Denver Bar Association
December 1999
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Legal Baby Boomers


"Legal Baby Boomers" is from the ABA Journal, June 1999.

"History defines generations, bur generations also define history . . . It could be a redefining opportunity for the law."

They weren’t alive when Kennedy was shot, but they know where they were when the O.J. Simpson verdict came down. They can pick Ken Starr out in a crowd, yet they haven’t heard of Archibald Cox. And, while the civil rights movement is merely a history lesson, the legal definition of sex is common dinner-table conversation.

These are today’s American children.

Since 1995, when their number reached 70.3 million they have exceeded the peak population of 69.9 million youths that were around at the height of the baby boom in 1996. And the number continues to grow. Last year, there were 71.4 million.

Depending on whom you ask, youths in this new generation were born between 1978 and 1995 or between 1982 and 2000. They are referred to as echo boomers and generation Y, but most call them millennials because they will come of age in the 21st century. By numbers alone, these kids promise to reshape the country in every aspect of life, including the law.

"They are the first generation since the baby boomers that is socially conscious," says Gerald Celente, director of Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and author of the book Trends 2000.

"They are the only generation that has been environmentally indoctrinated since birth. They are on the forefront of sweatshop issues, union support, child labor and volunteerism. This is a very activist-oriented, independent-minded generation."

Evidence of the millennials’ social consciousness exists on campuses around the country. During the past school year, students spoke out against working conditions at overseas sweatshops in protests at three top universities—Michigan, Berkeley and Yale. They took over one president’s office, held a mock fashion show and staged a "knit-in." At Harvard, students rallied to demand raises for school janitors and dining hall workers.

Don’t mistake this activism as a return to the 1960s, however. Although the children of this generation are known for actually liking their parents, they are by no means trying to follow in their footsteps. In fact, they are more likely to mirror the actions of their grandparents or even great-grandparents.

"Generations tend to fill the role of the generation that is dying," says William Strauss, a lawyer and author of The Fourth Turning, one of several books he has written about generational identities. "Right now the social role available is that being vacated by the GI generation."

The GI generation, those born between 1901 and 1925, is known for its idealism, team spirit and optimism. Today’s millennials are exhibiting the same traits, Strauss says.

For the law, that means a focus on issues that represent the interests of the community as a whole over those of the individual, Strauss says.

"Individual rights issues will be in decline," he predicts. "This will not be fertile ACLU recruiting ground."

And while millennials are activists, they will be culturally conservative and fiscally liberal, unlike their boomer parents. That means a reintroduction of class politics and a return to labor and collective bargaining issues, he says.

The extent to which millennials will use the legal system as a means to achieve their goals remains to be seen, Strauss adds. While boomers see the law as a means to right the world’s wrongs, millennials have a different view drawn from watching the Clinton impeachment and Simpson trials.

"That is not something that brings reverence for fairness of law," he says. "The law needs to find a way it can be a force for societal achievement."

Ultimately, Strauss says, it may take the new generation to change the legal profession. "History defines generations, but generations also define history," he says. "It may take the millennials to change things. It could be a redefining opportunity for the law."

In any attempt to predict the future, the forecast usually depends on who is holding the glass ball.

Lawrence M. Friedman, a law professor at Stanford University and author of the Horizontal Society, says there is no way to predict what kind of impact the generation will have on the future, legal or otherwise.

In fact, he adds, if forced to guess, he would predict these youths will be even less socially conscious as adults than they are now.

"They are not interested in politics. They don’t read the newspaper," Friedman says. "It’s a generation that seems very uninterested in social problems. There is no reason to think this generation will be socially aware. The evidence we have suggests the contrary."

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