It was recently announced that millennials now outnumber baby boomers in the United States, a milestone in the history of American demographics. For nearly all our roughly seventy-five years, baby boomers have dominated trends in fashion, economics, technology, science and environment, but this chapter is drawing to a close.
Today’s baby boomers are the world’s largest geriatric generation, seventy-five million members strong. In its youth, the post-world-war-two boomer generation led to the popularity of Dr. Spock and his theories about raising babies, the creation of the first generation of kids television, and a surge in school construction and educational reforms. And the sheer number of boomers produced a tidal wave of commercial consumerism that continues unabated today.
As teenagers, boomers created a teeny-bopper culture that supported a transformation of the music industry into a record-spinning, DJ chattering, AM radio frenzy and ultimately the rise of pop music and rock-n-roll into a full fledged, billion-dollar business. As the Vietnam War spun out of control, boomers swung into a massive anti-war movement combined with smoking pot and rejecting establishment values, though not all members of the Boomer Generation became hippies. Spaceship Earth shifted into an entirely new phase, especially when it came to consumerism; despite knowledge of impending ecological disaster, boomers joined the rush to buy, buy, buy.
As adults, boomers fueled sprawling suburban development and massive freeways; taking a cue from our parents, we became capitalist business innovators, particularly in technology. Combining business savvy with design sensitivity, over time the cars, the appliances, and the products we enjoy have become less expensive, better in quality and more widely available. But the by-products of such consumption – pollution from fossil-fuel emissions, discarded single use plastic, and dangerous toxins in the environment – were largely ignored.
The world is waking up to the consequences of Boomer self-indulgence, but perhaps too slowly. The Boomer in the White House is intent on continuing consumer consumption, and industry is addicted to continued growth at any cost. The patterns established by the Boomers so restructured culture and society that abandoning them appears to require abandoning much of the 20th century; in response, we find ourselves confronting the sorts of movements that dominated most of earlier human history, such as fervent Nationalism, Militarism, Totalitarianism, and Racism.
The aging of the Boomers does not look pretty. Unlike our parents, who grew up in a world devoid of pesticides, plastics, antibiotics, and most of the 80,000 chemicals now routinely used in manufacturing, today’s Boomers simultaneously enjoy exceptionally effective medical treatments and technology amid a startling rise in cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and resistance to antibiotics. The Boomers’ parents lived longer than any in American history, but Boomers are witness to the first decline in lifespan in one hundred years, now succumbing to the excesses of an indulgent lifestyle as they pass the baton to millennials.
Both of my parents lived to their nineties, but my prospects appear dimmer. A poster-boy for my generation, I cope with heart disease, type-2 diabetes and take a fist-full of pharmaceuticals each day. Meanwhile, we Boomers are about to overwhelm America’s medical system.
In the wise words of Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron, “If you’re lucky you’ll live to 70, if you’re very lucky 80, and if you’re not so lucky, you’ll live to 90.” Sigh.