The podcast’s title promised a “debate” about whether the Baby Boom generation had “ruined America.”
Turns out that “debate” was settled before the podcast began. We older Americans — born between 1946 and 1964 — are indeed indisputably awful, which has had cataclysmic implications for millennials. The only point of “debate” on the podcast was whether boomers have failed more grievously when analyzing through a liberal or conservative millennial prism.
I am not a regular listener of Ezra Klein’s podcasts, but the 36-year-old political analyst and New York Times columnist has built a youthfully erudite personal brand.
So when I happened across the promise of a back-and-forth about the impact of boomers on contemporary America featuring three millennials — Klein and two authors — I listened with the spirit of curious detachment I might with Fox News or conservative talk radio.
Mostly, after the hour-plus of emphatic boomer bashing, I was struck by just how comprehensive and self-righteous their indictments were. Like so much discourse in contemporary America, they painted in black and white — seldom in shades of gray.
Klein teed things up by summarizing how boomers are assailed from both the right and left: “There’s a left critique that’s more about economics and power, and then a right critique that, at least usually, is more about cultural libertinism and individualism and institutional decay. So I wanted to put these critiques together to see if they added up to something coherent.
“Or maybe it’s just a bunch of carping millennials. And I say that as an often-carping millennial.”
Klein described the book by guest Jill Filipovic, titled “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk About How My Generation Got Left Behind,” as a “very nice encapsulation of the economic case for millennial rage.”
The other book title was equally unsubtle — “Boomers, The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster,” by a senior editor at The American Conservative named Helen Andrews.
In sum, Filipovic condemns boomers as greedy; Andrews indicts them as amoral.
Filipovic’s liberal criticisms of boomers are more familiar, including that we are “living on a planet that’s flooding and burning” because of boomer selfishness.
She also blamed the student debt crisis on boomers, that they “exacerbated” the challenge of skyrocketing college costs by cutting grant programs and replacing them with loan programs and then lacked the political will to offer enough financial help.
Filipovic acknowledged she agrees with some critiques of her generation. For example, she said “hyper individualization” — which she defined as “the ability to really ensconce oneself inside a universe where most people look and think and believe like you do” — is not a great thing.
But she then generalized that boomers were raised in a “monoculture” that was “suffocating” and not fertile ground for the kind of “incredible creativity” we see today.
Klein, as moderator, suggested that many liberal boomers had indeed rebelled against the Vietnam War, racial intolerance and the subjugation of women, but Filipovic was having none of it.
“Nearly every one of them wants to take credit for the civil rights and feminist movements,” she responded. But, she said, the real leaders were older than boomers. “Gloria Steinem is not a baby boomer. Martin Luther King was not a baby boomer. Malcolm X was not a baby boomer.”
Boomers, she said, were just the foot soldiers. “They weren’t necessarily the ones coming up with the intellectual underpinnings of these movements.”
The conservative author, Andrews, described what she termed the “wreckage that boomers left us.” She said boomers wanted “not to stand for working class people and unions, but rather to stand for identity politics-type interests,” starting with Democrat George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.
Klein quoted her book’s claim that “baby boomers have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of western civilization since the Protestant Reformation.” Andrews maintained that claim was not hyperbole.
She told Klein that “boomers certainly did view their parents as their enemy.” She added, “When they (boomers) were trying to come up with things to rebel against, the worst they could say is that they had it too good.” (I guess facing the military draft and Vietnam didn’t register as rebellion-worthy with her.)
Andrews then sharpened her indictment. “The fundamental legacy of the boomers, if you had to put it in a single sentence, is that they are institution destroyers. … They decided that churches could no longer put moral constraints on their parishioners. They thought that the family was too constraining. And unfortunately, when you abolish these institutions, what you do get is chaos.
“That’s one of the main reasons why millennials have such little patience with boomers and their pretense of idealism.”
After more than an hour of this, what struck me was how these three millennials, who seem to come from secure and comfortable upbringings, could be so sure about what life was like before they were around.
Granted, for the past decade or more, a separate, spurious narrative has decried millennials as lazy and entitled, careless with money. “Picture avocado toast-consuming, latte-drinking, yoga mat-toting 20-somethings who live in their parents’ basement, always job-hopping and drowning in debt,” is how a recent CNBC story described that narrative.
The truth is that the millennial generation has faced stagnant wages, ballooning student debt, rapidly increasing housing and medical costs, and, like the rest of us, the growing impacts of climate change.
For those millennials lacking college degrees, well-paid factory jobs have been few and many traditional career paths in manual labor have been foreclosed by technology and globalization.
Could the boomer generation have done and do more about those challenges? Sure. Just as it could and should have done more to promote racial justice.
But I have no haughty generalizations to throw back at millennials. I don’t see the point. Divisions in America have more to do with polarization around attitudes than with age.
I’ll leave the stoking of tribal generational resentments to others.
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