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Obama: boomer or post-boomer?

Posted by Joshua Glenn  December 20, 2007 08:48 AM

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Last week, the Boston Globe published a letter from a reader who objected to a sentence in the editorial board's endorsement of Barack Obama. The 46-year-old Illinois senator was described as being, potentially, "the first post-baby-boom president." But since Obama was born in 1961, isn't he a boomer?

Here's an excerpt from the letter:

Once again, those of us born too late to enjoy the tumult and changes and vigor of the 1960s and early '70s -- those born in the second half of the boom -- are statistically and socially neglected. Sociologists don't know where to place us; historians neglect us; cultural critics focus on the other boomers and those born in Generations X and Y. Now, a major newspaper cannot even get our era right. The boom was from 1946 to 1964. Obama is a baby boomer, as am I, born in 1958.

It's a tricky question, one that goes to the heart of a recent, ongoing, and sometimes heated debate. Where do you draw the line between those Americans who came of age during the Vietnam War era and their immediate juniors, who had dramatically different formative experiences? More generally, are generations discovered or invented? Is identifying and naming a generation a science or an art?

Will baby boomers lose their grip in '08?

At least one pundit insists that the answer to such questions is vital. Andrew Sullivan, a conservative senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly, claims in the current issue that a crippling "civil war" has prevailed in America since the late 1960s. Despite the ferocious political rhetoric of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, the nation's internal struggle isn't really over healthcare, abortion, gay marriage, terrorism, or Iraq, Sullivan claims. It's a "fight over how we define ourselves" -- i.e., in relation to the social and cultural upheavals of the Sixties. This deep, bitter divide can be traced to boomers "who fought in Vietnam and those who didn't, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all." *

According to Sullivan, the boomer-driven civil war was crystallized with the election of Clinton -- a draft-dodging, pot-smoking moderate conservative who tried, unsuccessfully, to have it both ways. The election of 2000 made matters worse: "Gore and Bush were almost designed to reflect the Boomers' and the country's divide, which deepened further." Obama to the rescue! Though he was born during the spike in US birth rates -- from 1946 to 1964 -- known as the baby boom, Sullivan insists that the senator "is not of it." In fact, Obama's mother is a boomer, only five years older than Hillary Clinton; and Obama himself says the Civil Rights and antiwar movements "sort of passed me by."

Demographics alone do not a generation make. A generation ought to be thought of as an algorithm, which is composed not only of input integers (birthdate) but input symbols (social, cultural, and economic formative experiences). Obama isn't a boomer. Q.E.D. **

"I was too young for the formative period of the Sixties"

Is Obama a "post-boomer," then? Yes, but that's not an informative moniker. In the interest of journalistic exactitude, not to mention ending our civil war, here's my own theory of American generations: each generation spans 10 years, from a "4" year to the next "3" year. For example: The vaunted Greatest Generation New Gods Generation, which fought World War II, then rebuilt the nation's industries, was born between 1914 and 1923. (George H.W. Bush, born in '24 but at 18 the youngest naval aviator in US history to that date, is an honorary member.) The postmodern and Anti-Anti-Utopian Generations (frequently lumped together and mislabeled the Silent Generation) followed, then the Boomers were born between '44 and '53.

So what to call those Americans, including Obama and Oprah, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Jerry Seinfeld , Ellen DeGeneres, and the Brat Pack, born between '54 and '63? The cultural historian Jonathan Pontell has suggested the handle "Generation Jones," but I prefer to employ a phrase popularized by two post-boomers: punk musician Billy Idol ('55) and novelist Douglas Coupland ('61). If for no other reason than to free my own generation (1964-73) of the label, let's call them... Generation X.

The original Xer?


1884-93: Lost Generation The New Kids
1894-1903: Lost Generation Hardboiled Generation
1904-13: The Greatest Generation Partisans
1914-23: The Greatest Generation The New Gods
1924-33: The Silent Generation Postmodernist Generation
1934-43: The Silent Generation Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation
1944-53: Baby Boomers
1954-63: Baby Boomers OGX (Original Generation X)
1964-73: Generation X PC Generation
1974-83: Generations X/Y Net Generation
1984-93: Millennials
1994-2003: Millennials TBA

Please credit Brainiac/Joshua Glenn whenever you use this guide. Got a beef with my periodization, or different generational name suggestions? Leave a comment on this post or email me. Born between 1954 and 1993 and still unsure about whether you're a Boomer, Xer, Yer, or Millennial? Here's a handy guide.


