Everyone likes to bash millennials. We’re spoiled, entitled, and hopelessly glued to our smartphones. We demand participation trophies, can’t find jobs, and live with our parents until we’re 30. You know the punchlines by now.
But is the millennial hate justified? Have we dropped the generational baton, or was it a previous generation, the so-called baby boomers, who actually ruined everything?
That’s the argument Bruce Gibney makes in his book A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America. The boomers, according to Gibney, have committed “generational plunder,” pillaging the nation’s economy, repeatedly cutting their own taxes, financing two wars with deficits, ignoring climate change, presiding over the death of America’s manufacturing core, and leaving future generations to clean up the mess they created.
I spoke to Gibney about these claims, and why he thinks the baby boomers have wrecked America.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Who are the baby boomers?
The baby boomers are conventionally defined as people born between 1946 and 1964. But I focus on the first two-thirds of boomers because their experiences are pretty homogeneous: They were raised after the war and so have no real experience of trauma or the Great Depression or even any deprivation at all. More importantly, they never experienced the social solidarity that unfolded during war time and that helped produce the New Deal.
But it’s really the white middle-class boomers who exemplify all the awful characteristics and behaviors that have defined this generation. They became a majority of the electorate in the early ’80s, and they fully consolidated their power in Washington by January 1995. And they’ve basically been in charge ever since.
So how have they broken the country?
Well, the damage done to the social fabric is pretty self-evident. Just look around and notice what’s been done. On the economic front, the damage is equally obvious, and it trickles down to all sorts of other social phenomena. I don’t want to get bogged down in an ocean of numbers and data here (that’s in the book), but think of it this way: I’m 41, and when I was born, the gross debt-to-GDP ratio was about 35 percent. It’s roughly 103 percent now — and it keeps rising.
The boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it. They habitually cut their own taxes and borrow money without any concern for future burdens. They’ve spent virtually all our money and assets on themselves and in the process have left a financial disaster for their children.
We used to have the finest infrastructure in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers thinks there’s something like a $4 trillion deficit in infrastructure in deferred maintenance. It’s crumbling, and the boomers have allowed it to crumble. Our public education system has steadily degraded as well, forcing middle-class students to bury themselves in debt in order to get a college education.
Then of course there’s the issue of climate change, which they’ve done almost nothing to solve. But even if we want to be market-oriented about this, we can think of the climate as an asset, which has degraded over time thanks to the inaction and cowardice of the boomer generation. Now they didn’t start burning fossil fuels, but by the 1990s the science was undeniable. And what did they do? Nothing.
“Time after time, when facts collided with feelings, the boomers choose feelings.”
Why hasn’t this recklessness been checked by the political system? Is it as simple as the boomers took over and used power to enrich themselves without enough resistance from younger voters?
Well, most of our problems have not been addressed because that would require higher taxes and therefore a sense of social obligation to our fellow citizens. But again, the boomers seem to have no appreciation for social solidarity.
But to answer your question more directly, the problem is that dealing with these problems has simply been irrelevant to the largest political class in the country — the boomers. There’s nothing conspiratorial about that. Politicians respond to the most important part of the electorate, and that’s been the boomers for decades. And it just so happens that the boomers are not socially inclined and have a ton of maladaptive personality characteristics.
It’s interesting that Ronald Reagan is elected right around the time that boomers become a majority of the electorate. Reagan himself wasn’t a boomer, but it was boomers who put him into office. And this is when we get this wave of neoliberalism that essentially guts the public sector and attempts to privatize everything.
Right. Starting with Reagan, we saw this national ethos which was basically the inverse of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” This gets flipped on its head in a massive push for privatized gain and socialized risk for big banks and financial institutions. This has really been the dominant boomer economic theory, and it’s poisoned what’s left of our public institutions.
So what’s your explanation for the awfulness of the boomers? What made them this way?
I think there were a number of unusual influences, some of which won’t be repeated, and some of which may have mutated over the years. I think the major factor is that the boomers grew up in a time of uninterrupted prosperity. And so they simply took it for granted. They assumed the economy would just grow three percent a year forever and that wages would go up every year and that there would always be a good job for everyone who wanted it.
This was a fantasy and the result of a spoiled generation assuming things would be easy and that no sacrifices would have to be made in order to preserve prosperity for future generations.
I’ve always seen the boomers as a generational trust-fund baby: They inherited a country they had no part in building, failed to appreciate it, and seized on all the benefits while leaving nothing behind.
I think that’s exactly right. They were born into great fortune and had a blast while they were on top. But what have they left behind?
“This was a fantasy and the result of a spoiled generation assuming things would be easy and that no sacrifices would have to be made in order to preserve prosperity for future generations.”
Something that doesn’t get discussed enough is how hostile so many of these boomers are to science. It’s not hard to connect this aversion to facts to some of these disastrous social policies.
This is a generation that is dominated by feelings, not by facts. The irony is that boomers criticize millennials for being snowflakes, for being too driven by feelings. But the boomers are the first big feelings generation. They’re highly motivated by feelings and not persuaded by facts. And you can see this in their policies.
Take this whole fantasy about trickle-down economics. Maybe it was worth a shot, but it doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t work. The evidence is overwhelming. The experiment is over. And yet they’re still clinging to this dogma, and indeed the latest tax bill is the latest example of that.
Time after time, when facts collided with feelings, the boomers chose feelings.
What’s the most egregious thing the boomers have done in your opinion?
I’ll give you something abstract and something concrete. On an abstract level, I think the worst thing they’ve done is destroy a sense of social solidarity, a sense of commitment to fellow citizens. That ethos is gone and it’s been replaced by a cult of individualism. It’s hard to overstate how damaging this is.
On a concrete level, their policies of under-investment and debt accumulation have made it very hard to deal with our most serious challenges going forward. Because we failed to confront things like infrastructure decay and climate change early on, they’ve only grown into bigger and more expensive problems. When something breaks, it’s a lot more expensive to fix than it would have been to just maintain it all along.
So where does that leave us?
In an impossible place. We’re going to have to make difficult choices between, say, saving Social Security and Medicare and saving arctic ice sheets. We’ll have fewer and fewer resources to deal with these issues. And I actually think that over the next 100 years, absent some major technological innovation like de-carbonization, which is speculative at this point, these actions will actually just kill people.
I hear you, man, and I’m with you on almost all of this, but I always return to a simple point: If millennials and Gen Xers actually voted in greater numbers, the boomers could’ve been booted out of power years ago.
I think that’s fair. But given how large the boomer demographic is, it really wasn’t possible for millennials to unseat the boomers until a few years ago. And of course there are many issues with voting rights. But that’s not a complete excuse.
More than voting, though, millennials have to run for office because people have to be excited about the person they’re voting for. We need people in office with a different outlook, who see the world differently. Boomers don’t care about how the country will look in 30 or 40 years, but millennials do, and so those are the people we need in power.
“The boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it.”
I guess the big question is, can we recover from this? Can we pay the bill the boomers left us?
I think we can, but it’s imperative that we start sooner than later. After 2024 or so, it will get really hard to do anything meaningful. In fact, I think the choices might become so difficult that even fairly good people will get wrapped up in short-term self-interest.
So if we unseat the boomers from Congress, from state legislatures, and certainly from the presidency over the next three to seven years, then I think we can undo the damage. But that will require a much higher tax rate and a degree of social solidarity that the country hasn’t seen in over 50 years.
That will not be easy, and there’s no way around the fact that millennials will have to sacrifice in ways the boomers refused to sacrifice, but that’s where we are — and these are the choices we face.
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