The baby boomers are members of the most-discussed generation of all time. That may sound surprising considering the amount of millennial and Gen Z discussion there’s been in the past few decades, but boomers have been in the news for over half a century now. We’re all living in the world the baby boomers built, […]
The baby boomers are members of the most-discussed generation of all time. That may sound surprising considering the amount of millennial and Gen Z discussion there’s been in the past few decades, but boomers have been in the news for over half a century now. We’re all living in the world the baby boomers built, and one way to try to understand this generation is by looking at baby boomer language.
What does baby boomer language mean? It’s not like they speak very differently from the rest of the generations. Still, the way baby boomers talk and write (and the way we talk and write about them) is notable for a few reasons. Let’s dive into the rich world of baby boomers, starting with figuring out who they are, exactly.
There are no real divisions between generations, so there’s no widespread agreement on the exact age range. Originally, the baby boomers were defined by a specific historical event: the end of World War II. As the war came to a close and men came home, there was a distinct rise in the birth rate, which was referred to as a “baby boom” as early as 1951 (though the phrase was in use before this particular baby boom even happened, being coined in 1941). The use of “baby boomer” itself came a bit later, appearing in print for the first time in 1963.
For a time, “baby boomer” was a phrase describing any young person, until Generation X came along and wanted to distinguish itself. Today, the Pew Research Group defines baby boomers as the people born from 1946 to 1964, meaning they range anywhere in age from 58 to 76 at the time of this writing.
The baby boomer generation has been around for quite a while, making it even harder than usual to make generalizations about them. They were born during the post-war period and lived through the Cold War, the civil rights movement, second-wave feminism and the Vietnam War, and that was all before 1980. While millennials and baby boomers are often put in opposition to each other, the coverage of baby boomers in the 1960s and 1970s is similar to that of millennials in the 2000s and 2010s. They were portrayed as a spoiled group of self-involved ingrates, dubbed the “me” generation. Coincidentally, pretty much every generation since has been dubbed the “me” generation at some point.
In the past few years, boomers have become a symbol of being out of touch (the dismissive phrase “OK, boomer” reached the height of popularity in 2019). It’s not a new phenomenon for young generations to be mad at old generations, however, and baby boomers — with more wealth and political power than anyone else — are an easy target. It’s also a shrinking generation, with millennials outnumbering them for the first time in 2019.
The baby boomers have, for the most part, become more conservative over time. Not politically, but linguistically. Over the course of a person’s life, their language changes in various ways. This is apparent in linguistic studies of age-grading, which looks not at generations but age cohorts. While your generation is the same throughout your life, you age through different cohorts.
Young people tend to be the most linguistically innovative, and as people age, they become less experimental and more likely to stick to language that is considered “prestigious.” The example cited most often is probably the pronunciation of “-ing” at the ends of gerunds like “walking” and “dancing.” The prestigious version of this is pronouncing the full “-ing,” whereas the non-prestigious form is saying it like “-in’.” You might not even consciously register which version you’re using, but for the most part, people use the prestigious variant more and more as they transition from childhood to adulthood.
The most common explanation is that as people move into the workplace and face societal pressures to conform, they try to use “standard” language more often. This is only true on average, though, because there is plenty of variation from person to person. Other factors, like a person’s class and gender, can also affect how their language changes over their lifetime.
There’s an interesting shift that comes about in a person’s 50s, however. After a lifetime of becoming more and more “standard” in their language, the average starts to reverse course. It seems as people start to retire, the pressures to conform decrease and they can start using less prestigious forms once again. In other words, they start speaking more vernacular languages. While young people get all the credit for inventing words and changing language, older generations are also linguistically interesting.
As of now, there’s a need for more research on older populations. Recent studies show that language change for people 50 and up is more complicated than the earlier age studies thought. While on average it seems people start speaking with more vernacular, that’s not true for everyone. There’s still more to learn about how language changes with age.
Over the past several decades, the English language has changed in many ways big and small. A series of vowel shifts have made it so that, for many people, words that used to sound different sound the same (like “cot” and “caught”), and other vowels have simply shifted. For the most part, these pronunciation changes are hard to hear. The much more noticeable changes happen at the word level.
Trying to capture baby boomers with the words they use is not an easy task, however. Much of the slang that used to define the generation has fallen out of use. The words that did stay around have now been in use so long that you probably wouldn’t even know they were popularized by baby boomers. Let’s look at baby boomer language past, present and future to try to get an idea of what it all really means.
If you look back at the 1960s and ‘70s, there’s no shortage of slang that would sound very dated today. Words and phrases like “groovy” and “boogie” and “space cadet” all reached the heights of mainstream success in those decades, when baby boomers were becoming teen boomers. Then, they fell out of favor.
It’s not always easy to predict which words are “slang” and which words will stick around for a long time. Words that describe fads tend to have a very short shelf life — “hippie” rose and fell with the hippie movement — as well as words that are used by young people to say something is cool (“hip,” “groovy,” “lit” and more have all gone in and out of style). In many ways, slang is like a meme, endlessly reproduced until it evolves or gets boring.
Baby boomers did make countless contributions to the English language throughout their lives, however. To take a youthful example, they invented much of the drug slang that persists today, like “shroom” and “doobie” (admittedly, the second one isn’t quite as popular anymore). Many of the terms young boomers invented to describe the changing world around them were passed down.
To really see the generation’s linguistic impact, however, you have to look beyond “slang.” Baby boomers Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, for example, ushered in inventions that have fundamentally changed human communication. Admittedly the two men didn’t do it on their own, but the baby boomer generation inarguably shaped the technologies we use today.
Part of the reason it’s so hard to measure the impacts of baby boomers on language is that, at this point, we’re all living in the world they created. While millennials and zoomers are measured by how far they deviate from the linguistic norm, boomers have created the norm, and continue to shape it.
The baby boomer generation is slowly retiring, but at this point they’re still very much in power in politics, corporations and the media. For the most part, then, baby boomer language and standard English are still the same thing. That also explains why baby boomers are often the people resisting linguistic changes introduced by the younger generations (the overuse of “like,” the non-literal “literally” and vocal fry are all common targets for baby boomers).
It’s easy to portray baby boomers as “no longer with it,” but it’s a pattern that goes beyond any single generation. Young people invent new linguistic forms, older people often dislike them and over time, that form either disappears or becomes part of everyday speech. Yes, that’s a simplified form, but it’s a good reminder the Gen Xers, millennials and boomers are almost certainly going to do the same thing as they get older. It’s definitely better than when older people attempt to adopt youthful slang.
It’s hard to say what is happening to baby boomer language right now, however. As we said earlier, there’s less research on the linguistic traits of older age cohorts, so there’s plenty still to learn about what happens to our vocabulary and grammar as we age. Whatever trends and averages there might be, there’s no doubt there is a wonderful diversity of ways to speak. That’s true no matter what age you are.
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