Jerry Benston is in his mid-50s, African- American, and a baby
boomer. While in college in Oshkosh, Wis., in 1968, he participated
in a protest to make his university more culturally diverse. He
counts himself among those boomers who helped to raise awareness
about important social issues of the day.
But almost 40 years later, he points to advertising and other
media aimed at boomers that often include only a token black - which
to him is not an accurate reflection of people born between 1946 and
"It's better today than it was, say, 15 years ago," says Mr.
Benston. "But ... it seems to me there could be a lot more room for
Much is made of the similarities among boomers - that they were
the first generation to grow up with television, that many of them
lived through the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. Finding out
what events they share is as easy as opening a history book. But
what distinguishes them from one another is not always apparent from
their public image.
Researchers and advocates are trying to correct that, to combat
generalizations that depict the 77 million-strong group as all
retirees, or suburbanites, or Woodstock groupies. Understanding
boomer diversity across age, ethnic, and economic lines is
necessary, they say, for accurately assessing the needs and actions
of the members of the group.
"The harm [in overgeneralizing] comes from a policy standpoint,"
says Mary Elizabeth Hughes, a professor at Duke University and
coauthor of a recent analysis of boomer lives, including their
diversity. "[Our report shows] the income inequality, or the wealth
inequality in the boomers. And that suggests that some boomers are
going to be very well off in retirement, and other boomers are going
to be really struggling."
The media often lump boomers into one big homogeneous category,
the report notes, including suggesting that they all have similar
upbringings, are well-educated, affluent, or are married with
Professor Hughes and others argue that thinking of the boomers in
too-general terms could produce retirement policies that affect some
boomers adversely. Stereotypes also mask the reality about the
group, whose diversity reflects that of society, they say.
"I don't think that's a message that can be overemphasized," says
Sarah Zapolsky, senior research adviser at AARP, which frequently
researches boomer differences.
She is often put off by those who talk about the "tsunami" of
boomers heading for retirement. "They made it sound like 77 million
people are all going to retire in one day.... That's the clearest
example of where the fallacy of thinking of the boomers as one unit
An obvious example of diversity among the boomers is their age
range, which spans 19 years and means that while some boomers are
grandparents, others are still getting kids into preschool. Some
female boomers go to a website, Boomer WomenSpeak.com, to discuss
their varied experiences.
"Just like any other generation, we've had different experiences
based on the choices we've made," says the site's founder, Dotsie
Bregel. "While there were plenty of [women] who climbed the
corporate ladder, there were also women who chose to stay at home."
Marketers are already honing their pitches to try to reach
particular segments of the boomers - such as those in their late 40s
and early 50s whose kids are leaving the nest. But some findings in
the Duke report, which is based on census data from 2000 and
earlier, suggest more fine-tuning across cultural lines may be
needed. Significant numbers of immigrants have joined the boomers,
the analysis shows: Immigrants now make up 12 percent of early
boomers (those born between 1946 and 1955) and 15 percent of late
boomers (1956 to 1964).
While technically not part of the post-World War II baby boom in
America, immigrants are nonetheless significant, argues Hughes. …