- Boomers Are Not OK / Helen Lewis in The Atlantic (here)
- The Coming Generation War / Niall Ferguson in The Atlantic (here)
- The People Who Stole the World / Sarah Mazzetti in The Baffler (here)
- Our Parents Are Ruining the Entire World / Linette Lopes in Business Insider (here)
- Baby Bust: How the Boomers Broke America / Politico Podcast with Ben White and Bruce Gibney (here)
“OK, Boomer.” It’s now a meme. Another way to express the notion could be: “Keep talking, Old Fart.” It’s six or a half dozen of the other. Is there anything behind it aside from intergenerational incivility, part of the current craze for disrupting civility in any of the familiar ways in which it has manifested itself? Oh yes. And the Boomers are the problem. Especially white Boomers. Oops. I can’t use the stock phrase “there but for the grace of God go I” because I’m squarely in that sticky wicket. It gives me insight into how Germans born just after World War II must have felt living with “collective guilt” (Kollektivschuld) sticking to them like flypaper. Guilt by association is the core phenomenon.
As you can see in the list of resource articles, a lot of people have a bone to pick with the Boomers. I do, too, despite being in the selfsame group. My interest in this post is to consider the complaints against my age cohort and see what sticks against the wall. Something tells me we’re gonna end up with a wall full of spaghetti (and various other less savory substances) because we Boomers messed up. Big Time.
I think every generation sees itself in relationship to the generation immediately previous to it. We Boomers were the wild ones back in the day compared to those of the Silent Generation — we were the folks rocking out at Woodstock, the hippies in Haight Ashbury throwing all the “I Like Ike” stuff well overboard, the ones who demonstrated against the Vietnam War. But then we got older and things changed dramatically. I was on the margin of all that business as a youngster, stuck out in the boondocks. Once I entered the work world and ended up in cities, I kept to my country ways. But I saw at close range the transformation that middle age brought to my peers. I watched in cynical disgust as my fellow Boomers fell hook, line and sinker for the very things against which they had rebelled so vigorously. They got married, had kids, bought suburban split-level houses and SUVs and started looking little different from the “I Like Ike” types, despite a tendency to smoke a bit of weed on the side and to think that having had long hair in the 1970’s permanently branded them as a radical. Then came the 1980’s, the decade of “Greed Is Good.” It’s been straight downhill from that point forward. No wonder the younger generations are fed up with us. I myself have been fed up with us from a time before young whippersnappers like Millennials were even born.
I don’t have children so the generational kerfuffle is something I observe from the sidelines. The objectivity that stance affords me is valuable in more than one way. Since I have no horses in the generational race, it’s all just a matter of facts for me — I have the luxury of analysis based on evidence without any admixture of personal entanglement. I also have the luxury of putting things under the microscope without threat of offense to anyone but myself. That makes the task of discerning the truth of the situation much less fraught than it would otherwise be. In some ways it’s like being a fly on the wall even though I’ve been there in the thick of things all along. I was in the Boomer trajectory but not of it in important ways. Consequently, I look at the Boomers with a sense of impartiality. What is more, my own Boomer trajectory stops with me. Whatever collective guilt I carry as a member of that benighted group dies when I die. There’s that comfort, as well.
But the collective guilt exists and the reasons for it are real. To identify the degree to which I’m implicated in those reasons simply by having been alive during the years of my lifetime is a matter of importance to me. As an individual I don’t think my life trajectory would have led to the present state of things had it been extrapolated from the specific to the general, which fact allows me to exculpate myself individually to some degree. But not entirely — some of the collective guilt still sticks to me like flypaper. So for the purposes of this analysis I’m throwing myself into the Boomer pot without any claim for individual exemption. The picture the analysis paints is not pretty.
Here are the slices of the generational pie I use as my basis of understanding:
- Gen Z, iGen, or Centennials: Born 1996 – TBD
- Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 – 1995
- Generation X: Born 1965 – 1976
- Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964
- Traditionalists or Silent Generation: Born 1945 and before
I’m smack dab in the middle of the range given for Baby Boomers, so there’s me for you. Guilty by association. The oldest lot of Boomers is now 73, the youngest is 55. The Boomer population in 2016 was estimated to be some 74.1 million. Only this year, 2019, sees the Millenial generation set to overtake the Boomers in the numbers game. Many Millennials appear to be of the opinion that it’s a day late and more than a dollar short. Way more than a dollar short, in point of fact.
