The Boomer Century 1946-2046

How America's Most Influential Generation Changed Everything


By Richard Croker

Foreword by Ken Dychtwald, PhD

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The Baby Boom generation has always been known as a demographic anomaly and these 77 million Americans have dominated our society for the past 60 years, setting trends and revolutionizing entire industries. They didn’t just date, they transformed sex roles and practices. They didn’t just go to the doctor, they reinvented healthcare.

And now retirement and aging will never be the same as the oldest boomers move into their 60s with no thoughts of traditional retirement or old-age homes! Featuring insightful interviews and essays from Baby Boomers like Dr. Andrew Weill, Erica Jong, Eve Ensler, Rob Reiner, Oliver Stone, Lester Thurow, and Tony Snow, The Boomer Century is an entertaining, historical and cultural look at a truly amazing generation.


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First eBook Edition: April 2009

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As always,
for Terry and Amanda

Also for former United States Congressman
and Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice

Charles Longstreet Weltner,
who took a very young "boomer"
under his wing and taught him the meaning of

Moral Courage


For nearly thirty-five years, I have been studying the psychological, social, and marketplace evolution of the baby boom generation. It is my passion, my vocation, and, not coincidentally, my own generation. I have written twelve books about or related to boomers, and I have spoken to audiences totaling two million people. But for a long time, I have dreamed of transforming my theories about this generation into a television documentary. The PBS special The Boomer Century 1946–2046 is the realization of that dream, and I couldn't be any more proud of the program. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Vanguard Group, we were able to produce a thoughtful and comprehensive documentary about the past, present, and future of this incredibly complex generation. However, as we started production, it quickly became apparent that there was far more information and opinion being gathered, and far more that we wanted to say, than the allotted time would permit. So it became obvious that this book was necessary for us to do full justice to the subject.

It has often been said (frequently by myself) that American baby boomers are "the most studied generation in history." You are about to meet the students. Many of the people we have brought together have devoted decades to understanding the impact of this gigantic cohort on the history, social structure, and economy of our nation.

Even with all the study I have done on the subject of this generation, it was fascinating for us to interview such a diverse group. In many cases my research and beliefs were confirmed, but in many others I encountered some challenging and fascinating differing views.

My father never went to college, and he used to say to me, "I want you to get educated so you can see that there are two sides to every story." A few years ago I told my father it didn't quite work out that way. "The more educated I seem to get," I said, "the more I realize there are not two sides to every story—there are a thousand sides to every story."

This book contains many sides of the boomer story.

I am often asked by people older and younger than the boomers why we think we are so important. We are often accused of being a self-centered, narcissistic "me" generation. But the truth is, we are important because there are just so many of us. It is the phenomenon often metaphorically referred to as "the pig in the python," as this gigantic "bulge" in the population moves from one stage of life to another. It is because of our numbers that we have overwhelmed every institution along the way. That is one of the key reasons our generation is so important, but what make us particularly interesting are our collective characteristics.

Generalizations are always tricky, and all individuals within a generation are certainly not alike. But it is possible to find characteristics that are shared by enough of a cohort and, to a degree, not found in previous or subsequent generations. Baby boomers are famously antiauthoritarian and idealistic. We also tend to be innovative and self-empowered. Our impact on this nation has been, and will continue to be, measured in terms of both quantity and quality.

But how did we come by those uniquely boomer qualities? That answer will be found in our amazing history and the extraordinary decades of our childhood and adolescence. The peace and prosperity of the fifties gave way to the angst of the sixties and seventies. Television replaced radio; Bob Dylan replaced Perry Como; and civil rights and antiwar demonstrations replaced World War II victory parades. A bomb exploded in Birmingham, and "shots were fired" in Dallas, Memphis, Los Angeles, and at Kent State. Men walked on the moon, and the daughters of Rosie the Riveter demanded to be more than June Cleaver could have ever imagined being. We came to realize that our planet was fragile and should be handled with care.

But my deeper interest has always been in the second half of life. Who will we become next? What will we look and feel like when we're seventy? When we're ninety? How does the world need to be redesigned for our aging bodies? What will we do with the new longevity that science and better living have promised us? Will we simply get entitlements and have a leisurely stroll through the rest of our lives? Or will we use that time to give back, to achieve a state of wisdom, to heal, and, perhaps, to transform the world?

I believe this generation is going to radically redo aging, just as we've changed every other stage of life and institution we've encountered: the way we look, the way we feel, what it means to be sixty, what it means to be ninety, the nature of friendships and relationships in maturity, how long we'll work, who pays, what we might blossom into when we're eighty versus what we thought we were going to be when we were twenty. The whole landscape and mindscape of adulthood are about to be totally and dramatically altered. All this time, we've just been warming up for the big game.

