After a three-decade party, with some folks getting to party a lot more than others, there is suddenly no way to avoid the reality other than drifting into closed-eyed fantasy. The generations I have identified as Generation Greed, the richest in American history, are leaving the generations to follow are much worse off in many ways. And, in many cases, those at the back end of Generation Greed are facing old age much worse off then they themselves had been, forced by their prior excess consumption, debts and prior lack of savings to downsize a material lifestyle that for many of them had been the whole project of their lives. As I most recently noted in detail in my previous post.
The consequence of this realization has not been an increase in empathy or an attempt to change the worst aspects of a collective legacy while there is still time. There is still no willingness to make any personal sacrifices in the present for the collective future. The fact that the non-greedy minority of Generation Greed hasn’t stepped up to face the facts and battle for their own offspring is one final disappointment. The desperate desire of some of its rich to insulate their own children from the consequences of a diminished society — by repealing the estate tax — is the only effective example of concern by today’s seniors with what they will leave behind. Rather, the media they dominate remains filled with demands for scapegoats and rationalizations, and one more round of “what about my needs!” Needs that are somehow supposed to be met by latter born generations that are poorer, and yet are having large economic burdens shifted to them that will diminish their entire future.
But if one uses the right search terms, one can find some examples over the past year of younger generations beginning to resent the country they have inherited, albeit not enough to get off the couch and do something about it.
I had written before the recent election that a search for the words “generational equity” mostly brought up things I myself have written, along with links to a financial company by that name. But as that election campaign showed, conflict-driven social politics is more interesting to the hoi polloi than fact-driven economic, social, demographic and fiscal analysis. The Baby Boomers aren’t the entirety of what I have called Generation Greed, but they are the loudest and most culturally dominant part of it. (The other part of the richest generations in U.S. history, lacking a name, was eventually called the Silent Generation). And it is to those in the Baby Boom demographic wave that an understanding of what has happened is starting to attach itself. Especially now that Donald Trump, who I referred to in one post as THE MAN of this generation (not intending to compliment either the man or the generation), has been elected President.
One of the phony conflict-driven social politics issues of the recent election campaign was “political correctness” versus “free speech,” the unwillingness of “millennials” in college (or some small subset of them) to hear views not in accord with their own values and opinions. They are “snowflakes,” some claimed, who think they are “special,” but melt when faced with any heat.
But if you want to find a group of people that really doesn’t want to hear it, that really insists on things not being talked about, that really wants “safe spaces” where they can be insulated from reality and accountability, try pointing out to Generation Greed that they are in fact Generation Greed. With data, charts, tables, etc. Perhaps that’s why you don’t see much of this type of discussion in the mainstream media, since one response would presumably be “cancel my subscription.” Or PBS membership or contribution (note the killing off of a PBS project on public employee pensions).
One of the angry responses I get is “who do you think you are” bringing up things that no one should be talking about. Another is that I clearly have “no life” because I should be focused on my own self, like most of the Boomers themselves, rather than the world as I will leave it behind. So perhaps now its time to hear it from someone else, minus the boring data, charts, tables etc. A search of the term “Donald Trump boomer” (although Hillary Clinton was a boomer too) brought up the following. I’ll have some comments after excerpts from and links to the articles and posts.
Even before the election, Americans were asking just how we got here — to this sullen moment of national reckoning. Since November, the autopsy has dragged on so long it seems there could be nothing left to dissect. But the search continues, because no truly satisfying answer has yet been offered. Deplorables, deportables, economic malaise, rural resentment, coastal hauteur whatever — these are just symptoms. The root illness remains undiagnosed, but here it is: the baby boomers, that vast generation of Americans born in the first two decades after World War II. The body politic rests on the slab because boomers put it there, because decades of boomerism produced the problems and disaffection of which 2016 was merely the latest expression.
