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Stop Mugging GrandmaThe 'Generation Wars' and Why Boomer Blaming Won't Solve Anything$

Jennie Bristow

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780300236835

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300236835.001.0001

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The generation wars

The generation wars

(p.1) Chapter 1 The generation wars
Stop Mugging Grandma

Jennie Bristow

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter lays out the myths of the so-called ‘generation wars’ waged between the Millennials and Baby Boomers and the damaging effects of this generational conflict. The current generation war is presented as a clear conflict between two opposing sides. On one side are the Baby Boomers, born in the twenty years or so following the Second World War; on the other are the Millennials, born in the final two decades of the twentieth century. The chapter shows how the feverish debates about generational conflict reflect very little about the lives of people in any generation. It argues that Boomer-blaming is a narrative that has been constructed by political elites of Western societies to suit their policy agendas.

Keywords:   Baby Boomers, Millennials, generation wars, generational conflict, Western societies, political elites, Boomer-blaming

Imagine an actual generation war. Twenty-somethings would be raiding care homes, demanding they were sold off as one-bedroom apartments to first-time buyers. Affluent 60-somethings would be holed up in their five-bedroom houses, armed and alert to the sounds of an invasion by their children. Schools and universities would be the targets of a ground war, and golf courses marked as sites for strategic drone attacks. As the bodies of old and young piled up by the roadside, the middle-aged would tear themselves apart, frantically switching clothing brands and iPhone cases to fall in with whichever side appeared to be winning.

Mad, isn’t it? And happily, it isn’t happening – at least, not like that. Our streets are not battle zones, with wrinklies wielding walkers and kids hurling avocados. Care home residents are more worried about their grandchildren neglecting to visit than the possibility of an Occupy protest on their lawn; the 60-something owners of five-bedroom houses often have a grown-up child or two stashed away in what would have been the spare rooms. Studies consistently show that younger and older generations like each other, care for each other, and share many of the same values and aspirations. Even the motifs of generational conflict that we associate with the Sixties – the student barricades on the streets by the Sorbonne in Paris in 1968, the shooting of unarmed college (p.2) students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in 1970 – seem to be dramas of another age.

But throughout the Western world, there are some powerful voices agitating for a new generation war – a bitter and ugly confrontation that would pitch anyone under 35 against their parents, grandparents, teachers, colleagues and political representatives. Unlike the Sixties, today’s generational warriors are not college kids, folk singers, radicals and hippies. They are members of the cultural and political establishment, virtue-signalling their concern for young people from the tarnished towers of government and national media institutions.

From North America and Australia to Britain and Continental Europe, we are presented with images of aggrieved Millennials, for whom the good fortune of the Baby Boomer generation, with their gilded pensions and overpriced houses, has allegedly made growing up so hard to do. Policymakers seek ways to reduce ‘generational inequity’ by frantically rewriting social security entitlements, and campaigners claim that voting systems are rigged in favour of older people. In national elections and referenda, the interests of young versus old are presented as one of the big divisions of our time. From the German magazine Der Spiegel, the journalist David Böcking warns that the conflict between the generations is in fact the big division, and has issued a call to arms:

People vs. banks, north vs. south, and rich vs. poor? While all of these conflicts may be real, one of the biggest issues of the euro crisis is rarely discussed: Older people are living at the expense of the young, and it’s high time the next generation took to the streets to confront their parents.1

Stop Mugging Grandma is written as an antidote to six dangerous myths. Myth 1 is that we are facing a war between the generations, in which the interests of young people are pitted against the needs and desires of their elders. I argue that the over-heated debates about generational conflict that feature so prominently in headlines and political manifestos are really a way for politicians to avoid engaging (p.3) with the deeper economic and social problems that people do care about. Stagnant wages, job insecurity, the overheated housing market and the crisis of the welfare state are all major concerns that affect people in their daily lives, and impact on the way they plan for the future. But having a go at older people is no remedy for the difficulties we face today. On the contrary – it makes things a whole lot worse, for old and young people alike. The argument that older people have somehow stolen their children’s future promotes a fatalistic view of the world, which does far more than student debt and rocketing house prices to suck the fun out of being young.

