The so-called boomer generation was born in the 20 years following World War II, and they have had a transforming effect on American society owing to their exceptionally large numbers, forthright, confident and ideologically rigid attitudes and privileged spending power throughout their lives as they moved from young children to late middle age.
Obama is technically a baby boom generation leader as well, as he was born in 1961, still within the 20-year cohort that started right after World War II. But he is psychologically a far cry from the self-indulgent, publicly emotional excesses and extreme certainties of his two predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
Hard-core boomers occupied the presidency of the United States and dominated the nation's politics only for a brief 14 to 16 years since Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton won the presidency from President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992, and since the U.S. Congress passed into the hands of a Republican majority led by boomer generation Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich in 1994.
Since then, Boomers have provided two two-term presidents in Clinton and the younger Bush. Now, the defeat of Sen. Clinton, D-N.Y., at the hands of the far younger Sen. Obama, D-Ill., means that the 2008 presidential race will be decided by a contest between unusual age and unusual youth.
Obama at age 46 shows many of the traits of the so-called Generation X cohort from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s that followed the boomers. The Gen X-ers were raised in the boomers' shadow and generally resented them even while echoing many of their most selfish and self-obsessed preferences, public policies and personal consumer spending habits. Obama owes his success in large part to his appeal both to idealistic aging boomers and to young millennial generation Americans in their 20s.
Even more than the boomers half a century ago, millennials grew up in a prosperous, peaceful and largely carefree America, and they appear drawn to consensus solutions and idealistic causes like environmentalism and clean energy. They are the most post-industrial of American generations, with remarkably few parents who still work in old heavy industry and other blue-collar professions.
Obama's opponent in the presidential race is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is something of a contradiction, as he is both a heroic old warrior and war hero, and a political moderate and compromiser, noted for his social tolerance, outspoken opposition to the practice of torture in the Global War on Terror, and his concern about global warming that has infuriated older baby boom generation ideological conservatives.
McCain belongs to the 20-year generational cohort of Americans named by Thomas Straus and Neil Howe in their classic sociological history of the American people, "Generations," as "Silents." For all their cultural achievements, they were not remotely as politically successful and organized as the famous "G.I." generation that preceded them or the baby boomers who followed them. So far, they have yet to produce a single president for the White House. McCain would be the first.
The hard-core baby boom candidates in both parties, Clinton among the Democrats and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani among Republicans, already have gone down to defeat.
"Voters have moved beyond boomerism. Now, Americans will choose between an older version of duty, honor, glory and a return to the American Century vs. a new vision of global pluralism, diversity, change and youthful vigor," pollster John Zogby wrote in a thoughtful and insightful article released Wednesday.
The relatively rapid political eclipse of the early boomers contrasts strikingly with the longevity of the tough, confident, high-riding old G.I. generation cohort. They produced seven consecutive presidents who led the United States for 32 years, one of the longest periods of generational national dominance in U.S. history.
The first was John Kennedy, who pledged to put Americans first on the moon, and the last was George H.W. Bush, on whose watch the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States won the Cold War. JFK and the elder Bush were close contemporaries, even though their presidencies were nearly 30 years apart. The core boomers, for all their self-confidence, forcefulness and numbers, have been rejected after only half as long, and they produced only two presidents.
The same boomers who so long ago confidently proclaimed that you couldn't trust or respect anyone over the age of 30 now no doubt will be soon proclaiming that you can't trust anyone under the age of 40.
But they still could make a comeback. Straus and Howe predicted that when they hit old age, the boomers would make very effective, charismatic and inspirational elders, once memories of how selfish, self-indulgent and incompetently reckless they were in their prime have faded. We shall see.