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The Glummest Generation

Pew finds that baby boomers are gloomier than Americans older and younger than they are.
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They challenged assumptions, altered societal attitudes and, in many ways, still control the national agenda. (Otherwise, our political candidates wouldn't still be fighting the Vietnam War.) But according to a just-published paper by the Pew Social and Demographic Trends Project, the baby boomers have the blues.

A new analysis of survey data collected earlier this year concludes that boomers — that is, the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — "give their overall quality of life a lower rating than adults in other generations." They also tend to be more pessimistic about the future than older and younger adults and more worried about their personal financial situation.

This downbeat demeanor can be partially explained by the fact baby boomers are now well into middle age — a time of increased pressures, financial and otherwise. D'Vera Cohn, the report's author and a baby boomer herself, has seen this phenomenon firsthand.

"I'm just back from my 35th college reunion, where I saw a lot of people who are struggling with life issues such as aging parents, problems with children and career transitions — not all of them voluntary," she said.

On the other hand, the data she examined suggested boomers were already gloomier than members of other generations 20 years ago, back when they were in their mid-20s to mid-40s.

"I don't want to overstate this, but there is some suggestion that this quality-of-life trough might be a baby boomer phenomenon," she said. "There is other evidence out there supporting this notion.

"TheMcKinsey Quarterly reported earlier this year that a high number of baby boomers are frustrated that they are not living the life they expected to. Another study from the University of Chicago suggests baby boomers are unhappier on average than other generations."

The Pew Project paper confirms those findings. The 2,413 adults who were surveyed were asked to rate their present life on a scale of zero to 10. Boomers — that is, those from age 43 to 62 — gave their lives an average rating of 6.2. Older adults averaged 6.7, while younger ones averaged 6.5.

Asked how your standard of living compares with that of your parents, 60 percent of baby boomers said theirs was better, compared with 69 percent of older adults and 67 percent of younger ones. That low number is something of a surprise, given that we take for granted technological conveniences our parents couldn't dream of.

Then again, "How do you define standard of living?" Cohn asked. "We didn't ask people to go into detail. They might be thinking you could live on one income in those days."

Asked if it is easier or more difficult for people to get ahead today compared to 10 years ago, 66 percent of boomers said it was more difficult, compared with 58 percent of older Americans and 55 percent of those younger. Boomers were also more likely to say it is more difficult for members of the middle class to maintain their standard of living than it was five years ago, and they were more likely to predict their income won't keep up with the cost of living over the next year.

To some extent, these answers suggest boomers are simply better informed than their parents and children. Numerous studies, including one from the Federal Reserve, have found that wages have not kept up with inflation this decade. And the boomers' belief that "the rich get richer these days while the poor get poorer" is an accurate reflection of Census Bureau statistics.

Nevertheless, it appears baby boomers are more willing to accept these tough truths, along with the uneasiness they inspire. So how did the Age of Aquarius turn into the Age of Anxiety?

Cohn has no definitive answers, but she has pondered a number of theories. One, by University of Chicago sociologist Yang Yang, notes that the huge size of the baby boom generation created greater competition for everything from university admissions to good jobs. It stands to reason that a higher level of competitiveness would lead to greater stress.

Then there is the contrast between the experiences of the boomer generation with that of their parents, most of whom were born during the Depression. Cohn noted that if you grew up in a time of widespread poverty and dislocation — followed by war — things probably seem pretty good today. In contrast, if you came of age in a time of prosperity, your expectations may be higher and more difficult to meet.

Of course, once the war ended and the economy got back into gear, the World War II generation enjoyed a time of remarkable stability. The social structure was pretty well set, with gender roles rigidly defined. Employees often stayed with the same company their entire lives — something that is increasingly rare today.

With "the gigantic upheaval in society" that occurred in the 1960s, all of that changed, Cohn said. This new reality arguably produced more freedom and greater opportunities, but it also meant more risks.

Unlike their fathers, baby boomers — by design or necessity — often change jobs, or even careers, a number of times through their lives. For the generation that follows, that feeling of perpetual flux is a given, factored into their expectations. For boomers, who compare their lives to that of their parents, it may be a tougher reality to swallow.

"I think the baby boomers may be the transitional generation between the stable lives of their parents and the acceptance among young people that your career path is going to be bumpy," Cohn said.

"One of the broad points one could make about the baby-boom generation is it grew up, and continues to live, in a period of great social change. The boomers have exemplified that change and been bumped along by it."

The aforementioned University of Chicago study noted that, in surveys dating back to the early 1970s, people have reported feeling happier as they enter old age. Perhaps the boomers will fall into this pattern, and a feeling of acceptance will eventually kick in. After all, it was Mick Jagger who proclaimed — in a song sure to be blasted down the halls of nursing homes for decades to come — "You Can't Always Get What You Want."