As teenagers, they pumped an estimated $20 billion a year into the economy. As adults, they’re estimated to control 80 percent of America’s personal financial assets.
As they pass into retirement, the U.S. News & World Report notes, investors are rushing to take advantage, buying stocks and funds in medical care and the makers of such products as Metamucil and Depends.
They are the baby boomers: The 78 million or so Americans born between 1946 and 1964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Other agencies and scholars have slightly different definitions.) Some 77,000 of them live in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties alone.
This year, the last members of the baby boom turn 50.
And they are not going gentle into that good night.
“Studies show the idea of moving into a senior community just doesn’t appeal to these people,” said Alissa Dark-Freudeman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, who specializes in aging issues. “A lot of them are expecting to work longer, and a lot of them are looking at secondary careers.”
An AARP survey found that most boomers plan to work “until they drop.” Only about 11 percent plan to quit work entirely.
And, having been on the cutting edge of the youth movement for so long, many Boomers find the idea of being “senior,” well, a little disturbing.
“I don’t even think of myself a baby boomer,” said Annie M. Anthony, executive director of the Cape Fear Volunteer Center, who was born in 1960. “I’m toward the tail end of them.”
“The boomers are such a huge group,” said Wilmington writer Dana Sachs, who was born on Sept. 30, 1962, the day before James Meredith enrolled as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. “The oldest boomers could be parents of the younger ones.”
So huge is the baby boom generation – today, roughly one-fourth of the nation’s population – that it’s sometimes hard to get a handle on who they are. After all, their parents, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” survived the Depression and won World War II. What did the boomers do?
“That’s kind of hard to say,” said Melton McLaurin, professor emeritus of history at UNCW. “They were too young, really, to be very active in the civil rights movement.”
Still, talking to local boomers, a few themes emerge.
Children of plenty
The baby boom was a phenomenon of the end of World War II, as millions of GIs married their sweethearts. Couples who had postponed starting families during the hard days of the Depression and the war suddenly decided it was time. Home loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration, made it more economical to buy a house in the suburbs than to rent an apartment in the city – which only encouraged families to expand more.
As a result, as historian Landon Jones put it, “the cry of the baby was heard across the land.” In 1946, 3.4 million babies were born in America, 20 percent more than in the previous year. From there, birth rates only climbed; from 1954 to 1964, 4 million babies were born every year.
The trend didn’t immediately get a name. (According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “baby boom” wasn’t coined until 1964, the year it first popped up in the Washington Post.) Businesses, however, noticed it immediately.
“Babies Mean Business,” trumpeted a 1948 Newsweek headline. A decade later, in 1958, Life declared that “4 Million (Births) a Year Make Millions in Business,” referring to the boomers as a “built-in recession cure.”
The boomers became the most-marketed generation of all time, especially through the medium of television, which penetrated most of the country in the early 1950s. Young boomers grabbed up Mickey Mouse ears, Davy Crockett coonskin caps and the ubiquitous hula-hoop; in their teens, they’d buy up blue jeans, millions of LP vinyl records and, eventually, cars.
At the same time, for a variety of reasons – from increased Cold War spending to the rise of the credit card to the very size of the boomer generation itself – the boomers grew up in an era of unprecedented American prosperity. “The level of affluence at the time is just unbelievable now,” McLaurin said. “Eveybody back then worked, and everybody had a job,” recalled Ed Gibson, former athletic director at Topsail High School.
Not surprisingly, boomers grew up incredibly secure.
“In my 20s and 30s, I believed that things were getting better and better,” Sachs said. “There was more hope, more equality.”
As McLaurin noted, the boomers were mostly too young to provide leadership to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. Many of them, however, were involved in school desegregation.
“Growing up in the South and Wilmington in the segregation era, everything was very constrained,” recalled Linda Upperman Smith, a former social worker who now heads a firm coaching non-profit organizations. “You felt controlled, you felt judged. You watched what you said.”
Born in 1949, Upperman Smith missed the massive desegregation of New Hanover County schools and the closing of historically black Williston High School. She found herself in the midst of history, though, when she entered Spelman College in Atlanta.
“We had Ralph David Abernathy, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown on campus,” she said. “One day, I just walked into a restaurant and Muhammed Ali was there. I felt it. I saw it every day.”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 during her freshman year. His body lay in state on the Spelman campus. “The whole time, you could have just about heard a pin drop,” Upperman Smith recalled.
In her 20s, Upperman Smith moved to California, where she would remain for decades. “It was like 180 degrees of difference from what I’d known,” she said. “It was just a freer society. It had its tensions, of course, but there were so many diverse people, living a freer lifestyle. You didn’t feel like you had to look over your shoulder.”
Now back in Wilmington, Upperman Smith thinks her hometown has made “tremendous progress.”
“There’s just no comparison with the way things used to be,” she said.
Growing up in Memphis, Sachs attended a totally desegregated high school with a magnet program. The student body was almost exactly 50 percent white and 50 percent black, she recalled, and relations were generally good.
JFK and Vietnam
Ask a boomer to recall the biggest moments in their history, and almost all will remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
“I was just 3 years old at the time,” Annie Anthony recalled, “but we were Catholic, and I remember my mother being so upset. I remember her crying.” For years afterward, her family kept a bust of the slain president in their home.
Next came Vietnam. The average age of U.S. soldiers and Marines who fought in the conflict was 19, meaning that Vietnam was a boomer war.
