From Play-Doh to Dementia, Boomers Changed the World

March 27 (Bloomberg) — We are on the downhill side of the Boomer Century and early reviews are mixed. Will the boomers go down in history as a bust or as the worthy heirs to the Greatest Generation?

“The Boomer Century: 1946-2046,” which airs tomorrow on PBS at 9 p.m. New York time, offers a generally positive appraisal while holding out the possibility of a disastrous finish.

The two-hour special, hosted by psychologist/gerontologist Ken Dychtwald and written by Oscar-winner Mark Jonathan Harris, begins by noting this is the “largest and most closely observed generation” in U.S. history. That’s true on both counts, especially if navel-gazing is included.

The ball got rolling the year after World War II when the Greatest Generation came home from the front and hit the sack. Of all the women who could have children, the show says, 92 percent did. By the time the steam cleared, there were over 78 million offspring.

These kids were born into unprecedented prosperity. According to author Alvin Toffler, that was partly because their fathers had “bombed out the competition’s factories” in Germany while the Germans had done the same to the French.

The boomers were indulged by the child-rearing policies of Dr. Spock and enjoyed vast amusements such as Play-Doh, the Slinky, coonskin caps and television.

Science provided other diversions, including opportunities created by the birth-control pill and recreational drugs. Dad dropped bombs; junior dropped acid and perhaps his trousers in the bargain.

Reiner, Stone

Of course, many boomers also marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Their skepticism about the system was heavily influenced by the 1960s assassinations of the two Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, and later by Watergate.

Several boomer eminences are interviewed, including author Erica Jong, avatar of “zipless” sex; Eve Ensler of “The Vagina Monologues” fame; TV’s Rob “Meathead” Reiner; civil rights leader Julian Bond; and filmmaker Oliver Stone (whose cavalier interpretation of the JFK assassination brings to mind the credo of another boomer hero, Alfred E. Neuman: What, Me Worry?)

While the program is mostly serious, there are humorous moments — some of them unintentional. One segment features a Washington rock band whose members include a lawyer, a real estate agent and White House press secretary Tony Snow on flute. Their showcase number: “Born to Be Wild.”

Debt, Dementia

This generation was also born to be Botoxed and seems to have a pronounced fear of death. We meet a scientist who has doubled the lifespan of worms by “tweaking” a few genes, a process that may have a human application.

Yet longevity and health don’t always go hand in hand, the show says. Currently, 47 percent of people over 85 have some form of dementia, a trend that could ravage the boomer ranks. Medical breakthroughs may keep us alive past 100 but don’t guarantee the lights will stay on.

Or that the checks won’t bounce. While their parents were always saving for a rainy day, give a boomer a new line of credit and he’s likely to run to Sam’s Club and buy a couple of cases of merlot. Many boomers are deeply in debt, and those who believe they can finance their retirement by selling their home may be whistling past bankruptcy court.

The punchiest segment features comedian Lewis Black, who notes that 45 percent of New York high-school students don’t graduate while elsewhere in the city, rich parents pay megabucks for their 3-year-olds to attend private school.

“How much paste can a kid eat?” Black snarls, reminding us of problems largely ignored by the show, including a widening gap between the rich and poor and the disintegration of the black family.

Black says he hopes boomers will go out on a high note, though that’s far from certain. If they fail to fix Social Security and Medicare and stick their children with the bill, the Boomer Generation may go down as a bust.

To contact the writer of this story: Dave Shifle