Do Baby Boomers Exist?

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Can you have more in common with a person almost twenty years younger than with somebody one year older? That's the logical conclusion of conventional journalism about the "Baby Boomers," which has been a staple of journalists and editors ever since my friend Landon Jones' Great Expectations (1980). And it has just come into relief in a feature in USA Today.

None of the scholars or lay people interviewed in the article considers the possibility that the variety of experience of the older and younger Baby Boomers should lead us to question the validity or power of the concept. I wondered whether the writer might be overlooking dissenters, so I did a Google search for "myth of the baby boom" (just four results) and "myth of the baby boomers" (10 results, some duplicates). In an age of universal revisionism, when so many new books deny everything from global warming to natural selection, I couldn't even find a single instance of the question "Is the baby boom a myth?"

There is one major dissenting voice, Eric Hoover's critique of generational gurus, "The Millennial Muddle," in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in which he quotes the University of Virginia media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan: "Generational thinking is just a benign form of bigotry, in which you flatten out diversity. This is debilitating to the job of trying to work with young people." The essay is subscriber-only but is available in many libraries with print and electronic subscriptions.

Of course birth cohorts matter. But they are more like the color spectrum than like a series of territories separated by bright lines, like state borders, that absolutely matter in economic as well is in political terms. And as in other categories, variations within each generation are often much greater than variations among generations, although with a bit of rhetorical skill Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, say, can both be shown somehow to exemplify the Boomer essence.

And there's another possibility. After nearly 30 years of generational discourse, promoted by writers, publishers, advertisers, marketers, and consultants, many people have learned generational identity. Of course it's not an entirely new sentiment; early 19th century Americans were keenly aware of the aging and passing of those who had led and fought the movement for American independence. But more recent media have created a feedback effect that encourages a much broader social and cultural identification that can be hard to resist.

The social construction of the Baby Boomer generation is one of the best examples of what the sociologist Robert K. Merton identified as the Thomas Theorem: when people start treating an idea as real, it becomes real in its effects. Our legions of generational pundits and consultants may thus have achieved what has so far eluded the meteorologists making their own weather.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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