Introduction: The Aging of the Baby Boom

Article excerpt

It seems entirely fitting that la journal named Generations should have an issue devoted to "The Baby Boom at Midlife and Beyond." Although authors in the popular press have made many pronouncements about how the aging of the baby boom will affect our nation, only a few gerontologists (e.g., Cornman and Kingson, 1996) have taken up this topic. This collection of artides is a step toward increasing the involvement of gerontologists and other students of aging in these discussions.

These articles consider a wide range of topics-indeed, the authors were charged with thinking broadly and even speculatively. The goal is thus not only to bring more scholars into this field but also to broaden the range of topics that we connect with the aging of the baby boom. To date, most of our thinking has concentrated on issues related to either demography or social policy. This concentration is understandable. On the one hand, the baby boom itself is a demographic phenomenon, so it makes perfect sense to study it in those terms. On the other hand, the large number of baby boomers will have a potentially ominous impact in such key policy arenas as pensions and healthcare. These are important topics, and they are both covered in the articles that follow, but the present agenda also goes much further.

A glance at the table of contents of this issue demonstrates the extent of the concerns that are connected to the aging of the baby boom: work, retirement, migration, health, family, politics, and even friendship. Rather than try to touch on each of these subjects, this introduction will concentrate on two overarching themes that appear in many of the separate articles. The first theme is a consistent emphasis on the importance of generations. Although it is the sheer size of the baby boom that captures our attention, focusing on this particular birth cohort also points to the importance of generations as a theme in aging. The second theme is our efforts to predict the future of our aging society. Knowing how many baby boomers there are and when they will reach any given age provides a certain amount of foresight, but just how much can we see in our crystal ball?

THE IMPORTANCE OF GENERATIONS

Despite this issue's apparent emphasis on the baby boom as a single generation, even a casual glance at the actual articles will reveal the attention that they pay to generations, plural. The literal title of this journal is thus well served by these articles. The ability to define a generation depends on making comparisons across multiple generations. When we slice out a particular set of birth cohorts, such as the baby boom, and label them a generation, this requires us to locate "watersheds"-those events and patterns that mark this generation as distinctively dit ferent from the ones that precede and follow it.

No one generation stands alone. We only sense the existence of a generation by comparing it to those who went before and came after. In the case of the baby boom, these comparisons have been quite explicit. Several of the authors refer to this generation's desire to distinguish themselves from their parents, especially during the I96os. Similarly, we already have a name, "generation x;' for the younger age group, which is thought to be just as different from the baby boomers as the boomers are from the older generation.

Many of the articles in this collection pursue comparisons between the baby boom and other generations. Most often, this comparison involves older generations, since "generation x" is still too young to have produced much relevant data on work patterns or fertility history, let alone retirement plans. Further, as gerontologists we are naturally attuned to how the baby boomers, once they reach old age, will compare to the generations who currently make up the elderly population. Two particularly interesting comparisons between the baby boom and other generations involve retirement and politics. …