A recent and widely publicized analysis by Scripps Howard News Service proposes: “As America’s Baby Boomers approach senior status, a troubling number are dying from causes that have marked the generation since the 1960s … drug abuse, suicide and accidents.”
The Scripps analysis further observes that Boomers “accounted for about half of all people nationwide who died of drug-related causes in 2003. That is far out of proportion to their 26 percent share of the population. Of the 28,758 drug deaths that year, 13,901 were Boomers.”
Dr. Dan Blazer, a Duke University professor of psychiatry, believes he has a handle on the problem and asserts: “Since adolescence, they’ve been drinking and using drugs more that previous generations. They’re less likely to have strong religious beliefs, more isolated, twice the divorce rate of the generation before them, and still facing money and work issues they though would be behind them in their 60s.”
The article’s overarching conclusion resides in the headline: “Boomer doom: Falling victim to the culture of youth.”
There you have it: Boomers were lackadaisical, live-for-today hippies in the sixties; it makes perfect sense that their longstanding self-destructive behaviors would be killing them today.
This article is another subtle but sophisticated example of how facts can be used to reinforce Boomer stereotypes.
First, many complex extrinsic factors contribute to Boomer mortality, in addition to risky behavior, substance abuse, and poor health & fitness practices.
For example, as Boomers have aged, this nation has also experienced dramatic social and economic changes, leading to the elimination of high-paying American jobs, first in the blue-collar sector in the 1990's and then today's off-shoring of countless white collar jobs. Many of the most vulnerable workers have been Boomers. Many saw their life savings destroyed in the severe stock market correction at the beginning of the decade.
For an unknown percentage of those who have died, risky behavior and substance abuse are the symptoms of unresolvable economic and social losses, disenfranchisement and anomie, and not necessarily a failure to grow up and cast away the legacies of the sixties. A large generation, preceded and followed by smaller generations, faces unique and highly stressful challenges with respect to economic competition, jobs and social expectations.
Second, we should not lose sight of the substance abuses that have abundantly killed members of the GI and Silent Generations as they proceeded through midlife.
The manufacture and commercialization of tobacco reached a high point after World War II. Use of tobacco relieved the stress and monotony of war but hooked an entire generation. Lucky Strikes were given away to soldiers. General John J. Pershing said, “You ask me what we need to win the war? I answer tobacco as much as bullets.”
When I was a teenager, over 50% of the adult male population smoked cigarettes. Famous smokers then included John Kennedy, Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. Youth icons of that era eventually faded into cancer-driven dust, including Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen. (Read more about the influences of tobacco advertising on Boomers, as fostered and nurtured by their parents' generation.)
Alcohol abuse was endemic and symbolized by the ubiquitous three-martini lunch. In the years from 1950 to 1970, barbiturates were the most common prescription drug of abuse.
How many automobile accidents killed drunk and stoned middle-aged drivers from those generations?
Concerning lesser rates of divorce among older generations: How many couples painfully submitted to unhappy, unhealthy marriages as a better alternative to the severe social stigma and economic consequences of divorce in the 1950s and 1960s?
My point is that there is a longstanding tendency to use the myths and realities of the sixties to cast a uniquely dark and accusatory shadow over the Boomer generation. The Scripps report, while insightful and helpful on some levels, further perpetuates in its implications the idea that accelerating Boomer mortality is due to inherent and idiosyncratic generational weaknesses. Thus, we’re dying in droves because of drug abuse and perpetuation of our iconoclastic youth culture.
I'm suggesting that we keep these findings in perspective and not be too quick to let selective statistics, subjectively interpreted, stand unchallenged as another covert indictment of the generation and its character.