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Riding the Crest of the Baby Boom

For 3 million Americans, this summer has been time to do a gut check, literally.

About 3,152,000 people got their high-school degrees in 1977 in America, more than any other year before or since.

Two decades later, the biggest high-school class in our country's history faces its 20th reunion and the awful prospect of middle age. If the baby boom is the pig in the American demographic python, then boomers who were born in 1959 and who graduated from high school 18 years later represent the porker's hindquarters: located both at the tail end and about the widest point of the baby boom.

The pig's rump is nearing the halfway point in the snake. Members of the class of 1977 are 38 now, just a few more mortgage payments away from 40, and at about half the average life expectancy.

They're starting to worry about retirement, college-education costs and coping with the death of a parent.

More urgently, they've been going on diets, pulling on easy-fit Dockers, combing over their bald spots and making sure they have some extra business cards to pass out when they meet their old classmates in VFW halls and hotel ballrooms across the country.

In many ways, the past 20 years have been hard ones for the last and most numerous of the baby boomers.

Demographers and economists say 1977 was an unlucky year to get your high-school diploma.

Because that high-school class was so big, graduates have had to compete harder with each other for jobs, promotions, housing, college admission -- even for attention from teachers and parents, experts say.

Coming at the tail end of the baby boom, they often found that when they got into the job market, many of the best jobs already were occupied by their big brothers and sisters or that when they were ready to buy a house, prices had been bid up by older boomers.

Jostled by too many elbows

That kind of thing probably will continue throughout the rest of their lives, experts say.

The leading edge of the baby boom probably will get the same amount of Social Security benefits retirees enjoy now. But cutbacks will hit the trailing edge of the baby boom, some economists predict.

"It's a matter of who gets there first. You've got a 31-year-old manager who's the boss of a bunch of 30-year-old employees who have to wait until that manager dies before one of them can move up," said state demographer Tom Gillaspy.

"Any time they turn in a direction, especially if their older siblings have thought of it before, they're going to meet with tremendous competition,"' said demographics writer Susan Mitchell [Not our Sue Mitchell --Sean]. "Any market you enter into, it becomes a seller's market."

"I got screwed in the housing market,"' said Mitchell who graduated from high school in 1976. "Job competition, I can assure you, was very strong throughout my life. There's no doubt there were situations where I felt I was jostled by too many elbows."

Mitchell said the sheer size of the class of 1977 gives them extra social and political clout, but they're often beaten to the punch by older boomers.

"By the time they've come along, people are a bit tired of whatever phase of life they've come to," said Neil Howe, an economist and a co-author of several books about generational differences.

"It's like getting to the party and getting prepared for it, and by the time you get there, everyone's leaving," Mitchell said.

Economic turmoil

Besides having to compete with so many other classmates and older boomers, members of the class of 1977 also came of age in a time of economic turmoil.

They were hit in the late 1970s and early 1980s with double-digit inflation and interest rates, and they graduated from college at about the time that the longest recession in post-war history was hitting the nation.

"They went through some of the more turbulent economic times in recent history," said Sung Won Sohn, economist with Norwest Corp. in Minneapolis. "A combination of huge numbers of graduates and tough economic times made it tough for them to get started."

The late 1970s was sort of a rough time to get out of high school," Gillaspy said. "It was not a good time to be borrowing. It was not a good time to be establishing oneself. It was not a good time to be looking for a job."

"Their earnings potential fell pretty dramatically, compared to their expectations," said Dennis Ahlburg, a University of Minnesota industrial relations professor. "They came out thinking the world was their oyster. It turned out to be a clam."

"The defining moment for me was not in 1977, but in 1982 when I graduated from college. You couldn't buy a job. It was the worst recession we had in modern times," said David Roe, Henry Sibley High School class of 1977. "I worked on construction for several months until I found another job."

"There were so many of us that finding jobs and good pay was difficult," said Stephen Willwerscheid, another 1977 Sibley graduate.

To make sure he would be employed when he got out of college, Willwerscheid gave up hopes of going into dentistry or microbiology and studied mortuary science so he could work for the family business.

"Maybe I'm a coward, but I did get a job when I got out of school," said Willwerscheid, now president of Willwerscheid & Peters Mortuary in St. Paul and West St. Paul.

In comparison, Willwerscheid said people in his father's generation and older baby boomers came of age during such a period of economic growth, that "if they were willing to take any financial risk, they were paid off immensely."

And young people today are benefiting from a labor market so tight that "they're coming out and almost naming their salary," he said.

Societal turmoil and disco, too

Many 1977 graduates, however, say they don't remember caring about interest or unemployment rates when they were 18 years old.

Instead, women graduated with the confidence that they could have both a family and a career in any job field they chose. The men felt lucky that the Vietnam War and the draft were over. They didn't even have to register for the draft as 18-year-olds do now.

Despite disco, they remember 1977 as a good time to be 18.

"My older siblings had the whole Vietnam War to worry about and the draft," said Jim Schuster, another member of the Sibley class of 1977. "When I graduated from high school, I had more money available to me than I have now."

But others recall growing up in a time of social turmoil.

The class of 1977 got to stay up late in their pajamas to watch television as a man walked on the moon. But they also witnessed riots over war and race, assassinations, a presidential resignation, oil embargoes, a hostage crisis and economic challenges from Japan and Germany.

Divorce rates increased and confidence in schools declined as they were growing up. SAT scores dropped and drug use climbed as they were going to high school.

"Everything was flying to pieces just when they started to figure out what life is about," Howe said. "Practically everyone in this generation will recall saying that their older brother received a better education than they did."

Sibley graduates, for example, remember the second-floor restroom, designated the student smoking bathroom in the high school located in Mendota Heights.

"With that bathroom there, of course, there was pot smoking going on and drinking," said Shelley Brunschon Hostetler. "There were days when you could smell it in the halls."

School curriculums back then seemed to stress a "do what you want environment," Hostetler said. "I don't know that I felt real prepared to move on in the world. Now when you leave high school, you have to know where you're going. I didn't get that message in 1977. Maybe I slept through it."

This article was published on Thursday, August 14th, 1997, at Pioneer Planet, the online version of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Reprinted by permission.

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