Do Baby Boomers Exist?

More

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.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

From This Author

Just In