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The many faces of the baby boomers

Often pictured as a huge monolith, the baby-boom generation is actually quite diverse.

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Jerry Benston is in his mid-50s, African- American, and a baby boomer. While in college in Oshkosh, Wis., in 1968, he participated in a protest to make his university more culturally diverse. He counts himself among those boomers who helped to raise awareness about important social issues of the day.

But almost 40 years later, he points to advertising and other media aimed at boomers that often include only a token black - which to him is not an accurate reflection of people born between 1946 and 1964.

"It's better today than it was, say, 15 years ago," says Mr. Benston. "But ... it seems to me there could be a lot more room for inclusion."

Much is made of the similarities among boomers - that they were the first generation to grow up with television, that many of them lived through the civil rights era and the Vietnam War. Finding out what events they share is as easy as opening a history book. But what distinguishes them from one another is not always apparent from their public image.

Researchers and advocates are trying to correct that, to combat generalizations that depict the 77 million-strong group as all retirees, or suburbanites, or Woodstock groupies. Understanding boomer diversity across age, ethnic, and economic lines is necessary, they say, for accurately assessing the needs and actions of the members of the group.

"The harm [in overgeneralizing] comes from a policy standpoint," says Mary Elizabeth Hughes, a professor at Duke University and coauthor of a recent analysis of boomer lives, including their diversity. "[Our report shows] the income inequality, or the wealth inequality in the boomers. And that suggests that some boomers are going to be very well off in retirement, and other boomers are going to be really struggling."

The media often lump boomers into one big homogeneous category, the report notes, including suggesting that they all have similar upbringings, are well-educated, affluent, or are married with children.

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