The Explosion Heard Round the World ; the 76 Million Baby Boomers in America Have Remade Family, Faith, Business, and Retirement

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Ever since Americans began nesting big-time after World War II, welcoming a new baby every eight seconds, baby boomers have commanded headlines and spotlights.

Yet who could have imagined then, except in the most theoretical way, what a profound influence these 76 million offspring, born between 1946 and 1964, would have on society? Historian Steven Gillon calls it "the single greatest demographic event in American history."

As he explains in his fascinating "Boomer Nation," Americans have "grossly misunderstood" the ways in which baby boomers have changed the tone and character of modern life. Today, he notes, "boomer culture is American culture."

Baby boomers specialized in firsts: They were the first generation to spend their formative years in front of television. The first to grow up in the suburbs. And the first to go to college in large numbers, becoming the best-educated and wealthiest group ever.

Unlike their parents, whose lives revolved around sacrifice and self-denial, boomers honed an ethic of self-fulfillment and personal freedom. Gillon, a host on the History Channel, calls them "the most self-involved, self-aware generation" ever.

As boomers made their energetic, sometimes raucous way through the 1960s - all that sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll - they revamped relationships and rewrote the rules of marriage.

By the end of the 1970s, Gillon explains, three-quarters of the group said they preferred an "equal marriage." Only 10 percent wanted a traditional marriage, with clearly defined male and female roles.

But all that freedom and change brought sobering consequences. Boomers are five times as likely to be divorced as their parents. Their struggles with parenthood also inspired a national debate about "family values." Once famously liberal, they turned conservative when it was time to worry about their own children.

They also returned to religion, though often on their own terms. As Gillon writes, "Many congregations multiplied their membership by going light on theology and offering worshipers a steady diet of sermons and support groups that emphasized personal fulfillment."

Boomers rewrote the script in Hollywood, too, as young directors replaced the old guard and produced films and TV shows appealing to younger audiences. From "Laugh-In" to"Saturday Night Live," they spurred seismic shifts in popular culture.

With Bill Clinton's election to the most powerful office in the world, the boomers won the ultimate prize. …

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