First Baby Boomers Turn 65

(1.) First Baby Boomers Turn 65 — The first wave of Baby Boomers — the group of Americans born after soldiers returned home from World War II — turns 65 this month. There are 79 million Baby Boomers, making up a quarter of the US population, according to the Pew Research Center. To find out what this milestone means to members of this group, host Michel Martin speaks with Kathy Casey-Kirschling, the country’s first Boomer born one second after midnight on January 1, 1946 and Shelby Steele, who was born later that same day. They are joined by Paul Taylor, co-author of a new Pew survey on Baby Boomers.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Happy New Year, and welcome back. Many people are just back from holiday travels, and some people might have endured those pat downs at the airport that are getting a lot of attention from the public and the media. We'll hear about why one such pat down has become an international incident. Here's a hint: It involved India's ambassador to the United States. She was on official business, and she was wearing a sari. We'll talk more about that later.

But first, it's time to say happy birthday to the baby boomers. Happy 65th birthday, that is. The first wave of the boom officially began on January 1st, 1946, according to the Census Bureau. That boom is attributed to soldiers returning home from World War II, who started or expanded their families. It reversed a long decline in the U.S. birth rate.

The Pew Research Center says that there are 79 million people in this generation, stretching 19 years through 1964. Seventy-nine million people means baby boomers comprise over a quarter of the total U.S. population. And while many people, including boomers, think of this group for its vitality, its challenges to the status quo over the years, we wondered how this first wave of boomers is feeling about their lives now as they are just hitting - shall we say - senior status. And what impact will they have on the country in the years ahead?

To talk more about these issues, we have called the first baby boomer, Kathy Casey-Kirschling. She was born one second after midnight, Eastern Standard Time, on January 1st, 1946 in Philadelphia.

Also with us, Shelby Steele. He is a writer and scholar who is known for his trenchant social commentary. He is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. And he was also born on January 1st, 1946.

Also with us, Paul Taylor. He's co-author of a new survey from the Pew Research Center titled "Baby Boomers Approach Age 65 - Glumly." He's the executive vice president of the Pew Center.

And I welcome you all. Thank you so much for joining us. Happy New Year, and happy birthday.

Mr. PAUL TAYLOR (Executive Vice President, Pew Research Center): Thank you very much.

Ms. KATHY CASEY-KIRSCHLING: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Paul Taylor, let's just talk about the headline of your piece that baby boomers are approaching age 65 glumly. Why do you say that?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, we've done a lot of surveys. That's what we do at the Pew Research Center. We took one a few weeks ago looking at the nation as a whole. And we found that - listen, these are pretty lousy times. We're three years into a deep recession and a jobless recovery. So most Americans aren't feeling too well about the country as a whole. Boomers, however, are more dissatisfied than other age groups, including those older and younger. Eighty percent say they're dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country today.

MARTIN: That's compared to 60 percent of those aged 18 to 29, 69 percent of those aged 30 to 45 and 76 percent of those aged 65 and older. So it's only a slight difference with those who are older. But that is a pretty significant number. And to what do you attribute that?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, let me just mention one other statistic, which is a question we asked in a lot of surveys, and it measures sort of the trajectory of your life. And we asked people: Compared to your parents when they were your age, do you think you're doing better than your parents or do you think you're doing worse or about the same? And then when your own kids grow up to be the age you are now, do you think they'll do better or worse or about the same?

Boomers have a more downbeat assessment of the trajectory of their lives measured that way, than any other age groups. They're less likely to say they're doing better than their parents. They're less likely to say their kids will do better than them.

So, what's going on here? Well, some of it is probably life cycle. Middle age is, for most people - not everybody, but for most people it's a tougher time of life. And if you look at charts about human happiness and life satisfaction, they tend to be higher when you're young. They go into a trough in middle age, and then they actually return as you get older. Well, boomers now are sort of mid-40s to mid-60s. So they're in the middle-age phase of life.