Did Boomers just pick up and expand the rot left them from the Silent Generation? That would be a very handy excuse. But sorry: no cigar. Here’s Millennial Linette Lopez from the article “Our Parents Are Ruining the Entire World” cited above:
Now, I hate to bring our grandparents into this, but they actually invested in our country. They passed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which built the US Interstate Highway System, in 1956 and managed to avoid having a generational panic attack — like a Brexit vote, for instance — when that project wasn’t done until 1992.
On the other hand, it was hard to get baby boomers to vote for spending on infrastructure development during the depth of the recession when Americans desperately needed jobs.
And don’t even get me started on education spending as it relates to student loans.
Our parents are the worst.
I didn’t grow up in the lap of luxury — something the rural working class can’t quite afford — but all the same, as I moved through life as a Boomer there was no sense that the cards were stacked against me from the get-go. I worked and paid for my own university education without amassing huge debt. In fact, when I left school I was a bit ahead because of a scholarship. Nobody I knew anticipated ending a college stint with debt going into six digits. Perish the thought.
When the time came to get a job there were still real jobs to be had. Competition was robust, of course, especially in academia where I ended up, but there were pickings to be had. These days that doesn’t seem to be the case for folks from the Millennials on down. Things pay so poorly that even if you’re working you may not be able to get your own place. That’s how skewed things have become.
So Ms. Lopez is right — we Boomers are the worst. We took the advantages available to us and did ourselves as well as we could by them without thought for keeping the ball rolling for folks down the line. That point comes through loud and clear in the article by Helen Lewis, “Boomers Are Not OK,” cited above:
… Boomers have bent the gravity of politics toward themselves and their needs. They buy newspapers. They vote. They wield their spending power effectively. Their voice is loud. To build a fair and just society, the question then must be: On everything from elderly care to housing, how do you persuade them to vote against their own interests?
Willetts started by exposing the scale of the problem. In 2010, he wrote a book called The Pinch, which argued that British “baby boomers”—the generation born in the 20 years after the Second World War— “took their children’s futures.” They bought cheap houses, which have since rocketed in value. Their standard of living rose throughout their working lives. They retired with solid state-funded pensions, and sometimes generous private ones, too. Their Millennial children, by contrast, were having a tougher time—struggling to buy a house, watching their salaries stagnate, and looking ahead to a much less comfortable retirement. It was, Willetts wrote, selfish of the Boomers not to recognize, and mitigate, this situation.
Guilty as charged. I exculpated myself by earning most of my retirement income from work overseas, but that’s obviously the exception, not the rule. And who pays for all these Boomers getting Social Security checks? Hmm … let’s ask Millenials and the folks after them. Don’t be surprised if you hear some cuss words.
When one considers the situation from the political angle things get even worse very fast. Back to Ms. Lopez on the remarkable similarity between the Brexit vote in the UK and Trump support in the USA:
Again, it’s not like no one told them. Economists, financiers, political leaders, and more warned them of the repercussions of a Leave vote. And in crushing the pound and UK stocks — especially banks — the market is telling them now.
Here’s a fun chart:This kind of short-term, me-first thinking is a hallmark of the baby-boomer generation on both sides of the pond.
On Twitter, I’ve made the case that white evangelicals should be seen as Trump’s base, but as Data for Progress has noted elsewhere, there’s a reasonable case for considering older affluent whites as Trump’s base. In addition, media analysis has focused on Trump’s appeal to non-college whites and rural whites. So who the hell is Trump’s base? And what is a base? Six groups come to mind:
- White evangelicals: White evangelicals have been the base of the Republican Party for years and Trump made aggressive overtures to them, embracing anti-choice rhetoric, selecting Mike Pence as his Vice President, promising to appoint culturally conservative Supreme Court justices, and offering specific policy reforms such as repealing the Johnson Amendment. Here, I operationalize white evangelical as individuals who say they are “born again,” on the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies survey (all analysis will make use of this survey).