* Sullivan should have included a didn't-fight-but-didn't-dissent category, since both Rudy Giuliani (b. 1944) and the current president (b. 1946) avoided serving in Vietnam.

** The Globe was way ahead of Sullivan on this point, actually. Back in February, Peter Canellos, the paper's Washington bureau chief, argued that "much of what's striking about Obama's campaign ... can be better read in generational, rather than racial, terms." I applauded Canellos's perceptivity in a series of Brainiac posts.

Like Sullivan would do 10 months later, Canellos pointed out that although Obama is "technically a baby boomer, one of the last of the breed," his cultural "touchstones" are markedly different from the boomers'. "Just what these touchstones comprise in political values and impulses is still undefined," he acknowledged, "partly because so few politicians born after the first years of the baby boom have been on the national stage." That said, Canellos (who is a post-boomer himself) went on to suggest that post-boomers are post-ideological -- they're no longer interested in fighting the culture wars. Post-boomers sense that Americans aren't really as divided -- on questions of race, religion, and sex, for example -- as boomers would have us believe.

Sullivan (who is the same age as Canellos) feels exactly the same way. He concludes:

At a time when America's estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind's spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable. We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.

A ringing endorsement. (The Globe's Ellen Goodman doesn't buy it.) Generation Jones, or X, or Obama -- whatever tag those of us in the media end up saddling you with -- this may be your moment in the limelight!

MORE FROM BRAINIAC: Generation Obama Jones | Generation Obama politicians | Generation Obama comedians | Generation Obama mailbag | Generation Obama: Music | Generation Obama sports stars | Generation Obama vs. the Boomers

UPDATE: I like what one blogger wrote in response to this Brainiac post about Obama: "If I allow myself to think of Obama, who is technically a little too old, as my generation, then I have to admit, his 'change' message feels substantial to me. Whereas if I think of him as just another boomer politician, it rings hollow."

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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20 comments so far...
  1. "Sullivan includes Rudy Giuliani (b. 1944) and the current president (b. 1946) in this category, which is ironic, since both of them avoided serving in Vietnam"

    Kevin Drum attributes to Mr. Sullivan an irrational (or at least inexplicable) enmity of the Clintons which might go some of the way to elucidate this classification as a further alienation of the Clinton era.

    Posted by jhm December 21, 07 09:13 AM
  1. Baby Boomers starts too early here -- the whole point was coming back from the war and reproducing, you can't start that until 1946 at the earliest -- unless you were a farmer, maybe. The unnamed generation betwixt the Baby Boomers and Gen X may have named/inspired X but they weren't it -- plus they're lame enough that they don't get a name -- you need to have Y next to (and later -- Y shouldn't have the Cold War as a formative experience, they might remember the fall of the Berlin Wall but they weren't formed by it; maybe 1979-1985. The one after that the Earnest Generation) X or else it has to be an unnamed generation as well, it only got a name on X's heels. Millennials is too dumb unless the world ends up ending REALLY soon; maybe they're the 9/11 generation -- too young to remember when things seemed so great in the '90s.

    Posted by Tom December 21, 07 12:16 PM
  1. No, it doesn't work to start the Boomer generation back in '44. The baby boom was a palpable event -- in my elementary school, there was one first-grade classroom in 1951-52, and three in 1952-53.

    There was also a big difference between being in college '62-'66 and being there in the late '60s -- not many drugs, not many protests, except (on both counts) in Calfornia; dress requirements and parietal hours; etc.

    I think an adjustment at the other end is useful, though.

    Posted by Andre Mayer December 21, 07 12:17 PM
  1. I was born in 1961, and I'm definitely not a Baby Boomer. Your generational dividing lines seem off to me. Historical cohorts don't always come in evenly chunked batches.

    It seems to me that the defining elements of my generation (whatever we call it) are:

    We were children during the defining events of the sixties -- that is, not participants. It was what happened on TV.

    We came of age in the early seventies which meant feminism and environmentalism were accepted already as cultural norms. We were raised with these principles.

    No drug hysteria when we were growing up. Ready access to pot. (see: Dazed and Confused). Most of my friends went through their pot-head years in middle school/ junior high.

    Pre-AIDS for adolesence: This one is key, I think. It was normal and acceptable to have pre-marital sex with minimal consequence during our teen years.

    No war or even threat of war during our twenties.

    We entered college with the legacy of low-consequence sex and easy drugs from the Boomers, and exited college into the Reagan era.

    We got totally screwed on college loans. If you took out the maximum college loans in the early seventies, inflation alone made paying them off easy. Also there was very little enforcement for loan repayment. We took out the maximum loans just as Reagan economics pushed back against inflation. Good for the economy, but much harder to pay off. This happened simultaneously with cutbacks in financial aid and tuition fees rising well ahead of inflation.