Myth 2 is that one particular generation – the Baby Boomers – is to blame for all this. The scapegoating of Baby Boomers is no accident. It has come about partly because this is the generation currently reaching retirement, at a time when austerity politics has placed the need to reduce public spending on pensions and healthcare high up the political agenda – and the Boomers make a convenient target. The Baby Boomers of the political and media imagination are not yet old, frail and the object of sympathy; they are carefree, affluent hedonists, living it up on the golf course thanks to their gold-plated pensions, high-equity houses and lack of care and commitment to anybody else. And there are loads of them. So, it is argued, they can afford the cutbacks – and they deserve them. This is the spirit in which grandma-mugging, as a policy agenda, is born.

Myth 3 is that members of any generation are all the same as each other. The labels ‘Baby Boomer’, or ‘Millennial’, carry with them a set of meanings and stereotypes that mask big differences in experience and outlook. Boomers are retired and working, rich and poor, healthy and frail. They come from all social classes, a range of ethnic backgrounds, and together hold a spectrum of political or religious beliefs. Millennials are not all university students, earnestly ‘woke’ and hopelessly soft – they are as different from each other as young people have always been, and not as different from their elders as it is often imagined.

Myth 4 is that younger generations today are uniquely dis-advantaged, destined to die younger and poorer than their parents (p.4) after a life filled with misery and debt. No. There are many problems around today, and some are distinct to our moment. Confronting these problems is a task for all of us, not just the young. But most of the issues that young people worry about – unstable employment, low incomes, terrorism and war, anxieties about the future – have plagued working people throughout time, including the Baby Boomers. What has changed is the overriding sense of pessimism and generational doom with which we now discuss political and economic issues.

Myth 5 is that the voice of young people has been sidelined by the vociferous voting behaviour of an enormous, self-interested generation, which is exercising undue influence over politics and policy. This is peddled by those who want to appropriate the voice of younger generations in order to speak on their behalf. It is patronising and anti-democratic, feeding off a sentiment that old people make the ‘wrong’ decisions and that young people can be manipulated into ticking the ‘right’ box. This myth feeds off a potent disdain for the past and the people associated with it, and a belief that ‘future generations’ are the only people with a genuine stake in tomorrow’s world.

Myth 6, the most pernicious of all, is that the Boomers are a greedy generation, who have brought about the problems of the present day by demanding more than their fair share of wealth, political influence, and welfare resources. The myth of Boomer greed is marshalled to justify grandma-mugging, based on the claim that not only is Grandma richer than her children and grandchildren – she is richer than she should be, and therefore forcing her to share her ill-gotten gains is not just politically expedient, but also morally right. But the implications of this myth go much wider than the raid on Grandma’s pension. It is an attack on the right of any generation to expect more than the basic necessities, to aspire to more than what some bean-counter judges to be ‘prudent’ or ‘fair’. In making Boomer greed the focus of their attacks, the Generals in the new generation wars are launching an all-out assault on aspiration.

(p.5) The irony is that the biggest casualties of this shrivelled worldview will be the younger generations: the very people in whose name the generation wars are being waged. In the morality play of Boomer-blaming, the main role assigned to the Millennial character is that of Lead Victim: an earnest, well-educated, hard-working young person, who has been robbed of the ability to get a good job or buy a small house by the consequences of years of Boomer excess. But there is always another part reserved for the Unworthy Complainant: the whingeing, entitled, self-obsessed Snowflake, who has absorbed the cultural message that children are unique, precious individuals deserving of a life free from failure, hurt and struggle, and now expects society to deliver on these pie-in-the-sky promises. The ugly cult of Boomer-blaming has spawned an equally ugly backlash of Millennial-baiting, with all sides hurling the common insult, You Want Too Much. And young people, with their lives stretching before them, are finding their expectations of life systematically ground down.

As a child of Baby Boomers, a teacher of Millennials, and a parent of those new kids on the block currently going by the dubious label ‘Generation Z’, I have no interest in defending the interests of one generation against another. My argument is that generations do not have competing interests, and that it is very dangerous to pretend that they do. The aim of this book is to cut through this phoney generation war, to understand why these poisonous myths have taken such a hold in our society. Generations are not scientific units of measurement – they are stories by which we make sense of our lives. In putting another side to these stories, I focus on what generations gain from each other, rather than speculating about how some might be losing out.

Boomer-blaming: The new acceptable prejudice

The current generation war is presented as a clear conflict between two opposing sides. On one side are the Baby Boomers, born in the 20 years or so following the Second World War; on the other (p.6) are the Millennials, born in the final two decades of the twentieth century. Although, as I discuss in the next chapter, precise dates and definitions of generations vary, the labels ‘Baby Boomer’ and ‘Millennials’ have a pretty high recognition factor: we know who they are. Or at least, we think we do.