My indictment of boomers may seem overbroad, but the thesis is quite specific: the unusual prevalence of sociopathy in an unusually large generation. How does that disorder manifest? Improvidence is reflected in low levels of savings and high levels of bankruptcy. Deceit shows up as a distaste for facts, a subject on display in everything from Enron’s quarterly reports to daily press briefings. Interpersonal failures and unbridled hostility appeared in unusually high levels of divorce and crime from the 1970s to early 1990s. These problems expressed themselves at generationally unique levels in boomers, to a greater extent than in boomers’ parents or children at comparable ages. (My forthcoming book lays out all these data in detail.)
By the late 1990s, as boomerism really expressed itself, disasters arrived: financial scandals, economic infirmities, mounting debt, unaddressed climate change, a growing entitlements crisis, and more. Since it was politically untenable to locate blame in obvious places, other explanations were manufactured for the nation’s woes. (Immigrants!) Especially on the coasts, other explanations have been long suspected, such as the predations of a swollen GOP. Not implausible, but then you have to ask where the swelling comes from, and that circles back to boomers who, despite their hippie reputation, are net Republican.
The cliché view of the ’60s and ’70s is filled with images of idealistic flower children and anti-war protests. But the lasting effect of all the upheaval was not liberal idealism. Instead, the boomers turned out to be remarkably self-absorbed, cynical and materialistic. Tom Wolfe called them the “me generation,” and Christopher Lasch warned that they were creating a culture of narcissism where success “has to be ratified by publicity.”
In their youth, the millions of people born during the baby boom generation rebelled against their parents. Now as they head into retirement, they’re telling off the grandkids. There was a lot of press attention on race and sex during the battle between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton for the White House. The big story just might be about age and income inequality.
It’s the Baby Boomers’ fault. All of it.
The milquetoast economy. The endless wars. The hyper-partisanship. And, most of all, Donald Trump’s presidential run.
So goes an argument first advanced in 2007 by former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala and now renewed by Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. The notion has caught fire on social media, giving Gen Xers and millennials an outlet for their frustration over this year’s unprecedented, deeply disturbing election season.
“I am so tired of hearing about the goddamn Baby Boomers! I’ve spent my whole life swimming behind that garbage barge of a generation. They ruined everything they’ve passed through and left me in their wake.”
But the garbage barge just chugs on. As they enter late middle age, the Boomers still can’t grow up. Guys who once dropped acid are now downing Viagra; women who once eschewed lipstick are now getting liposuction. At the risk of feeding their narcissism, I believe it’s time someone stated the simple truth: The Baby Boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history.
It is my contention that the single greatest sin a generation can commit is the sin of selfishness. And it’s from this standard that I draw my harsh conclusion. I’m not alone in this view, of course. The Boomer in Chief, my former boss, Bill Clinton, used to tell me about an influential professor he’d had at Georgetown. His name was Carroll Quigley, and he taught young Bill Clinton and hundreds of other Hoyas about something called the Future Preference.
“Why is America the greatest sociiiiiiety in human hist’ree? The Few-chah Pref’rence. At every critical junk-chaah, we have prefuhhed the few-chah to the present. That is why immigrants left the old waaahld for the new. That is why paahrents such as yours sacrifice to send their children to univehhsities like this wan. The American ideal is that the few-chah can be bettah than the paahst, and that each of us has a personal, moral obligation to make it so.”
Let us conclude that by his old professor’s test, the Boomers have been a miserable failure. At nearly every critical juncture, they have preferred the present to the future; they’ve put themselves ahead of their parents, ahead of their country, ahead of their children—ahead of our future.
The idealists of the 1960s have come a long way from Woodstock. After a quarter- century of mismanaging the country, they have produced Donald Trump, who with his narcissistic and uncompromising style is a bright orange symbol of what went wrong with the massive generation. And polls show that the boomers are the biggest source of support for Trump.
Boomers inherited the sole superpower after the Greatest Generation won the Cold War — and squandered U.S. influence with two long and inconclusive wars.
They gave us the financial collapse of 2008, the worst economy since the Great Depression, a crushing federal debt and worse inequality. They devoured fossil fuels and did little about global warming while allowing infrastructure and research to deteriorate. They expanded entitlement programs and are now poised to bankrupt those programs. Their leadership has led to declining confidence in religion, the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, banks and big business, schools, the media and the police. They may leave their children (the millennials) worse off than they were.
