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Baby Boomers and mental health

Reviewed by Diane Warns

three senior men sitting on bench

Who Are Baby Boomers?

Baby Boomers are a generational cohort currently consisting of adults in their late fifties, sixties, and early to mid-seventies. They are situated between the Silent Generation and Generation X (Gen X). 

The name “baby boomer” is a reference to the post-World War II “boom” in U.S. population. Lives that were put on hold during the war quickly resumed, with many people choosing to settle down, get married, buy a home, and start a family. Baby Boomers are also sometimes known as “flower children” due to their involvement with the hippie movement of the 1960s and 70s.

When Were Baby Boomers Born?

People born between 1946–1964 are considered Baby Boomers. However, most experts divide the Baby Boomer generation into two subgroups:

  • Leading-Edge Baby Boomers: Born between 1946–1955, these older Baby Boomers came of age primarily during the 1960s and early 1970s. They may have childhood memories of the Civil Rights movement and were likely subject to or affected by the draft during the Vietnam War.
  • Trailing-Edge Baby Boomers: Born between 1956 and 1964, these younger Baby Boomers came of age primarily during the 1970s and early 1980s. They grew up with greater rights for women and racial minorities without having firsthand experience with the movement that fought for them. They also largely escaped the draft and have lower rates of military service than their older peers.

Often, having a personal memory of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 serves as a litmus test between Leading-Edge and Trailing-Edge Boomers, much like how having a personal memory of 9/11 is typically the dividing point between Millennials and Gen Z.1

Cusper Generations

Between generational cutoffs there exist microgenerations known as cusper generations. These cusper generations may exhibit characteristics of both larger generational cohorts.

No named cusper generation exists between the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers. However, Leading-Edge Baby Boomers born shortly after World War II may find they share traits in common with younger Silents born right before and during the war.

Trailing-Edge Baby Boomers may belong to the Generation Jones microgeneration, which exists at the cutoff point between Baby Boomers and Gen X. The name “Generation Jones” is most commonly thought to derive from the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” which refers to the desire of this microgeneration to attain the wealth and status more easily attained by the Silent Generation and Leading-Edge Baby Boomers. 

Baby Boomer Facts

Demographics

  • Race & ethnicity: About 75% of Baby Boomers are White, according to 2015 census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution.2 As a generation, Baby Boomers are less diverse than the country as a whole, which is estimated to be about 62% White.
  • Gender & sexuality: A recent Gallup poll shows that only 2% of Baby Boomers openly identify as LGBTQIA+, compared to 4% of Gen X, 9% of Millennials, and 16% of Gen Z.3 According to Pew Research Center, only 27% of Baby Boomers believe same-sex marriage is good for society, compared to 32% who think it is bad (40% believe it doesn’t make a difference).4 Additionally, 12% of Baby Boomers personally know someone who uses gender nonconforming pronouns.
  • Education: Pew Research Center data shows that 33% of Baby Boomer men and 31% of Baby Boomer women had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2017.5 Baby Boomers are the last generation in which a higher percentage of men were college-educated than women.
  • Wealth: According to 2020 financial data from the Federal Reserve, Baby Boomers currently control 52% of household wealth in the U.S., more than any other generational cohort.6 Baby Boomers have had majority control since 2008.
  • Population percentage: US census data from 2019 shows that Baby Boomers make up approximately 22% of the population.7 However, at their height, in 1964, Baby Boomers accounted for a whopping 37%.

Major Historical Impacts

Post-World War II Prosperity

Along with the baby boom came an economic boom. The G.I. Bill made it easier for veterans to return stateside, start a family, and afford a home in the suburbs. Technological advancements, such as refrigerators, televisions, and washing machines, quickly became affordable conveniences for the modern middle-class family. 

Parents who had lived through the Great Depression and the war were suddenly able to afford what had previously been viewed as luxuries. This lifted many Baby Boomers into the middle and upper classes over the course of a single generation.

Wrapped up in such prosperity was the promise that the future would be even rosier. Science fiction predicted future utopian societies, as seen in Star Trek and The Jetsons. There was a strong belief that progress was linear—and even somewhat inevitable, especially for the United States. Most Baby Boomers were children or teenagers when they watched in awe as humans first walked on the moon in 1969. Such hope and optimism fueled their belief that anything was possible with hard work and strong convictions.