The Baby Boomers of the media and policymaking imagination are a very particular type. They are ‘the luckiest people in history – the richest, most secure and most powerful generation the world has ever seen’;2 they ‘enjoyed a life of free love, free school meals, free universities, defined benefit pensions, mainly full employment and a 40-year-long housing boom’.3 They are ‘the most selfish generation that history has ever known’,4 a generation that ‘shaped the culture and values of the late twentieth century’5 in the image of a ‘self-indulgent individualism’6 and an immature ‘cult of “me”’.7 They are an enormous, powerful generation, who have used their great size as a way to ‘monopolise employment and housing and reduce social mobility for the next generation’,8 and use their voting power to lobby for their own interests ensuring ‘that when bad times come, the young are hit first’.9 They are ‘the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history’, claims Paul Begala in Esquire magazine, in an article headlined ‘The Worst Generation: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and hate the Boomers.’10

Begala’s article was first published in 2000, and reprinted in 2017 – by which time everyone was loving to hate the Boomers. Numerous books have been devoted to explaining just how bad the Boomers are, and what must be done to stop them … well, Booming. In Britain, the year 2010 alone brought titles such as The Pinch: How the baby boomers took their children’s future – and why they should give it back, by David Willetts; What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? Why the children of the sixties lived the dream and failed the future, by Francis Beckett; Jilted Generation: How Britain has bankrupted its youth, by Ed Howker and Shiv Malik; and It’s All Their Fault: A manifesto, by Neil Boorman.11

(p.7) In the United States, Canada and Australia, the titles pull even fewer punches. A Generation of Sociopaths: How the baby boomers betrayed America, by Bruce Cannon Gibney; Generation Debt: Why now is a terrible time to be young by Anya Kamenetz (alternatively subtitled How our future was sold out for student loans, bad jobs, no benefits, and tax cuts for rich geezers – and how to fight back); Barbarians: How baby boomers, immigration, and Islam screwed my generation, by Lauren Southern; and Please Just F* Off It’s Our Turn Now: Holding baby boomers to account, by Ryan Heath.12

How the baby boomers took their children’s future. How the baby boomers betrayed America. It’s All Their Fault. Please Just F* Off. This kind of inflammatory rhetoric is often considered unacceptable when used with regard to other groups in society. The ‘twitch-hunts’ that routinely emerge when a politician, commentator or celebrity says something that smacks of prejudice against women, gay people, transgender people, disabled people or particular ethnic or religious groups, shows that in many respects we are highly sensitive to attempts to whip up prejudice against groups of people. But the Baby Boomers, it seems, are fair game.

Why is this? The simplest answer, of course, is that the Boomer-blamers are right, and that all the problems we face today are the fault of this greedy, selfish, voracious, all-powerful ‘generation of sociopaths’. This is certainly Gibney’s view: when quizzed on the relationship between correlation (the Boomers just happened to be around at a lucky time) and causation (it’s all their fault), he responded:

Almost all the benefits [of policy changes] have flowed towards the boomers. The boomers have been in control the entire time, so unless the past 30 years have been some accident that just happened to enrich the most politically powerful group at the expense of marginal political groups – I don’t know that Occam’s Razor has dulled over the past three decades.13

But while Occam’s Razor may be an appropriate guiding principle for scientific inquiry, in social life the simplest answer is rarely the (p.8) correct one. The search for simple answers to questions about why people feel aggrieved, discombobulated, disadvantaged or dispossessed has led to some extremely ugly moments in history. This has made us rather sensitive to the practice of ‘Othering’ – reducing social groups to a less worthy category of person, which can justify discriminatory treatment. Gibney, however, is explicit that this is what he wants to do. ‘Part of my goal throughout has obviously been to establish Boomers as a highly culpable Other, one whose deposition might lead to some real good,’ he declaims.14

Gibney’s diagnosis of the Boomers as ‘the Other’ is laid out in his book, with chapters slamming the values, culture, politics, entitlements and everything else associated with them. In these respects, he argues, ‘Boomers really are different, as they often and proudly remind [us]. They do not share other generations’ values and do not behave in ways that accord with America’s better conceptions of itself. They are Other, even, in their own ways, enemies of state and society.’ Although his book clearly sets out to inflame and provoke, Gibney is confident that his representation of the Boomers as a class apart is not all that far removed from the tenor of more mainstream Boomer-blaming. ‘I don’t think it’s going to take very much to persuade younger people that the boomers have a certain Other quality,’ he states complacently.15