(Note: actually, staring with the average childhood family circumstances provided to the Boomers by their parents, compared with the childhood provided to those coming after by the Boomers, shifting to the economy as each experienced it, and ending with the circumstances in which each group will spend its final years, that’s practically guaranteed).
Boomers, coddled in their youth, grew up selfish and unyielding. When they got power, they created polarization and gridlock from both sides. Though Vietnam War-protesting boomers got the attention, their peers on the right were just as ideological, creating the religious right. Boomers are twice as likely to identify as conservative than liberal, a figure that hasn’t changed much in two decades. And Trump captures his generation’s selfishness: his multiple draft deferrals, his claim that he’s “made a lot of sacrifices” by building buildings, his vow not to cut Social Security but to have huge tax cuts and massive military investments.
(Note: I’m not taking ideological sides here; in fact I see the battles over ideology as phony attempts to distract from what will really matter in the end. Those on the “capitalist right” have driven the economy from entrepreneurship to crony capitalism and Robber Barron pillaging of American business. Culminating in the bailout of those at the top after 2008. Those on the “socialist left” have presided over state and local governments that are a better and better deal for older generations in or connected to them, and provide less and less in services and benefits and/or higher taxes for less well of people to pay for it.)
What you have is powerful interest groups, unenlightened self-interest, and hypocrisy.
Every bit a generational icon, as Donald Trump careens toward Election Day he is not just a man running for president. His candidacy is also his generation’s last great tantrum. He is the ultimate expression of all that is wrong with an aging, self-indulgent generation unleavened by the qualities that are good. Absent is the idealism of the Sixties. In abundance we find the grasping of the Eighties.
In the case of Trump, America is offered, by the Republican Party, a completely new kind of candidate. The personification of the worst of his generation’s traits, distilled to their essence, he is the man who told me, “For the most part, you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect.”
And then there is Trump’s sexual boasting. In his early years “he thought of himself as an Elvis kind of guy,” says D’Antonio. “He thought he had Elvis’ charisma. Just look at the hair. All the preening and the sneering and the idea he is so sexually magnetic — all of it comes from Elvis. Even his sexual indulgence and marriages– it’s all break-the-rules baby boomer stuff.”
Indeed, says Florida Atlantic psychology professor Ryne Sherman, Trump’s (admittedly extreme) sexual attitudes put him squarely in baby boomer territory.
“For the most part, the differences in personality between generations tend to be pretty small,” says Sherman, who has analyzed both candidates’ personalities. “But for boomers, the data we’ve collected and analyzed shows they’re more open about sexual attitudes and behaviors.”
Of course, there is no evidence Clinton has ever acted out sexually. But her tolerance of her husband’s sexual behavior? “That could explain it, being from that generation,” Sherman says.
(Note: the recent campaign, instead of being focused on the effect of 35 years of future selling on work and creativity, family and community. It was instead, as I predicted, about Baby Boomer sex. Even thought the Baby Boomers are all over age 50, a point in life when prior generations had long been thinking about something else. The divorced women voted for Clinton, the divorced men for Trump).
Over the past 40 years, the US government has done precious little to invest in the future.
Instead of spending money on education, our government has repeatedly chosen to cut taxes. Instead of investing in infrastructure, politicians have several times shut down the government over budget disputes.
Time and time again difficult decisions have been pushed off for later, and complicated social issues have been relegated to something that the unforgiving “invisible hand of the market” can fix.
It has all been to our detriment. And it is all our parents’ fault.
I was wondering when it would happen. For more than 30 years I have been anxiously awaiting the backlash. Alas, for years it never arrived. What backlash have I been awaiting, you ask? Why, the backlash to the most self-important, morally superior, narcissistic generation to cast a shadow across this republic in its history, the Baby Boomers. Had the generation just been designated “the Babies” and been left at that, America would have been on the right track. As we now are about to discover, while the Boomers decline into senescence, they never really did grow up — at least their headline-grabbing cohort never grew up.