MARTIN: And before we bring in our other guests, though - and you're also a boomer, it should be said, but you're in a later wave, as am I - is there a worldview that generally characterizes this generation overall? It's a pretty big group.

Mr. TAYLOR: It's a big group. Listen, this is the first generation in perhaps human history - certainly in U.S. history - that was famous for being born, as you said in your setup piece. It was a huge demographic bulge that started right after World War II. It was famous for being young. The suburbs were created. Television - they were the first - they grew up on television. So there's a whole world of marketing that was aimed specifically at kids - first time in human history.

And certainly as they came of age, in the '60s, they were famous for being countercultural, civil rights, gender revolutions, anti-war. Although it's important to say that was the part of the boomer generation that made the most noise and perhaps was the most famous. In fact, it was a much more diverse generation than some of the headlines suggest.

What I would say, though, as now we are in middle age to late middle age, there's one thing we can all agree on on boomers: They are no longer young. And a generation that has been defined by its youth and its sense of expectation and its sense of being agents of social change and whatnot is probably now had to deal with a lot of realities that maybe things don't change quite as much as they hoped. Life deals you a lot of blows, and I think they're in that phase of life, which I think may account for some of the downbeat assessments we get from survey research.

MARTIN: Well, Kathy, let's go to you, as a person who is indeed famous for when you were born. I wanted to ask: When did you develop a consciousness of yourself as a baby boomer? Do you remember being aware of being part of this group, or being part of the first wave of this group?

Ms. CASEY-KIRSCHLING: Well, I think I was definitely a boomer from the get-go, from high school on. But I didn't really understand, totally, the generation, I think, until I was in my 30s and they were actually coined, because there were so many millions of us - the baby boomer generation, and there were 78 million strong.

So I think in my 30s, I started to read about them. And I used to say to myself: Well, I'm one of those. I'm at the top - not really ever knowing that I was, quote, "the first." So - but I think a lot of our traits came from our parents, because our parents really didn't have a whole lot of material things, but they had that work ethic and that drive. And they kind of pushed us to greater heights and wanted us to achieve more. And I think that's exactly what we did.

Because we're most - probably the most well-educated generation merely because of our numbers, that's ever - that exists today. Having said that, I think that the nation in the last three or four years is in this mode of - and I call it cynicism, OK? You can label it whatever way you want to look at it, in the direction of the country. But I really think all of us as Americans, including the baby boomers, helped create this scenario.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about how the baby boomers are feeling as they turn 65 this year. Our guests are the first official baby boomer, Kathy Casey-Kirschling. She was born one minute after midnight on January 1st, 1946. Also with us, commentator and author Shelby Steele. He was also born on January 1st, 1946. And Paul Taylor. He's co-author of a new survey from the Pew Research Center titled "Baby Boomers Approach Age 65 - Glumly."

Professor Steele, let's hear from you. What do you think characterizes your generation?

Professor SHELBY STEELE (Research Fellow, Hoover Institution): Well, you know, I agree with probably everything that's been said so far. I would add to it that, you know, I think in my experiences - and I heard about being a baby boomer, I think, as early as the '50s. But I think we became more defined as a generation in the '60s, you know, not - because I think we came of age in a time when the moral authority of the larger society was virtually in collapse.

You know, we had had the civil rights movement; we had the women's movement, other ethnic groups. We had the antiwar movement. And there was beginning to be the idea that there was something fundamentally wrong with American society. And we came of age at that moment when America was in deep doubt and there was a void, I think, in authority. And, you know, as young people will do, we assumed a lot of that authority. We said, well, we'll reinvent America. We'll make it good and we'll correct for all of these problems.

And because the older generations were associated with all those terrible things, they lost a great deal of authority. I think one of the unique things about a generation is that the generation before us lost its authority over us. And so we had this almost kind of license to invent ourselves anew and we would reinvent everything - the family, the sexual revolution and so forth.

