Lost your job, afraid you might be downsized or laid off? Worried about skimpy savings? Scared that you might default on your mortgage? Dipping into your 401K to pay your grocery bills? Terrified of losing your pension as bankruptcy looms for many cities and counties? Frightened about catastrophic illness wiping you out financially? Worried about further cuts in entitlements for seniors? Do you shudder at the prospect of sharply reducing your lifestyle when you retire, or that you might have to work till you drop?
Most of these concerns apply to almost the entire workforce today, but they have particular urgency for the boomers -- the 77 million Americans born in the post WW II era of 1946-1964. The immediacy of these issues has ratcheted to alarm as the economy stagnates with relentless high unemployment that is especially devastating for the boomer generation. In fact more and more older unemployed workers fear they may never work again.
But can we talk about people ages 47 to 65 in the same breath? Are the boomers one generation? In my recent Huff/Post50 post, "Politicians Beware: The Boomers Are Coming and They Won't Play Dead," I argued that the boomers were a single generation that would fight to reclaim their lost dreams and shattered expectations. In contrast, popular culture expert Jonathan Pontell, who coined the term "Generation Jones," insists that the boomers are two distinct generations. Based on his research in the late 1990s Pontell paints a sharp contrast between the older "leading edge boomers" and the "trailing edge boomers" (born 1954-1965), who he calls Generation Jones.
Pontell's claim that the Jonesers and older boomers have been shaped by different social forces is persuasive. Indeed, in 1998 I wrote an article with the same argument. I punctuated the difference between the oldest and youngest boomers by profiling two boomer couples: Marge and Jim, age 34, and another boomer couple Bob and Jane, ages 52 and 50. I pointed out that Marge and Jim had more in common with the children of the older boomer couple than they did with Bob and Jane. And similarly, Bob and Jane had more in common with the parents of the younger boomer couple than with Marge and Jim. But thirteen years later that would change.
A generation is not a static phenomenon. What is true at one point in time does not necessarily hold up later. For example, 13 and 19-year-olds are called teenagers. Although they are only six years apart the difference in interests and issues is huge -- and 19-year-olds would be mortified to be grouped with 13-year-olds. But by 21 and 27 the divide narrows, and our former adolescents might even be dating each other. By 35 and 41 the differences fade away, as many within that age range marry, have children and shape a joint journey through life. Much the same could be said for the boomers now ages 47 to 65: ten years down the road they will increasingly find common ground.
It may be true that the very oldest and youngest boomers were influenced by a number of different formative experiences in growing up. For example, Pontell reminds us that older boomers were brought up on Leave It to Beaver and the younger Joneser boomers on The Brady Bunch. Other commentators have added that the Jonesers were shaped more by Watergate than JFK and that the older boomers gave us disco to which the Jonesers screamed "disco sucks" and introduced "new wave."
It's clear that the Jonesers and the older boomers had separate identities for a while, and it's equally apparent that the Jonesers have returned home. They are back in the boomer camp making them the true boomerangers.
Check out current TV viewing habits and you will find that that the full range of boomers are hooked on the same shows. And the age 50-plus club comprises the largest number of viewers for those shows according to Entertainment Weekly: "NCIS (CBS, 13.6 million ) Dancing With the Stars results show (ABC, 12.2 million ), NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS, 11.6 million), and The Mentalist (CBS, 10.3 million)."
Besides TV viewing there is nothing comparable to fear, pain and suffering for coalescing a group -- even a diverse one -- into a monolithic mold with a unity of purpose, especially when you are on the same sinking ship. The dreary economic fears and worries listed at the top will galvanize the boomers -- "leading edgers" and "trailing edgers" -- to create a formidable army that will change the shape of America just as they have defined American culture at every other stage of their lives.
Politicians and policy makers should take note of the boomers' impressive credentials. Their history of protest and noise-making, back to their teenage and young adult years (the counter culture movement, Woodstock, the sexual revolution, the antiwar protests), verifies that they have the know-how to put teeth into their frustration and anger. If you think the Wall Street protests are formidable, watch out when the boomers fully wake up to their plight and mobilize. Then you will know: It's one solid generation to reckon with.
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