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Are baby boomers turning into a generation of outsiders?

Posted: Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Not long ago, I was blithely driving along, listening to a public radio story on senior citizens and unemployment.

I was expecting to hear something about say, the shrinking market for Wal-Mart greeters. Instead, what I got was a grim employment forecast for people older than 50.

Yikes.

I am comfortably settled in late middle age and know that how we define "old" is a constantly moving target. But 50 as the line between prime time and over the hill?

These are baby boomers we're talking about. By our sheer numbers alone, we transformed every phase of life we passed through: questioning authority, breaking barriers and generally sending furniture flying in all directions. Our sphere of influence - from music to TV to fashion - made us a coveted demographic and the most scrutinized and self-involved generation in history.

But clearly, the folks running the show these days didn't read all our press clippings. Because it feels like we're turning into - could it be? - outsiders.

Oh, the irony. The generation that coined the phrase "don't trust anyone over 30" is now being clobbered by their own stereotypes.

Grappling with this "has-been" status goes beyond the latest jobless numbers. It reverberates throughout popular culture. With the flex of our wallets, we turned Barbie dolls, Beatles lunch boxes and Farrah posters into icons. Our clothes crammed the racks of every mall; our music was the soundtrack of the nation.

But no more. Seemingly overnight, it was as if someone flipped a switch, dimming the lights on our entire cohort. The marketplace no longer hangs on our every whim, perhaps because we are so perplexed by what they're selling: Thongs, the "Twilight" book series, neck tattoos and just about any reality show. In fact, ever since I used "Eddie Haskell" to describe a kiss-up and drew blank stares from my younger co-workers, I've learned to avoid TV references altogether.

Every age group has been nudged aside by the one behind it. But the recession seems to have accelerated the passing of the baton, researchers say.

"The generation that grew up with no limits is feeling vulnerable in ways they've never experienced before," said Peter Picard, the 40-something vice-president of TRU, a Chicago-based marketing firm. "For the first time, boomers feel like they have a giant bull's-eye on their backs."

Some of this change happened almost imperceptibly (when did I start answering the phone with "Is everything OK?" instead of "hello"?). Some of it happened dramatically, the result of watching our retirement accounts vanish and dozens of colleagues clean out their cubicles.

"I feel like the ground is shifting under me," said one pharmaceutical sales rep in her late 50s, who was given her walking papers a year ago and has all but given up on finding a new gig.

Of course, this sense of whiplash can't be entirely blamed on the economic carnage. It's also layered with anxiety over our elderly parents, adult children without a clear path, a suspicious biopsy or the funeral of a former classmate. Whatever the reason, our customary swagger has been replaced by a new cautiousness. Or, as one friend recently put it, "I miss the old me."

After all those decades in the spotlight, we thought we'd be young and hip forever. To hedge our bets, we ran marathons and Botoxed and swapped prime rib for protein shakes. We also shunned elasticized waistbands, sensible shoes and any conversations about gum disease or colonoscopy prep.

In the end, it didn't matter. It's not that we didn't know, despite the "baby" in our moniker, that one day we'd be ushered off the stage. We just didn't expect it to happen quite so soon.

• Bonnie Rubin is a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Readers may write to her at brubintribune.com.



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