I was born in 1975, on a generational cusp between gen X and gen Y. For all the various differences between the cohorts on either side of my demographic fence, they have one key attribute in common: they really f-ing resent baby boomers.
Recently, the “old economy Steve” meme has been catching fire online, as millennials bash the people who were born into a booming postwar economy and are now seen to regard 20-somethings as lazy and entitled. Their big brothers and sisters were there 20 years ago, though: Generation X, the 1991 novel that definitively gave a name to author Douglas Coupland’s then-20-something cohort, defined “Boomer Envy” as “Envy of material wealth and long-range material security accrued by older members of the baby boom generation by virtue of fortunate births.” Coupland also identified a “McJob” as “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.” Sound like any meme you know?
To some extent, this is just sour grapes. The generational grass is always greener, whether you’re looking at the seemingly coddled cohort that preceded you or the seemingly snotty generation that came next. It’s not inevitable, though, that a generation’s regard declines as they age: consider the greatest generation, who only earned that worshipful moniker in 1998—a half-century after they fought the Nazis and nearly a lifetime after they survived their Depression-era childhoods. Approaching a similar point in their generational lifecycle, the baby boomers are getting spat on by two successive younger generations.
The irony is that baby boomers were the hippie generation, the generation that gave us the Summer of Love and Hair, the generation that wanted to change the game. Instead, they’re now seen as the generation that played the game like a Stradivarius. Is that really their fault? Do they deserve the bitter regard of everyone born after 1965?
Well, let’s give credit where credit’s due. Baby boomers can be justly proud of their decisive role in the Civil Rights Movement and the vast strides they made in women’s rights. It’s not their fault that their war—the Vietnam War—was a profoundly tragic boondoggle rather than the horrific but obviously necessary war their parents had to fight. The baby boomers didn’t start the Cold War, but they brought it to a peaceful end: no nuclear bombs have been used against humans since the end of World War II, a feat that for decades seemed like an alarmingly tall order.
Baby boomers have also brought their progressive ideals into the 21st century. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, some of the most moving images were those of Civil Rights Movement veterans finally casting successful ballots for an African-American president. Gay rights would not be making such astonishingly rapid progress if droves of baby boomers weren’t joining their children—in many cases, reversing their previous positions—in support of marriage equality.
Nor are baby boomers quite as economically entitled as Old Economy Steve would have you believe. Many are approaching retirement with perilously low savings, and though paid corporate pensions are not as laughably implausible for baby boomers as they are for gen X and gen Y, they’re far from universal. Aging boomers will put a possibly unsustainable strain on American public services, and their children—many working McJobs—won’t have the resources to support them.
Still, all that anti-boomer resentment comes from a very real place. While the rest of the developed world has sorted out national health care systems and reasonable gun control laws, America has been paralyzed. Baby boomers have also presided over the War on Drugs and a skyrocketing incarceration rate. For all the recent progress in gay rights, boomers’ initial response to the AIDS crisis was shockingly slow, due in part to the marginalized status of the gay communities that were hit first and hardest. In a last great fuck-you, it was George W. Bush—possibly the final boomer president—who took the political capital afforded him by the national crisis of 9/11 and led us straight into a deadly, expensive, hate-fueling war in Iraq.
Perhaps even more consequentially, baby boomers have bequeathed to younger generations a rapidly warming climate. By the time millennials are eligible for AARP membership, deadly heatwaves may be 100 times more likely; before they’re even wearing “Over the Hill” hats, agricultural production in Africa might have decreased by half and Santa Claus’ workshop will be underwater.
Then there’s the “New Normal” economy. Income inequality in America has been on the rise since the early 1970s—basically, for baby boomers’ entire working lives. With college costs at an all-time high, millennials are being encouraged to saddle student debt that will begin a borrowing cycle many or most will never get the better of. Unions are weakening, international competition is increasing, and one-income middle-class families are increasingly a thing of the past.
Is it fair to blame the boomers for all this? Not entirely. It’s probably not reasonable to expect that any group of humans could have responded much more quickly to the threat of global warming—but the length of time American leaders have spent in thrall to avaricious business interests and religious fundamentalists is inexcusable. The janky American health care system and unsustainable economy were built before the boomers’ births, but must inequality have increased so dramatically? Must health care have remained such a clusterfuck for so long?
Those questions may be unanswerable, but the real sin of Old Economy Steve is his judgmental lack of humility. The recent Time cover calling millennials the “Me Me Me Generation”—while obviously sensationalistic—struck a bitter nerve with 20-somethings who are sick of being judged for spending time on Facebook when the reason they have that time in the first place is because of the crappy economy they’ve been dumped into by the generation that sang about peace and love and justice and then proceeded to make war, ignore AIDS and jail a third of this country’s young black men.
It’s tragic, really. It’s not all the baby boomers’ fault, but enough of it is that the real-life counterparts of Old Economy Steve would do well to err on the side of humility. Of course, it’s understandable that boomers might resent being mocked on the internet—after all, they invented the damn thing.