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Boomers' babies are already shaping society

Published Oct. 1, 2005


Not since the peak years of the baby boom have there been so many of them.

But don't mistake this birth spurt, which has produced 72-million children ages 18 and younger, for another baby boom. According to generational experts, this is something entirely different.

"We're not in the middle of a baby boom," said Cheryl Russell, editor of the newsletter Baby Boom and a boomer herself. "We're in the middle of a parent boom."

"It's not that everybody's doing it. It's that this huge group of people are doing it" _ along with people in their normal childbearing years, Russell said of the fertility splurge, noting that, by contrast, the original baby boom was marked by a relatively small group of people having bigger families.

What it comes down to is that the now graying-at-the-temple boomers, whose habits, desires, attitudes and beliefs have shaped America for the last 50 years, are at it again. Forty years ago, they all wanted Hula Hoops. Thirty years ago, it was Mustangs. In recent years, it has been babies.

By postponing childbirth until their 30s and 40s, boomers have produced what some people are calling a baby-boom echo.

Not since the original baby boom, which produced 80-million people between 1946 and 1964, has a young generation had such an enormous impact on American society, from business to family life to the economy.

"By virtue of their size, they are going to be somewhat influential," Russell said. "By virtue of their parents, they will be quite influential. Their parents are boomers, and what boomers want, they tend to get."

After reaching an all-time low in the 1970s, the annual U.S. birthrate started gathering steam around 1980. In 1989, more than 4-million people were born for the first time since 1964, the last year of the baby boom, and continued at about that level through 1993. Though births dipped slightly in the last three years, they are expected to rise again, the experts say.

Today, children ages 18 and younger represent 28 percent of the total population; the original boomers, now 33 to 51, are 30 percent. Roughly 20-million children _ about 8 percent of the population _ are between the ages of 4 and 8.

These Little Boomers already have stamped their tiny footprints on music, computers, toys, clothes and videos, and their likes and dislikes are expected to influence America long into the next century. The first ripple of this youth wave can be seen in the avalanche of products and services aimed at children.

Been to a restaurant lately that doesn't have high chairs and crayons?

Clothing manufacturers from Donna Karan to Nicole Miller offer trendy baby duds along with their high-priced fashions.

It isn't Steven Spielberg who has made the Top-10-selling videos of all time. It's Disney, whose films were so much a part of the first boomer era.

Club Med, which once featured scantily clad couples frolicking on the beach, now touts clowns and magicians at its "family villages," which account for half of all the company's sales, according to Club Med president Andrew Jordan.

Schools nationwide are bursting at the seams. Children's book sales quadrupled in the last 10 years, from $336-million in 1985 to $1.35-billion in 1995.

In 1988, when Sheryl Leach, creator of that purple dinosaur phenomenon known as Barney, tried to get him on television, she was told the market for preschool shows "was not viable." At the time, there were three programs for the under-6 set _ Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and Captain Kangaroo. Today there are 55.

"There is such a focus on children and childhood. It's reached critical mass," Leach said.

The 1980s saw a society-wide shift toward the protection of children, said generational expert Neil Howe, citing the birth of Baby on Board stickers, the rash of "adorable baby" movies and a renewed focus on education. Parents were anxious to avoid the child-rearing "mistakes" that produced the previous generation _ those gloomy, body-piercing Generation X-ers, he and others said.

The X-ers grew up "at a time when the country was coming apart," said Frank Gregorsky, a social historian at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank. "The divorce rate skyrocketed, there were hostages in Iran, there was free love. They really couldn't count on their parents acting as adults because they were acting like kids themselves."

Boomers saw what happened to the X-ers "and said we're not going to let that happen to our kids," Russell said. "There's a reason there's this push to stop cigarette smoking and drug taking and for V-chips."

It worked. Little boomers are as different from Gen-Xers as pop music is from grunge, the experts say. Older little boomers are less angry, suspicious and cynical than their predecessors.

