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Boomer blues

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | June 18, 2010

A June 6 story in the New York Times, “Rise in Suicides of Middle-Aged is Continuing,” reported that 45-to-54 year-olds have the highest rate of suicide and that their rate is rising (see here, and a complex follow-up on June 13 here ). Although there are technical reasons to put a big asterisk on that claim* [see endnote below], it appears to be true that Baby Boomers’ lives have turned out to be a bit different — in unfortunate ways — from those of their parents and of their children. Americans who came into adulthood in the ‘60s were distinct.

“The Sixties,” in a social and cultural sense, probably ran from about 1964 to about 1974, when the bulk of the Baby Boomers were under 18. They (I should say “we”) had a doubly-marked experience: First, Americans born between roughly 1946-48 and 1960-64 grew up in the largest cohort ever (largest until the 2000s, when of course the whole American population was about 50 percent larger); and second, the Boomers grew up in a time of great cultural turmoil. The two facts may well have been connected.

“Talking About My Generation”

It appears, based on a number of social indicators, that Americans – especially the men – born between roughly 1948 and 1960 have had a particularly hard time during their youth, or during their later adulthood, or during both. (I draw here largely from Chapter 6 of Made in America.)

The 1960s are associated, of course, with sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. On the sex part: Premarital sexual activity had been increasing for generations, but probably became commonplace in the 1960s and ’70s. Certainly, public views about premarital sex swung sharply to the liberal side. The surge in rates of premarital sex then leveled off in the 1980s, and teenage sexual intercourse actually declined in the 1990s and 2000s. Similarly, the liberal trend in public opinion about premarital sex leveled off. While neither sexual opinions nor practices have reverted to their pre-‘60s level, the Boomers seemed to have been teens and young adults during a sharp change in behavior and values. Whether one believes that sexual liberation was ultimately for the good or the bad, it is likely that living through a rapid transition of sexual mores and habits was stressful.

As to the drugs: By one estimate, only 2 percent of Americans who were teenagers before 1960 had ever tried marijuana, but about half of teenagers in the 1970s and early ’80s eventually tried it. Use of other drugs also rose during that period, albeit less dramatically. The proportion of Americans who experimented with and the proportion who regularly took drugs seemed to peak around 1980 and then declined. Boomers largely gave up drugs, but in one 1997 survey a fifth reported having at some point had problems with drugs. The next generation used less. Similarly, alcoholism seemed to surge upward in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then decline.

I’ll skip rock-n-roll, but turn to indicators of distress.

Although suicide rates are difficult  to track, it does appear, as the Times stories claim, that Boomers have been distinctively likely to take their lives. (Although the overall American suicide rate did not change much over the 20th century, rates for teen-age boys and young men rose from about mid-century until the mid-1990s and then dropped.)

In survey data on how happy people report themselves being, Boomers are and have been a bit less likely to give upbeat answers than members of earlier or later generations.

In the late 1960s, a huge run-up in serious crime began; it peaked in the 1980s (see this post). The crime was largely the work of Boomer men in their teens and twenties.

Divorce rates rose pretty steadily through American history, with a spurt just after World War II, but they peaked around 1980 – when Boomers were in or just past their twenties –  and then leveled off. The post-Boomer generations appear to be less prone to divorce.**

Each of these indicators – happiness, divorce, suicide, drug use, and so on – is a complex topic in its own right. Also, the differences between Baby Boomers and others in these regards are modest in size. Nonetheless, it appears that the Boomers are somewhat distinct in the stress they experienced and the behavior they expressed.

What Happened?

If the Boomers are different in these ways, why? As I said on top, they experienced a distinctly “crowded” life-course – and will continue to do so as they swell the numbers of the elderly starting next year. And they matured during a distinctive cultural period. The second fact may be a product of the first. That is, one explanation for “The ‘60s” is that the nation was rocked by the coming into adolescence and then early adulthood of so many people at the same time. Their needs, interests, preoccupations, problems and anxieties, just like their musical tastes, shaped the nation.


This is the baseline explanation: the size of the baby boom. The number of babies born in the U.S. rose by about 50 percent within roughly the decade after V-J Day ending World War II. The average American family expanded from about 2.5 to about 3.5 children apiece. Given that relatively few children now died young (see this post), that meant a sharp increase in competition: competition for parents’ attention – the average Boomer grew up with 2.5 siblings, rather than the 1.5 of the prior generation and the 1.0 of the next one, competition for seats in K-12 schools (I can recall going to the morning shift at my high school in the early 1960s and then largely wasting my afternoons), competition for college admissions, competition for the first job, and competition moving up the ladder.

