The iconic image of the Baby Boom generation is a 1960s-era snapshot of an exuberant, long-haired, rebellious young adult. That portrait wasn't entirely accurate even then, but it's hopelessly out of date now. This famously huge cohort of Americans finds itself in a funk as it approaches old age.
On Jan. 1, 2011, the oldest Baby Boomers will turn 65. Every day for the next 19 years, about 10,000 more will cross that threshold. By 2030, when all Baby Boomers will have turned 65, fully 18 percent of the nation's population will be at least that age, according to Pew Research Center population projections. Today, just 13 percent of Americans are ages 65 and older.
Perched on the front stoop of old age, Baby Boomers are more downbeat than other age groups about the trajectory of their own lives and about the direction of the nation as a whole.
Some of this pessimism is related to life cycle -- for most people, middle age is the most demanding and stressful time of life. Some of the gloominess, however, appears to be particular to Boomers, who bounded onto the national stage in the 1960s with high hopes for remaking society, but who've spent most of their adulthood trailing other age cohorts in overall life satisfaction.
At the moment, the Baby Boomers are pretty glum. Fully 80 percent say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today, compared with 60 percent of those ages 18 to 29 (Millennials); 69 percent of those ages 30 to 45 (Generation Xers) and 76 percent of those 65 and older (the Silent and Greatest Generations), according to a Pew Research Center survey taken earlier this month.
Boomers are also more downbeat than other adults about the long-term trajectory of their lives -- and their children's. Some 21 percent say their own standard of living is lower than their parents' was at the age they are now; among all non-Boomer adults, just 14 percent feel this way, according to a May 2010 Pew Research survey. The same survey found that 34 percent of Boomers believe their own children will not enjoy as good a standard of living as they themselves have now; by contrast, just 21 percent of non-Boomers say the same.
The 79 million member Baby Boomer generation accounts for 26 percent of the total U.S. population. By force of numbers alone, they almost certainly will redefine old age in America, just as they've made their mark on teen culture, young adult life and middle age.
But don't tell Boomers that old age starts at 65. The typical Boomer believes that old age doesn't begin until age 72, according to a 2009 Pew Research survey. About half of all American adults say they feel younger than their actual age, but fully 61 percent of Boomers say this. In fact, the typical Boomer feels nine years younger than his or her chronological age.
On a range of social issues, Baby Boomers are more accepting of changes in American culture and mores than are adults ages 65 and older, though generally less tolerant than the young. On matters related to personal finances, economic security and retirement expectations, they feel more damaged by the Great Recession than do older adults.
Boomers are latecomers to the digital revolution, but are beginning to close their gadget and social media gap with younger generations. For example, among younger Boomers (ages 46-55), fully half now use social networks, compared with 20 percent in 2008. That rate of growth is more rapid than for younger generations. Also, more than half (55 percent) of older Boomers (ages 56-64) now watch online video, compared with 30 percent in 2008.
On the political front, Boomers -- like the nation as a whole -- have done some partisan switching in recent years. They narrowly favored Obama for president in 2008 (by 50 percent-49 percent), then supported Republican congressional candidates by 53 percent-45 percent in the 2010 midterm elections, according to election day exit polls. In their core political attitudes about the role of government, they're more conservative than younger adults and more liberal than older adults, according to a comprehensive 2010 Pew Research report on long term trends in political values by generation.
In 1970, when the oldest of the Baby Boomers were in their early 20s, the total publicly held national debt was about $283 billion, or about 28 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. Now, as the oldest Boomers approach age 65, the federal debt is an estimated $9 trillion or 62 percent of GDP -- creating IOUs that members of younger generations may be paying down for decades.
However, a new Pew Research survey finds little appetite among Boomers for deficit reduction proposals that would take a bite out of their own pocketbooks. For example, 68 percent of Boomers (compared with 56 percent of all adults) oppose eliminating the tax deduction for interest paid on home mortgages; 80 percent (compared with 72 percent of all adults) oppose taxing employer-provided health insurance benefits; and 63 percent (compared with 58 percent of all adults) oppose raising the age for qualifying for full Social Security benefits.