For years, Sachs wore a POW/MIA bracelet for a Green Beret from her hometown of Memphis. “I was really too young for the anger,” she said. “I didn’t have to be drafted. We were trying to understand the war and all the feelings.”
Later, Sachs and her sister would protest at the Memphis post office. If boys had to register for the draft, they asked, why didn’t girls?
It was an early wave of another boomer movement: feminism. In 1963, Betty Friedan would publish “The Feminine Mystique,” a book that tried to address “the problem that has no name” – the unhappiness and discontent of housewives, who felt busy yet unfulfilled by their lives. The next few years would see the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (passed by Congress but never ratified); Title IX (passed in 1972), intended to equalize academic opportunities for institutions that received federal funding; and increasing numbers of women entering the work force and the professions.
“Feminism coincides with a lot that was going on at the time,” Sachs said, “civil rights, anti-colonialism, the fight for equality.”
Ask William Fridrich what the boomers did and he grins.
“Surfing,” he said. “The boomers made surfing.”
The principal and creative director for William Fridrich Design in Wilmington, Fridrich grew up on the California coast, and he grew up surfing.
Surfboards, of course, date back to ancient Hawaii, and surfing was being demonstrated on the East Coast as early as the first decade of the 1900s. Boomer kids on both coasts, however – such as Joseph “Skipper” Funderburg of Wrightsville Beach – took up the sport in earnest in the early 1960s. The craze spawned dozens of B-movies (1959’s “Gidget” was one of the first) and a whole school of rock music as played by the Surfaris, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, Jan and Dean and, of course, the Beach Boys.
Boomers also contributed to the rise of bicycle culture, Fridrich contended. Spurred by such factors as President Kennedy’s emphasis on physical fitness, the establishment of Earth Day in 1970 and the 1973 oil embargo, more Americans took up cycling. Manufacturers responded by introducing the 10-speed racing cycle.
Boomers pioneered hundreds of other technical advances as well. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, pioneers of the personal computer, were all boomers. Fridrich focused on another innovation, the Polaroid camera, pioneered by Edwin Land in 1948.
“Everyone had to have one,” Fridrich said. “You could have photographs of everything that happened, all the time. Of course, that’s what you have now with smart phones and digital photography.”
A darker outlook
As a group, Boomers are a lot less optimistic than they used to be.
“Now, it seems like we’re going backward,” said Sachs. Schools are a lot more segregated now, she noted – a handicap for students, who have to live in a more diverse population. “I worry that their education isn’t as rich as mine was,” she said.
“I was a criminal justice major,” said Anthony, “and back in 1982, I attended a seminar where they discussed how terrorism was going to be the major security threat in the future. Now, everything they predicted is happening around us.”
“They’ve taken away the will of people to work,” said Gibson. So many jobs have been exported to other countries, he added, and it seems as if too many people lack the education and skills to handle the higher-tech occupations that are left.
For the boomers themselves, however, life remains very good. Members of the baby boom are better educated and more physically active than generations that came before them, said Dark-Freudeman, and they seem to be keeping their health much longer.
The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that boomers will inherit some $8 trillion from older relatives over the next 15 years, extending their economic impact even further. Later generations, however, might not be as lucky. A survey by U.S. Trusts Insights found that nearly a third of American boomers would prefer to leave their assets to charities, rather than their children.
Dolly Parton, country musician
Tommy Lee Jones, actor
Sylvester Stallone, actor
Steven Spielberg, film director
Jimmy Buffet, musician
Bill Clinton, former president
David Lynch, film director
Donald Trump, investor, reality-TV star
Greg Allman, rock musician
Stephen King, author
Emmylou Harris, folk singer
Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor, former governor
Dan Quayle, former U.S. vice president
David Letterman, talk show host
Hillary Cinton, U.S. senator, secretary of state
Rob Reiner, actor, film director
Don Henley, rock musician
Kathy Bates, actor
Al Gore, former U.S. vice president
Alice Cooper, rock musician
James Taylor, rock musician
Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court justice
Stevie Nicks, rock singer
Billy Joel, rock musician
Bruce Springsteen, rock musician
Gene Simmons, rock musician (KISS)
Meryl Streep, actress
Bill O’Reilly, TV commentator, author
Jay Leno, talk show host
Stevie Wonder, Motown
Rush Limbaugh, radio commentator
Mark Hamill, actor
Samuel J. Palmisano, former CEO of IBM
Maureen Dowd, newspaper columnist
Roseanne, actress, comedian
Oprah Winfrey, talk show host
Ron “Opie” Howard, actor, film director
Patty Hearst, heiress, former hostage
Denzel Washington, actor
John Travolta, actor
Steve Jobs, inventor, co-founder of Apple
Kevin Costner, actor
Bill Gates, inventor, former CEO of Microsoft
Carrie Fisher, actress
Tom Hanks, actor
Sugar Ray Leonard, boxer
Matt Lauer, “Today Show” host
Donnie Osmond, singer
Steve Case, former CEO of AOL and AOL-Time Warner
Madonna, pop singer, actor
Randy Travis, country musician
Bono, rock musician
Eddie Murphy, actor
Sean Hannity, TV commentator
Melissa Etheridge, singer
Garth Brooks, country musician
Tom Cruise, actor
Demi Moore, actor
Jodie Foster, actor, film director
Jon Bon Jovi, rock musician
Michael Jordan, basketball star
Johnny Depp, actor
Conan O’Brien, talk show host
Glenn Beck, TV commentator, author
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com
Nicolas Cage, actor