Civil Rights Movement

Most of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, as well as the women’s liberation movement, hippie movement, and gay rights movement, were part of the Silent Generation or the Greatest Generation. Although Baby Boomers did not lead these movements, they were deeply influenced by them. 

Baby Boomers also experienced changing norms from a youthful perspective. Though they may not have marched on Washington in 1963, they likely had memories of school segregation before experiencing school integration. Though they did not fight for women’s rights, they may have experienced the very beginning of women’s sports in their schools after the passage of Title IX.8

Vietnam War

Conscription had occurred during both World War II and the Korean War, but since the U.S. never officially declared war on Vietnam, the peacetime draft soon followed. From 1964 until 1973, about 2 million men were drafted into military service, making up roughly 25% of the military stationed in combat zones.9 

Trailing-Edge Baby Boomers never experienced the draft, but Leading-Edge Baby Boomers were perhaps the most affected by it. According to the New York Times, by 1967, most of the American soldiers losing their lives in the war were Baby Boomers.10 Although many Baby Boomers led the protest movement against the war, not all were against military service: 10 million Boomers have served in the military at some point in their lives.

Watergate

Most Baby Boomers were in their teens and twenties when they watched the impeachment trial and eventual resignation of President Nixon. Along with the draft, Watergate became another powerful reason for public cynicism and distrust toward government and other institutions. Many Baby Boomers today are wary of so-called “experts” in various fields because of their experience with other failures in leadership, such as Watergate.

The Cold War

The Cold War began shortly after the end of World War II. When the Soviet Union successfully created and detonated an atomic bomb in 1949, anxiety about nuclear annihilation escalated.

Many Baby Boomers grew up doing duck-and-cover drills, in which their teachers instructed them to practice hiding under their desks in case of nuclear attack. Far from being an anxious overreaction by a few misguided educators, these drills were created at the federal level by the Truman administration. Bomb shelters weren’t seen as evidence of paranoia, but instead as reasonable accommodations suitable for a school building or other public gathering place.

The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 only made matters worse. The oldest Baby Boomers were just 16 when the world waited for 13 days to see if the standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would turn into nuclear war. Even younger Boomers who weren’t yet born during the crisis would grow up under the shadow of potential nuclear disaster.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, signaling the end of the Cold War, Baby Boomers were in their mid-twenties, thirties, and early forties. Their formative experiences had taken place under the ever-present threat of the end of the world. 

Baby Boomers & Mental Health Stigma

In general, Baby Boomers take a skeptical approach toward mental health as well as mental health treatment. Many Boomers place a high priority on being self-sufficient. Therefore, seeking treatment for mental illness is often viewed as a personal or moral failure instead of a health problem. 

The Effects of Mental Institutions

If Baby Boomers were exposed to the concept of mental health while they were coming of age, it was likely only in the context of mental institutions. 

To Boomers, “mental illness” referred to only the most severe cases of what psychologists today refer to as big-T trauma: seeing combat in a war zone, surviving an assault, or suffering severe injuries in an accident, for example. People struggling with such horrors would then be placed in a mental hospital or asylum to receive professional treatment.

Some families in the 20th century viewed mental illness as shameful for both the individual sufferer as well as their family. Baby Boomers may remember their families attempting to hide the fact that a family member had been institutionalized, or at least shutting down any discussion about it. 

The quality of treatment patients experienced at mental institutions varied significantly. Some organizations provided adequate health care; others provided little more than abuse and negligence. Eventually, efforts toward deinstitutionalization took hold. Over the course of 40 years, an estimated 487,000 people were discharged from mental institutions. Although the era of institutionalization was over, stigma toward mental health care remained.

How Baby Boomers Talk About Mental Health

Many mental health issues were still being researched while Baby Boomers were coming of age. Terminology in particular changed quickly. There was little education available about mental health or how to discuss mental health issues. Derogatory labels filled the vacuum instead. 

