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Monitoring the Past: Baby Boomers and Substance Use in 2013

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

2013 is almost history. Last year, we asked the whether the latest results from the nationwide survey of youth substance use, Monitoring the Future, might predict the big drug history stories in the days ahead.

In recent months, mainstream media outlets did look to youth culture for drugs news— but they did not necessarily explore today’s youth culture. Instead, articles from The Los Angeles Times, Time and The New York Times covered the most recent results of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which pointed toward a continued upward trend in the percentage of baby boomers who misuse substances. The results of the 2012 survey, which were released this year, note that the 50-64 year old age group is now populated entirely by boomers.  NSDUH reports:

“Among adults aged 50 to 64, the rate of current illicit drug use increased during the past decade. For adults aged 50 to 54, the rate increased from 3.4 percent in 2002 to 7.2 percent in 2012. Among those aged 55 to 59, the rate of current illicit drug use increased from 1.9 percent in 2002 to 6.6 percent in 2012. Among those aged 60 to 64, the rate increased from 1.1 percent in 2003 to 3.6 percent in 2012. These trends partially reflect the aging into these age groups of members of the baby boom cohort (i.e., persons born between 1946 and 1964), whose rates of illicit drug use have been higher than those of older cohorts.”

While boomers age, the media stereotypes about the generational cohort are forever young. The persistence of Sixties iconography is one reason why historians of the period acknowledge the difficulty of separating the image from the era (it’s also one reason we sometimes use the term “Sixties,” rather than the more specific “1960s,” which refers to the events that took place from 1960-1969). “The spirit of the ’60s lives on,” declared Time’s report of the NSDUH results. The rising rates are “to do with people who have dabbled with drugs most of their lives and there will be more of those as the Sixties generation hits old age,” David Raynes of Britain’s National Drug Prevention Alliance told NBC. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Nora Volkow viewed the era as variable— a proxy for “baby boomers’ histories of illicit drug use, and their relatively tolerant attitudes toward it.”

NSDUH's data and Doonesbury's pot farm

NSDUH’s data and Doonesbury character Zonker Harris’s pot farm

It would, I think, make common sense to interpret the increased percentage of substance use—especially prescription pain reliever and marijuana use, which accounted for most of the increase in recent years— as a predictable medical response to the aging process. Yet many reporters still prefer to present boomers’ use as immature and recreational. “I smoked my share,” boomer role model Paul McCartney told Rolling Stone last year. “Your sense of responsibility does kick in, if you’re lucky, at some point.” McCartney, who said he’d finally foresworn marijuana for the sake of his eight-year-old daughter, apparently “matured out” of his pot habit at age 69. McCartney’s confessional gave journalists an irresistible excuse to replay a few classic stories about rock and drugs while mocking a supposedly boomer tendency to delay “responsibility” indefinitely.

McCartney "matures out"

McCartney “matures out”

Unlike Sir Paul, the NSDUH data can’t tell us whether changes in substance use among boomers are due to a re-emergence of prior habits, a continuation of lifelong behavioral patterns, or a response to new life circumstances. The NSDUH was a federal reaction to middle-class youths’ drug experimentation in the early 1970s, but changes in data collection make it unwise to compare the statistics released before 2002 with more recent data. It’s also worth noting that the survey itself is cross-sectional, not longitudinal. Each year, NSDUH researchers sample a new pool of research participants; they don’t return to the same group of interviewees initially surveyed in 1971. The NSDUH results are a snapshot of population substance use; the findings should be triangulated with other research on boomers’ lifelong substance use patterns. The scientific literature on this topic is less substantial than you might suspect.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that past behaviors have no future health consequences. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a campaign recommending hepatitis C screening for all boomers; people born between 1945 and 1965 are about five times more likely to be infected with the virus than members of other age cohorts. Today, boomers account for 3 out of every 4 adults with hepatitis C, a virus commonly associated with life events like injection drug use and blood transfusions. To emphasize generational rather than behavioral risk, the hepatitis campaign posters targeted the demographic with a collage of Sixties icons: Martin Luther King, Jr. The Beatles. The Brady Bunch.

The CDC's hepatitis C poster

The CDC’s hepatitis C poster

These generational campaigns help grab attention for important public health messages. But I’m concerned that their pseudo-historical hook minimizes the contemporary circumstances unique to aging boomers. The risks associated with substance use change as we age: an alcohol-related fall can be debilitating; a growing list of prescription drugs offers additional opportunities for adverse reactions. The proliferation of prescription drugs in the midst of drug war America may—as some scholars have argued—be an under-appreciated inheritance of the Sixties. Even if you buy the thesis that yesterday’s poly-drug-using youths are today’s over-prescribed AARP members, the users’ sets and settings are entirely different. Some of the drugs are too.

Saturday Evening Post and CDC report "Health, United States 2012"

Saturday Evening Post and CDC report “Health, United States 2012”

It might be time to retire simplistic messages about sensation-seeking boomers. When assessing substance misuse among generational cohorts, let’s concentrate on monitoring the present.


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