"They are optimistic, particularly about what they are going to collectively achieve," said Howe, coauthor of The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy.

In fact, they are more like the duty-bound GI Generation than their war-protesting parents _ except possibly for drug and alcohol use, which studies show is on the increase among teenagers.

"We're seeing the birth of a new civic generation," Howe said.

People who work with kids are breathing a sigh of relief.

The X-ers "needed to work on . . . self-esteem and tolerance and diversity," said Pat Haupt, principal of Bala Cynwyd Middle School near Philadelphia. This group "is the best as far as caring of others, respect for others and overall discipline."

For highly educated boomers, giving their children an educational edge is a top priority.

Their obsession with learning has fueled educational toy stores such as Zany Brainy and the exploding children's book and software markets. At Gene's Book Store in King of Prussia, Pa., "a lot of baby boomers come in with their toddlers because they want to make sure they are learning to read," said assistant general manager Jeanne Cove.

Typical are parents such as Pat Ercole of Media, Pa., who takes her 7- and 8-year-old daughters to the library twice a week and the bookstore every other week.

"I don't bring them home and plop them in front of the TV," said Ercole, 39, a physical therapist.

Recently, she made a map of the world with toothpick pennants. With each book her daughters read, they would put a toothpick in the city or country where it took place and then discuss it.

This hands-on approach to teaching their children reflects a distrust of public schools, according to Susan Mitchell, author of The Official Guide to the Generations.

"People are not happy with what they see as the failures of education today. They think there's a kind of dumbing down of the whole system. They're frightened we're not preparing their children for their futures," she said.

"Look at the magazines for children, subscription-glossies, for crying out loud. When I was growing up, it was just Highlights. My son subscribes to four different magazines. He gets more than me. . . . When Sesame Street came on, it was revolutionary. Now we have Bill Nye (the Science Guy). I learn from him," Mitchell said.

Just as their parents were the first to grow up with televisions in the homes, this group is the first to be born into households equipped with computers.

"For them, technology is as natural as air and water," Gregorsky said, predicting students soon will be producing full-motion video term papers on their laptops.

But if there is one word that sums up the little boomers, it is "diverse."

While the original boomers were a relatively homogeneous group, the children of this generation differ drastically in race, living arrangements and socioeconomic makeup. They also face more serious problems than their parents ever did, such as AIDS and violence. Unlike the original boomers, the majority come from homes where both parents work, forcing them to assume adult responsibilities at an early age.

Though they may seem more sophisticated than their parents were, they are also less independent. Many parents today do not feel safe letting their children out of their sight.

"As part of this new wave of protection, there's always got to be a fence around them," Howe said.

Like many people of her generation, Judy McCoun fondly recalls hopping on her bicycle in the morning and not coming home until the afternoon. But she would never allow her 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son such freedom, she said.

"In our neighborhood," said McCoun, who lives in Lansdale, Pa., "families ride bikes together."

Perhaps the most significant hallmark of this generation is the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots. One-quarter of children under the age of 6 are living in poverty, according to Deborah Weinstein, director of the Children's Defense Fund's Family Income Division.

"The president in his (State of the Union address) talked about a computer for every child. There are children living below the poverty level for whom the necessities of life are not a given," she said.

The racial and ethnic diversity of this group also sets it apart from the original boomers, who were 75 percent white, compared with 67 percent for this group. Parents say they've noticed a more casual acceptance in their children of people who are different from them.

"Unless I probe, I don't know if they are talking about someone who is black or white," Pat Ercole said. "They don't bring it up. We're the ones who will ask that question."

For boomers, the best news may be that there is little evidence so far of the huge generation gap that existed between them and their parents. Today, parents and their children dress alike, go to the same movies and play the same games.

In other words, kids think their parents are cool.

"We're kind of seeing this odd bond between 40-somethings and (people) below the age of 15," said Gregorsky. "We've kind of built a bridge over the X-ers."