Obama’s generation moves beyond the ‘60s
President-elect Barack Obama may well be one of the 79 million members of the baby boom generation. But he’s a late-wave boomer, a child of the 1970s -- as are half of the two dozen people he’s selected thus far to help him lead the country.
Many of those Obama is bringing to Washington -- including his Education secretary, Homeland Security chief, Treasury secretary, United Nations ambassador and Energy czar -- came of age in the era of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
And their shared experiences offer insights into how they may govern: They tend to be less ideological than early boomers, more respectful of contrary opinions, more pragmatic and a lot less likely to get bogged down by the shibboleths of the 1960s, according to historians, marketers and pollsters.
Late boomers were doing wheelies on bikes and playing with dolls back when early boomers were fighting in Vietnam, avoiding the draft, singing along with the Mamas & the Papas, mourning a president, marching for civil rights and trekking to Woodstock.
Obama’s peers were defined by Watergate, stagflation, gas lines and 20% interest rates. Their cultural touchstones were groups like the Carpenters and Steely Dan (on cassette or eight-track tapes, of course), and shows like “All in the Family” and “Charlie’s Angels” (you know who you are). In Hawaii, young Barry Obama was tuning into “Soul Train,” which began its 35-year run in 1971.
The postwar baby boomers were those Americans born from 1946 to 1964. But Jonathan Pontell, a Los Angeles marketing and political consultant, says generational experience, not birthrates, is what defines a generation. Several years ago he labeled the late boomers, those born after 1954, as “Generation Jones.”
Members of Generation Jones, which includes the 50-year-old Pontell, were too young to really experience the tumult of the 1960s, though some of them were around to see it. “We were wide-eyed, not tie-dyed,” he said.
“I remember some older kids in my neighborhood offered to take me along to Woodstock. When I announced the good news to my parents at dinner, they said, ‘Finish your broccoli and go to bed. You’re not going to Woodstock. You’re 11 years old.’ ”
Pontell said he came up with the label Generation Jones because he regarded those later boomers as a lost, anonymous generation. Among their traits are a competitive drive (a need to keep up with the Joneses) and an intense, often-unrewarded yearning -- in the argot of the 1970s, this generation always has a Jones for something more.
“This generation had big expectations, but it was confronted with a souring economy that left it with a certain unrequited Jonesing quality,” Pontell said.
Generalizations about generations, of course, are fraught with exceptions for such things as income, race, family circumstances and geography. Still, people who sell consumer products, as well as people who sell politicians, make big bets on those broad-brush portraits. And if late boomers, 1 of every 4 adults in America, are moving in and starting to take over from early boomers, that’s bound to have some implications for the country.
One result could be an end to the early boomers’ obsession with the Vietnam War, according to Scott Rasmussen, a nonpartisan pollster and, at 52, a late boomer.
“There is a wedge group here, and it could be what allows us to start putting things like Vietnam behind us,” Rasmussen said. “If you came of age in the 1960s, you had to make a decision about Vietnam. But if you were a few years behind that, as I was, you weren’t faced with the same choices.”
Rasmussen contends that the decisive vote for Obama, who was too young to go to Vietnam, over John McCain, a bona fide hero from that war, was an indication that Vietnam was beginning to lose its power to influence American elections. The only other period in history with such a string of close elections was right after the Civil War.
“My theory is that the country kept fighting the Civil War in different ways through the rest of the 19th century,” he said. And the same thing happened with Vietnam -- until now, when a majority of the country’s voters “are saying, ‘Enough already, it’s time to move on.’ ”
During the election, Republicans attempted to cause trouble for Obama by highlighting his acquaintance with 1960s radical William Ayers. It foundered when an exasperated Obama noted that Ayers and the Weather Underground “engaged in some despicable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old.”
However, late boomers are neither reliably Democratic nor Republican; they were about evenly split between Obama and McCain. And, some argue, both sides seem to share Obama’s pragmatic political outlook.
“Older boomers had this naive assumption that you could get rid of the bad and the good would be wonderful,” said Ann Clurman, executive vice president of the Futures Company and coauthor of “Generation Ageless,” a treatise on baby boomers. “Younger boomers tend to say there is bad and good in everything, and nothing is perfect.”
Julian Zelizer, a professor of public affairs and history at Princeton University, said the main difference between early and late boomers was “that people who came of age in the ‘70s saw a country where conservatism could do well politically.”
In other words, they saw the power of Reagan.
Obama’s esteem for Reagan’s political skills, in fact, was the flash point for one of the testier exchanges this year between Hillary Rodham Clinton, a classic boomer who came of age amid the rise of liberalism in the 1960s, and Obama, 14 years her junior.
During a debate in South Carolina, Clinton accused Obama of saying he “really liked the ideas of Republicans.”
“What I said,” Obama shot back, “is that Ronald Reagan was a transformative public figure because he was able to get Democrats to vote against their economic interests.”
Gordon Fischer, a 44-year-old former Iowa Democratic Party chairman who, early on, endorsed Obama over Clinton in his state’s caucus, said there was “no question that Ronald Reagan, for people my age, was a towering political figure.”
“Kennedy was assassinated before I was born, and I don’t remember Bobby Kennedy or Martin Luther King,” he said. “Reagan was the first larger-than-life national leader that impacted my consciousness. It pushed me to the left. But there was no question that conservatism represented real ideas that needed to be grappled with.”
As president of the Harvard Law Review, for example, Obama surprised his fellow law students by publishing papers from conservatives as well as liberals.
And Obama’s oft-stated desire to work with his political opponents reflects the feeling of many late boomers that there is no single correct political ideology.
That may explain why so many members of Obama’s generation fall into the category of undecided voters. Rasmussen’s polls in the 2004 presidential election identified late boomer women as the least settled voting bloc.
Alan King, a 45-year-old Chicago lawyer and Obama confidant, said many in Obama’s circle of friends “grew up in a more diverse and tolerant environment, which I think in many respects helped shape all of our world view. And you can see that in the diversity of the team Barack is putting together to run the White House.”
For King, the Montgomery bus boycott was just a history lesson. But growing up in a post-struggle world, he said, gave black Americans like him a sense “that there were no limits on what we could accomplish.”
That sense of opportunity, though, was weighed against a feeling that they had missed the excitement of the 1960s. All the cool stuff had already been done, and the demographics of the baby boom, combined with a sluggish economy, meant that millions of early boomers were somehow ahead of them in line.
When Pontell gives speeches to companies trying to sell products to Generation Jones, he likes to point out the personality traits of his generation. They’re “in play” and open to persuasion, he says. They really Jones for new lifestyles and new products. They also change careers and opt out of the rat race at much higher rates than older boomers.
But the trait he cites that might help Obama’s Washington team is what he calls “middle child syndrome.” When faced with angry political rhetoric, Jonesers tend to assume the role of mediators.
“That’s very Generation Jones,” he said, “and I think it will very much inform this generation of leadership. Many of us want to have our turn to be influential. And now it’s our turn.”