Boomers. They're part of the most significant demographic event in American history... a population explosion that rocked the nation between 1946 and 1964. They remember hula hoops, coonskin caps and have lived through a hurricane of social change.
Today, this largest and richest generation in history controls the US Presidency and Congress. And three quarters of fortune 500 CEOs are baby boomers. They are at the top, just as financial bottom has fallen out of many of their dreams.
Here we take a look at some of the most significant events to shape the lives of boomers, and some of the individual stories behind those events.
Posted: March 1, 2010
In the deep south of the early 1960s, black families experienced some kind of humiliation or suffering every day.
In 1963, Birmingham, Ala., was one of the most violent and segregated cities in the country, where many parents were terrified of losing their homes and jobs. Because of that, they were afraid to speak out.
But Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was about to change all that, appealing to the black community to fill the city’s jails in protest. It was the children — the baby boomers —who rose up and heeded his call to action.
And so began the idea for a children’s march through downtown. Thousands of kids — baby boomers all — wanted to take part, and Chris and Maxine McNair’s daughter Denise was no exception.
"She wanted to go and march," Chris McNair recalls. "And her mother and another lady told her that, ‘You are too small to march.’ And she immediately looked at them and said, ‘Hey, you're not little. Why aren’t you marching?'"
The marchers — some as young as 6 and 7 — were arrested. But the courage of these baby boomers had an effect. A week later, downtown Birmingham agreed to desegregate its lunch counters, restrooms and water fountains.
Denise wasn't allowed to march, but she was about to make an even greater impact on the civil rights front.
Only in death did Denise McNair get her wish to speak out for equal rights. Her senseless murder along with three other girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing became a turning point in the fight for civil rights.
As outrage replaced fear, America finally said enough. Only months after the church bombing, President Lyndon Johnson led the passage of the civil rights act.
It wasn't just civil rights that baby boomers were protesting for in the 1960s. The Vietnam War was at the fore of protests for many years, dividing a generation on the grounds of patriotism. By its end, the war would claim 57,000 American lives.
Sgt. Don Nicholas is a boomer who served not only in Vietnam, but also in Iraq and Afghanistan. You might call him one of the forgotten boomers: those who devoted their lives to military service from a generation better known for protesting wars than fighting them.
"I don't want to sit back and think that everyone else is taking care of me or my country," Nicholas told Tom Brokaw. "You know, I've got a responsibility."
David Harris, however, represents the other side of the boomer war experience: the protester.
“I just went down to a reunion of draft resisters from L.A. and saw a lot of guys that I had been in prison with, which was neat,” Harris says.
During the ‘60s, Harris chose to go to prison rather than fight a war he bitterly opposed. At the time, he was married to folk singer Joan Baez, and his arrest turned him into an icon of the anti-war movement.
Today, he opposes what he sees as America’s endless adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Thirty years ago, Jim Webb was a Marine in Vietnam. Today he’s a Democratic US Senator, and sees both sides of the argument.
“It is an unending argument. Could we have won in Vietnam, whatever that means?”
“It’s also kind of moot. I’m comfortable that I did my duty. And, I’m comfortable that the people that I was with did their duty. And the rest of it, people can argue all they want.”
A hallmark of the boomer generation was Woodstock, the largest and still most famous rock concert of all time, attracting nearly half a million people to a farmer’s fields in upstate New York from Aug. 15-18, 1969.
And plucked from that sea of humanity, two people who never took the stage would become the most famous couple from the most famous rock concert of all time. Nick and Bobbi Ercoline made the cover of Life Magazine as well as the cover of the legendary concert album.
Two years after Woodstock, they married and eventually had two sons. And like their fellow baby boomers, they got on with the rest of their lives. Today, the Ercolines live less than an hour from Woodstock, and they even went back for the reunion.
“In that picture we were falling in love,” Nick says. "We were already in love but we were falling deeply in love then.”
“We’re still falling in love,” Bobbi says.
For all that, Woodstock was but a moment: a brief counter-culture celebration during a momentous decade, a significant way-station for some boomers, but not necessarily an entire generation.
The financial struggles they would begin to experience in the 1970s changed many boomers, propelling them away from the idealism that Woodstock embodied.
As Walker Smith, an author and authority on boomers put it, it was "communes to co-ops" in a relatively short period of time.
The boomers, for good or for bad, are the economic motor that has driven the economy of the United States of America ... if not the entire World for the last 20 years," Hanks said. "As we decide which cars we're going to buy, and which clothes we're going to wear, and what food we're gonna eat, we have ... we absolutely had the power."
After decades of "selfish" prosperity, many boomers now worry they’ll outlive their savings, and wonder if they may be to blame. The recession couldn't have come at a worse time for the oldest of them, who turn 65 in 2011.
In fact, by the time all the boomers are 65, the number of seniors will have grown from 40 million today to about 72 million. That's going to be a heavy toll to contend with...
”I think the nightmare scenario is, first of all that we end up a Latin American economy because our public finances are permanently out of kilter and people lose faith in our currency," according to Niall Ferguson, an author and commentator on contemporary politics and economics.
“But a second nightmare scenario is that we simply don't have an answer as a society to the problem of a very large number of relatively unhealthy people who live into their eighties. And what we end up doing is either we park them in …warehouses— supposed care facilities for the elderly, though they're nothing much more than dying motels, or — and this is a scenario one sometimes hears discussed — we end up exporting them.
So what else can the baby boomers be working on at this stage in their lives that will be for the common good of this country?
"If we really want to end it right, we have to realize that our last obligation is not to put an unconscionable burden on our children and grandchildren," Former President Bill Clinton says. "And to go out with the ideals, the fire, that we started life with. To go out serving."