From the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Responsibility

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From the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Responsibility


By: Pew Research Center

Date: December 8, 2005

Source: Pew Research Center. "From the Age of Aquarius To the Age of Responsibility." December 8, 2005 〈〉 (accessed June 28, 2006).

About the Author: The Pew Research Center conducts research on issues, attitudes, and trends. It conducts extensive public opinion polls and scientific research, delivering its findings in reports and briefings.


World War II (1938–1945) was the bloodiest conflict in human history, with a death toll in the hundreds of millions and a financial toll in the hundreds of billions. By the war's end, life throughout the United States had been significantly disrupted, as husbands and fathers went off to battle, factories stopped producing cars and began building bombers, and women's participation in the civilian workforce climbed by 50 percent. Many aspects of ordinary life had been put on hold and basic commodities such as coffee and car tires had been strictly rationed. With numerous young men overseas, marriages were frequently postponed, and birth rates declined.

Following the war's end, American G.I.s returned home ready to get on with their lives. This sudden influx of labor severely taxed the economy, and some returning soldiers faced difficulty finding work while companies labored to shift from wartime to peacetime production. Many of the soldiers arrived home ready to begin or expand their families, and the years following the war became a period of skyrocketing birth rates. This enormous post-war generation, larger than any before it, included 75 million men and women born between 1946 and 1964, and was christened the Baby Boom.

The Baby Boom generation has moved through United States history like an earthquake, straining basic services at each stage of life. As the baby boomers began reaching school age, public education was stretched to the limit and school systems built numerous new campuses trying to keep up. Boomers also played a key role in the massive expansion of the economy, swelling the work force as they took jobs. Boomer investment in the stock market played a role in the stock run-up of the 1980's and 1990's, and as Boomers retire they are expected to stress the retirement infrastructure.

The 1960's were difficult years for the nation, as the largest cohort in history reached the traditionally tumultuous teenage and young adult years. The rise of teenage culture and the hippie counterculture played a significant role in the schisms which developed between Baby Boomers and their parents' generation, a division aptly summed up in the advice "never trust anyone over age 30." As young men and women, the Baby Boomers railed against everything they disliked about their parents' generation, including their perceived obsession with work and upward mobility; ironically upon reaching adulthood many Boomers seemed to imitate and at times exceed their parents' economic aspirations. By the late twentieth century the Boomers were raising teenage children of their own, and many found that the parent-child relationship feels quite different when viewed from the other side.


Baby Boomers Approach Age 60

From the Age of Aquarius To the Age of Responsibility

1. Introduction and Overview

As they advance toward the threshold of old age, the nation's 75 million baby boomers are in an extended "sandwich" phase of their family life cycle, with many either rais-ing minor children or providing financial and other forms of support to adult children or to aging parents.

In the past year, 50% of all boomers were raising one or more young children and/or providing primary financial support to one or more adult children.

Another 17% whose only children are ages 18 and older were providing some financial assistance to at least one such child, according to a Pew Research Center survey that explores intergenerational relationships within families.

In addition, two-in-ten boomers were providing some financial assistance to a parent.

The boomers currently range in age from 41 through 59—meaning that, like middle-aged generations before them, they are in a stage of life when it is natural to give more than to take when it comes to relationships with both parents and children.

However, changing demographics within families have prolonged this sandwich period for boomers. At a time in life when many are looking ahead to their own retirement, boomers are likely either to have parents who are still living, children who are still young or adult children who are still in need of financial support.

To be sure, few boomers bear all of these responsibilities simultaneously. For example, only about 13% of boomers are providing some financial support to an elderly parent at the same time they are also either raising a minor child or supporting an adult child. Still, most boomers are playing at least one of these roles, meaning that, at a relatively advanced stage of their own life cycle, they have a relatively full plate of family responsibilities.

Boomers are more likely to have living parents.

Thanks to advances in life expectancy, 71 percent of today's boomers have at least one living parent, whereas in 1989, just 60 percent of people who were ages 41-59 reported that they had at least one living parent, according to a Gallup survey. Even though today's elderly are more likely than the elderly of previous generations to enjoy higher income levels and better health, many still rely on their boomer children for assistance of one kind or another, be it caregiving or help with household errands.

But this reliance is not onesided—as with most kin to kin relationships, support flows in both directions. When asked who relies more on whom—you or your parents, 25% of boomers say their parents rely more on them, 10% say they rely more on their parents, and 11% volunteer that they rely on one another equally. A majority (53%) say neither parent nor child relies on the other. Boomers' reports of their financial exchanges with parents generally mirror this two-way pattern of felt reliance. Some 29% of boomers who have a parent say they gave financial support to a parent in the past year and 19% of boomers with a parent report receiving financial support from a parent.

Boomers are likely to have grown children in financial need.

When it comes to providing financial support for children, the parental role now typically extends beyond the time when a child is a minor. Some 63% of all boomers have at least one child ages 18 and older, and of this group of boomer parents, about two thirds (68%) are supporting an adult child financially, either as the primary (33%) or secondary (35%) source of support.

Today's young adults are more likely than young adults in previous generations to be burdened by heavy expenses or debt, and it is possible that the pattern of financial support by parents to adult children reflects the steadily rising cost of "big ticket" coming-into-adulthood expenses such as college tuition or the purchase of a home. In the past twenty years the cost of both college tuition and buying a first home has roughly doubled in inflation-adjusted dollars, and in the past 10 years the number of young adults with a federal student loan has also nearly doubled.