Most of those leading the charge of Boomer-blaming are less explicit than Gibney in their rhetoric and conclusions. But they share the assumption that the Boomer generation is a problem, and that this problem stems from this generation’s social position, behaviour and character attributes – all of which lends the discussion a highly symbolic, almost racialised, hue. The insistence that the Boomers are somehow fundamentally different to their ancestors and descendants is proposed as the basis for sanction, even outright discrimination. As Heath puts it, in Please Just F* Off It’s Our Turn Now:

Am I being nasty? If so, the important point is that generations differ from each other. The key question is how we (p.9) measure or discuss common or destructive behaviours within and between these groups. While we can and should treat people as individuals, so we must accept and respond to documented behaviour that helps or hinders the public good.16

As we will see, the attempt to mobilise the imperative of ‘the public good’ to justify attacks on Baby Boomers doesn’t really go down too well with the public, who tend to have a more positive and balanced view of the ways in which generations support each other. But this has not stopped the nasty narrative of Boomer-blaming from gaining ground.

Myth-making and trouble-stirring

The feverish debates about generational conflict reflect very little about the lives of people in any generation. They rely on cut-outs, two-dimensional representations of the most extreme stereotypes, set up as targets for politicians and commentators to take pot-shots at. Numerous academics, campaigners and commentators have pointed out that in many ways the Boomer stereotype is as inaccurate as it is unfair. Portraying Boomers as a greedy, selfish, wholly fortunate generation concedes nothing to the more sensible idea that all Baby Boomers might not be the same – that, within the millions of people born across the Western world over a period of about 20 years, there might be some who are truly flabbergasted by the notion that they had it all, and now should ‘give it back’.

For example, a report produced in 2015 by the UK’s ‘Ready for Ageing Alliance’, a group of national charities focused on issues related to old age, sought to ‘bust the widely touted myth that there is a uniform group of older people in the UK – so called baby boomers – who have benefitted at the expense of younger age groups.’17 The Ready for Ageing Alliance argued that the term ‘baby boomer’ (defined in its report as those between the ages of 55 and 70) has ‘become an overused and potentially dangerous shorthand to inaccurately describe everybody in a single age group.’ In fact, (p.10) Boomers are ‘a diverse group of people in virtually every aspect of their lives’, and ‘in reality, one of the few things this group shares is chronological age’. Its report presented, and succinctly trashed, a number of widely held prejudices about this generation, simply by marshalling a few cold facts about life for Boomers in the UK.18

Against the claim that ‘the Baby Boomers got a free university education’, the Alliance points to the reality that ‘just over 13% of those aged 65–69 have a degree’ – whereas just under 50 per cent of today’s youth cohort engage in higher education. It is claimed that the Boomers ‘are so well off they can afford to retire early’, and that they ‘can look forward to security in retirement thanks to their generous pensions’; in fact, ‘more than seven out of ten people in their 50s and early 60s are in work’, and ‘nearly 2 million people aged 55–64 do not have any private pension savings’. The Boomers are charged with having ‘bought cheap housing’ and ‘sitting on a fortune’: but ‘not all baby boomers are homeowners and those who bought their homes had to pay high interest rates’. Boomers are portrayed as ‘especially selfish and self-interested people’ who ‘spend their life taking cruises and playing golf’, yet ‘there are 3.3 million volunteers aged 45 to 64 in England’ and ‘people in their 50s and early 60s are no more likely to be planning a cruise than younger people.’ And so on.

In a similar vein, the Australian writer Jocelyn Auer, author of Baby Boomers: Busting the myths, seeks to expose claims that are ‘wrong, deceitful or deceptive’. The ‘appealing simplicity’ of the powerful, political myth-making around Baby Boomers, she argues, ‘overrides and hides what was, and is, the reality of different lives and the complexity of those differences’ – a reality that she gives voice to in challenging the refrain of ‘burdensome boomers’, the claim that this generation is ‘selfish and greedy’, and the way that policy narratives around work and retirement often blame the Boomers for their good fortune, even while making their lives harder.19

