2014 brings a milestone for last of the baby boomers

Like the more than 4.8 million other people born in 1964, Melinda Michael Eppler remembers the Vietnam War era only vaguely, as something that happened when she was a young child. The Kennedy assassination she recalls was Robert Kennedy’s murder in Los Angeles, not his older brother’s in Dallas, which occurred the year before she was born.

Everyone she knew had a sibling or two – or five – and they played outside well after dark. Woodstock wasn’t one of the formative cultural experiences of her youth: watching “The Brady Bunch” was. And her favorite music, which she listened to on the family room stereo, ran more to the Partridge Family than the Beatles.

“My older brothers did not care much for David Cassidy,” said Eppler, executive director of the Fulton Avenue Association business district in Sacramento. “They called him inappropriate names. I’d get upset.”

Here they come, bringing up the end of the parade, just as they always have: The youngest members of the baby boom generation begin turning 50 on New Year’s Day. Happy birthday, youngest boomers, and welcome to your AARP cards and discounted Denny’s meals.

The huge postwar spike in births that began in 1946 – the baby boom – concluded in 1964 with the births of 4,484,000 people. Almost 31,000 of them live in the four-county Sacramento region, according to U.S. Census figures.

At 76 million strong, the baby boom’s sheer numbers have for better and for worse shaped American culture for decades. But for the youngest members of the demographic, sharing the generational time frame does not mean sharing the same experiences and attitudes, not in their youth and not as they pass 50 and head toward their older years.

As Eppler said: “I’ve never really thought too much about identifying with the baby boom. I just haven’t.”

They were shaped by the 1960s, too, not as participants but as wide-eyed witnesses; not as teenagers and young adults trying to change the world but as children trying to make sense of the shifting world around them. For them, the revolution would have to wait until after nap time.

Because of the vast difference in age between the oldest boomers and the youngest, some experts argue that the baby boom is really two separate generations, with the youngest of the cohort being the true children of the 1960s.

“The focus from the media is overwhelmingly on the front end of the generation,” said author Jonathan Pontell. “It’s as if the whole baby boom generation is supposed to get misty-eyed with nostalgia, as if all of us had the same experiences.

“Demographers of the time pointed out the baby boom not to define a new generation but to say there were a lot of kids being born. Generations stem from formative experiences, not head counts. They’re about key historical events that happen and form collective generational personality traits that stay with us through life.”

Pontell has labeled the generation born from 1954 to 1965 “Generation Jones,” which is also the title of his 2000 book on the subject – in part based on the phrase “Keeping up with the Joneses.” He sees the group as the eternal youngest siblings wanting to tag along, too: a group that in many ways embraced the optimistic ideals and high expectations of the 1960s while longing, even now, for the chance to make their own mark.

The oldest boomers sucked up all the air in the generational room, Pontell theorizes. They demanded the culture’s time and attention. Their experiences seemed authentic and important, and the young boomers straggling along after looked like an ironic imitation: Protesters against Vietnam, after all, gave way within a few years’ time to streakers; and the hippies of the 1960s gave way, by the time the youngest boomers turned 20, to the Reagan youth.

There is also a sense, Pontell says, that as the economic realities of life evolved, the oldest boomers siphoned off the good jobs and retirement benefits, never thinking of the people coming along behind them.

“There’s a general societal resentment toward the baby boom generation that comes partly from it being such a large demographic,” Pontell said. “There’s also the feeling that the baby boomers are narcissistic and very selfish in making sure they take care of themselves at the expense of the economy.

“People in Generation Jones are the most bitter about them. I hear it all the time: ‘They got the good stuff, and we got the leftovers. We were treated as the inferior brothers and sisters.’ There’s income bitterness toward the oldest boomers.”

That’s one reason experts think that many of the youngest boomers prefer to disconnect from the baby boom label.

“They’d rather not take the blame,” said Marilyn Milloy, an AARP editor. “The boomers have been slammed in a lot of ways.”

Another reason for the disconnect is simply the 18-year span of the generation. Someone who’s 68 and retired is clearly in a different phase of life – emotionally, financially and perhaps physically – than someone teetering on the edge of 50.

Heather Chubb, a Gold River estate planning attorney, has never considered herself a true baby boomer. She was born in 1963, a year ahead of the very youngest members of the generation, but she’s in the same boat: She still has kids at home and thinks of herself as being in the prime of her career. Retirement is not on her horizon.

“My peers will not have the same security that older folks do who were the oldest boomers,” said Chubb. “That group has done well. They have their pensions and Social Security. They’ve accumulated wealth. They have homes they purchased when it didn’t cost seven arms and 12 legs.

“Those of us at the tail end of the baby boom are still taking care of our parents, and we’re not done with our kids yet.”

While some children of 50-year-old boomers haven’t yet left home, many have left only to return. Fully 36 percent of people ages 18 to 31 live at home with their parents, according to the Pew Research Center: That’s the highest number in the past four decades.

“What other generation lets their kids fly out of the nest and come back?” said Chubb. “We’ve stepped up for our children and our parents, but perhaps we’re selfish in other ways.”

Perhaps. But while they’ve paid into Social Security for decades, many of the youngest boomers fear they’ll see little in the way of the benefits themselves. While they’ve worked steadily since their early 20s, paid taxes and supported families, they’re now watching their pensions fall on the corporate and public service chopping block.

“In their 20s, they thought they’d retire in their late 50s,” said Sheri Peifer, Eskaton’s vice president of strategy. “Now they think they’ll have to work ’til 75.

“We see 50-year-olds as having an uncertainty of their current and future financial situation. So many people say, ‘Gosh, I should be saving,’ but they have so many current requirements, and there’s nothing left over. There’s a linkage to their health and well-being.”

Kevin Hassett, a Carmichael fourth-grade teacher who turns 50 in August, has long been aware of being caught between generations, he said: not fully a baby boomer, but also clearly not part of Generation X, the cohort that followed. Still, his sense of expectations is fully boomer in origin, and so are the pressures he places on himself to achieve them.

“There are so many expectations on us, and I think that’s unique to our age group – a lot of pressures that haven’t existed before,” said Hassett, whose daughters are 20 and 25.

“We put a lot of expectations on ourselves to raise our girls well and be good athletes and high achievers. And now that we’re home by ourselves, I’m starting to see how much pressure it was. We expected that we could do it all and have great careers while raising kids.”

For the very youngest boomers, growing up in the time of Richard Nixon’s impeachment, the Jonestown massacre and the Iran hostage crisis, pressure was always part of the picture.

Melinda Eppler remembers being home alone when the Symbionese Liberation Front was on the loose in Sacramento.

“I remember running around the house locking all the doors,” she said. “It seemed so surreal. Stuff like that hadn’t been happening – and then it was.”

For her, turning 50 next year is more significant than bringing up the end of the baby boom.

“For me and my long-term friends, none of us look at 50 as a bad thing,” she said. “It’s a milestone. Let’s celebrate and look to the future.”