And I think that that's the thing that I think really, this assumption of authority, maybe prematurely, that probably no other generation had ever come into a situation where they got to somehow determine meaning for themselves. And, you know, we've done that with every phase of life. We'll probably do that with retirement.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think, Professor Steele, to that point? I mean, I think some people might remember that phrase came out of the '60s: don't trust anybody - was it don't trust anybody over 30?

Prof. STEELE: Right.

MARTIN: But now that this generation has moved into those positions of authority, and as you said, this is the generation that challenged authority, particularly of the generation that came before, how has this generation responded to now being the authorities, the people who are over 30?

Prof. STEELE: Well, I think, you know, we probably have not - I mean, again, maybe others feel differently - but the generations that have come along behind us, our children and so forth and now their children, you know, I think that in a sense they're kind of formed by the ethic of the baby boomer. They think they're very different and certainly they are in many ways. But, you know, they have some of the same indulgences and so forth.

But to answer your question specifically, how does it feel to be challenged? And I know now when I write and go out and talk and so forth, people will say, well, you're of an older generation, which always hurts. But, you know, we don't like that. No generation would like that, you know, because we're - I'm a baby boomer. You know, this is what things mean.

And I can sort of sometimes hear my parents' voice when your other guest was just talking about the work ethic and so forth. Well, I value that as a baby boomer and sometimes I don't see that in the younger generations - and can be curmudgeonly about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back we're going to continue this conversation about the first wave of the baby boomers turning 65. We're speaking with Shelby Steele. He's among the first baby boomers. He was born on January 1st, 1946 in Chicago. He's now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He's with us from Monterey, California.

Also with us, Kathy Casey-Kirschling. She is the very first baby boomer. She was born one second after midnight on January 1st, 1946 in Philadelphia. She's with us from her home in Maryland.

And also with us, Paul Taylor. He's co-author of a new survey from the Pew Research Center called "Baby Boomers Approach Age 65 -- Glumly." He's also the executive vice president of the Pew Center. He's with us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, the patdown by airport security personnel of India's sari-wearing ambassador to the United States, not once, but twice in the last few months has sparked commentary across the globe. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

But, first, we are going to continue our conversation about the baby boomers. They are just beginning to turn 65 this year. We're speaking with a couple of people who are boomers themselves from the very first day. Kathy Casey-Kirschling was born officially one second after midnight on New Year's Day 1946. She is considered to be the very first baby boomer. Also with us, political and cultural commentator Shelby Steele, also born on January 1st, 1946. And Paul Taylor, co-author of a new survey from the Pew Research Center called "Baby Boomers Approach Age 65 -- Glumly."

Now, Paul, you're survey talked a lot about how baby boomers don't see themselves as old.

Mr. TAYLOR: Right.

MARTIN: But I am curious about - did the survey speak to their sense of authority - what Professor Steele was talking about. This is the generation that challenged the -isms. You know, they were the ones that challenged racism and sexism and homophobia. But what about their own grasp of authority? Did the survey speak to that and how they viewed that?

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, we have surveys over the years. A couple of quick comments. I completely agree that generating a sense - an acceptance of diversity, which began with some of the revolutions you described in the '60s and has carried forward is probably the most lasting mark that the boomers - it's not only the boomers - have left.

But labeling the boomers as an anti-establishment generation, I think, is an oversimplification. If you go back to 1972, which was the first year that boomers could vote, the 18 to 24-year-olds in that year split almost 50/50 between President Nixon, the candidate of the status quo, and George McGovern, the antiwar candidate.

If you fast forward to two years ago and look at how 18 to 20-year old, the so-called millennial generation voted, where you had the change agent and a representative of the diversity and the acceptance that we have come to expect in this country, it went for Obama over McCain by more than 2 to 1, 34 percentage points.

So, this generation of young adults, at least measured by how they behave politically in their coming of age experience, is much more a change agent, actually, than were the boomers. There are a lot of boomers who didn't protest the Vietnam War. They fought in the Vietnam War.