‘Defining baby boomers in terms of what they have in common allows us to slip easily into the assumption that they are virtually all (p.11) the same,’ writes Auer. A clear distinction can be drawn ‘between older and younger boomers because of different employment experiences throughout their lifetimes, due in large part to economic ups and downs including the crisis of the 1980s–90s’. This is equally true, of course, for the USA and the UK. To imagine that the Baby Boomers who came of age during the postwar economic boom had the same experience as those whose formative experiences lay in the 1970s requires a level of historical ignorance unworthy of anyone with a memory – or access to Google. Auer also draws attention to the ‘persistent and substantial differences between women and men, rich and poor, employed and unemployed: differences in income, spending patterns, family and living arrangements, relationship to place, health and wellbeing, spiritual belief, political position, and social values’ – all of which reveals the stereotype of the Australian Boomer to be ‘a furphy – a tall story’.20

For anybody who knows actual people belonging to the Baby Boomer generation, it should be obvious that they have not all enjoyed the same good fortune and opportunity. How could they? If this generation is to be defined simply as everybody born between 1946 and 1965, of course there will be enormous variations in experience. When challenged, most Boomer-blamers will grudgingly concede this point. But as the old saying goes, why let the facts get in the way of a good story? And although the lucky-greedy-Boomer myth has masqueraded quite successfully as objective economic analysis, careful social policy planning, and a youth-friendly campaign for ‘intergenerational justice’, it remains, fundamentally, a story – a dystopian fairytale that sections of the political and cultural elite are telling us about our past, present and future.

Symbolic warfare, with dangerous consequences

In the coming chapters, I reveal how the story of Boomer greed has been written, and by whom. It is not, as is often pretended, a tale that has sprung spontaneously from the keyboards of aggrieved (p.12) Millennials – indeed, it remains a story that most people of all generations see as quite alien to their lives, and the problems they face. Boomer-blaming is a narrative that has been constructed by political elites of Western societies to suit their policy agendas. Part of it is motivated by attempts to reduce spending on pensions and healthcare, in a context of sluggish economic growth and rising levels of public debt. As such, Boomer-blaming reflects one-sided and overblown anxieties about ageing populations: it has nothing to do with generations, and has come to focus on the Boomers mainly because they will soon be old. The mischievous myth-making that has positioned the Boomers as affluent, greedy and irresponsible – as the undeserving rich, who deserve to have their belts tightened – neatly serves the cost-cutting cause.

But there is more to this story than political cynicism and economic belt-tightening. At its heart is a deeply symbolic conflict, to do with how we view the recent past, what we expect from the near future, and the value we attach to relations between the generations. Myths, like stereotypes, are not figments of somebody’s deranged imagination: they have some basis in reality, and are peddled to serve some cause. The basis of the Boomer myth lies in their association with the social and cultural upheavals of the Sixties, and the way this period of history has come to be re-imagined by the fearful, conservative mindset that dominates public debate today.

The argument that the Boomers have used up more than their ‘fair share’ of welfare resources and have benefited disproportionately from the spoils of the postwar economic boom may be empirically incorrect, but it has a commonsense logic that defies attempts to argue the case by marshalling the facts. This is because the basis of the Boomer myth is not, as the Blamers claim, that generation’s actual size, strength, behaviour or affluence. It is its location in history: the living, breathing embodiment of a more optimistic time. Claims that this massive generation has used up all the economic resources merge seamlessly with criticism of the happy-go-lucky attitude attributed to the ‘Sixties generation’, (p.13) which is charged with depleting the world of happiness, creativity and hope. ‘For too long the world has been run by this extraordinary generation – a generation that was simply born lucky,’ charges the journalist Sarah Vine:

Not only were they economically blessed – affordable housing, low energy costs, free university education, fluid economies – they also had some of the most hedonistic and uncomplicated fun since the Romans: all the sex (by the time that we came of age, HIV had put a stop to all that), the best music (I’m sorry, Coldplay is no match for Jimi Hendrix), all the easy idealism of privilege. They drove expensive, gas guzzling cars without a care for the cost or the environmental impact (most baby-boomers think a CO2 emission is something that you get from drinking too much bubbly).21

The reason everyone seems to be loving to hate the Boomers today is that they are seen to symbolise a different outlook on life; a time when people expected that life could be more fulfilling and liberated. In these times of economic austerity and cultural pessimism, we are constantly reminded that the music has stopped and that it’s time to do penance for the fun we had. This fuels a sense of grievance amongst people who never had a licence to have much fun in the first place – the grim Generation Xers, the over-protected Millennials, the youngsters currently best known as ‘Generation Z’, with whom history presumably ends. Such generational labels and stereotypes, ridiculous as they might seem, have come to assume a strange significance in attempts to make sense of ourselves and those around us.