- White men: Trump’s general election opponent, Hillary Clinton, was the first woman nominated for president by a major party. In addition, Trump has a long history of sexual assault and harassment as well as derogatory comments about women. During his time as president, the gender gap in partisan support has reached nearly historic levels.
- White non-college: Journalistic accounts of Trump’s based have frequently placed their focus on non-college whites, or working class whites. These accounts often pay special attention to non-college whites who voted for Obama in 2012 but Trump in 2016.
- White over 50: Recently, commentators have paid more attention to older whites’ role in electing Trump. For instance, Michael Grunwald recently wrote about a retirement home in Florida, arguing that the future of the Republican Party may well be these retirees.
- White over $50,000: Analysts have frequently noted that the median Trump voter wasn’t poor. Many low-income whites didn’t vote; wealthier whites who would benefit from Trump’s tax cuts were more likely to turn out. Here, I analyze whites earning more than $50,000, a reasonable cut-off for non-poor in most states.
- White rural: Many commentators have noted that the “Trump era” in politics has coincided with geographically polarized voting. Here, I operationalize white rural based on a ZIP code measure that Data for Progress uses for multilevel regression and poststratification.
You’ll notice the frequency with which the word “white” occurs. So while I myself may not be at the nexus of Boomer guilt because of how I’ve lived my life, I’m guilty by association since I’m … uh … the W word. 🙁 That means throughout my life in Boomer times I was exempt from the trials and tribulations of not being a WM. I may not have campaigned for Republican presidents or uttered the phrase “greed is good,” I may (in fact did) excoriate Newt Gingrich (and still do), but I reaped the structural benefits of whiteness just like everyone else in my age and race cohort did. And now a goodly portion of that cohort has gone completely over to the Dark Side. When you consider the trajectory of Boomers over the course of their self-interested, intellectually incurious and consumerist lives, it becomes unsurprising. Outrageous as the day is long, but unsurprising. We Boomers never really had all that much on the ball. It figures in a way that a lot of us would fall for anachronizing nonsense and looney conspiracy theories. Ms. Lopez is right: we’re the worst.
The guilt that weighs most heavily on me as an individual is what the Boomers have done with regard to climate change. Actually, what Boomers haven’t done about climate change. From our ranks rose corporate America, hell bent on steering public discourse away from anything that might interfere with making money. Dwight Eisenhower his Republican self warned America in his farewell address in 1961 about the “military-industrial complex”:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
Well he was right, but he would have done better to term the offending element the corporate-industrial complex. Including finance, of course — let us not forget the Boomer legacy of bailouts after complete scumbags on Wall Street brought the economy to the point of collapse. It’s a demonstrated fact that Boomers have been aware of the brewing climate crisis for over 30 years. Did we do anything about it? No. Nothing. So it’s only right that we should have youngsters like Greta Thunberg raking us over live coals for the feckless idiots we were and still are. We should have acted before the climate train got out of the station. Too late now — that train is already gone. California, Australia, Venice, the Greenland ice sheet, all manner of indications that we effed up Big Time are now showing up on the horizon of lived experience. And we Boomers will die off before the worst of it comes. It’s later generations who will bear the brunt of our apathy and short-sightedness. That’s reason enough for the people from the Millenials on down to give us the finger with both hands.
No, it’s too dismal for words, really. What we Boomers have done to the world is horrific. And we’re still at it — pushing authoritarianism in several quarters of the globe, blocking climate legislation, repealing environmental regulations … Clearly those white Boomers gotta go. Given the massive damage my generation has done and continues to do to the world that younger people will by necessity have to inhabit, I’d give the green light to anybody who finds a way to rid the world of us, no matter what our degree of guilt for the proceedings that have brought things to their current state. When the rot goes that deep and that wide, the only answer is to isolate and remove the pathogen.
I won’t even bother to apologize to younger generations for the sins of my generation. There is no forgiveness for what Boomers have done. Culpa nostra, culpa maxima nostra. There’s no remedy in the short-term that can erase the effects of our actions and strategic inactions. If it were within my power I would make sure that Boomers are the ones to pay the price for their folly, not the people who come after us. To those who do come after, I say: stop us. Get yourselves organized and stop us as soon as you can, you have the numbers now. It’s the only viable course of action for your own lives and for the life of the Planet itself.