Back in June 2000, I grabbed the newest issue of TIME magazine from an airport newsstand. One of the articles teased on the cover had an arresting title: "Twilight of the Boomers."
The generation at that point ranged in age from 36 to 54. Twilight? Really?
Boomers were then in the peak years of middle age, hardly time for a twilight. I kept reading to discover one disparaging assertion after another.
Daniel Okrent, the author, had written a jeremiad insisting that Boomers had nothing left to anticipate but a teeth-chattering downhill thrill ride. In a baby buggy. To oblivion.
Seventeen years later, the aging of the Boomer generation continues to inspire critics, cynics, and doomsayers as acknowledged by a continuing parade of media articles brimming with disaster forecasts.
The oldest Boomers began reaching the eighth decade of life in 2016, so it is fitting to forecast another decline -- "a continuing lament"-- as they trade off independence for assisted care, nursing homes, hospice, and death. Sucks to be us, Boomers.
Alternatively, let's reconsider the meaning of aging through a generational lens to reveal what really is new and transformative about Boomer aging.
Durability of Generational Values
Karl Mannheim, a founding father of the field of sociology, conceived the essence of generational theory through a seminal 1923 essay entitled "The Problem of Generations." Mannheim insisted that when a youth cohort faces substantial turmoil during its formative years between ages 12 and 25, a sense of generational identification strengthens.
The leading-edge of the Boomer generation came of age between 1964 and 1975, an intense era of social, political, and technological changes. Protest marches, lifestyle experimentation, and social role reinvention became hallmarks of Boomer youth, a movement full of fervor, fun, and fantastical ideas about reorganizing society and culture.
Even before I became fully aware of Mannheim's theories, and as I was finishing the first draft of Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers in 2002, I was convinced that Baby Boomers had substantial generational affinity influenced by extraordinary turmoil during our youth. But I had no quantitative evidence, other than the insights I have gained since 1978 from creating myriad advertising and promotional campaigns targeting Boomers.
That is, until recently.
The Pew Research Center conducted a national survey from March 10 through April 15, 2015. Researchers studied 3,147 adults who are part of their American Trends Panel, "a nationally representative sample of randomly selected U.S. adults surveyed online and by mail."
Pew's study concluded that Baby Boomers have the most pervasive sense of generational identification when compared with four other living generations: The Greatest Generation, the Silent Generation, Generation X, and Millennials or Generation Y. Pew concluded: "Fully 79% of those born between 1946 and 1964, the widely used age range of this generation, identify as Boomers. That is by far the strongest identification with a generational name of any cohort."
Not only do the majority of Boomers identify with their generational label, 70 percent also feel that their assigned generational label applies to them "very well (31 percent) or fairly well (39 percent)."
Research evidence suggests that values formed during external conflicts and cultural turmoil do not perish with time passing; rather, the sociological phenomena typical of Boomer youth are finding newer ways of manifestation as the generation ages.
Just as I reacted with disgust when reading Daniel Okrent's TIME magazine article informing me that I had reached the twilight of my life at age 51, outspoken Boomers today forcefully challenge the language and images of ageism.
Challenging the Meaning of Aging
Jenny Sasser, co-author of one of the leading college textbooks on aging, is addressing discontinuities between classic precepts of her field and realities of a generation captured with an aphorism: "Be the change you seek."
The author declares in her "Gero-punk Manifesto" some uplifting sensibilities about gerontology:
"to be a true punk of any sort is to live experimentally, to live in love with emergence, with the unexpected, the chaotic, the improvisatory, to live with your arms wide open to complexity, guided by your own star, fueled by a good measure of playfulness and well-intentioned rebellion."
A spirited attitude permeates her challenges to worn-out intellectual constructs about aging. Sasser foretells a revolution in thoughts and actions associated with the field of gerontology. She also believes that Boomers will change social and cultural conceptions of aging while rebutting stereotypical dismissals by critics.
Boomers will not rattle downhill in baby buggies, horrified by the physical and psycho-social limitations imposed by aging. They will not forget that spark of youth when everything was possible, inspiring them now toward innovative strategies addressing what it means to grow old.
There is a payoff for the rest of society: This generation will provoke reinvention of the industries that have traditionally served society’s oldest adults, creating trillions in added economic value.