out of the rugs;
- You’re more concerned about the quality of G-rated movies than A-rated bonds;
- You’re thinking about redecorating your house in chocolate brown and spaghetti sauce red;
- You dress for comfort rather than success;
- Your cat weighs more than your child;
- Instead of an empty nest, you have rooms full of Legos;
- The last book you read was Goodnight, Moon;
- You host playgroups instead of networking parties;
- You’re buying nursing bras instead of Wonderbras;
- You wake up at night to go to the bathroom more often than your child.
Another way to know is when your life has become a history lesson. It was brought home to me when my older son was studying the Vietnam War in high school, and the teacher used the soundtrack of Woodstock as a commentary. I still listen to that album. To me, it’s not an oldie. And to think, I used to laugh at my parents for listening to Frank Sinatra.
Now the oldest Boomers are sixty-six years old. Social Security is no longer an annoying chunk taken out of our paychecks, but a reality. The problems we think of as being our parents’ – health, retirement, equity in our homes, midlife crises, the noise that passes for music these days – are now ours.
Some of us – judging from the majority of my friends, I’d venture to say most of us – are not willing to admit to being middle aged. And we would never consider ourselves senior citizens (unless we can get a discount at the movies). Some of us – and I consider myself in this category – haven’t yet decided what we want to be when we grow up. We are suddenly faced with the fact that we are no longer students, no longer finding ourselves, no longer have the luxury of being able to flit from job to job.
It’s ironic that those of us who don’t admit to being older are now faced with ageism. I know of several people my age, or younger, who, after being laid off from their jobs, became private consultants or took early retirement, because companies were not interested in hiring someone who would expect a salary commensurate with their experience and expertise.
So perhaps the time has come for Boomers to finally face reality – we are no longer the people our parents warned us about. We are now our parents.