Research, analysis, evaluation

The Curse of the Baby Boomers

One of the many bees buzzing around my bonnet is a concern about generational stereotyping. We have quite rightly abandoned other forms of stereotyping but have been quick to pick up this one.

Stereotyping is a hangover from the era of mechanical technology and it is fittingly named after a piece of mechanical equipment. A stereotype was originally a metal printing plate cast from a mould of the original letterpress. Once the stereotype was made, the type could no longer be reset. A stereotype is therefore fixed, and the term came to be applied to unvarying and unchangeable views of groups of people.

Mass production requires uniform inputs and produces uniform products, and standardization was one of the great achievements of the era of mechanical technology. People became accustomed to thinking of people as members of groups with standard characteristics. When they started thinking that groups had standard behavioural characteristics they created what we know today as the stereotype, and they ran into trouble.

The trouble with behavioural stereotypes is of course that they are never true. Sometimes a behavioural stereotype  has a tenuous relationship with the truth, in that a characteristic believed to hold in general does in fact hold in the aggregate. For example, nationalities differ in their average incomes. However, knowing that a nationality makes less on the average, for example, does not entitle us to assume that any individual member of that group is poor. It's just not logical, although trust in stereotypes is still so great that people often act as if it were.

Often, though, the stereotypes have no connection with reality whatever, and that is true of current stereotypes of that ever popular generation, the baby boomers. A popular version of the baby boomer stereotype holds that baby boomers run the country for their benefit. For example, in April, 1998, the Toronto Star published an article by one Nicole Demers, who, among other things, accused baby boomers of being in "diabolical" conspiracy against the young, and of controlling "the media, the money, and the country." Similar beliefs frequently crop up in letters to the editor, of which I am a devoted reader. For example, similar beliefs were recently expressed by one Tom Phillips in a letter published on May 19, 1999; interestingly, Mr. Phillips thinks the baby boom started before the Second World War.

There are two problems with this sort of accusation. Both problems originate in counterproductive pseudo-analysis which has no useful function in a society based on electronic technology. As McLuhan pointed out, electronic technology allows us at long last actually to treat people as individuals. However, old habits die hard.

The first problem with baby boomer stereotypes, and with any form of generational stereotype, is that generations are arbitrarily defined statistical abstractions. It's therefore entirely silly to claim that one of them has staged some sort of coup. There is clearly no baby boomer conspiracy like that alleged by Ms Demers. If there is such a conspiracy, I've somehow managed to be left out of it. No one's told me about the secret meetings at which grey-haired codgers like me plot to keep young people out of the loop.

The other problem with this baby boomer stereotype is that it's blatantly false. Anyone capable of using his or her eyes knows that baby boomers' power is nowhere near being proportionate to their numbers. Instead of controlling the economy, they watch pre-boomers like Paul Martin, Jean Chretien, and Mike Harris control it. Yes, the president of the United States is a baby boomer (by the American definition), but he is for quite good reasons the first to be one. Strange as it may seem to some, you don't get to rule the world in a day. You have to put in your time. Furthermore, the ruling class of the United States can scarcely be characterized as a cabal of baby boomers. I know Bill Gates is a baby boomer, but most of the big American shots are not.

The group which seems to produce a disproportionately large percentage of the people walking the corridors of power is pre-boomer men. Men who were born before the baby boomers but too late to have to go to war have on the average had advantages. They entered a job market in which the baby boom was creating jobs, and in which discrimination prevented women both entering and rising. Does that mean that male pre-boomers were in a conspiracy against women and baby boomers? No, it means that some of them I emphasize, some of them caught the wave.

Another type of baby boomer bashing emphasizes the social problems that the baby boomers are supposedly responsible for. I'm afraid David Foot's estimable publications about the baby boomers have encouraged people who do not have his analytical skill to undertake generational analysis themselves.

My interest in stereotypes of baby boomers was aroused by an article published by the Toronto Star in May, 1996. In it Lynda Hurst implied that baby boomers, simply because they are so numerous, were going to be responsible for the collapse of the Canada Pension Plan. The Star did have the grace to publish a letter from me in which I pointed out that the decision to make the Canada Pension Plan a pay-as-you-go plan was made in 1966, when the baby boom was over and when the people who designed the plan were well aware that there had been a baby boom. I also noted that it was unlikely that the baby boomers had much hand in designing the plan, since the oldest Canadian baby boomers were then 19.

The Star later appointed a demographic reporter, who proceeded to worry about the curse of the boomers. For example, in a story about how retirements were finally opening up faculty positions in Canadian universities, Elaine Carey bemoaned the fact that baby boomers were likely to get the jobs rather than young people. Baby boomers, you see, had all this experience acquired from years of having to teach whatever course was going because universities wouldn't hire them full-time. It wasn't fair to the young!

At the time the article was written, the average age of university professors in Canada was around 55 and the oldest baby boomers were 50. One would think that the opening of a few university jobs might be seen as a golden opportunity to improve university teaching by hiring some of those widely experienced teachers who had been shut out of the universities for so long. But no it seems the baby boomers had somehow been getting even more unfair advantage from all those years of sessional employment.

And of course there's youth unemployment. As David Foot has pointed out, the baby boomers had higher unemployment rates in their youth than young people do today, and they have higher unemployment rates today than previous generations did at their age. But somehow the baby boomers are thought to be catching a free ride while the young suffer.

I don't mean to imply that the post-boomers don't have legitimate grievances (I wouldn't, for example, have wanted in my twenties to be saddled with increased CPP premiums to pay for baby boomer retirements). I also don't mean to imply that a large percentage of post-boomers actually believes these stereotypes of baby boomers. And I don't mean to imply that baby boomers can't, by sheer strength of numbers, take care of themselves. I do mean to imply, though, that if we are to overcome our problems we're not going to do it by scapegoating people who didn't cause them, and I hope the arguments of people who think that approach is helpful will be carefully evaluated and disregarded.

Stereotyping is uncool not only because stereotypes are not true but also because they discourage that participation in the world which is essential for the success of a society based on cool technology. Even when stereotypes are based on some sort of valid observation, they still do not improve our understanding of the world, and they discourage us from trying to understand it. The article on profiling explains the pitfalls of stereotypical thinking in more detail. A profile, by the way, is what a stereotype is often called in a research report (although a profile need not be stereotypical). In marketing reports a common synonym for stereotype is segment, although again there are legitimate uses for this term. Nevertheless, even researchers can be guilty of pretending differences on the average are the same as differences in general.

Stereotyping was popular because mechanical technology required people to think about standard and standardized commodities. It was popular because people were in the habit of thinking in generalities and not because it was true. Investigating the history of the stereotype of any group will quickly set your mind boggling. For example, one of the arguments against letting black basketball players play with whites was that black players weren't intelligent enough to understand the game.

We live in an era which is devoted in principle to diversity. We now have the means to devote ourselves to it in practice, if we would but try.

POSTSCRIPT: Having criticized some pieces from the Star in this article, I should note that on June 3, 1999, six days after this article was posted, it published an excellent piece of generational analysis by James Daw.

The Curse of the Baby Boomers © John FitzGerald, 1999

 Home pageDecisionmakers' indexE-mail