Long Reign of the Baby Boomers Isn't Over

(Bloomberg) -- Generations are an overused framework for understanding why people think and act the way they do. As psychology professors David P. Costanza of George Washington University and Lisa M. Finkelstein of Northern Illinois University put it in a 2015 survey article:

There is little solid empirical evidence supporting generationally based differences and almost no theory behind why such differences should even exist. 

Still, when the U.S. Census Bureau comes out with new estimates of the country’s population by age, as it did this month, it’s hard to resist thinking in terms of generations at least a little.

Long Reign of the Baby Boomers Isn't Over

The beginning and end of the baby boom are easy enough to see here: There were an estimated 880,819 more 70-year-olds than 71-year-olds in the U.S. in the middle of last year, and 241,811 more 52-year-olds than 51-year-olds. With the millennials, there’s not quite such a sharp delineation, but there are clearly tons of people in their late 20s.

Out of curiosity, I added up population by generation, using the generational start and end years chosen by Pew Research Center. These aren’t a perfect fit with the Census Bureau data, since the generations are defined by birth year and the population numbers are as of July 1. But close enough! I replaced Pew’s new “post-millennial” tag with “iGen,” in part because “post-millennial” is so uncreative and in part because my son, one of the older members of said generation, suggested iGen (or maybe it was “iGeneration”) years before Jean M. Twenge did. I also chose an end date for iGen, which Pew hasn’t done yet, by simply assuming that it will cover the same number of years as the millennials and Generation X.

Long Reign of the Baby Boomers Isn't Over

So the boomers remain the biggest generation; Pew predicted recently that they’ll finally give way to the millennials in 2019. This is to some extent a meaningless distinction, given that the baby boom covers three more birth years than the millennial generation does. That inconsistency came about because the baby boom more or less defined itself, while subsequent generations have been artificially delimited by Pew as 16-year spans. Still, one does get the sense that the baby boomers continue to have an outsized influence on our culture and our politics — and it’s clear from the latest Congressional Budget Office projections that they (we, actually; I was born in 1964) will be having an outsized influence on the country’s fiscal situation for years to come.

It’s not that individual baby boomers are radically different from, say, individual Gen Xers; my musical tastes, for example, are much more like those of an Xer than of a boomer. But having an especially large cohort of people of a certain age does seem to matter. After Evan Soltas noted on Twitter that the average age of U.S. Congress members has risen by almost 10 years since 1980, I dug into the Voteview database that he got this information from to see what the boomer share of the current Congress is. It’s huge:

Long Reign of the Baby Boomers Isn't Over

For comparison, I looked back to when the oldest baby boomers were the same age (53) as the oldest Gen Xers are today. The baby boomers held a far greater share of seats than the Xers do now, and this disparity is much bigger than the population differential.

Long Reign of the Baby Boomers Isn't Over

Maybe this is just the result of the overall aging of the U.S. population. But I’m guessing it’s more than that, and that members of bigger generations get extra influence. The boomers have most of the political clout now, and while younger candidates will surely make gains in this year’s midterm elections, we may have to wait for the political maturation of the millennials — the youngest of whom can’t even run for Congress yet (the minimum age for the House is 25; for the Senate, it’s 30) — for them (sorry, us) to be nudged aside.

To contact the author of this story: Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net.

  1. There were an estimated more 37-year-olds than 38-year-olds in the middle of according to the Census Bureau, but according to Pew Research Center's accounting those 37-year-olds were all Gen Xers. Go figure.

  2. I able was able to find the population by single year of age for 2000 when there were million boomers and million Gen Xers.

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