Boomer Bust

(Note: this is part two of a five-part series. Here’s part one.)

Growing up, the term “Baby Boomer” always evoked feelings of admiration, at least for me. The post-war. post-depression generation that bootstrapped their way to building industries, wealth, prosperity, that took our country to superpower status — there was always an allure to the sheer volume of them, and the enormity of what they had accomplished, in my young mind.

Like most Millennials, I was born to Baby Boomers. They were (and still are) my heroes.

In recent years, the Baby Boomer generation has been stripped down, both in name and in the court of public opinion. Now colloquially known as just “boomers”, their posterity has decidedly meme-ified their forbearers.

It’s about time we clapped back. For years, we’ve been told that Millennials are ruining everything from the military to Applebee’s to mayonnaise. It’s time we had a more serious conversation about this inter-generational cognitive dissonance.

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Ok, boomer.

For my implicated readers, I ask you not to take this personally. This is not a sweeping denouncement – I am broad-brushing here. In the abstract, history will ultimately absolve one generation or the other, or neither. For now, I’ll offer my take.

To be clear, boomers, in my mind and those of many others, we are in the midst of a generational war for the soul of this country. I won’t mince my words here – you are on the wrong side.

You have let us down.

 

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Individually, you perhaps came from very little, but you inherited a country of wealth and opportunity. You grew up in a time of uninterrupted progress, under conditions that enabled a thriving middle class and abundant social mobility. Your rise to political power began in the early 1980’s when you took the helm of largest voting bloc, and became fully consolidated in the mid-1990’s. You’ve basically been in charge ever since.

Millennials are not buying houses, building wealth, getting married, or having children at the rate you did, and we are taking on debt at unprecedented levels.

Why is that?

Surely, cultural shifts play a partial role. But if I may, I’d contend that your reign as the domineering electoral segment has contributed far more to these trends, a reign that has proven to be one of self-advancement to the detriment of your posterity.

Since you came to power, you have habitually voted to cut your own taxes and borrow money without regard for future burdens. Social safety nets have gradually been scaled back, wages depressed, unions dismantled, manufacturing sent overseas. The costs of housing, education, and healthcare have skyrocketed. Schools are under-resourced and prisons overcrowded. Existential threats like our crumbling infrastructure, automation, social security insolvency, and climate change, have long gone unaddressed.

Wealth disparity has seen a dramatic spike, and the middle class has seen an equally dramatic culling, despite consistent productivity increases, to the aggregate benefit of you.

Moneyed interests now have a complete, unchecked vicegrip on our policies, politicians, and political discourse.

We have been at war for most of my life.

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Since you assumed political power in the early 1980’s, the top marginal tax rate has dropped from 65% to 38%, debt-to-GDP ratio has ballooned from 35% to 105% (and rising), union participation has been halved, from 25% to below 12%. Millennials earn 20% less than boomers, despite being better educated.

You  collectively owned 21% of the nation’s wealth by the time your generation hit a median age of 35 in 1990 (meaning half were older than 35, and half younger).

When Generation X–ers reached a median age of 35, they controlled just 8% of all U.S. wealth. A partial explanation for this is that the boomer generation (about 76 million births) was 50% bigger than was Gen X (about 50 million births). And yet, the relative, proportional share of boomer wealth at age 35 was about 2.5 times as much as the Gen-X figure.

We millennials haven’t hit the median age point of 35 yet (that’s about three years away) but apply some basic research and you’ll see how our financial situation is much more dire than the prior two generations, especially yours.

The number of Millennial births is about the same size as that of the postwar baby boom: 75 million births. Yet our aggregate share of wealth at median age 35 will be a small fraction of what yours was.  Fed data shows we currently own just 3% of the country’s wealth. Unless bold change happens at a policy level (it won’t, you made sure of that), in three years, we’ll remain well short of the 21% figure you enjoyed.

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We can follow all the damning data of the me generation  anchoring the prosperity of their posterity down a rabbit hole, as The Atlantic did here and here and here.

Of course, the disastrous GOP-led trickle-down illusion has been the objective driving force behind four decades of short term wealth-building, at the expense of long term sustainability. But for blue-bleeding boomers – you are party to this, too. Your rightward drift, neoliberal, pragmatic, pro-war, pro-business policies have profoundly re-shaped the democratic party away from its roots – a party that was once for, of, and by the people.

When we came to you in 2016, at a true inflection point for our country, and asked for your help, for bold action on threats that we’ll have to contend with long after you’re gone, you told us, “no”.

In 2020, once again, the “me generation” was asked by the “not me, us” generation for help. And once again, overwhelmingly, you told us… “no”.

In five years of conversations with boomers – many whom I love and deeply respect – I tried desperately to understand how they could or would not see, feel, and act, as we could. I usually got the same combination of beaming, borderline condescending, perhaps feigned admiration (“one day you’ll understand”), layered over a deep-seeded, possibly sub-conscious discomfort around the sweeping changes we were advocating for.

After five years of failed boomer courtship, my thesis is as follows. It’s imperfect, but this is where I’ve arrived:

Boomers never experienced the social solidarity that helped produce the New Deal. In our hour of despair, as Millennials, the poor and working classes, sought to revisit that social contract, they failed to recognize the solidarity unfolding before their eyes. They failed to meet the moment, failed to understand the rapidly evolving plights of our most vulnerable populations, and of their children, twice.

As discussed in my last post, a youth-led movement can never carry a winning coalition alone. We needed you, and you let us down.

The planet is burning, our country is a failed state. The generation that will inherit it all tried, fought, and toiled, to turn the tides, but we needed you.

You let us down, and now it might be too late.

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