If demography is destiny, the baby boom can be blamed for the nation's current economic woes.
And the birth dearth the country is experiencing could mean better times to come.
Three of Washington's better-known political pundits -- pollster Patrick Caddell, author Michael Barone and David Gergen of the American Enterprise Institute -- offered that prediction and others in a forum on the 1980s before the American Society of Newspaper Editors yesterday.
Four out of 10 adult Americans -- including Caddell and Barone -- are part of the baby-boom generation, the 1980 census will show. It is a group "up for grabs politically," as Barone put it, with no particular party allegiance. But its effect on the economy has been profound.
"The arrival of the baby boom was a drag on the economy of the 1970s," Gergen said. "But in the 1980s the negatives become more positive."
The baby boom -- those born in the 20 years after the end of World War II -- resulted in an explosion in the size of the labor force. It grew by 23 million in the 1970s, compared to 12 million in the '60s.
"Even though the economy was expanding, it was not able to absorb that many people," Gergen said, adding that some economists estimate that the present U.S. unemployment rate of about 6 percent might be a percentage point lower without the baby boom.
In the 1980s, the labor force is expected to grow by 15 million to 17 million. "We'll be able to get unemployment down easier and there will be more productivity because these people are getting older," Gergen said.
The competition for top jobs will be fiercer than ever for young adults because of their numbers. But it could be still worse for those entering the job market in the 1980s.
"The people coming after the boom will be dragging at the end of the wagon train," Caddell said. "They are going to find their ability to move up the ladder hampered by the huge number of people holding on."
Caddell said the baby-boom generation is "very different from their parents in a lot of their basic attitudes." Unlike their grandparents, he said, "they are enthusiasts for credit. They find borrowing for the future is no problem."
This attitude, some economists say, accounts for the high consumer debt levels that recently led President Carter to try to cut back on credit.
The baby boom also may account for the low savings rate that, with consumer debt, is another possible cause of inflation. Young adults tend to save less because they are buying houses, cars and appliances.
The baby-boom generation differs from older generations by taking affluence for granted, Barone said, adding: "It is a generation which doesn't see the need for economic growth. . . . Its higher level of education means it is more tolerant and willing to extend equal treatment to minorities."
Politically, he said, the baby-boom generation has "a whole set of different attitudes that line up in different ways from their parents. In shorthand, they are conservative on economic issues and liberal on social issues. That's the opposite of the New Deal."
While this new group has identified more with Democrats on a cultural level, Barone said, "their party identification is not set in stone. They could well be attracted by the Republican Party of by a figure like [Illinois Rep.] John Anderson, who seems to have the right formula."
While World War II was a unifying experience, negative attitudes toward the Vietnam war may have contributed to the political apathy of the baby-boom group, Barone said.
Draft evasion and marijuana use gave the new generation of leaders "the experience of being outlaws," he said. "We have moved from the generation of Erma Bombeck to Michael Doonesbury."