Reflections on a Watershed Year : At 40, a Baby Boomer Is on the Brink of Middle Age

Times Staff Writer


It's a basic, unsophisticated number, nothing but the joining of two digits that stands between 39 and 41. But it sits in front of me forebodingly and unavoidably because it represents the birthday I mark Thursday.

You will notice I hesitate to use the word celebrate.

This moment in life is at once both simple and difficult to comprehend. My birthdays have always just been days that arbitrarily marked the passing of one year to the next. The 30th, billed by the cliche-makers when I was in my 20s as the passage from trustworthiness to untrustworthiness, was without incident.

This Is Different

But this . . . this is different. And from what I can find out about this 40 business, I am not alone. Today marks the first day of the first year in which my generation starts to turn 40. We must face the reality that we are the youth revolution no longer. We have had our Woodstock, and whatever it symbolized for us passed into history 16 years ago.

I speak here about the glut of 60 million of us (or however many have survived, past Vietnam and the other tragedies or denouements of our developing lives, until now) that has rewritten most, if not all, of the social conventions we have chosen to challenge and now is ready to encounter, to use a buzzword of our time, middle age.

One of our constants has been our contempt for this phase of life. Because of our numbers, we have been able to exert irresistible forces on the marketplace, turning American culture into one whose youth orientation has gone substantially beyond the point of self-indulgence. Being old has seemed impossible to us and being middle aged most certainly abhorrent.

But now we are about to pass into it ourselves. We will demand--and our numbers make it near certain we will attain--a respect, respectability and legitimacy for middle age that we ourselves refused to accord it. We will probably not acknowledge our hypocrisy.

They say 30 is harder for women than it is for men and that 40 is just the reverse. Whoever they are, they are right, I think. My 30th birthday was just another winter day spent in Chicago. With turning 40 looming in California, I have spent the last six months or so thinking about the reality of attaining an age that has hitherto seemed so removed from how I saw myself and my life.

I'm atypical to some extent in that I'm less than a year into my first marriage. But both my wife (who follows me across the 40 barrier nine months from now) and I have been in long-term live-in relationships--of the type our generation forced into acceptability--that failed. In other senses, though, my experience, I suppose, is stereotypical. Talking to a 39-year-old doctor and avid runner a few weeks ago, I observed that I've been waiting for the first signs of physical slowing, but that I haven't yet detected them.

I still outplay 22-year-olds in racquetball and my coordination and strength are, if anything, better now than they were in high school. "You shouldn't feel any deterioration," the doctor observed, reassuring both of us. "I don't."

Volume of Procreation

This process that is flinging us all at the reality of 40 began in 1946, when the first 3.4 million of us came into the world--a volume of procreation that, in one year, increased the nation's birth rate by nearly four per 1,000 women, from 20.4 in 1945 to 24.1 the next year. As such statistics go, that is stupendous. Things continued that way until 1961, which some statisticians see as the final year of the genuine Baby Boom. In that year, 4.35 million babies were born. Other observers say the high water mark was 1957, when fertility rates , as opposed to the number of births, apparently peaked. I'm not sure it matters.

We have been known by a term I despise: the Baby Boom generation or, even more distastefully, Boomers. But whatever you call us, we have chronicled ourselves and been chronicled as we have passed through every phase of life.

And we have taught demographers, sociologists and psychologists that we have little respect for the norms established by generations before us. Such people have come to agree that there should be little, if any, reason to expect that the way we touch and pass beyond 40 will be predictable--least of all, for us--either.

Since I and my fellow early January Capricorns are only today beginning to smash the 40 barrier, there may still be millions of our generational companions who have not reflected yet on what is about to occur. So I made a few phone calls last week to explore the phenomenon, starting with one to Landon Y. Jones, author of "Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation." It is a book published five years ago but which, Jones tells me, will be reissued next summer in paperback.