With a median household income of $40,581, millennials earn 20 percent less than boomers did at the same stage of life, despite being better educated, according to a new analysis of Federal Reserve data by the advocacy group Young Invincibles.
We’ve been taking a heavy toll on the nation since the early ‘50s, when our bulge required localities to finance major expansions in educational facilities, and now we’re overwhelming social security and medicare resources. Yes, we made offsetting contributions in the ‘60s and ‘70s when entered the workforce in great numbers and were active in supporting long overdue advances in civil rights and opposing the Vietnam War (or, like Clinton, Bush II and Trump, evading the draft). But it’s clear in hindsight that Nixon’s Silent Majority was hiding among us, ready as we entered our wage-earning prime in the ‘80s to succumb to and vote for Republican supply-side theories that dropping tax rates would produce greater tax revenue. Why not? We got to keep far more of our rising incomes and the government would still be in the black. Too bad it hasn’t worked out that way. And (tragically) funny that the Republicans just think the experiment hasn’t gone on long enough to produce the promised results.
Commentators seem split into three camps: those who see Trump as a manifestation of smouldering social/economic ills, those who see Trump and his supporters as the cause of those ills, and those who see Trump as both manifestation and cause of those ills.
I think this misses the point, which is the overlapping crises unfolding in this decade– diminishing returns on skyrocketing debts, the demographics of an aging populace, the erosion of the social contract and the profound disunity of political elites–will continue expanding and feeding on each other regardless of who is in power.
So how did Generation Greed end up Generation Greed? I see it this way.
Part of it is economic circumstances. The prior dominant group, the Greatest Generation, spent their outward-looking formative years – the teens – and young adulthood amidst the hardship of the Great Depression and World War II. One consequence was deferred parenting, so the Silent Generation – born 1930 to 1946 – was smaller than the one that preceded it.
The Silent Generation experienced the latter years of the Depression and WWII in childhood. But it entered young adulthood in the privileged labor market of the post WWII economic boom, a time when labor was in short supply and the economic rungs above were wide open. Adjusted for education level this is actually the richest generation in U.S. history (the early and mid-boomers are as affluent, but only due to higher educational attainment), but it is not one that made much of a mark in federal politics. It made its mark elsewhere, with men like Kenneth Lay, Bernie Ebbers, Bernie Madoff, Michael Milliken, Ivan Boesky, Niel L. Hoyland — and Alan Greenspan – as examples.
Did any of their contemporaries stand up to these people? A few did. I can think of one who lost one job in the middle of a recession, and was forced into retirement from another, for doing so. On the other hand a guy who wrote a note in strong agreement with the assertion that economic bubbles should be allowed to continue, and that instead the government should merely respond to the resulting bust (by selling off some of the future), ended up Greenspan’s successor.
Rich beyond its parents’ dreams right off the bat, the Silent Generation was the first to save far less and borrow far more than the one before, as credit cards took hold and mortgage terms were freed up. Why sacrifice now when you are going to be so much better off in the future? Generalizing his own exceptional experience and that of his generation, Alan Greenspan wrongly praised the huge build-up in personal debt of the 1990s and 2000s. It was rational, he believed, since people would be far richer in the future and thus able to pay the debts back. Already married (or established as Catholic priests) when the sexual revolution hit, it is actually the Silent Generation that was the first to get divorced in large numbers. And to engage in other sexual practices that were later exposed, as in the example of Bill Cosby.
The Baby Boomers born before 1957 also came of age in an era of perpetual prosperity, which came to an end with the weak economy of 1974 to 1983. They too saw no need to save for their own future, or to worry too much about the children – whom the Boomers wrongly expected to be better off than they were. And they were the first generation to be conditioned by television commercials as to the meaning of their lives and what they could and deserved to have. (Like the Amish and the Hasidm, I suppose, we skipped cable and didn’t let our kids watch much besides public television).