What's a family responsibility?

When boomer parents provide financial support for their children's college costs, they are fulfilling what they and most other Americans view as a basic responsibility of parenthood. Of five different kinds of intrafamily, multigenerational exchanges tested in this survey, paying for college is the one that the greatest number of Americans of all ages and backgrounds view as a responsibility. Some 62% of the adult population—and 66% of all boomers—describe it that way.

A small majority of boomers also say it is a parent's responsibility to take into one's home an elderly parent who wishes to move in. On the other hand, a solid majority of boomers, along with the rest of the adult population, do not view it as a parent's responsibility to take an adult child into one's home or to save for a child's inheritance, nor do they view it as grandparent's responsibility to help out with child care.

Satisfaction with family life

Nine-in-ten boomers say they are very (72%) or somewhat (18%) satisfied with their family life, and in these assessments, they are in sync with adults who are younger and older than they are.

There is virtually no difference in these assessments of family life between boomers who are providing financial assistance to parents or adult children and those who are not. However, among the 13% of boomers who have an elderly parent needing help to care for himself or herself there is less overall contentment with family life. Just 65% of boomers who have a parent in that sort of need say they are very satisfied with their family life; by contrast, 75% of boomers who have a parent able to handle these things on his or her own say they are very satisfied with their family life.

Looking Ahead

As boomers look ahead toward their own old age, their crystal ball is a bit cloudy but there is no widespread sense of foreboding. The generation whose iconic youthful rallying cry was to "never trust anyone over 30" apparently doesn't feel so bad about approaching a chronological milestone twice that number. The oldest boomers will turn 60 in January.

Asked which generation will enjoy old age the most, a slight plurality of boomers (33%) say that theirs will. The remainder say either that their parents' generation (26%) or their children's generation (31%) will. Older boomers (ages 51-59) are more optimistic than younger boomers (ages 41-50) about their prospects in old age, with 38% of older boomers saying their generation will enjoy old age the most but only 29% of younger boomers expressing that view.

And despite gloomy assessments from many economists and politicians about the fiscal crunch that society will face once this famously outsized generation hits retirement age, boomers are cautiously optimistic when they contemplate their own financial situation in retirement.

About a quarter (26%) of boomers say they expect to "live very comfortably" once they retire; another 29% say they will be able to "meet expenses with a little left over"; and another 24% say they will be able to "just meet basic living expenses." Some 17 percent, however, say they will "not have enough for the basics" and this level of apprehension is slightly higher among boomers than it is among current retirees (12% feel this way) or among adults ages 18 to 40 (10% feel this way).

These findings are from a telephone survey of a nationally representative, randomly-selected sample of 3,014 adults, including 1,117 boomers, that was conducted from Oct. 5 through Nov. 6, 2005.


For aging Baby Boomers retirement and old age may well become just the latest aspect of life to be shaken up and restructured. In many aspects old age today is far less certain than it was for the Boomers' parents: few companies today offer guaranteed retirement pensions, meaning the days of a gold watch and guaranteed medical care at age sixty-five are gone. Long life expectancies also mean that many Boomers may choose to change jobs or begin working part-time at sixty-five rather than retiring entirely. With the typical Boomer living twenty years or more after age sixty-five, demographers expect to see a growing number of healthy, active senior citizens participating in numerous aspects of work and leisure life.

While previous generations generally expected aging parents to move in with them near the end of their lives, Boomers today are far more likely to expect aging parents to live elsewhere, just as they expect to live away from their children's homes when they become elderly. Such changes in attitude are already fueling a building boom in the retirement care industry.

As the Baby Boom generation reaches the later years of life it is once again expected to impact the entire nation with its passing. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that as Boomers begin retiring and receiving federal retirement payments the number of retirees will soon overwhelm the number of active workers, straining and potentially bankrupting the nation's Social Security system. Some economists also fear that as Boomers retire and begin selling the stocks held in their retirement accounts the markets as a whole may experience stagnation or decline. Finally, current projections suggest that many Boomers have not accumulated adequate savings, despite higher lifetime earnings than any previous generation.

The passage of the post World War II generation has brought enormous changes to many aspects of American life. Though the specifics remain impossible to predict, it appears inevitable that their retirement and senior years will alter the U.S. economy and culture in significant and unexpected ways.



Harris, Leslie M. After Fifty: How the Baby Boom Will Redefine the Mature Market. Ithaca, NY: Paramount Books, 2003.

Macunovich, Diane J. Birth Quake: The Baby Boom and Its Aftershocks. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Zal, H. Michael. The Sandwich Generation: Caught between Growing Children and Aging Parents. Philadelphia, PA: Perseus Publishing, 1992.


Kadlec, Dan. "Grandpa Goes to College." Time (July 3, 2006): 94.

MacMillan, Amanda. "Relief for the Sandwich Generation." Prevention 57 (2005): 94.

Park, Andrew. "Between a Rocker and a High Chair." Business Week (Feb 21, 2005): 86-88.

Web sites

American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. "Financial Tips for the Sandwich Generation." 〈〉 (accessed July 16, 2006).

Ohio State University. "Aging Families—The Sandwich Generation." 〈〉 (accessed July 16, 2006).

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From the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Responsibility

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From the Age of Aquarius to the Age of Responsibility