These issues and more will be addressed in this book by some of the sharpest minds and most original thinkers of our time. I know you will be challenged, enthralled, and entertained by The Boomer Century 1946–2046. I know I am.

Ken Dychtwald, PhD


The Boomer Century—both the television documentary and the book—are about the largest and most closely observed generation of Americans in history. Born between 1946 and 1964, boomers have been glamorized and reviled, applauded for their idealism and attacked for their materialism, praised for their innovation and condemned for their rebelliousness.

Whichever of those characterizations may be correct, these seventy-eight million Americans have changed the world—they are changing the world—and they will continue to do so for another twenty, thirty, or forty years to come.

The early chapters of this book are perhaps the most fun, for they are pure nostalgia. From Ricky Nelson to Richard Nixon, we will remember the birth and death of idealism. The middle chapters may be the most challenging, for they are about those days in the middle of our lives when we somehow evolved from "flower children"—emblems of "peace, love, and happiness"—into the "me" generation, set out on a quest for the best and the most. While he wasn't a boomer by definition, Jerry Rubin came to exemplify this bizarre transformation. He went from being one of the infamous "Chicago Seven," parading in front of Judge Julius Hoffman's bench saluting and shouting "Heil Hitler," to a Wall Street stockbroker. And the final chapters, undoubtedly the most important, perhaps should have been written in Nostradamus-style quatrains, for they predict the future, and it is there, in the next quarter century, that boomers may face their most challenging years and have their greatest impact, for better or for worse, as they begin to experience life after sixty.

The book you hold in your hands is a companion to the PBS documentary The Boomer Century 1946–2046. It is a companion, not a clone. The producers of the program interviewed more than thirty of the world's foremost experts in various disciplines and fields of endeavor apropos to the boomer generation, including scholars, authors, entertainers, politicians, and entrepreneurs, as well as experts in the fields of publishing, marketing, economics, technology, gerontology, sociology, religion, and even biochemistry.

The great catch to producing television programming is that such endeavors are by nature enslaved to a relentless and fast-moving clock, and decisions (often heartrending decisions) must be made about what can go in and what must be left out. After sitting down for a series of hour-long conversations with brilliant and fascinating people, producers spent most of their time deciding what not to throw away. So what you have before you is an expanded version of the thirty hours or more of these enticing, edifying conversations. It is here that you will find the nuances, the depth, and the details that fell victim to the producers' merciless stopwatch.

The book is, however, more than a collection of transcripts. We have "virtually" brought these people together, as though simultaneously in a single room, for the most entertaining and informative "roundtable discussion" ever held on the subject. They will agree, and they will disagree. They will vent and rage.

Brief biographies and professional credentials for our experts can be found in the About the Contributors section beginning on page 307. You will find them to be a diverse and most impressive group. Some have PhD's, some have "work/life experience," and some just have very strong opinions.

All are fascinating.

part one

The Times,

They Are A-Changin'

chapter 1

We Are Born

Beginning in 1946 Americans began growing families at an astounding rate. The Depression was a distant memory, the war was over, times were good, and all was (at last) right with the world. The generation that saw our nation through all those very hard times had jobs and houses and very little fear of anything—and they began making babies, tens of millions of American babies.

The parents of the baby boom have been dubbed "the Greatest Generation" by journalist Tom Brokaw for their sacrifices during all those incredibly trying years. They were Franklin Roosevelt and Audie Murphy. They were the 101st Airborne Division and Rosie the Riveter. And yes, they were also Joe McCarthy, George C. Wallace, and Richard M. Nixon. Nobody's perfect.

David Gergen is a commentator, editor, Harvard professor, and bestselling author who has served as adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton; he has no arguments with Brokaw's assessment. Our fathers' generation gave us victories and values— and a string of seven presidents with different views and from different parties—but with an unquestionable love of country. John Kennedy was the first of these Greatest Generation presidents and defined them in his inaugural address as part of "a new generation of Americans: born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed."

General Douglas MacArthur was an icon of the Greatest Generation. They believed with him in "those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country." When boomers began shouting "Hell no! We won't go," it was a harsh contrast indeed.