MARTIN: Well, of course. I think that's one of the things that President George W. Bush talked about, though, as he approached his candidacy. That was one of the things that I think he expressed, his disgust for people who, in his view, did not, you know, pull their weight and yet, you know, had a very great deal to say about - so I do think that that's - we've seen that play out.

I'm interested, though, at going forward, as this generation approaches retirement, one of the things that they're glum about is that over half of the baby boomers aged 50 to 61, over half of them say they may have to delay retirement.

Mr. TAYLOR: Right.

MARTIN: And one of the things I'm curious about is going forward, how they see the world, how they see their place in it as they approach this next phase of their lives.

Mr. TAYLOR: Well, I think they're concerned about their financial security in retirement. I think the downturn in the economy hit them at a vulnerable time. Their 401ks became 201ks, et cetera. They're very worried about that. Listen, also in the life cycle of the boomers, when the first boomers turned - became taxpayers, our federal debt was about $300 billion. It's now $14 trillion.

So this, in the 30 or 40 years of the boomers' life cycle, we as a nation have gone into deep debt and the boomers children and grandchildren, and the boomers themselves will be paying that off. So there is a case where you have to ask yourself, in a generational-accounting sense, shouldn't each generation do its best to pay its own way and have the boomers measured up on that front?

MARTIN: And Professor Steele, this is something I definitely want you to comment on, what is your sense of whether your generation is stepping up to the plate, whether it has a sense of responsibility for the situation that we are now in? What is your sense of this?

Prof. STEELE: I'm not sure that this is something that, you know, one can get at through - with a generational analysis. It's something probably more political. But it'll be interesting to see if we are at this point, in our history, capable of the kind of discipline it's going to take to deal with it at this - of this proportion.

MARTIN: May I ask you, before we let you go, as we mentioned, the headline of the Pew report was "Baby Boomers Approach 65 -- Glumly," do you mind if I ask, how are you facing this next phase of your life? Are you glum?

Prof. STEELE: Well, one has said many times, considering the alternative, I'm absolutely exhilarated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well said.

And, Kathy, final thought from you. I'd like to ask you about your comments on both of these issues we're talking about, especially to the politics of what we're facing as a country and you on a personal level.

Ms. CASEY-KIRSCHLING: Well, you know, the country and the debt that we're in, a lot of that was greed and our politicians. And I have to say, as a boomer, many boomers, you know, we were materialistic from the standpoint, and I don't think it was, like, we expected to be that materialistic, but what happened is our achievements kept moving, moving, moving. And we could afford more things.

And somewhere along the line in the last 10, 15 years, it really went awry. And so I think, not only the boomers, but Americans have to really take account for themselves.

MARTIN: And, Kathy, before we let you go, can I ask, how are you feeling as you approach this next phase of your life, how are you doing?

Ms. CASEY-KIRSCHLING: Well, I have to tell you that I'd like to think I'm a person, a boomer that has their glass half full, which many of us do, and those old values and those fights for rights I see coming back into the generation. I saw it in Katrina when thousands of boomers came down, left jobs to help others and I think we still have that in us.

MARTIN: Kathy Casey-Kirschling is the first baby boomer. She was born one second after midnight on January 1st, 1946 in Philadelphia. And she was kind enough to join us from Earleville, Maryland.

Also with us, Shelby Steele. He was also born on January 1st, 1946, in Chicago. He's a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He's the author of many books. Most recently, "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win." I'm not sure you're glad I mentioned that, but that is your latest publication. He was kind enough to join us from Monterey, California.

Also with us, Paul Taylor. He's the co-author of a survey from the Pew Research Center called "Baby Boomers Approach Age 65 -- Glumly." He's the executive vice president of the Pew Center and he was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. I thank you all so much for joining us. Happy New Year and happy birthday once again.

Ms. CASEY-KIRSCHLING: And Happy New Year to you.

Mr. TAYLOR: Happy New Year.

Prof. STEELE: Thank you.

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