The generation that vowed to stay forever young is coming up on a major milestone. But for the 3.4 million Americans who were born in 1946, retirement is a distant prospect, and life still holds plenty of promise and surprises. They’ve been hippies and yuppies; and now it’s the time of the ‘abbies’: aging baby boomers.
In one year, 1946, 3.4 million Americans were born, a jump from 2.8 million just the year before (at the height of World War II) and 2.4 million a decade earlier (in the midst of the Depression). Just five days into 1947, The Washington Post heralded the start of the baby boom, a "fruit of demobilization," although it assured readers that it wouldn’t last. In fact, Americans, like any species with no natural enemies and a new ecological niche to exploit—suburbia—embarked on a wave of fecundity that lasted 19 years and added 78 million people to the world.
Those first boomers were a year old when Howdy Doody first dangled on a TV screen the size of a dinner plate, 17 when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, 23 when they converged on Woodstock and 36 for the start of the great bull market of the 1980s.
AP (top right); National Archives (bottom)
1950s: The hula-hoop fad took the country by storm, Americans prepared for nuclear Armeggedon and “The Howdy Doody Show” was vaudeville in a new medium
They and their siblings invented not just the epiphenomena of youth culture—blue jeans and rock music, sexual permissiveness and political alienation—but the very idea of youth as a separate realm of experience and knowledge. They leveled the decades-old walls between the races (9 when the Montgomery bus boycott began) and the genders (they looked for their first jobs in classified ads labeled "Help Wanted—Male" or "Help Wanted—Female"). It is by now a commonplace that they have redefined each stage of life as they passed through it, a rolling full-employment project for sociologists, marketing consultants and, not least, journalists. In honor of their latest milestone, which ushers them into the fraught decade of their 60s, NEWSWEEK is taking a fresh look at the generation that vowed to stay forever young, through their own eyes and those who have made a career of studying them. They face concerns about finances, their health and the state of the world, but their exuberance is undiminished. It’s not as if they’re getting old.
Some on that leading edge of boomerdom fared better than others, of course. Death has taken its toll on the 1946 cohort; of the 3.4 million born that year, only about 2.8 million (including immigrants) were left to turn 59 in 2005. We know that George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Cher and Donald Trump were all born in that magical year, and made the most of the opportunities that history had bequeathed them. So was Micki Ross, a schoolteacher in Glencoe, Ill., with two grown children, whose unheralded life has left her content and optimistic about the future. But that was also the birth year of Sally Debol, who lives with her husband in a suburb of Detroit and describes herself as among the "working poor"—without a car or a house or a pension to show for her 30 years’ employment at a publishing company that went bankrupt. And also Dennis Kroucik, who nursed his wife through breast cancer and now increasingly relies on her to guide him through the gathering fog of Alzheimer’s disease. As a boomer, he worries about forgetting his wife, his kids—and how to dance.
To say boomers expect to stay young isn’t just a figure of speech, it is a statistically verifiable fact. "Baby boomers literally think they’re going to die before they get old," says J. Walker Smith, president of Yankelovich Partners, the polling company, which found in one study that boomers defined "old age" as starting three years after the average American was dead. People 60 years old today have an actuarial life expectancy of 82.3, but boomers don’t consider themselves bound by the laws of statistics; they "fully expect that advances in health care and genomics are going to enable them to live past 100," says Smith. Presumably they are counting on those advances to offset the fact that 30 percent of them are obese. "We don’t expect to die—we expect to be cured," says Ross, the Illinois teacher. She went to four funerals in one month last year, for her mother, her aunt and her brother-in-law’s parents. But those were all from a different generation; when her own sister had breast cancer three years ago, she had a mastectomy and survived. "We get a diagnosis, and we look for somebody out there who can help us," Ross says.