    My generation is the DIY generation. We weren't first wave of punk, but we created the hardcore punk touring/distribution network. My generation was unfinanced so we found cheap ways to do everything: comics, zines, films. Hip hop culture -- up from the streets, mixed tapes sold out of the back the car. That's my generation.

    I think we're the DIY generation. Maybe the cassette generation.

    Posted by David Smay December 21, 07 01:31 PM
  1. Thanks, commenters -- and to everyone who has emailed (a couple dozen readers) so far. I will have to do a follow-up post where I admit that I don't really think *any* generational periodization can hold up to close scrutiny. My periodization is a straight-faced sendup... and yet, I kinda think I'm right, too.

    JHM -- Sullivan is definitely a conservative, as I mention. No doubt about it. (However, he offers a ringing endorsement of Obama in the Atlantic Monthly; I think he sees Obama's supposed post-ideological mindset as un-liberal, if not illiberal.) Anyway, his point is that Bush and Giuliani are anti-Sixties Boomers; while Gore and the Clintons are perceived by Americans as pro-Sixties, no matter how moderate or conservative they might actually be when it comes to policy making.

    Tom -- et tu, Brute? You're supposed to get my back. Listen, I'm not talking about when the baby boom starts, but when the Baby Boomer generation starts; the two overlap -- my theory would be preposterous if they didn't -- but not perfectly. Is it so unreasonable to believe that people born in 1944 share the same formative experiences and cultural touchstones as people born in 1946 or 1948? As for the post-Boomers (1954-63), considering the fact that two of their number popularized the phrase Generation X, either they should be saddled with the moniker or nobody should. You're right about Generation Y -- I'm now calling them the Internet Generation (not original), but Earnest works pretty well. Could call them the OK Soda generation, after another satirical-yet-convincing theory of mine, published years ago in the Baffler. The Millennials got that tag -- from Howe and Strauss, about whom I need to write something -- because they graduated high school around the year 2000. I'm happy to accept new monikers for them -- the Facebook Generation? Networkers?

    Andre -- see my note to Tom about baby boom vs. Baby Boomers. Also, I'm only shifting the start date by two years, is that so outlandish? It's impossible to imagine that Angela Davis, Jonathan Demme, Sly Stone, Jack Casady, George Lucas, Patti LaBelle, Frank Oz, Paul Wellstone, Michael Douglas, Lorne Michaels (all born in 1944), Stephen Stills, Tom Selleck, Rob Reiner, Micky Dolenz, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Carly Simon, Debbie Harry, Steve Martin, Henry Winkler, and Neil Young (1945; OK, Young is Canadian) are Boomers? They seem to hail from an entirely different generation than Diane Keaton, Naomi Judd, Dolly Parton, David Lynch, Peter Wolf, Liza Minnelli, Candice Bergen, Cher, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Sylvester Stallone, Linda Ronstadt, Danny Glover, Bill Clinton, Tommy Lee Jones, Susan Sarandon, Pat Sajak, Gram Parsons, Patty Duke, Steven Spielberg, Jimmy Buffett, and Patti Smith (all 1946)?

    David -- et tu? Listen, I'm *not* saying that you are a Boomer, although demographers would. I'm saying that you are a post-Boomer/Xer/whatever. DIY, sure, I'll accept that as a better generational handle than Xers; I certainly learned about DIY from people half a decade or so older than me (I was born in '67.) As for your most critical point -- that cohorts don't come in neat batches -- you are, of course, absolutely correct. There is no generational periodization that's airtight. What I find charming/amusing/provocative about my own periodization is that its strict formalism -- all those 3s and 4s -- makes mockery of those pop demographers (Howe and Strauss, for example) who pretend that what they're doing is somehow an exact science. Yet I also half-believe my periodization; enough so, anyway, to defend it.

    Posted by Joshua Glenn December 21, 07 07:25 PM
  1. I was born in '65. A good friend was born in '64. We share most of the same values. However, under your analysis, he's a Boomer and I'm a "post-boomer", or Gen-Xer. According to your meaningless post, we should be at war with each other.

    Posted by John December 25, 07 02:22 PM
  1. John, like at least one other commenter, you have somehow misread my (easy-to-read) chart. In fact, you and your friend are both members of my own (temporarily unnamed) generation, 1964-73. Hooray! The fact that you two share the same values proves that I was right all along, don'tcha think? Don'tcha?

