I need to rant. There’s a rather cute, but ultimately worthless, set of drawings that’s doing the rounds now. It is bathed in the glow of apparently well-meaning advice with which only the truly oblivious can imbue their work. It’s here. Clearly someone in his or her 50s or 60s has discovered Microsoft Paint and a WYSIWYG editor. (To that person, congratulations! Have fun with PhotoShop!) For a bit of sense, however, read this. I see it as a good start to the work-in-progress that must be the rejoinder to the inter-generational thieves who have discovered stick figures and seem to think that this allows them to tell us why we shouldn’t feel special – while we clean up the mess that they are bequeathing to us.
I know that I’m not particularly special, but I feel a damn sight better about myself than I would were I part of a generation that has consistently breached a social contract which it now wants to enforce for its benefit as it enters retirement. A big part of the problem is that, as a result of the tax breaks it has demanded from cloying politicians in the 1980s, it hasn’t saved for its healthcare costs. Said generation also realised early on that having lots of kids was hard. Net result: rising costs for those of us who keep working, with a much smaller tax base to fund them.
I don’t think pieces that cite “a time of unprecedented economic prosperity” (caused by Boomer parents, who won a war before having the Boomers) as a reason or excuse for anything without further explanation are credible. All that those who went through this expansion did was use it to line their pockets via financial weapons of mass destruction. There are plenty of things wrong with Millennials, I’ll admit. I can’t stand most of us (including myself sometimes). And by many measures, I’m privileged. I’m 30, have degrees from good universities, no debt, and do reasonably well for a living at an organisation where people are still treated with respect. I’m grateful that I have choices and some vague sense of job satisfaction. I appreciate the fact that not everyone does. This is, however, a matter of generational solidarity. For all that they want to tell us otherwise, the Boomers weren’t special, either, just greedy, and lucky that there were enough of them to get law-makers on side. (On that note, and in response to one of the common charges about my generation’s laziness, I’m not sure why we should be saving to buy a house to fund an individual Baby Boomer’s retirement in specie even more than we’re likely to be doing in general already. I don’t think that this makes us lazy, just prudent. Speaking in harsh Malthusian terms, it’s the choice between not living my life for the next several years to pay down a mortgage which will prolong yours, or living my life while I wait for enough of you to shuffle off your mortal coils to cause a correction in the housing market.)
My – very hard-working, late Boomer – parents have always taught me that I should leave things better than I found them. They have encouraged me to try to build upon what they’ve done. I think most of us would like to fulfill these sorts of expectations and give our kids more than we had (if we can ever afford to have them). It might help if we weren’t told that we were lazy for having to work twice as hard for wages that have stagnated since the mid-2000s. It would help, too, if our tax levels weren’t being hoisted steadily upwards as the result of a national debt-burden in the United States that has been exacerbated by a Boomer President in the 2000s (for whom most of us either didn’t, or were too young, to vote) with grandiloquent visions of being at once a Robber Baron and a Napoleon of the Middle East.
The imperfect mechanisms of democracy mean that Baby Boomers are likely to influence social policy in their favour for some time to come. While this continues, few of the discerning among us are likely to take their stick figures seriously, much as we don’t particularly care for some of their retrograde reactions to gay marriage or knee-jerk denials of the climate change that they’ve wrought. (I have a theory that some of the deepest fault-lines in American politics today are inter-generational rather than left vs right. Most people my age don’t much think that gay people should be denied the misery that comes with knowing that you’re going to spend the rest of your life with just one person. Nor are we so invested in big oil that we deny the geopolitical mess that’s likely to eventuate when Bangladesh is submerged and the Polar Bears suffer extinction. But instead of agreeing about these things and focusing on the big stuff – like how this country is going to get out of this economic hole while dealing with climate change and shaking its dependence on China – apparently the Boomer agenda is otherwise occupied.)
Nor do those of us who follow have any duty to act as though we’re the Boomers’ indentured servants (even if the politicians do). The reason why so many of us are fleeing large organisations for the comparative uncertainties of startups is because there appears to be no promise of promotion in many established organisations. In the main, Baby Boomers are not retiring. Many don’t seem especially interested in leaving the next generations with useful skills (lest they become too competitive) or inspiring us with the confidence that we can run organisations in the future (lest the Boomers become too expensive a second before they want to). This is a generation that has almost always been selfish, from the cradle onwards. This is, after all, the generation that’s made “trading a spouse in” as you get older de rigueur and is responsible for inflating debt levels beyond any serviceable level in order to avoid saving a little more. Past form doesn’t suggest that this will change as they near their graves.
Before I’m told that I’m being a Socialist or Communist for decrying a world in which people have “worked hard” and “justly reaped the rewards of hard work” and left nothing behind, I suggest reading those well-known spokespeople for the redistributive left, The Economist and Niall Ferguson. Evidently we wave our red flags in concert.
Yes, there’s a new normal, and yes, life’s not easy. Most people my age understand this and are dealing with it as well as we can. There’s complaint, but not about what we expect – it’s more just disappointment at the wasteland we’ve been left. The only thing to which I will claim that we Millennials are fully entitled is a sense of annoyance. We’re going to get on and do what we need to anyway. I’ll be damned if I’m to take much heed of the sort of sanctimonious primitive website tripe that the Boomers want to dish out, too. It’s one thing to make a mess. It’s entirely another for the creators of that mess to act as though they’re entitled to tell us how to deal with cleaning it up and hope to escape, at best, charges of gross hypocrisy (and at worst, without being told to go screw themselves).
So, Baby Boomers, as a group of women who were abandoned by Boomer husbands once sang, you don’t own me (or, for that matter, us): don’t tell us what to do, and don’t tell us what to say. It’s not as though you’ve set anything that even begins to resemble an example worth emulating.
(P.S. I’m not the only one with whom this has struck a chord. See, e.g., Alison Herman here. More to come, I’ve no doubt.)