Baby Boomers: Making a difference, finding fulfillment

What you don't know about the Baby Boomers

Posted Oct 20, 2009

Baby boomers may be popularly portrayed as whiners, complainers and narcissists, but a new study I've recently completed says the 50-somethings are getting a bad rap. It’s wrong to say baby boomers are selfish and only care about staying young. They have a feeling of connection to younger generations and a social conscience.My findings, based on long-term data from two groups of baby boomers, were published in the September issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association with co-authors Joel Sneed (Queens College, NY) and Aline Sayer (University of Massachusetts Amherst).

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 conducted by Vassar psychologist Anne Constantinople. Similar studies of successive generations of students at Rochester as well as follow-up 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 mid-life. 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. 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 through life.   

Since the last study, the boomers have found fulfillment beyond the workplace. 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, 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.I could see that there was a real concern about social well-being that goes back to the core values they developed in college. Another change we found concerns “industry,” a personality trait associated with the work ethic. The oldest baby 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. I concluded that the very lowest industry scores were obtained in college from participants who, in early adulthood, had jobs with extremely low prestige. 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. 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.

The study also reinforces the idea that individuals can overcome early issues with intimacy and relationships 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.

What I call "enhanced development gains” could also be seen in sample members 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.

The study also lays to rest the myth of the mid-life crisis. Based on the interviews and surveys I concluded that 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. People grapple with their problems in a variety of ways. You may experience depression in midlife, but it’s too glib to write that off as a midlife crisis. Many other factors must be considered.

Here are a few tips based on my study's findings to help you improve your chances for midlife growth:

1. Don't give up on yourself. You may be feeling frustrated and stagnated now, but you don't have to stay that way forever. In my book, I've shown how you can use "Action Plans" to your advantage to make changes now.

2. It's possible to "catch up." Maybe your adult life wasn't off to the greatest start. As my study showed, though, people who were lagging behind in qualities such as intimacy were able to make progress and reach (or exceed) the levels of their earlier-committed peers.

3. Don't write off your (or other people's) problems as a "Midlife Crisis." In one of my later blogs, I lay to rest the notion that people go through midlife crises just because they turn a certain age.

4. Get out and do something. If you're feeling stagnant, find opportunities in your community to do some volunteer work. Looking outside yourself is the best way to improve what's happening inside yourself.

5. Learn to accept yourself and your life so far. Erikson talks about "ego integrity" as the ability to integrate your experiences into your sense of self. You can't change your past, but you can change how you feel about your past-- and your future.

We are not locked into a narrowly defined life by the time we are of college age.  If you're not feeling fulfilled now, you don't have to give up on yourself. People can change at any age.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting. 

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2009