You may have missed it in your preparations for the long holiday weekend, but we crossed a milestone of sorts last Friday. That was the day on which people born on January 1, 1946, turned 59 ½. Yes, that means – and there was media coverage to that effect - that the very first of the Baby Boomers became eligible to make non-early penalty withdrawals from their retirement accounts.
Personally, I’m hoping that the coverage of that “event” was a function of a slow news day during the 24-hour news cycle. On the other hand, for people who have been waiting – and warning – about the onslaught of the Baby Boom retirements, that “pig in the python,” that “milestone” surely marks a point on that continuum (let’s hope that it doesn’t trigger a wave of withdrawal-related requests).
For years, our society has been enamored of the movements and behaviors of the so-called Baby Boomers, and given the demographics, that is perhaps understandable. On the other hand, those demographics have long been defined to include an incredibly broad swathe of the population – those born between 1946 and 1965. That’s nearly twice the span accorded to those in Generation X (1965 to 1976), for example – who, believe it or not, started turning FORTY this year (and there are about 50 million of that bloc).
I hate to break it to demographers and marketers alike, but Boomers are hardly a monolithic group. I’m what might affectionately be termed a “mid-range” Boomer. I wasn’t old enough to be protesting on college campuses in the 1960s, as were some who turned 59 ½ last week. Instead, my time on campus was spent worrying about how (if?) I would get a job in the aftermath of Gerald Ford’s “Whip Inflation Now” button campaign and Jimmy Carter’s stag-flationed malaise. I have a younger brother who snuck under the Boomer tent (at least according to demographers), but the 8.5 years that separate our births are a generational “chasm” at least as wide as that between me and any Gen Xer.
As a general rule, I abhor labels of any kind, though anyone who has ever been a kid knows that human beings seem genetically predisposed to affix them. My teenagers (and their friends) appear to rely on many of the same types of labels that every generation uses – geeks, nerds, sports, posers (one of my favorites), freaks….Notwithstanding those attempts, I’m no less family-oriented than a Gen Xer and, from what I have seen (popular characterizations notwithstanding), they are no less career-oriented. When all is said and done, these labels are simply shortcuts for dealing with people so that you don’t have to deal with people as individuals.
People, of course, defy ready labels, despite the constant push to box them in. It would, however, be a mistake of epic proportions to assume that the Baby Boomers, or any generational grouping for that matter, will approach retirement planning – or retirement – in a unitary fashion. All a generational label does – and it does this somewhat imprecisely – is hint at how long we have to get ready.