Political Activism and the Aging of the Baby Boom

By Williamson, John B. | Generations, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Political Activism and the Aging of the Baby Boom


Williamson, John B., Generations


Will there be an increase in the level of political activism among the elderly when the baby boomers retire? If so, what forms will this activism take? Will there be an increase in the confrontational activism of the i96os, or will boomer activism take more passive forms? The goal of this article is to address these questions and offer observations about some of the factors likely to shape the direction of political activism among boomers as they move from midlife to late life.

Many analysts have made arguments consistent with Karl Mannheim's (I952) suggestion that the world view of each generation is in large measure shaped by events unique to the period during which it comes of age. In the present context, the argument is that the confrontational activism of the boomers during the I96os and early I9,os is likely to show up again when the boomers reach old age.

A variant of this view, leading to a somewhat different conclusion, is that the boomer generation is made up of two minigenerations, a younger group born between I955 and I964 and an older group born between1946and I954. The political and economic experiences of these two groups have been different (Bouvier and De Vita, I99I). The older boomers have economically benefited from better timing with respect to when they entered both the housing market and the job market (Cornman and Kingson, I996). The economic consequences of these differences will persist into old age, leading to a cumulative disadvantage for the younger group and increasing inequality between the two segments of the boomer generation (Light, I988; O'Rand, I996). The resulting inequality will influence the level, form, and goals of political acti,ism for each group, making generalizations about the boomers as a whole suspect.

Yet another view is that over the 40-to-Soyear period from young adulthood to old age, a number of events typically take place that all but erase any long-term impact that activism in early life has on activism in late life. This view agrees that some boomers will persist as activists throughout life, but asserts that, at least in the aggregate, levels of activism during the I96os are of little use in forecasting the level of activism when boomers retire. WILL ACTIVISM INCREASE?

Those arguing that there may be little if any increase in activism with the retirement of the boomers point out that even during the I96os activism was not as pervasive as suggested by many retrospective television and film portrayals of the era. While there were many mass demonstrations, most of those involved were college students. A majority of boomers were not in college, and most college students were not activists. Many who attended a few demonstrations had far too casual an involvement to be described as activists. While there may be some disagreement as to how activist the boomer cohort was during the I96os, there is general agreement that the level has greatly diminished since then. Given the low level of activism at midlife, questions can be raised about any predicted upsurge in activism as the boomers move into old age. However, there are reasons to believe that there may be at least some increase in the level of senior activism with the aging of the boomers. Even if there were no increase in the proportion of the elderly population politically active, there would be reason to expect an increase in the amount of activism on demographic grounds alone. The elderly boomers will make up a substantially larger share of the population than do today's elderly

Some analysts do, however, have a different take on this projected demographic change. Drawing on the work of economists such as Mancur Olson, they argue that as the size of the elderly population increases, the proportion who make the effort to be politically active will decline (McKenzie, I993). Why? As the size of an interest group increases, it tends to become more heterogeneous and more difficult to mobilize for collective action. …

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