I reached Jones at the home of his parents in St. Louis. He was there celebrating Christmas with his family. Jones is 42 and he calls himself a "furlough baby," in a play on the war-baby cliche. He adds: "My father would never appreciate that joke." But while Jones doesn't qualify, on a technicality, as a member of my generation, one detail of his career illustrates our situations in ways the testimony of trained academics never could.

When Jones published "Great Expectations" five years ago, he was 37 and a senior editor at People magazine. Transformed and past 40 today, he is acting editor of Money magazine. Is that significant in a symbolic way? "Yes," Jones said, "I think it is.

"People hit with the Boomers (because) it (the magazine) is largely about entertainment and show business, designed to entertain and inform. But Money is a magazine about personal finance. It reflects what has happened to the generation. They are setting up IRAs. They are thinking about what happens with retirement. You start thinking about (whether) you are going to provide a college education for your children."

To Jones' mind, the changes that begin today will be typified more than anything, perhaps, by a new focusing on life after 40. As Jones sees it, the same commercial, social and institutional consciousness that created the youth market of the 1960s and 1970s will transform itself into one catering to people 40 and over.

Most-Favored Status

At the same time, tomorrow's teen-agers and people in their 20s will find themselves denied the special, most-favored status they have observed--or been told--was lavished on their elders. The influence of the young adult will decline as the people who forced it on our society are themselves no longer young.

"This is very much a pattern," Jones told me. "My overall thesis is that the Baby Boom has forced us to pay undue attention to the age groups they entered." And to expect the generation to behave any differently in middle age or old age, Jones agreed, is simply irrational and unrealistic.

What my generation really is is a huge bulge in the population--bigger than any of the generations on either side of it. As we controlled youth, we will control old age. It has already been widely speculated that this will place such severe economic strains on those younger than us that, when we all start to reach retirement age the existing programs like Social Security may be strained past the breaking point.

Like, I am sure, millions of my generational colleagues, I have taken note of this myself, signing up for an IRA here, a tax-deferred payroll savings program there--all of these plans predicated on the assumption that Social Security will be insolvent by the time I need it. Ten or 20 years ago, we might have branded such preoccupation immoral.

Stagnated in Our Jobs

Too, it has already been widely said of us that, because so many of us are clustered together in the same phases of our careers, we may be risking the frustrations implicit in finding ourselves, as we enter our 40s, stagnated in our jobs. We will be, this thesis tells us, unable to realize ambitions our culture inculcated in us because there are so many others of us with the same obsessions with success. Pundits may observe that growth industries for our generation will be the fields of career counseling and psychology.

As I dialed the phone last week, though, I found myself needing more than these glib products of pop sociology and pop psychology. I placed a call to Peter Morrison, a 45-year-old demographer at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica and a man said by colleagues to be capable of cogent, even cold-blooded, observations.

One of the problems we have posed for people like Morrison is that we have refused to comply with established ground rules for how a generation should act. So when Morrison talks about us or makes predictions about how we will behave, he does so knowing that we have often in the past defied such pat dictates.

"Most people conceive of this as a generation that is very large. That's the main thing," Morrison told me. "But there are a lot of (other) things that are changing about it qualitatively, and not just in terms of sheer numbers. There are enough of these (differences) that it's fair to say life is going to work out discernably differently for these people as they pass through the next 15 years.

"It is not going to be the same as it was for the comparable 40-year-old 20 years ago. They (today's impending 40s) are looking into the future and basing their seat-of-the-pants predictions about what their lives will be like based on their view of other people who were turning 40 in the past. That's not a valid basis because what they are facing is a lot of demographic turbulence.

"I think the way it's going to look retrospectively at age 50, they will look back and say to themselves: 'I never thought it would work out this way.' "

A Ticket to Security

As my generation got to its late teens, for instance, Morrison told me, there was no reason to disbelieve the traditional cliche that a college education represented a ticket to at least some sort of professional and personal security. "In the Baby Boom generation," though, Morrison said, "it gradually came to be the case that a diploma entitled you to drive a cab full time instead of part time."

