DEBUNKING THE BABY BOOM MYTH
On May 1, 1945, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany's minister of misinformation, committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin, one day after his fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, had done the same. Unfortunately, the propaganda technique he pioneered - the "Big Lie" - did not die with him. For proof of that sad fact, one need look no further than the constant media characterization of all Americans born from 1946 through 1964 as "Baby Boomers."
In 1964, the number of live births in the United States exceeded four million for the last time until 1989. An analysis of birth rates, however, reveals a striking pattern: Between 1952 and 1957, the birth rate remained within a very narrow range, from 25.0 to 25.3 births per 1,000 population each year; but in 1958 it fell to 24.5, setting off a trend that saw birth rates decline for eleven consecutive years - the longest uninterrupted slide in the 20th century. Those born from 1958 through 1964 (and also 1965 through 1968) are therefore "Baby Busters," not "Boomers."
Perhaps with this demographic data in mind, Douglas Coupland's 1991 bestseller Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture was dedicated to "the generation born in the late 1950s and 1960s." The basic premise of the book is to reject any notion of a "Boomer" identity among those born during these years; its pages veritably teem with disparaging references toward the target audience's immediate elders, with "yuppies" being singled out for particularly abusive treatment. Yet the "Big Lie" endures: Mention "Generation X" to almost anyone in America these days, and it will invariably be construed as encompassing only those born from 1965 onward (with no general agreement as to the group's last birth year).
Improving upon Coupland's approximation (and once again focusing on birth rates rather than the number of live births), the first birth year of his "generation" can be conclusively identified by carefully examining the collective personas of notable individuals born in two adjoining years: 1957 and 1958.
During the latter year were born the first deformed babies of the transatlantic thalidomide scare - along with a vastly inordinate number of the most cynical, picaresque, and controversial figures of past several decades, including : Jack Abramoff, Madonna, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Howe, Michael Jackson, Ice-T, the artist formerly known as Prince, and Keenan Ivory Wayans. The contrast between this aggregation and the progeny of 1957 - containing as it does the likes of Katie Couric, Andrew Cuomo, Matt Lauer, Spike Lee, Kevin McHale, Donny Osmond, J.C. Watts, and Vanna White - could scarcely be starker.
But why such a dramatic change in the space of a single year?
Kindergartners of the Profumo scandal and JFK assassination, sixth-graders of Kent State and the ensuing "Days of Rage," high-school sophomores of Watergate and the Arab oil embargo (reaching the minimum age in most states for obtaining a provisional driver's license amid "odd-even" rationing and long gas lines), and college seniors of the Iran hostage standoff and its concomitant recession (the nation's deepest economic slump since the 1930s), the children who came into the world in 1958 were denied any memory of a time when the civic institutions of Western Society truly worked as intended - yet were also deprived of the very real sense of catharsis that the anti-Vietnam War and nascent environmentalist movements provided those who were in their teens and twenties when the youth revolt reached maximum fury. In short, those born in that year just missed many social incidents that true boomers made and just made other events the boomers missed, erecting a chronological wall separating them from anyone older.
To compensate the boomers for the loss of nearly 30 million members that results from this redrawing of the generational map, it must be pointed out that the characteristics most often attributed to their generation can be observed in persons born several years prior to 1946 - indeed, a far back as 1940, where one can locate the birth of Ira Einhorn, Bobby Knight, Frank Zappa, and jailed mob boss John Gotti. The following year produced Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Jesse Jackson, and Pete Rose; the year after that Muhammad Ali, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix, and Ted Kaczynski. Under no circumstances can even one of these people be placed among the other-directed, go-along-to-get-along members of the "Silent Generation," as the boomers' predecessors are most commonly known. (Here too, birth rates reveal an interesting pattern: From 1940 through 1943, the birth rate went up four years in a row for the first time since at least the beginning of the 19th century; following a temporary interruption in 1944 and 1945 due to the wartime absence of would-be fathers, the "baby boom" merely picked up where it left off after World War II ended.)
All of the foregoing constitutes incontrovertible evidence as to the actual birth-year parameters of the three generations to which well over half of all living Americans belong: Baby Boomers, born 1940 through 1957: Baby Busters, born 1958 through 1968; and Post-Busters (to whom the media have transferred the label "Generation X"), born 1969 through 1980 (the first "Reagan babies" of 1981 marking the start of the next generation).
But will it ever catch on? Probably not. Joseph Goebbels must be laughing in his grave.