In keeping with a generation's fascination with itself, the time has come to note the passing of another milestone: On New Year's Day, the oldest members of the baby-boom generation will turn 65, the age once linked to retirement, early bird specials and gray Velcro shoes that go with everything.
In keeping with a generation’s fascination with itself, the time has come to note the passing of another milestone: On New Year’s Day, the oldest members of the baby-boom generation will turn 65, the age once linked to retirement, early-bird specials and gray Velcro shoes that go with everything.
Although other generations, from the Greatest to the Millennial, may mutter that it’s time to get over yourselves, this birthday matters. According to the Pew Research Center, for the next 19 years, about 10,000 people “will cross that threshold” every day, and many, whether through exercise or Botox, have no intention of ceding to others what they consider rightfully theirs: youth.
This means that the 79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of the U.S. population, will be redefining what it means to be older and placing greater demands on the social safety net. They are living longer, working longer and, researchers say, nursing some disappointment about how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled and thus are wracked with self-pity.
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So, then, to those who once never trusted anyone older than 30: Raise that bowl of high-fiber granola, antioxidant-rich blueberries and skim milk and give yourself a Happy Birthday toast.
“The stork’s 1946 diaper derby left a controversy today that rocked the cradles from coast to coast,” The Associated Press reported 65 years ago. “The maternal question of the moment was: Who was the first baby born in the new year?”
The news service named several contenders, from a Darleen in Los Angeles to a James in St. Louis, to the infant identified only as “the son of Mr. and Mrs. Aloysius Nachreiner, of Buffalo.”
A sense of entitlement
The Nachreiner boy, along with those other bundles of innocence, were the first of what has come to be known, rather graphically, as the “pig in the python.”
After the travails and absences of the Depression and World War II flattened the birthrate, the promise and prosperity of the postwar years created a sharp rise in births that lasted from 1946 until 1964, when the popularity of birth-control pills helped stem the tide.
Ascribing personality traits to a bloc of 79 million people is a fool’s endeavor. For one thing, people born in 1964 wouldn’t know the once-ubiquitous television hero Sky King if he landed his trusty Songbird on their front lawns, just as people born in 1946 wouldn’t know what to make of one of Sky King’s successors, the hydrocephalic H.R. Pufnstuf.
For another thing, the never-ending celebration of the hippie contingent of boomers tends to overshadow the Young Americans for Freedom contingent. After all, while some boomers were trying to “levitate” the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, other boomers were fighting in that war.
Steven Gillon, author of “Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America,” warns against generalizing about baby boomers, especially when it concerns politics.
Still, he says, the boomer generation, of which he is a member, clearly changed our world. Here’s a simple generalization of how:
Previous generations were raised to speak only when spoken to and to endure in self-denying silence. Baby boomers were raised on the more nurturing, child-as-individual teachings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and then placed under the spell of television, whose advertisers marketed their wares directly to children. Parents were cut out of the sale, except for the purchase of that coonskin cap or Barbie doll.
“It created a sense of entitlement that had not existed before,” Gillon said. “We became more concerned with our own emotional well-being, whereas to older generations that was considered soft and fluffy.”
The boomers may not have created rock ‘n’ roll, but they capitalized on its potential to revolt against parents. And they may not have led the civil-rights movement, but they embraced it — at least, many did — and applied its principles to fighting for the rights of women and gay men and lesbians. They came to expect, even demand, freedom of choice; and options in life.
About 13 percent of the population today is 65 or older; by 2030, when the last of the baby boomers turn 65, that rate will have grown to 18 percent. In addition to testing the sustainability of entitlement programs such as Social Security, this redefinition of old age also may include a pervading sense that life has been what technically might be called a “bummer.”
A study by two sociologists, Julie Phillips of Rutgers University and Ellen Idler of Emory University, indicates that the suicide rate for middle-age people, notably baby boomers without college degrees, rose from 1999 to 2005. Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Center, summed up a recent survey of his generation this way:
“We’re pretty glum.”
This gloominess appears to be linked to the struggling economy, the demands of middle age and a general sense of lofty goals not met by the generation that once sang of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony and then buying it a Coke.
No one person can represent all 79 million members of a generation. But perhaps one person can remind us of the small epiphanies and private pains that define all generations.
Remember the son of Mr. and Mrs. Aloysius Nachreiner, the first baby born in Buffalo in 1946, thus making him one of the country’s first baby boomers? Well, his parents named him Aloysius, too, although he often was called Butch.
His father was a bagger at a feed mill; his mother raised their three children in the first floor of a rented duplex. When he was 5 years old, he was blinded in his left eye during a snowball fight with his friend Billy. He liked watching Roy Rogers and Howdy Doody on the family’s round, black-and-white television, and he rooted hard for Mickey Mantle.
Al, or Butch, graduated from a vocational school with plans to become an auto mechanic, but that never happened. He wound up making his career as a setup man and press operator for a folding-box company.
He married an older woman, Alice, a widow with seven children. They had two daughters, but one died of crib death. They bought a house in a Buffalo neighborhood nicknamed “Iron Island” because it was surrounded by railroad tracks. He played fast-pitch softball for many years, pitching for who knows how many bars and taverns, but gave it up a few years ago because his knees would hurt for days after a game.
Two years ago, two days after their 40th wedding anniversary, his Alice died, after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. She left him with two dozen grandchildren and a half-dozen or so great-grandchildren.
“As long as they all don’t come over at once, it’s all right,” he said, laughing.
Nachreiner still works, making boxes from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., five days a week. In his free time, he roots for the hapless Buffalo Bills, uses his computer — “though I’m not very good at it” — and, when not visiting relatives, relaxes at home with his Jack Russell terrier, Trixie, where a portrait of Elvis Presley — whom his Alice loved — hangs on the wall.
He does not devote much time to pondering the traits of his generation, or his status as an early baby boomer or that, come Saturday, he will turn 65. What he says of it all is what all those baby boomers behind him hope to say one day:
“I made it.”
Jack Begg of The New York Times contributed research.