Let me start with a confession: I have myself expressed some frustration with the Baby Boomers. At the very least, it seems fair to ask why, as my contemporaries move out of productive employment, so many aspects of America’s future seem uncertain, even imperiled. Didn’t we have access to all the resources we could ask for–military, economic, educational–not only to maintain the peace won by the “Greatest Generation” but also to secure their fondest dreams to their grandchildren and beyond? Why then, as another Presidential campaign gains momentum, do we find ourselves concerned about the failure of our own democratic processes, about persistent racism and inequality, about the survival of a sustainable planet? Our institutions seem sclerotic, unable to cope with the need for change. Surely it was such a puzzle that prompted Lyman Stone to issue his own answer, a slightly overwrought condemnation of his parents’ generation, entitled “The Boomers Ruined Everything.” His precise targets–restrictive job licensure, the student loan “crisis,” barriers to home ownership, mass incarceration, Federal entitlements, municipal debt–have a ring of currency about them, but I want to suggest that, in terms of actual history, he ascribes blame a bit too narrowly. Nor does he give his own generation sufficient credit.
The critical turn in commentary about the Boomers is perfectly predictable, and Mr. Stone is hardly the first to lay America’s angst at their feet. In fact, he follows a path blazed by one of his elders, Bruce Gibney, who diagnosed my entire generation as suffering from sociopathic tendencies. (OK, I’ll give you one or two, plus Ted Bundy on the cusp–but the whole gang?) He too focused on problems that were already getting the attention of Gen-Xers: rising debt, climate change, the cost of entitlements. Indeed, if Millennials want to indict their elders for subverting the American Dream (and with an occasional dash of hypocrisy), they could hardly pick better examples. Although Stone concedes (repeatedly) that the Boomers did not create all these problems, he insists that they “worsened” previous mistakes or “extended” harmful trends. Even if the country’s malaise stems from the rule of the “gerontocracy in charge today,” however, a little more chronological sensitivity couldn’t hurt. Richard Nixon, who took up arms against the “wave of crime,” and his opposite number, Nelson Rockefeller, who approved New York’s tough drug laws, belonged to an earlier era, yet they set a precedent for the war on drugs as a factor in mass imprisonment. Bill Clinton, the first Boomer-born President, was elected in 1992. By then, one should admit, the ball was rolling–thanks to the actions of older folks.
But Mr. Stone himself is on a roll. “Whatever specific arguments may have justified a command-and-control response to crime,” he writes, “this kind of response reared its head for every major political problem encountered by Baby Boomers: housing, jobs, education, crime, and, of course, debt.” That is, the Boomers’ instinctive solution was more regulation, an interpretation that fits well with Stone’s other writings for the National Review and American Enterprise Institute. For the purpose of “complicating” this narrative, as we say, let’s glance briefly at one favorite trope of Boomer-bashers: global climate change. What could be more myopic, selfish, and greedy than leaving behind a dangerously degraded environment? And what is the appropriate response? So far, government guidelines and legal restrictions have a pretty good record. The Clean Air Act of 1970 (amended 1990) has contributed to significant reductions in ground-level pollution, including from lead. The same urban communities that suffer the impact of mass incarceration have been spared even worse health. When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, the consumption of petroleum has actually stopped rising for the first time in the Boomer era, declining from projected levels thanks in part to fuel economy standards. (Of course, many would welcome a rebound in consumption as a sign that we have finally recovered from the 2008 Recession, but there is an environmental price for cheaper energy.) Even our use of electricity–which, contrary to popular belief, is commonly generated by burning something–has fallen off. The humble LED light has played its part, along with government energy efficiency ratings.
To be honest, such relatively benign, and indeed increasingly fragile, uses of government “command-and-control” are not the overriding concern of these youthful critics. What exercises them above all is the fiscal pressure of financing required payments to older retired Americans through programs like Medicare and Social Security. Without a resort to confiscatory taxation, what revenues will be left to invest in the things the Millennials will need to prosper–schools, roads, higher education, child care, drug treatment? The picture that emerges is of an aging society, top heavy with elderly dependents, dragged down by a lamentable “lack of dynamism.” Some of this concern is misplaced. Even the woes of higher education have less to do with the cost to students than with the mismatch between the courses they pursue and their hopes for employment. I humbly submit that the Boomers have contributed their share of “dynamism” to America–online trading, Powerpoint, OPRAH, hi-tech gerrymandering, Pixar–and now it’s time for them to step out of the spotlight and, indeed, off the stage.
Which brings me to my last observation. Maybe the Baby Boomers did ruin everything–except their children. This is an opinion I feel entitled to, having taught them in college for the past 20 years. The Millennials I’ve encountered exhibit all the reassuring traits that modern life has implanted in us since World War II: enthusiasm for a spontaneous road-trip, willingness to consume absurd quantities of TV, obsessive interest in the latest celebrity rumor, and (most important) fairly well-developed crap detectors. (Unlike the next generation, which has yet to outgrow its troubling fascination with social media.) Take heart, Mr. Stone, the gerontocracy is doomed. Your generation now potentially outnumbers the stagnant Boomers at the polls. Like us, they will believe they are in charge of the future.