Although the popular inclination is to portray baby boomers as whiners, complainers and narcissists, a new study suggests the interpretation may be erroneous.
University of Massachusetts at Amherst psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne says the 50-somethings are getting a bad rap.
“It’s wrong to say baby boomers are selfish and only care about staying young,” said Whitbourne. “They have a feeling of connection to younger generations and a social conscience.”
Whitbourne’s findings, based on three decades of data from two groups of baby boomers, were published in the September issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.
The study began in 1966 at the University of Rochester in New York, when a group of students participated in a research project on personality development.
Similar studies of successive generations of students at Rochester as well as followup surveys with participants in the earliest groups have yielded 34 years of information about the life changes experienced by leading-edge boomers, who were in their mid- to late 50s, and trailing-edge boomers, who were in their mid-40s, at the time of the most recent survey.
“What’s most interesting is seeing what happened to baby boomers in midlife,” says Whitbourne.
“Some became more fulfilled, others became despairing, and yet others remained relatively stable. My research design allowed me to suggest which changes in their lives were most closely connected with a growth in fulfillment.”
According to Whitbourne, the results suggest that personality growth doesn’t follow a ladder model where one stage succeeds another, but more closely resembles a matrix, in which issues associated with early stages of life are continuously revisited throughout life.
For Whitbourne, the study illustrates that we are not locked into a narrowly defined life by the time we are of college age. “I’ve seen people overcome social deficits over the course of the study,” she says.
“This really shows that you don’t have to give up on yourself. People can change through their entire life.”
Since the last study, the boomers have found fulfillment beyond the workplace, says Whitbourne. In the 1980s, the “me generation” was working hard and making a lot of money, but something was missing from their lives. At the time, Whitbourne said the results were shaped by Reagan-era social values.
By the ’90s, however, the volunteerism of the Clinton years seems to have taken root among those unfulfilled boomers, she says. “There is a real concern about social well-being that goes back to the core values they developed in college.”
Another change Whitbourne notes concerns “industry,” a personality trait associated with the work ethic. The oldest boomers in the study had measured far lower on industry than other age groups in earlier surveys, but the latest data show they’ve caught up with their peers.
“It would appear from the present analyses that the very lowest industry scores were obtained in college from participants who, in early adulthood, had jobs with extremely low prestige,” says the study.
“However, they managed to exceed their peers in industry scores throughout the course of the study.”
For midlife women, the results also support other studies that found gains in self-confidence and determination through the workplace, says Whitbourne. “It is possible that for these leading-edge baby boomer women, feelings of competence were suppressed in college, when it seemed as though their careers would play an important role in their future success,” she writes.
The study also reinforces the idea that individuals can overcome early issues with intimacy and relationships, notes Whitbourne, and “catch up” with their psychologically more fortunate peers. According to the data, participants who were not in a committed relationship early in adulthood showed continued gains throughout the period of the study and moved toward an increasingly favorable resolution that exceeded those peers who were in a committed relationship in early adulthood.
“Enhanced development gains” were also noted for boomers who became parents after the age of 31. By waiting until their careers were established, those study participants may have been “best able to enjoy their new parenthood status to the fullest,” says Whitbourne.
Whitbourne says the study also lays to rest the myth of the midlife crisis. Based on the interviews and surveys, she says, “My study confirms others in the empirical literature that despite its popularity in the pop culture, the majority of adults don’t freak out in their 40s or 50s.”
That’s not to say the study participants haven’t had their ups and downs, says Whitbourne, but individuals grapple with their problems in a variety of ways. “People may experience depression in midlife, but it’s too glib to write that off as a midlife crisis. Other factors must be considered.”
The study is co-authored by Joel R. Sneed of Queens College, City University of New York, Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Aline Sayer, visiting associate professor of psychology at UMass Amherst.