Law school or medical school were objectives to be sought because both professions represented security and financial reward. But now, as we embark upon our 40s, it is already often difficult for attorneys to get work and physicians are starting to find their own positions may turn out to be just as fraught with insecurity and uncertainty as the situations of steel workers in Indiana and Pennsylvania.

The doctor dilemma, Morrison told me, "is kind of an example of how you base your planned trajectory in the world on what you saw happening before you. What you are not counting on is changing market conditions, labor supply and demand."

This isn't to say our generation, as a whole, isn't prosperous. We revolutionized the position of women in the work force and introduced the notion of the full-time, two-wage earner family on a large scale--transforming it from the exception to the social norm. In our 40s and beyond, Morrison told me, we will reap the financial benefit of that as we pass into our peak earning years.

We will struggle with the tax consequences of our success and we will find, he said, that our generational obsessions have left us with less--possibly far less--free time than we would like. We will want to slow down and perhaps not be able to.

He stopped for a moment, aware that he had moved away from statistics-based observations with which people in his profession are, understandably, most comfortable. Then he started up again. "I'm free associating here," he told me, "but one of the interesting things I see is that none of us is very good at forecasting. We're carrying along the images of what we have before us from the past. But there are all these economic and demographic changes that are really reshaping the world and a lot of contingencies that were not there before."

Breaking Up Sooner

For instance, because my generation has experienced a sharp increase in divorce rates, many of its members approach 40 having only recently started second families. Fascinating to Morrison has been a largely overlooked statistical observation recently surfaced in U.S. Census data. My generation was, on the average, 29 years old by the time a quarter of all marriages of our same age contemporaries had broken up. The generation that preceded us was 36 by the time the same thing had occurred.

But as we remarry and begin families anew, we are embarking on second or first rounds of childbearing at a time in life that will have major ramifications in the future. Complicating this, Morrison told me, is a trend now developing gradually in which--contrary to practices we followed of leaving home at ever earlier ages--today's teen-agers and young adults are staying in the parental home longer than we ever did.

Recent Census data have confirmed this, too, Morrison said. Of young men 20 to 24, for instance, new Census data show that, in 1984, 52% were living at home, compared to 43% in 1970. This is due, Morrison said, to a variety of economic and social factors, but the implications are what is important.

For my generation, he said, what could easily occur is that people having children in second marriages now could find themselves at age 50 or 60 with incredibly complex extended families. These will consist of offspring of different ages from two or more marriages for each partner in which older parents--who will themselves be enjoying ever greater longevity--and older children alike require continued financial and familial support--just at a time when many of us will, ourselves, be looking for a slackening in the pace and demands of life. Many of us may not find it.

Sarcastically, Morrison calls this the "fouled nest" syndrome. "If I were warning people your age what may happen in your future that you aren't prepared for," he told me, "I'd be alert to this as at least a possibility."

'Blue Wednesday'

I asked Morrison who else might have interesting things to say. He gave me the telephone number of Tom Esenshade, 43, who works at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank. "One can think of Jan. 1, 1986," Esenshade quipped, "as blue Wednesday or something like that.

"Somebody said once that this span between 40 and 50 is really what marks the transition in life. Forty marks the old age of youth and 50 marks the youth of old age and so, somewhere between 40 and 50 represents this transition point.

"But actually, I think people are conscious of their passage of time less by the chronological age than by the point at which their own individual life cycles change. What I mean is my 40th birthday didn't quite have the same impact that seeing (beginning in September) my sons off to college is liable to have.

"People who are born in the same birth cohort--say in 1946--will in some respects experience aging at different rates, depending on the times at which life cycle changes impinge on their own life courses.

"So in that sense, 40 doesn't necessarily represent the old age of youth and 50 not necessarily the youth of old age. It's more a state of mind."

I hung up after the conversation with Esenshade feeling better about myself and better about my generation. It's true that 1986 begins a transition that will be among the most closely watched sociological phenomena of our time. I'm persuaded by Morrison's assessment of its unpredictability.

And in that sense, maybe, all there is to say today is: Happy New Year.

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