Gergen sees this sense of duty and patriotism as a common thread connecting all presidents that the postwar Greatest Generation produced: "They gave us a generation of leaders that stretches from Kennedy to George [H. W.] Bush, and for all of them, the forties—especially World War II—was their defining experience. No coincidence that John F. Kennedy had in his inaugural parade a replica of the PT boat sliced out from under him in the South Pacific… . Six presidents later, George H. W. Bush has a replica of the Avenger aircraft in his inaugural parade. The Avenger aircraft was shot out from under him when he was in the South Pacific, the youngest pilot to go down. What unites those presidents was that all seven presidents from Kennedy through Bush, all seven wore a military uniform… . They came out of that with not only a sense of traditional values, common traditional values, but a sense of common destiny for the country. They had a positive sense of what America could be on the world stage. We just won the war and we just defeated the forces of aggression and fascism. What also united them was not only common values and common destiny, but a sense of common sacrifice. They'd all sacrificed something for the country when they were young, and it gave them a sense that we're all in this together. It made a huge damn difference. Now that's what I think united that World War II generation."

Gergen ends with a reference to Douglas MacArthur's famous farewell address at his beloved U.S. Military Academy:

The Long Gray Line has never failed us. Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their white crosses thundering those magic words: Duty, Honor, Country.

General Douglas MacArthur

"Those were real words for that generation," Gergen concludes. "

It's not just something you have on a statue at West Point."

It all began with a kiss.

But that generation of Americans gave us more than values, unquestioning patriotism, and leadership. They gave us security and prosperity and, well, they gave us, us. Babies. Before it was over they had produced nearly eighty million of us. This was the "baby boom," and at its height American babies came screaming into this world at a rate of one every eight seconds. That's ten thousand babies a day! Four million a year! From 1946 to 1964, 92 percent of all women who could have children did, and they averaged almost four children each.

It is, after all, a most natural thing. Birth rates trend up after virtually all natural disasters or man-made catastrophes. Millions of lives were lost in the war, and there was in the forties and fifties a biological need to replace them.

Okay. So the boys came home from "over there," and nature just took its course, right? Well, yes and no. Of course nature took its course, but were it that simple the baby boom wouldn't have lasted for eighteen years. Sociologists define the boomer generation as having been born between 1946 and 1964. That's right, nineteen sixty-four.

Dr. Joshua Zeitz teaches American history at Cambridge University and has some well-studied theories on why this phenomenon exploded so quickly: "I think you can isolate three principal causes of the baby boom. First is that the generation that came of age in the 1930s would normally have married and had children in their twenties and early thirties but had postponed marriage and childbearing largely because of the economic circumstances of the Great Depression. And so they began to have children in the mid-1940s when America's economy was again on the rise. And they did so at the same time that returning GIs and their wives also began starting families, and that's the second cause of the baby boom. But these two generational cohorts came together, and they were having children at the same time, whereas they would have spaced those children out probably ten to fifteen years had circumstances been more normal. And a third cause of the baby boom is simply America's skyrocketing economy, something that began during the war years and really accelerated in the 1950s."

When the boys came home from "over there," they married, proceeded to get jobs, buy homes, and make babies—one every eight seconds for eighteen years. They produced, in fact, seventy-eight million of us.

"Accelerated" may very well be too mild a word. Finance expert Jeremy Siegel takes a closer look at the postwar American economy: "Our parents grew up during the Great Depression and World War II when there was rationing, when there was huge unemployment, when every penny counted and very few people had anything extra… . All of a sudden when the boys came home and the rationing was lifted, we had a boom. And when we saw that the financial situation was stable, that we weren't going back into a depression at all … I mean, the fifties were very, very good times."

The United States in those days also had a bit of a competitive edge over the rest of the world. The industrialized nations of Europe and Asia had been bombed into rubble over the course of a full decade of war, leaving the United States the world's only economic superpower. If you wanted a car or a toaster, Americans were the only people making them. If you had a nation that needed rebuilding from the rubble up, the tools you needed to do so were all going to be "Made in America."

In addition to all of that, our parents had the GI Bill: thirty-year, government-guaranteed mortgages, and, for the first time ever, consumer loans.

There is one more thing—one more explanation for the boom offered to us by someone who knows a thing or two about how babies happen. Erica Jong, the author of the sexually liberating novel Fear of Flying, offers an almost Darwinian insight: "After World War II, as after every war in history that we know about, probably even the Trojan War, people want to make babies. There's a great desire to make babies. People fear the population has been depleted. It's particularly noticeable in Jewish culture, which I belong to. After the Holocaust, where six million Jews were killed, women wanted to make babies and replace the babies who [had] been lost. And it [was] probably true all over Europe. And babies become very valuable after all those deaths; babies become hope, you know. God's way of saying 'human life will continue' is a newborn baby. And everybody feels that. So I think that parents were so dazzled that the war was over and that they were giving new life to the world that they just adored their children.

"Children who are adored grow up with extreme self-confidence. Some of them are a little spoiled; some of them really believe in themselves in a way that's terrific. Lots of confidence, a lot of beans, a lot of 'I can do it—anything.' That's the boomer generation."

