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Last Updated: Friday, 18 August 2006, 09:44 GMT 10:44 UK
US baby boomers: Landmark generation
The first of the baby boomers are turning 60 this year - and the BBC is running a series of articles and interviews to mark the milestone. Here veteran BBC correspondent Brian Barron, in New York, asks US baby boomers about their fears and hopes.

Former US President Bill Clinton addresses a Democratic Party rally, 15 August 2006
Former President Bill Clinton says he is proud to be a baby boomer

In the week that Bill Clinton turns 60 - the first baby boomer to occupy the White House - the former president is in a mellow mood about his generation's achievements and the challenges ahead.

"On balance I'm proud to be a baby boomer," he said in a BBC interview.

"I think we've been a force for equal opportunity, for harmony among people, for peace, for reconciliation and for the notion that we have to go forward together."

Mr Clinton, who narrowly escaped being brought down by a sex scandal in his second term, is now admired by many Americans as a president who delivered peace and unprecedented prosperity.

"If he was constitutionally allowed to run again I'll wager he'd win in a landslide," said one New York commentator. "But that can't happen."

Social revolution

The term baby boomers comes from the big rise in births that followed demobilisation after the allies defeated Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II.

For nearly two decades there was a spurt in America's population growth, adding 78 million to the world's population.

Graph: US/UK birthrates

In their lives so far, boomers have brought about social and sexual revolutions; they helped roll back segregation laws in the 50s and 60s and played a decisive role in pushing through women's rights.

Baby boomers created the culture of cool along with trends that were copied round the world - the blue jeans fashion craze, hip hop music and the cult of youth.

Hundreds of thousands of baby boomers were conscripted in the 1960s and early 70s and sent to fight in Vietnam, a war the Americans lost amid violent protests in the US itself and a disturbing rise in political alienation.

In all, 50,000 Americans died in Indochina but both Bill Clinton and the current president, George W Bush, managed to evade military service there.

Now many of the American commanders in Iraq - the Vietnam of our time - are baby boomers in their late 40s and early 50s.

'Long way to go'

Here in New York I talked to three baby boomers about their fears and hopes.

Martin Luther King addressing the March on Washington on 28 August 1963
The baby boom generation helped roll back segregation laws
Forty-six-year-old Mark Robertson, a Jamaican American who studied at Yale, is now an executive in the oldest African-American advertising agency in the US.

"For black Americans you have to understand that the boomer generation has made one-third of us middle or upper income," he told me in his downtown Manhattan office.

"That's over three million households. That's an economic and cultural landmark. The flip side is that two-thirds are still lower middle class or working poor - so we still have a long way to go."

Then I went to the comfortable apartment of fitness trainer Jill Johnson, pushing 50 but as fit as a fiddle.

"I've done this for 25 years," she says, as she commands an overweight client, lying on the floor doing stretch exercises, to try to relax and not go red in the face.

The patients desperately want to get healthier but they're already stressed out with so many other things
Jill Johnson
Hospital fitness trainer

Now Jill is planning to switch careers and specialise in geriatric care.

Clearly it is a struggle to persuade many boomers to lose weight and shape up.

"I teach fitness classes in a hospital obesity centre," she explains. "The patients desperately want to get healthier but they're already stressed out with so many other things, such as overwork at the office."

She shrugs and voices concern about healthcare inadequacies in the US and how this casts a shadow across the boomer generation's future.

Resilience test

Now it is time to take an extended ride with Wayne King, himself nearly 50, and for 12 years the driver of a yellow taxi in the city that never sleeps.

Woman hails taxi in New York (file picture)
Many baby boomers are pessimistic about their financial prospects

With his long white hair and beard fluttering in the wind from the open window, we speed up Fifth Avenue.

Wayne, a well-read character who is extremely knowledgeable about rock and pop music and the movie industry, is pessimistic about the financial outlook.

"I feel increasingly marginalised by the economic system," he says. "You get to my sort of job, you get to my age - the kind of work I do - and ultimately it's diminishing returns.

"The rents go up. The expenses go up - everything costs more. But you're not really left with a great sense of protection. So there's a lot of personal anxiety among working people like me."

I think we had a very good generation. I'm very glad that I lived when I did and that I was part of that
Bill Clinton
Former US president

That unease is very widespread, a reflection of the unresolved crises over welfare programmes such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

But this is New York, always a city of self-belief - not for nothing styling itself as the Capital of the World.

The baby boomers have proved resilient and have ushered in deep-seated changes in our attitudes as the decades roll by.

Let's give the final word to Bill Clinton, never a man to give up.

"We're being tested again now," he says, "but I'm not one of those people who looks back and says 'Oh, we didn't have a very good generation'.

"I think we had a very good generation. I'm very glad that I lived when I did and that I was part of that."


SEE ALSO
Baby boom... and bust
17 Aug 06 |  Magazine
Baby boom proves economic power
14 Aug 06 |  Business
Bush hails Medicare reform
27 Jun 03 |  Americas

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