I explore what it means to talk about generations: and why this means taking a step back from the facile prejudices that dominate media and policy debates. The idea of generations developed to describe moments in history and the people who lived through them. But increasingly, they are used to define, even determine, the experiences and expectations of whole groups of quite diverse (p.14) individuals; to reduce people’s biographies to the accident of their birth year, a sharp-toothed demographic trap that exaggerates the differences between the generations at the expense of understanding the relationship. Most of what passes for debates about generational difference and conflict today is better understood as something very different: a discourse of generationalism, in which social and political problems are described and explained using the language and symbolism of generations.22 This distorts both our understanding of social and political problems, and our appreciation of what is special, precious and problematic about generations.

Obsessional generationalism has come to frame discussions about political power and participation, with some alarming implications for democracy. From Brexit in Britain to the election of Donald Trump as the President of the USA, the Baby Boomers are getting it in the neck for mobilising their allegedly vast numbers and outdated prejudices to vote young people out of their allegedly rightful political future. ‘After Brexit, there was this demonisation of older people – in some cases [people said] “take away their votes”,’ said Jane Vass, head of public policy at Age UK, speaking at the International Longevity Centre’s 2017 ‘Future of Ageing’ conference. Kate Jopling, former head of public affairs at Help the Aged, argued:

There was a casual use of demonising and divisive language – the bandying around of stereotypes about who older people are, about their economic circumstances, their motivations and even their ability to form rational judgments. Baby boomers used to be talked about as the generation that were going to change everything, now it is almost a term of abuse.23

Yet as I discuss in later chapters, the generational split in voting and values is far less clear-cut than has been presented. When sections of the political elite complain about the voice of young people being ignored, it is because – in that moment – the youth vote (p.15) chimes with their own agendas. In this regard, political generation talk should be seen as an undemocratic act of manipulation, which uses the gloss of ‘young’ or ‘future’ generations to argue that some sections of the electorate are more worthy of a voice than others.

People are living longer, healthier lives – yet instead of this being seen as a cause for celebration, ‘ageing’ is presented as a problem. Pensioners who, thanks to advances in medical treatment, have survived cancer and are living with chronic illnesses for longer than expected, are presented as ‘bed blockers’ using up scarce health and social care resources. The ongoing pensions crisis afflicting Western societies is often blamed on the number of retired people and the size of their pensions. Younger people are presented as the victims of this scenario, in having to ‘pay the bills’ for the elderly – and this is used as an argument for driving down expectations about the living standards that people can expect to have in retirement, and bullying young people into saving more.

Such arguments both incite resentment against the old, and trap young people into expecting less. As Michael Hiltzik points out in the Los Angeles Times, ‘treating Social Security and Medicare spending on the one hand and spending on kids on the other as though they’re opposite sides of a zero-sum game is just an act of ideological legerdemain aimed at undermining those programs’ – which, in the end, will hurt young people the most:

Let’s not forget, too, that the people who will really suffer from gutting Social Security won’t be today’s seniors, who will escape the worst of the cutbacks – they’ll be today’s young people, for whom Social Security would become much less supportive when they retire.24

The important question is not how many people there are, but how people can best be employed and their talents made use of. We are not harnessing the economic or social potential either of older or younger people, and nor do we have a sensible approach to social policymaking. The problem here is not pensions, (p.16) but employment and wages. As a society, we are writing off older (more expensive) working people prematurely, and then blaming them for being a burden on the public purse, while refusing to confront the implications of an insecure, low-wage, over-credentialed labour market. I discuss the anxieties that afflict ‘Generation Debt’ in their journey through education and employment, and show that elite attempts to lay responsibility for these problems at the door of their parents and grandparents provide a convenient distraction from engaging with their cause.

The same goes for the much-discussed youth housing crisis. Spiralling prices and a shortage of housing stock are frequently blamed for young people’s inability to leave the parental home, start their own families, and become economically, as well as emotionally, independent. The reliance of the British economy on inflated house prices is clearly unhealthy, and the disparity between young people’s wages and the cost of rent or mortgages is not easily surmountable. But this situation has not come about because the Boomers are ‘sitting on housing stock’ – they are just living in their homes. Those Boomers who have benefited from an increase in the worth of their assets tend to be relying on this to supplement pensions (which are also, in the main, less generous than we are led to believe), or to subsidise their adult children’s living standards, by allowing them to live at home for years or by lending them money for property – the so-called ‘bank of mum and dad’.