America tried to cope with the crush of numbers. The nation massively expanded housing, built new schools by the thousands, and greatly expanded college capacity. But it was always a catch-up effort into the 1960s.

According, then, to one explanation of the Boomers’ fate, the competition had, in the long run, deleterious social and psychological consequences – especially for boys who were supposed to become the breadwinners.

With the plunge in birth rates starting in the 1960s and then their leveling off after 1980, the post-Boomer generations did not face that level of competition. Indeed, some speculate that these few children, now averaging about two per family, were indulged to the point of generating narcissism.

Social Turmoil

Or: Perhaps it was experiencing the social turmoil of  the “The ‘60s” during adolescence and young adulthood that accounts for the Boomers’ travails.

The ‘60s was an era of national shocks – the Civil Rights movement, major assassinations, the Vietnam War, urban riots, a crime wave  – and of major cultural changes – sexual liberation, women’s empowerment, racial redefinition, lifestyle experimentation, and the like.

And these cultural changes came rapidly. For example, between 1967 and 1976, the percentage of Americans who thought that having three or more children was ideal plunged from 75 to 40 percent (p. 88 here).  Americans’  attitudes toward premarital sex swung sharply in the liberal direction just between 1969 and 1973 (see here [pdf]). So rapid was the change that in 1968 the Supremes could have a hit song, “Love Child,” about the dark shame of being born out of wedlock and then just 7 years later First Lady Betty Ford could describe the possibility of her daughter having a premarital affair as “perfectly normal.”

Some Boomers recall the rapid developments of the ‘60s fondly: Dylan, the Beatles, and Woodstock, sexual breakthroughs, shucking suburban conventions, giving authority the finger by the way we dressed and spoke. For most Boomers, however, the ‘60s were a trying time. In the 1990s, historians funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities conducted a national survey of how Americans thought about American history. They found that Boomers generally looked back on the ‘60s negatively, describing it as an era of crime, mis-government, the loss of moral standards, and the erosion of family life. “Americans told us depressingly consistent stories about a decade that had robbed them of hope” [here: pp. 132-33].

Perhaps, then, the Boomer Blues arose from their misfortune of being the at a susceptible age during a period of unusual cultural change.

Other Accounts

There other possible explanations. Perhaps the Boomer experience is distinct because they were the first generation that had to face a new sort of economy. It pretty much required that anyone who wanted a middle-class life had to get a college degree – or more. More schooling and training delayed the age of settling down; people waited longer to marry and longer to parent. This stretched-out adolescence or “emerging adulthood” (see here and here) creates a distinct lifestyle – extended bachelorhood, for example – and a distinct set of worries – long-range career-planning, for example.

Or perhaps, middle-class Boomers were distinct in being the first generation to fully imbibe the 20th-century “therapeutic” culture, what the authors of Habits of the Heart called “expressive individualism.” Richard Sennett, among others, warned that “Each person’s self has become his principal burden . . . this concern has proven to be a trap rather than a liberation,” a source of continuing distress. Finally, a reader of Made in America wrote to suggest that Boomers were psychologically wounded by the Cold War fears of nuclear Armageddon, fears regularly reinforced by schools’ duck-and-cover drills.


Any one or some combination of these reasons could explain the tendency for members of the Baby Boom to be more susceptible than Americans born before or Americans born after to the “Blues.”  We shouldn’t exaggerate the distinctiveness of the Boomers; it’s a matter of small, if consistent, differences. Still, they seem to carry in their psyches even today  the consequences of sharing a distinctive historical moment, the conjunction of personal biography and social history.

The article above was originally published in Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.



* (1) The first Times story describes these as national statistics, but they are, in fact, drawn from only the 16 states that choose to participate in the National Violent Death Reporting System; (2) the number of states participating has grown over the last four years, making over-time comparisons precarious; and (3) there may be systematic differences between participating and non-participating states. For example, states with concentrations of elderly residents (11 of the top 13 senior citizen states, including Florida) are not in the sample and the elderly have historically been the most likely to commit suicide. See here.

** Properly calculating lifetime propensities of divorcing, adjusted for years “at-risk,” is a complex  matter I leave to others. But a rough-and-dirty look at the General Social Survey, 1972-2008, shows that Boomers were especially divorce prone. Overall, 23% of the GSS respondents born from 1946 through 1964 who had ever been married reported having been divorced at least once, compared to 19% of those born before and 12% of those born after. Controlling for age, the results are similar. For example, among 30-somethings, 21% of ever-married Boomers had been divorced versus 17% of those older and 17% of those younger. Among 40-somethings, 30% of Boomers had divorced, compared to 20% of the older and 15% of the younger generations.