Because of this, many Baby Boomers face a significant learning curve for how to talk about mental illness in a healthy way. Some Boomers may be confused why calling someone “crazy” or “attention-seeking” is suddenly taboo. On the other hand, other Boomers may wonder why younger generations embrace labels they view as limiting and negative, such as “anxious” or “depressed.” 

Baby Boomers & PTSD

According to Pew Research Center, 21% of male Baby Boomers in 2017 were military veterans.11 Today, most war veterans served in the Gulf War and subsequent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, although the Vietnam War (in which many Baby Boomers served) is a close second.12

The history of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is closely correlated with the history of military service. Many early names for PTSD came from military experience,13 such as:

  • Soldier’s heart
  • Shell shock
  • Battle fatigue
  • Combat stress reaction (CSR)

In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) added the term “PTSD” to the third edition of its authoritative diagnostic manual, the DSM. Experts at the APA diagnosed PTSD as a form of mental illness in large part due to the stories and symptoms of Vietnam War veterans (among other survivors of trauma, such as Holocast survivors). 

It’s important to keep in mind that by the time PTSD became an official diagnosis, Baby Boomers were in their mid-teens, twenties, and early thirties. Although veterans may have accepted the diagnosis, civilian Boomers may have remained skeptical, especially those who have suffered little “t” traumas, such as divorce, bullying, or getting fired. National traumas, such as assassinations, terrorist attacks, and the threat of nuclear war, could have also produced a trauma response for some Baby Boomers, regardless of their military service background.

Baby Boomers & Disabilities

In addition to stigma around mental illness, many Baby Boomers grew up with stigma around disabilities in general. Mental, behavioral, or intellectual disabilities often went undiagnosed and untreated. Baby Boomers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and other conditions likely faced discrimination, marginalization, bullying, and even abuse, especially as children.

This affects how Baby Boomers seek help for disabilities today. Some Boomers have gone their entire lives without a diagnosis that could have provided greater understanding or opportunities for treatment for themselves and their loved ones. Today, stigma and fear can make discussion of or accommodations for age-related disabilities, such as early onset dementia, intolerable for some Boomers. 

Baby Boomers & Depression

A person’s risk for depression increases with age. As a generational cohort, many Baby Boomers are preparing for, going through, or adjusting to retirement. This major life change can trigger many mental health challenges, including depression.

Additionally, depression can develop as a result of grief. Many Baby Boomers are entering a season of life in which parents, spouses, siblings, friends, and other loved ones may pass away. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Leading-Edge Boomers have been at greater risk of infection, hospitalization, and death. Many Boomers experienced the past year isolated from loved ones, grandchildren, family, and friends. All of these experiences can contribute to an increased risk for depression.

If you or a loved one are struggling with depression, please consider the following resources:

Are Generations Real?

It is important to note that generations are socially constructed categories. Specific details about each generation, such as date range, formative historical events, and even the name of the generation itself, are all finalized over time by a mix of expert and public opinion. 

Strauss-Howe Generational Theory

The Strauss-Howe generational theory states that generations occur in a four-stage cycle, with each generation lasting around 20–25 years. Each generation corresponds with a “turning,” which is a change in society and culture. The generations that come of age during a specific turning adopt a corresponding archetype. 

A typical Strauss-Howe generational cycle would look like this:

  1. High: Society is functioning as it was built. This turning produces the idealist archetype, also known as the Prophet (currently Baby Boomers and eventually Generation Alpha). 
  2. Awakening: Society begins to question why it was built the way it was and whether or not it actually functions. This turning produces the reactive archetype, also known as the Nomad (currently Gen X).
  3. Unraveling: Society begins to lose its ability to function as it was built. This turning produces the civic archetype, also known as the Hero (currently Millennials).
  4. Crisis: Society falls apart and is rebuilt to function in a new way. This turning produces the adaptive archetype, also known as the Artist (currently Gen Z and previously the Silent Generation).

The Limits of Generational Theory   

While generations can be helpful ways of understanding others, they have their limits. Too often, generations can be reduced to stereotypes or confused with specific stages of life. Like all socially constructed categories, generations are most useful in the context of other demographics and shared social experiences, such as:

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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