    Anyway, even if your friend had been born in '63, making him a post-Boomer/Gen Xer, I'm pretty sure that people born on the cusp of a generation (a "3" or "4" year, according to my theory) are torn between two generational worldviews. When I'm a famous pop demographer, I'll write a monograph about Cuspies.

    Finally, though many post-Boomers are eager to dissociate themselves from the Boomers, I never suggested that each generation is at war with the others. Now, that would be an exciting theory.

    Posted by Joshua Glenn December 26, 07 03:06 PM
  1. First of all, a generation is 20 years-- so why is it 10 here? But it is true that the 'baby boomers' were a much smaller group than is now being thought of-- the traditional thinking was that boomers were born between 1945 and 1952, not 1964. The new date is more of a marketing thing-- a 1964 kid has little in common with a 1945 one. But the article is still pretty ridiculous.

    Posted by Jim Carlile January 2, 08 02:44 AM
  1. I was born in 1961, so here's another take on generation definitions:
    1945-1955: Good Boomers--Hippies who were friendly, kind, listened to little kids
    1956-1960: Bad Boomers--Yuppie Scums who stood us up on dates, took our jobs away, ignored their poorer younger colleagues
    Many born between 1956-1960 were associated with crime, antisocial behavior, substance abuse, and notorious sex scandals. But every generation has its exceptions, like our current President...

    Posted by Betty January 2, 08 10:42 PM
  1. Jim, why is it "ridiculous" to suggest that a generation can emerge every 10 years, instead of every 20? Is it super-ridiculous, then, to argue -- as you do -- that the boomers were born over an 8-year period? The problem is that we've all been told that identifying generations is a science (a branch of sociology, perhaps), and that the generational schemes that have been proposed by the so-called experts are therefore airtight. But when we really think about it -- as you have, since you note that "a 1964 kid has little in common with a 1945 one" -- we experience cognitive dissonance. Which leads us to make self-contradictory remarks.

    Betty, if we translate your scheme into the terms of my scheme, then we get:

    1944: Boomers who weren't good hippies.

    1945-53: Boomers who were good hippies.

    1954-55: Gen Xers who were good hippies

    1956-60: Gen Xers who were yuppie scum.

    1961-63: Gen Xers who were neither good hippies nor yuppie scum.

    I'm not too sure about this; let's revisit your idea down the road.

    Posted by Josh Glenn January 3, 08 09:05 AM
  1. I was born in 1961. One of the biggest thorns in my side is being called a "boomer." The baby boom is a birth dynamic not a generation. Generations are formed by common cultural and social experiences, not birth rates. Those of us born in the early '60s simply lack any of the Woodstock/Hippie connotations associated with people born in part of the '40s and most of the '50s. I have nothing in common with Billary's or Dubya's peers. While true boomers ran around naked at music festivals, I was watching "Scooby-Doo." When ex-hippies waxed nostalgic about Haight-Ashbury in the late '70s, I was listening to Kiss and the Ramones.

    Posted by Chuck Walter January 28, 08 05:49 PM
  1. Read Strauss and Howes book on American Generations and Obama falls in the beginning of the "13th" or GenX

    Posted by steve February 11, 08 01:04 AM
  1. Chuck -- right. Like Obama, you are an Original Gen Xer (1954-63).

    Steve -- Howe and Strauss's "13th Gen" has lots of interesting data in it. But Howe and Strauss got their dates wrong. They claim that the Boomer generation started in 1946 (the beginning of the demographic boom) and ended in 1960 (4 years before the end of the demographic boom); Americans born from 1961-81, they claim, are post-Boomers, sometimes called Gen Xers -- they prefer "13ers." So they'd agree that Obama is a Gen Xer, they'd just quibble with the nomenclature.

    In fact, the Original Generation X was born between 1954-63, according to my own, original research and theorization. Howe and Strauss boldly ended the Boomer generation 4 years before the demographers do; my theory is even bolder!

    Posted by Josh Glenn February 11, 08 10:04 AM
  1. 10 years flies in the face of the usual sociological definition of "about 20 years."

    The reason for 20 years is that that would be the time it, generally, takes form birth to maturity and establishment of a family beginning a new generation. Your theory would have 10 year olds having had children (unless, of course, you are willing to provide an alternate basis for your definition of generation).

    Strauss and Howe, if you read their books, did not base their periodizations, especially for the Boom, on birth rate statistics but by shared characteristics.

