Memo to millennials: Don’t be mad at us
I was born in 1959. My son was born in 1993. He recently explained to me that his generation is very angry with my generation. In case you didn’t know, there is a war brewing between millennials and baby boomers, and it is consuming news feeds, podcasts, memes, Twitter and even our dinner conversations.
As I understand it, my generation is responsible for pretty much all the ills of society today including climate change, economic and social inequality, student debt and the absence of young political leaders to fix things.
The charge is that we grew up fixated on our own individual prosperity, secure in the knowledge that government would set aside our retirement benefits, and that, as a generation, we over-stressed education, especially a college education, but did little to ensure that wages would increase to meet the cost of living increases or make education affordable.
Simply put, we used up resources, created a wealth gap, wrecked labor unions, ignored the planet and didn’t meet the promise that every child goes further and farther than their parents. Or to better sum it up, according to a 2017 book by Bruce Gibney, the boomers 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.”
The result of all these actions, according to millennials, explains why they are more disillusioned with democracy than previous generations. They blame the democratic system for higher debt burdens, lower odds of owning their own home, greater challenges in starting a family and reliance upon inherited wealth rather than merit.
I get it. Millennials are mad at America. According to a study by the Foundation for Liberty and American Greatness, “younger Americans are half as likely to consider themselves American patriots, half as likely to think America has a history to be proud of, and three-quarters as likely to feel America is and will remain great.” The study concludes that “pride in being an American is low for Gen Z, but especially low for millennials, only 72 percent of whom are proud to be an American.”
Okay. It’s time to respond to the charges.
Firstly, the economic blame game is misdirected and not constructive. Yes, the rich have gotten richer in America, and the middle class has been hollowed out. But don’t blame baby boomers as a whole for that. Point your fingers squarely at Ronald Reagan and his trickle-down theories of growth. Under Reaganomics, the super-rich had their taxes cut sharply, by about half. Millionaires became billionaires almost overnight. Tax cuts became a vicious cycle, along with deregulation and bailouts.
But not every one of the more than 74 million people who were born between 1946 and 1964 voted for Reagan or agreed with his policies. And not every baby boomer benefitted from Reagan’s policies, and many, especially in the Democratic Party, sought to turn things around. And did. Note to file: Joe Biden was elected president.
Secondly, baby boomers did not invent the federal deficit. In fact, let the record show that in the late 1990s, President Clinton and a Republican-led Congress balanced the federal budget. During those years, 13 million jobs were added, and inflation averaged less than 3 percent. Defense spending continued to fall during the 1990s.
Baby boomers were not just resting on their laurels. They blazed huge social and economic trails for women, minorities and people with disabilities. We may not have fully understood the depth and extent of systemic racism, but we were foot soldiers in the civil rights era, and the rates of volunteerism for our generation were high and remain high. No, we did not end discrimination. But many remain committed to doing our part to heal the racial divides. We do our part as activists through our faith-based communities.
Globally, a few good things happened on our watch, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ending of the Cold War and support for refugees and immigrants.
Thirdly, 2008 was horrible for many Americans. And baby boomers did not set out to end the manufacturing sector or invent the global competition that would stress our position in the world. But we adapted to new technologies and tried to prepare our children for an internet-based world.
Yes, it is harder to make good money in this new economy, but millennials have also benefitted from technology to advance a gig economy that now needs structure and reform to keep growing.
Finally, on political leadership, I agree with my son’s generation: There are too many octogenarians in Congress, and we need to encourage their exit. I’d favor age limits.
A new generation of leadership is something we should fight for, and Jon Ossoff, at 33 years old, represents the youngest Democrat elected to the Senate. Hopefully, he will spearhead a raise in the minimum wage, more attention to climate change, protection of entitlement programs for the next generation and reduction in college debt — some of the things many millennials want. (By the way, I don’t apologize on behalf of my generation for encouraging high school students to get college degrees. We just have to make college more affordable.)
It’s time to put the generational battle on hold.
I encourage millennials to vote more often if they want all the changes they demand, and to work with baby boomers, not against them. It will take all of us to bring about a more open, transparent and inclusive society that affords more benefits to more people. So, let’s park the argument and get busy.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.
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