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It’s All Over Now, Baby Boom

MUNICH – Carlos Barientos III was born at 6:45 on the evening of December 31, 1964, a few miles northwest of Honolulu. This year, he will turn 50, quite possibly making him the last member of the US “baby boom” to do so. The generation that once seemed to define for the world the energy, excitement, and even irritating nature of youth will officially be “old” – even if, some might say, not entirely grown up. But what does this really mean?

The “baby boomers” are the generation that grew up in the United States, in particular, but also in Europe, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere, after World War II, when rapid economic growth was accompanied by rising birth rates. Those born during that 19-year period – from 1945 to 1964 – were part of the largest, most prosperous, best-educated and, some might say, most indulged and indulgent generation that the world has ever seen.

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From sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to the civil rights movements to the dot-com and housing bubbles, for better or worse, the boomer generation has shaped modern society. And with one of its younger members currently in the White House, and others at Downing Street, the Élysée Palace, and the German Chancellery, it will continue to do so for years to come.

But there are stark differences within the boomer generation. Early boomers – beginning with Kathleen Casey-Kirschling, whose birth one second past midnight on New Year’s Day, 1946, has made her a minor celebrity – grew up surrounded by the hippie counterculture, the music of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and the Vietnam war.

By contrast, Barientos and the other boomers of 1964 grew up playing video games and listening to disco music – or, if their tastes were closer to those of Barientos, the heavier sounds of Gary Moore, Thin Lizzy, and Van Halen. In fact, Barientos, who owns and runs his own guitar shop with his father, does not readily identify himself as a baby boomer; he feels closer to the “Generation X” that followed.

But Barientos’s interests are not all that set him apart from the likes of Casey-Kirschling. While many of the early US baby boomers are now comfortably retired, enjoying the benefits of Medicare, Social Security, and tax-free Roth IRA disbursements, Barientos is still in his prime – and concerned about his retirement.

By 2031, when Barientos and the rest of the baby boomers are retired, more than 20% of the US population will be at least 65 years old, compared with only 13% in 2010. As a result, the old-age dependency ratio (the number of people aged 65 or over relative to the working-age population) is set to rise from 1:5 to 1:3. This will intensify pressure on state pension funds and health-care systems considerably.

As Barientos puts it, “It’s not like my dad’s generation, where you worked a job for a certain amount of time, saved some money, and then stopped working.” Instead, he explains, “we just do what we can…and keep moving forward.”

Not that Barientos would swap places with his father. “I think I’ve been blessed in comparison to previous generations,” he says. “Even compared to older members of my generation, I haven’t had to fight for my freedom. I didn’t have to go to Vietnam. I’ve been able to benefit from the hard work of people before me.”

Definitions of the post-war baby boom vary by country. Barientos’s claim to be the last US boomer rests on Hawaii’s position as America’s most westerly state in a time zone two hours behind the Pacific coast. It also means, though, that he lives a life that is somewhat different from that of many of his peers on the mainland. “The food, the language, the weather – Hawaii isn’t like the rest of the US,” he notes. “The first time I left Hawaii, I was 25 years old. I went to Maryland to visit a friend for two weeks and ended up staying five years because I loved it so much.”

If he had the money, Barientos says he would probably be a “snow bird” – spending summers on the US mainland and winter in Hawaii. “There are things I’d like to do with my family that we just can’t do here, such as [going to] museums, amusement parks, or large sporting events.” He could not leave permanently, though – there are too many things to enjoy at home. “I love the people, the culture – pretty much everything.”

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When Barientos and his family spill out onto the beach to celebrate New Year’s Eve with the whole neighborhood, one of the last things he will think about is his age. “I don’t have time to be worrying about that!” he says.

What about his status as the last of a generation? “I don’t know whether I’m the last baby boomer or not,” Barientos muses. “If there was anyone born in Hawaii later than 6:45 on December 31, 1964, then they’ve got me beat. But, you know what, if it means I get to meet some new people and talk about it, then it’s definitely cool.”