While the early and mid-Boomers grew up expecting, and feeling entitled to, perpetual prosperity and materialism, their formative years were a period of social, cultural and political conflict. Those conflicts of the 1960s remain their focus today – not the needs and circumstances of the generations to follow.
While a minority of the Boomers pursued “peace, love and understanding” for the majority “sex, drugs and rock and roll” were more like it. Antibiotics made casual sex outside relationships less fraught for men, and birth control had made such pleasure seeking less consequential for women. Family became less important, although some Boomers are beginning to see its importance now that they are facing old age, with needs to be met by their children, rather than middle age, previously a period of responsible adulthood in service to the needs of those older and younger. Follow (or have in your face) Donald Trump long enough and you can see this evolution, but social trend followers might also remember this book from the 1970s.
Or this clip from a Boomer-focused movie.
And Boomers weren’t pleased with their “do as I say not as I do” parents, drinking their booze and smoking their cigarettes, and felt the right to move on to substances of their own choosing. The Boomers themselves, or many of them, would then repeat “do as I say not as I did” in spades to their own children, which when it worked (and statistically it often has) is perhaps their most positive cultural legacy. Although as the opiod crisis, the ubiquity of porn, and prevalence of data rape shows, it hasn’t always worked.
The late boomers have more in common with Generation X, having spent their childhoods in the wake of social breakdown, their early adulthood in a much weaker economy after many of the job were already take much of the housing was bought up, and their early years of sexual maturity in the age of AIDS, and their attempt to save for retirement in mid-life with all asset prices already inflated (and ready to crash as those who preceded them sell off). But certain negative social trends that soared with the earlier Boomers – illicit drug use and teenage pregnancy, for example, peaked with those born in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
These were the circumstances, but what about the values? When I ran for office against the local state legislator, a typical rationalizing Boomer of the left, I put it this way.
Aside from lobbyists who are just out for a dollar, politics appears to be driven by two different concepts of the word “freedom” that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, one good and the other (for lack of a better word) evil. The good freedom might be called freedom of identity, or of lifestyle. For a brief period after World War II, many Americans believed that if you didn’t look like, act like, think like, and live like everyone else, then you shouldn’t be accepted. The idea of America as a land of social conformity is mostly gone, but politicians can still get elected by manipulating 35 year old resentments with tribal appeals to groups of people, and the invocation of “values” issues on which they have no intention of changing anything. Sadly, tribal politics determines how many people vote, among those who vote at all. They are suckers.
The evil idea of freedom is freedom from responsibility, which has both a “liberal” and a “conservative” version, depending on which responsibilities one does not want to meet. Liberal Democrats have sought to attract votes by telling the poor and not so poor, the old and not so old, the sick and not so sick, and others that they do not have personal responsibilities to work and earn their own living, or to take care of their family members. To knowledgeable critics, their excuse for irresponsibility has been “social realism, ” the assertion that this is the way people live today (because they are free to live that way) and government programs, paid for by someone else, must limit the damage. And they have cultivated a sense of entitlement to assistance, causing recipients of public benefits to feel anger at anyone who dares to make demands on them in exchange.
Conservatives and Republicans have sought to attract votes by telling the better off that they do not have social responsibilities to their communities, to the less well off, to the rest of the world, and to the future, particularly with regard to taxes and debt, but also with regard to the environment. To knowledgeable critics, their excuse for irresponsibility has been “economic realism, ” the assertion that the affluent are self interested and mobile, and if you make demands on them for the benefit of others, or for the benefit of the future, they will take their assets and go elsewhere, leaving you worse off than before. They also cultivate a sense of entitlement, telling the affluent that their position of privilege is the result of their own moral superiority, not social advantages or luck or (as the business scandals show) worse, and that they do not owe anything to anyone in exchange for it.
And that is what we are facing now. Generation Greed’s last economic orgy. The damage is already great. But it can get worse if the generations to follow get manipulated into taking sides in the Boomer’s sexual politics rather than demanding some kind of generational fairness. Or if they don’t get off the couch.