We baby boomers, the generation demographers define American born between 1946 and 1964, have been the driving force behind substantial changes in American culture and politics since our arrival in the years following World War II. In total, there are about 79 million baby boomers, including some who have immigrated to the United States.
During the 1950s, our generation influenced the toy industry and nascent television programming. Coming of age in the 1960s, we shaped popular music, organized political protests, and challenged long-established attitudes toward authority: so much so that baby boomers were designated Time’s “Man of the Year” in 1967.
Baby boomers were not only the draftees that found themselves fighting the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, but they also engineered the anti-war protests that effectively drove Lyndon Johnson from office. Boomers inspired heightened levels of environmental and social awareness, fueled by our generation’s confidence in our ability to improve the world. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the visionaries of the 1960s and 1970s began to have families and enter the consumer marketplace. The first boomer president, Bill Clinton, took office in 1993, and our generation took over the top echelons of political power.
But now as we boomers move into our seventh decade, our generation’s concerns have changed. Our next questions are not necessarily about how next to turn American culture on its head, but rather about how we, both as distinct individuals and as a generation, will deal with aging, disease, and death.
Although economics and policymakers fret about how our aging demographic could bankrupt Social Security and Medicare, we baby boomers continue to celebrate our eternal youth. Ours is the generation for whom Bob Dylan’s song, “Forever Young,” will always be a collective anthem. After all, we are the group who forced the American Association of Retired Persons to become an acronym, AARP, since baby boomers see the very word “retired” as an anachronism, applicable only to our parents, members of the so-called “greatest generation.”
How are we boomers, who by dint of our numbers have been largely successful in bending American culture to our collective will, going to deal with the inevitability of our physical decline? Our efforts to stave off the aging process are legendary. We have long placed a premium on health and fitness: from the jogging craze of the 1980s to the 24-hour gyms common today, from our focus on health foods and vitamins in the 1970s to our current financial contributions to the $35 billion per year weight loss industry.
Of course, many aging boomers in good health will simply deny that they are growing old until some health event forces them to acknowledge that they will indeed die someday. Ultimately, this is one part of life that they cannot control.
And nowhere is this lack of control more evident than when one hears, as I did, the Four Scary Words, “You have [fill in the blank] cancer?”
Will some of us respond with confusion and fear, but ultimately acknowledge disease and mortality? Or will some continue the youthful party, deciding, “for sometime we may die of cancer, but let’s continue to have a good time while we can?” Or will boomers react in some novel fashion that preceding generations have not?
One thing is sure: the baby boomers will see higher numbers of cancer diagnoses than preceding generations. The size of our demographic all but guarantees that. By 2030 (the year the youngest members of the baby boomers turn 66, the median age of cancer diagnoses in the US), an estimated 2.3 million people in the US will be living with cancer, up from approximately 1.6 million in 2010. Seventy percent of those cancers will be among the elderly, i.e. aging boomers.
The historical legacy of the baby boomers will emphasize our role in changing American culture and refusing to accept outdated social norms. Will we push the limitations of cancer with the same force and enthusiasm that we pushed the boundaries of sexual behavior?
This chapter of our generation’s history has yet to be written. As cancer diagnoses among baby boomers increase, we can only wait and see what this dynamic—but aging—demographic will do next.