The road to 40 has been a dizzying ride for baby boomers.

George McGovern to George Bush. Free love to monogamy. Non-materialism to yuppiedom. Drug taking to drug testing.

Why such radical shifts? Growing up, mostly. As people age, they simply become more conservative. And since the baby-boom generation makes up a third of the population, the slightest shift in its collective values attracts an enormous amount of attention: When a huge number of people experiment with pot or buy BMWs, the nation takes notice.

"It's been remarkable to watch as [the baby-boom generation] moves through its life," said David Stewart, 39, a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California. "It's gone through major swings in terms of opinion and lifestyle."

But some values have never changed.

On the issue of race, the baby-boom generation has epitomized "a mentality of inclusion," said Karen Meredith, 36, founder of the American Association of Boomers. "Being racist is like smoking cigarettes. It's a very shameful thing."

Boomers grew up watching the civil-rights movement on TV. They went to college in droves and learned that racism is caused by ignorance. Highly educated, well-traveled baby boomers were not about to let anyone call them ignorant.

"We probably are the first generation that actually experienced working side by side with black colleagues," Ms. Meredith noted.

The baby-boom generation has always been concerned about the environment, Mr. Stewart said. "We're seeing that interest revived, though it was never lost."

The newly fueled interest in environmental matters might be inspired less by news accounts of supposed global warming or overflowing landfills than by baby boomers' basic interest in their children's future, Mr. Stewart said.

"I think there is a better understanding now that growing up doesn't just happen, that the environment the child is in really does affect how they grow up," Ms. Meredith said.

The continuing rightward shift of baby boomers' values also might stem from the fact that more and more of them are becoming parents, Ms. Meredith added.

"For a lot of us, becoming parents is a major perception-altering experience. Having children tends to make you more conservative."

"What the baby boomers did was to say, 'I've got to get my life under control,' " said Barbara Caplan, vice president of Yankelovich Clancy Shulman, a marketing research firm in Westport, Conn. "They became consumed with developing skills gain control over their lives because they were really sort of panicked. It was almost as if the rug was pulled out from under them."

Today, many baby boomers say they feel a different sense of loss. They miss the idealism of their youth.

"I think in the '60s and '70s there was a much stronger sense of trying to make America a little bit better than the rest of the world," said John Palacio, Orange County (Calif.) leadership program director for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. "I think the '90s is a retrenchment period. We're at the very height of the conservative era. I think in the late '90s you're going to see the activism you saw in the '60s.

But don't expect the baby boomers to picket in the streets. These two-career families don't have the time. And who wants to drag the kids along?

Instead, there will be a flurry of letter writing to Congress, more interest in attending political party caucuses, and even attending social affairs where the main event of the evening is a political debate, Ms. Meredith predicts.

Baby boomers were probably more conservative 10 years ago, said Stanley Brandes, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. "That was the height of yuppiedom. I think yuppiedom is passing us by and [replacing it] is a sense of social responsibility."

Leery of politicians, baby boomers are not known for their party loyalty. The boomers treat politics like a Sunday buffet, picking one position from this platform, another from that. They're conservative on fiscal matters, distrustful of Big Government. They're "Remocrats and Depublicans," Ms. Meredith said.

Political observers wonder when the baby boom is going to produce national leaders, such as a president.

"It doesn't appear to me there are any great movers and shakers," said Mark Petracca, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. "We're in a 'Rocky VI' culture. Pick a movie. We're satisfied to see the same movie again and again. There's no reason politics should be any different from that kind of cultural phenomenon.

"You're going to get people modeling themselves after each other," he said. "You'll get Reagan III. Or Bush II."

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