Lurking beneath the housing crisis is a more important, and unsettling, question about the difficulties young people now face in making an independent life and home for themselves – and it’s just too simplistic to explain this in terms of housing costs alone. I suggest that wider cultural changes have come to frame the responsibilities of adulthood in ambivalent, even negative, terms – not least because generationalist arguments incite young people to blame their parents for the problems they face, rather than to see themselves as authors of their own lives.

And what about the Millennials – the young adults in their twenties and thirties, in whose name the new generation wars are (p.17) being waged? The cult of Boomer-blaming has attracted something of a backlash against ‘entitled Millennials’, sneering at an over-sensitive ‘Snowflake Generation’ that just doesn’t understand how rubbish real life is. This spiteful name-calling avoids tackling the reasons why young people, having been constantly told that older generations have stolen their futures, might come to see the world in this way and kick back against it – albeit often in a rather childish fashion. Young people did not launch this generation war, and blaming the young for being fed up is no better than blaming the old for having had it all. Those politicians and commentators who complain to each other about spoilt, whingeing youth are often complicit when it comes to indulging them. Indeed, when it comes to the bombastic rhetoric of Boomer-blaming – they started it.


(1.) Böcking, D. (2012) ‘Euro Crisis Morphs into Generational Conflict’, Der Spiegel, 9 August 2012. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/commentary-why-the-euro-crisis-is-also-a-generational-conflict-a-849165.html

(3.) Hutton, W. (2010) ‘We Had it All – Sex, Freedom, Money. Did We Throw it All Away?’, Observer, 22 August 2010.

(4.) Oborne, P. (2010) ‘The Pinch, by David Willetts’ (Review), Daily Mail, 23 February 2010. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-1250596/So-long-losers-How-baby-boomers-took-money-ran-THE-PINCH-BYDAVID-WILLETTS.html

(5.) Millar, F. (2010) ‘Never Had it So Good: Fiona Millar finds herself agreeing with only one of David Willetts’s brains’, Guardian, 20 February 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/feb/20/pinch-baby-boomerswilletts-millar

(7.) Phillips, M. (2006) ‘Boomergeddon’, Daily Mail, 1 April 2006.

(8.) Kaletsky, A. (2010) ‘This Is the Age of War between the Generations’, Times (London), 2 June 2010. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/this-is-the-ageof-war-between-the-generations-dqhsblw3qd9

(p.228) (9.) Beckett, F. (2010) ‘The Grasping Generation: The baby boomers are denying everyone else the freedoms that they once took for granted’, Guardian, 6 July 2010.

(10.) Begala, P. (2017) ‘The Worst Generation: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and hate the Boomers’, Esquire, 3 March 2017. http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a1451/worst-generation-0400/

(13.) Doherty, M. (2017) ‘Q&A: A venture capitalist on how boomers wrecked America’, Maclean’s, 9 March, 2017. http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/qa-a-gen-x-venture-capitalist-on-how-boomers-wrecked-america/

(15.) Doherty, M. (2017) ‘Q&A: A venture capitalist on how boomers wrecked America’, Maclean’s, 9 March 2017. http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/qa-a-gen-x-venture-capitalist-on-how-boomers-wrecked-america/

(17.) Independent Age (2015) ‘Ready for Ageing Alliance Challenge the “Myth of the Baby Boomer”’, 8 August 2015. https://www.independentage.org/newsmedia/press-releases/ready-for-ageing-alliance-challenge-myth-of-babyboomer

(20.) Ibid., loc. 265–300 (Kindle edition).

(21.) Vine, S. (2008) ‘Farewell to the Boomers who Busted Us’, Times (London), 30 August 2008.

(22.) For a superb critique of present-day generationalism, see White, J. (2013), pp. 216–47.

(23.) Allen, V. (2017) ‘Baby Boomer “Used as Term of Abuse since the Brexit Vote”: Charity chiefs say group are facing resentment because they own their own homes and had free university education’, Daily Mail, 30 November 2017. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5130829/Baby-boomer-usedterm-abuse-Brexit-vote.html

(24.) Hiltzik, M. (2013) ‘Deficit Hawks’ “Generational Theft” Argument is a Sham’, Los Angeles Times, 27 February 2013.