    Posted by RTO Trainer May 2, 08 12:37 PM
  1. But that's not true! We don't start families at age 20. As for birth rate statistics, they're important only if they're out of the ordinary, and leave their mark on a cohort of Americans -- like being born during the first years of the baby boom of 1946-64 did. Otherwise, a generation is more about -- as you say -- shared characteristics. Meaning shared formative experiences, with give rise to certain characteristics: e.g., optimistic or pessimistic worldview, can- or can't-do attitude, faith in authority or lack of same, tendency to be earnest, serious, ironic, sarcastic, nihilistic, ideological. And when you think about it, what group of people born over a 20-year span have the same experiences? A generation has to be shorter than 20 years. I'm suggesting 10 years, but maybe it's more like 5 years. Anyway, hope you'll read more of the entries I've done about American generations; this was a fairly early one.

    Posted by Josh Glenn May 2, 08 08:49 PM
  1. I always think of the boomer generation as the youngsters who fought in and/or protested the vietnam war. They were born after WWII, and were raised in the 1950s. If you remember the 50s and Kennedy getting shot, you are a boomer. Generation X is made up of the kids born during vietnam 1961 - 1975.

    Posted by vietnambaby May 4, 08 04:26 AM
  1. I was born in December 1963, and I do not consider myself a Boomer. My parents were boomers. I do not consider myself this Generation Jones either. I am Generation X. Period end of story.

    Posted by GenerationX 1963 November 21, 08 03:08 PM
  1. A great resource - many thanks!

    Posted by Mike January 5, 09 04:41 PM
  1. Born in late 63. Not sure what I am, but I am sure what I am not. I am not a baby boomer. I am extremely irritated when I see references to Obama as a "late boomer." They don't get to claim him!!!!!
    The vast majority of other early 60's born I know feel the same way. What's strange is the number of older people, mostly born in the 50's, that will try and insist that I am a boomer. I can usually short circuit the discussion by pointing out that the big thing when I was 13, was Star Wars. There was before SW and after SW. They will often say - "You're right - your not a boomer" at that point. Someone even wrote an article about Star Wars as a dividing line, if you were 17 and under it was a bigger deal. If you were older it was mostly just a movie:-) Wish I could find that article now.

    Posted by jobo January 25, 09 03:05 AM
  1. These are all interesting comments. I am a late baby boomer born in 1956. We are all considered to be from 1946 to 1964. My sister was born in 1963 and also is a baby boomer. Some may be also earlier in the 1940's. The earlier ones from the 1940's perhaps into the early 1950's had different experiences than the late boomers. They were the hippies/Woodstock druggie crowd. The rest of us grew up in the 1970's. Some took drugs or drank, but not all of us. Many of us were not yuppies and could not find good jobs like they have now. Reaganomics and greed of the 1990's screwed a lot of us of all ages. I find that about every 10 years people
    have similar experiences. Basically, there were baby boomers who had kids that were also baby boomers. Many had kids starting at ages like 12-14, but also closer to 18 or 20 years old. We are all individuals, though, and should be looked at that way. A lot of us like the same things that people in their 20's and 30's like such as sports, hobbies, and music. We are very different from our parents, and
    The older generations above us. They did not like rock music for instance, and would not try new things. Baby boomers want to stay young and we like music
    from the 50's on up to today's music. We are active and still have to work longer. We all have had to work with people of all ages all of our lives and enjoy it. The
    younger people need to remember this. You have to work with younger people as well as older people. That is part of life. It seems that Generation X,Y, and Millennials or whatever the names are, need to keep an open mind and give everyone a chance. Not everyone thinks the same. Your life experiences, work, family, culture, etc. all shape each individual person. My parents for instance were not from the generation just above baby boomers but were from an even older one
    because they were 40 and 46 when they had us. I love things like Star Wars. It was one of the best films I ever saw! I love animals and the planet and helping others. Obama was born in 1961 and is a late boomer, who like me, thinks
    differently than the older boomers. I voted for him and think he is great. The late 1950's and early 1960's boomers have a lot in common, but the 1960's boomers
    might have some different experiences. I don't feel that I have a lot in common with the earliest boomers. Maybe they could split the boomers into boomer group one and boomer group two. Hey, sometimes I meet people born in the 70's and 80's who I feel are similar to me. Give people a chance to get to know them as an individual. As for the younger people working less hours, I don't see that yet in companies. We all would like that, more free time and family time. We have tried for that for years. Companies still dictate the 40 hour or more work week when you go for interviews. I am hoping President Obama will bring positive changes to the workplace, more jobs, decent pay, healthcare, etc. Rock on everyone, and God Bless.

    Posted by Pam June 11, 09 10:45 PM
About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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