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Baby Boomers hoped to die before they got old. They lied. And now they’re dragging the whole country down.

Wednesday, May 2 2007

Page 4 of 5

Jeepers, maybe Congress should have offered them tax incentives to kill themselves.

Boomers grew up defying their parents, an ethos that brought rich rewards, including teen pregnancies and genital warts. In that spirit, and with typically clamorous self-regard, they vow to "revolutionize" retirement. They intend to pursue second careers and volunteer, a go-getting agenda aided by a crop of Web sites, among them Eons, Boomergirl, and Second 50 Years, catering to their refined sense of manifest destiny. They plan to get their post-menopausal freak on. A wave of Boomerotica has washed over the publishing industry the last couple of years, carrying with it such saucy titles as Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty and Sex and the Seasoned Woman. Clearly, this is not their mother's retirement. Nor her spice rack.

A commune revival also has budded, with clutches of like-minded Boomers — nudists, Catholics — living in harmony, so long as nobody confuses one collective for the other. Small groups of men and women are "building" platonic families, sharing homes to save on bills, stave off loneliness, and take turns chasing those goddamn kids off the lawn. "Boomers are bringing a new approach to growing older," says Mary Furlong, author of Turning Silver Into Gold and founder of Third Age Media, a San Francisco consulting firm that focuses on the Boomer market. "We know we're not kids anymore, but we also feel there's plenty of reason to feel young."

Aging Boomers, sensitive to suggestions that they are, in fact, aging Boomers, aim to reshape the lingo of retirement, in the same way they spun draft dodger into conscientious objector. Out: senior, mature, elder. In: "That's still being figured out," Orsborn says with a laugh. "Baby Boomers don't even like the "baby' part of their name."

Here are a few ideas: substance abuser, fat, incarcerated.

Veering from their cultivated reputation as salubrious middle-agers, Boomers own the highest rates of drug use, suicide, obesity, and diabetes of any U.S. age group, federal statistics show. They also represent the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. prison population. "When I tell that to audiences," Males says, "I almost get looks of disappointment."

Males has written a handful of books in defense of post-boom generations, countering perceptions of them as the country's scourge and assailing what he regards as their parents' hypocrisy. As young adults, Boomers unleashed the libertine within; as parents, they vilify young adults for the same behavior, attempting to shackle them with zero-tolerance policies, abstinence programs, public curfews, and the everlasting war on drugs.

"Boomers have this thing where they say, "We gotta hate kids at the same time we try to behave like them,'" Males says. He points out that the crime rate among people age 25 and under has dropped in most major categories in recent years. "But Boomers just say, 'I feel like kids today are worse.' They knock down younger generations so they can feel good about themselves."

Disparage your parents, demonize your kids. Greater Generation, indeed.

Most Boomer parents fit into one of two groups. The first could be called the In Absentia-Ataris. Rarely present as their children grew up, these parents deserve the same amount of praise as Atari videogames for how their kids turned out. Johnny probably missed having Mom and Dad around — or one or the other after the divorce — but at least Asteroids and Space Invaders kept him company. He counts as one of the 48 million Americans born between 1965 and 1981, also known as Generation X, the original slackers.

The second group could be called Helicopter Parents, to borrow a phrase from generational expert William Strauss. Mom and Dad hovered over Missy like Blackhawk choppers, videotaping every single moment of her first five years, starting with conception. Parents and child remained best friends as Missy grew up, thanks to Mom and Dad's willingness to sink into debt to indulge her with money and high-tech gifts. Missy belongs to the Millennial Generation, the 75 million Americans born between 1982 and 2000, the pioneers of YouTube nation.

The split represents a classic Boomer disparity: too little or too much of a good thing, with mixed results either way. Its oldest members in their early 40s, Gen X tends to maintain an ironic distance from life, its expectations tempered by a conviction that, sooner or later, everyone disappoints. Its oldest members in their mid-20s, the Millennial Generation acts as if everyone owes them, its expectations raised beyond reason from hearing Mom and Dad's constant refrain, "You're special."

Yet with Gen Xers older and disinclined to engage, social critics pin their hopes on the Millennials for redeeming their parents in the Baby Boom generation. "There's a lot of potential for them," says author Neil Howe, who has written several books with Strauss about the differences within and between generations. "Gen Xers took a pretty tough situation and did the best they could, but it's the Millennials who really look promising."

The forecast sounds even better to Boomer parents than "Free Bird." As Orsborn quips, "We did something right."

Or perhaps not. Personality surveys characterize Millennials as tolerant, industrious, and law-abiding. But with their parents putting the mother in smother, telling them they could do anything and deserved everything, Millennials carry egos the size of, well, Baby Boomers. The Me Generation has begat Generation Me.

"It's almost like (Millennials) had three pillows strapped to them so they wouldn't get hurt if they fell down," says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. "It's like they had three pillows protecting their self-esteem."

Twenge describes Millennials as "the most self-absorbed generation we've had." Her book and a study she released earlier this year relied on analysis of responses by college students to the Narcissistic Personality Index. Combing the surveys of some 16,500 students between 1982 and 2006, she saw a steady rise in scores, with young adults growing ever more optimistic about their prospects.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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