Dr. Ken Dychtwald is the moving force behind The Boomer Century, both the book and the television documentary. He is a psychologist, a gerontologist, and among the nation's foremost students of the boomer generation. "Every generation has an identity," he tells us, "a personality, a common sensibility. That doesn't mean that everyone holds the exact same values or beliefs, or likes the same food or music. But when a mass of people share similar formative experiences, a generational identity is created."

He compares boomers to Pando—Utah's 107-acre Quaking Aspen grove that is billed as the world's most massive single organism: "If you look at it, it looks like it's tens of thousands of trees, but it's not. It's actually one tree with a common root system."

Of course the "common root system" that boomers all share is the media. Television, radio, newspapers, and classroom experiences could reach every one of us in our formative years, and very quickly. No one was isolated.

Dr. Steven Nock is a professor of psychology and sociology at the University of Virginia: "I think that the historical period, which means when we were born, perhaps for one of the first generations, is dramatically more important than where we happen to be born.

"The baby boomers certainly learned through open access to communications about everything that was going on in the United States. It happened in my lifetime. I think that the availability of media that is without place is only part of the story. It's true that when you watch the news on TV or you read your favorite Internet blog, it's impossible to know where it's coming from. But the placelessness of my generation is also seen in many other ways. If you walk into a mall—whether it's in Washington, DC, or in Los Angeles—it has the same stores, has the same products at the same prices. If you walk into a fast-food restaurant, is it in Biloxi or is it in Boston? You can't really tell."

This is a point that was brought home strongly for Emmy Award–winning television producer, Joel Westbrook.

When, Not Where

Joel Westbrook

Producer, The Boomer Century 1946–2046

When we began the process of developing the television documentary The Boomer Century 1946– 2046, Ken Dychtwald discussed with us the idea that for baby boomers "when" you were born is more important than "where" you were born. It is a concept that struck me deeply.

I was born on a peanut and cotton farm in south Georgia. The "where" involved dirt roads, outhouses, and rabbit hunting. The "when" was about clear-channel radio stations and eventually television. I first heard the Rolling Stones on WLS from Chicago. We drove into town to watch Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. There wasn't a major league baseball team in the South, but I watched the Milwaukee Braves on the NBC broadcasts. There wasn't an NBA team in the South, but I was a Bill Russell fan. There wasn't an ocean near us either, but I knew what was down there because I watched Jacques Cousteau. Years later, I would produce television coverage of the Atlanta Braves, I covered the NBA with Bill Russell as one of my announcers, and I worked on documentaries with Jacques Cousteau.

"When" I was born was seven years before a television came to that farmhouse. That timing, even more than the "where" of being rural and southern, would ultimately be the greater influence on my life.

My partner, producer/director Neil Steinberg, was born in Chicago only six years after me. He also heard the Rolling Stones on his "local" radio station, WLS; he saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan, watched baseball on NBC and followed the NBA (he preferred the Cubs and the Bulls' Guy Rodgers), and learned about the oceans from Jacques Cousteau. We first met and worked together in Los Angeles in 1973. Had we been born in those same two places, fifty or a hundred years earlier, we would have had very little in common. But because we were of the boomer generation, by the time we met we had many shared experiences, much common knowledge, and, in spite of my accent, could communicate. Our meeting also happened in Los Angeles—he had lived there for four years and I had just arrived. But absolutely nothing about LA was foreign to me. Riding around LA was pure geographic déjà vu. Remember, I was a child of TV; I'd already spent half my life in LA.

Once, during the time I lived in LA, I returned to visit my hometown, and I drove out to the old farm. As I walked around, I saw our neighbor, Donald Orr, plowing in a nearby field. I went over to say hello. He asked where I lived, and when I told him California, he said, "That's a long way away. I try not to go so far in a day that I can't get home at night." He was born before me. He wasn't a boomer. I am.

So, working on this project, I have come late to identifying myself as a boomer. And in my mind, I know that should be my second grouping after American. The facts are clear—college, drugs, antiwar, VW bus, Volvo station wagon, SUV, a variety of jobs, playing baseball in my fifties, and occasionally drinking bottled water. In my heart, I am still a southerner, but I'm afraid Ken is right: "when" I was born—February 10, 1949—is more important than "where"—Randal's Crossing, Georgia.

And yet, like the Aspen trees themselves, our differences are undeniable, "similar formative experiences" aside. In 2006, the oldest of us turned sixty years old while the youngest were in their early forties—that alone makes us a tough group to lump together. And, of course, some of us are black and some of us are white.


On Sale
May 30, 2009
Page Count
352 pages

Richard Croker

About the Author

Richard Croker lives in Marietta, Georgia.

Learn more about this author