Did 'Baby Boom' Predict the Millennial Woman's Future?

Diane Keaton's 1987 film depicted both the dilemmas and triumphs of the working mother, and it remains relevant 30 years later.

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Apr 6 2017, 4:54pm

Courtesy of United Artists

Baby Boom portrays the glorious 80s: a synth-pop opening theme song—complete with keyboards and wailing saxophone, women clad in sneakers and power suits (with requisite shoulder pads), and depictions of the uptight yuppie couple.

With all this, it would be easy to dismiss the movie as being too devoted to its era. It was 30 years ago in 1987 when Diane Keaton power-walked her way through the story of J.C. Wiatt, a killer corporate consultant with the nickname the "Tiger Lady." The film's narrator (news anchor Linda Ellerbee) tells the audience, over those keyboards and saxophone, that "the working woman is a phenomenon of our time."

Of course, the "working woman" isn't much of a phenomenon anymore; instead, she's 58.6 percent of the workforce, while men are working (or not working) the so-called pink-collar service jobs she once held. The term "yuppie" has fallen out of favor and replaced with "gentrifier." Still, the life Diane Keaton's character ends up creating for herself rings more true today than it might have in the 80s. Turns out, the girls who were born in that decade became the women who have been able to live out J.C. Wiatt's dream.

Early on in the movie, J.C. gets the news that she's up for partner at Sloane, Curtis, & Co., where she's a management consultant. Her boss Fritz wants to make sure she's prepared for the sacrifices an even higher-powered job will mean. "A man," he tells her, "can be a success and still have a personal life, a full personal life." He confesses to not knowing what his wife does all day or how she keeps things running, but says, "I'm lucky. I can have it all."

J.C., in Tiger Lady mode, tells him "I don't want it all." For a while that's true; she has perfunctory sex with her investment banker partner (Harold Ramis), and although she circles a newspaper ad for a Vermont house on 62 acres of land, she's more interested in landing her next big account. Well, until Baby Boom needs a plot twist. Her distant cousins have died and left J.C. their daughter, Elizabeth. Shenanigans ensue with diapering, a bowl of linguine, and religious small-town folk who nearly become Elizabeth's new parents.

Soon, J.C. finds herself actually wanting to mother. She tells her partner about her change of heart, but he opts out and J.C.—like any good modern woman—is ready to parent on her own. She doesn't think about what anyone else will say about her version of motherhood, societal norms be damned. Likewise with millennial women.

In 2015, millennial women accounted for 82 percent of the births in the US according to Pew Research—and many of them were parenting without benefit of marriage. In a 2012 Johns Hopkins study, 64 percent of mothers had at least one child outside of marriage. J.C. isn't exactly making that choice, but her "non-traditional" family would be in good company in this decade. From Pew, "fewer than half (46 percent) of U.S. kids younger than 18 years of age are living in a home with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage." Add to that, from the Society of Assisted Reproductive Technologies, 78 percent of babies born to women who used in vitro fertilization were single.

J.C. stands firm on her choice of pursuing motherhood her way but does hit a snag. When mommy-and-me time cuts into long work hours, her have-it-all boss takes her off the fast track and replaces her with the eager male subordinate who props his feet up on her desk when she's out of the office. She leaves the corporate grind behind and instead takes her career into her own entrepreneurial hands.

In that Vermont house—with an apple orchard, a new baby, and snow storms to keep her indoors—she makes gourmet baby food that launches her back into the business world. In other words, she mines her own life and makes money on it. Millennial women have similarly taken to mining their lives, whether it's Jessica Alba's Honest Company, Morgan DeBaun's media company, or YouTubers like Michelle Phan. J.C. starts with herself as a consumer and then works outside of the system to create her business and venture into a market that has not been tapped.

At one point, J.C. can take her venture even bigger when a corporate buyout comes her way, but she turns the opportunity down. She doesn't think it is the right move for her business. In a time when female entrepreneurs like NastyGal founder, Sophia Amoruso, are witnessing the implosions of their businesses, that may be one more prescient example from Baby Boom. Still, J.C. is without a doubt a progenitor of Amoruso's GirlBoss model. Like the women of this generation, she intends for her work life to be structured in a way that works best for her. Some evidence points to this flexibility meaning freelance work and the gig economy (according to Freelancers Union about one-third of the workforce is freelance), but it also means remote work (37 percent of workers according to Gallup). Specifically in Baby Boom, it means working with a crib in her office and a mobile over her desk.

In the end, J.C. gets her business, her motherhood, and even a partner—but without the sacrifice of work for family (or vice versa) that women are expected to make. As she tells a room full of men right before she walks out the door and back to the life she's made on her own terms: "I don't want to make those sacrifices and nobody should have to." Not in 1987 for J.C. Wiatt and not for millennial women 30 years later.

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