Ah, the trope continues. We put on our referee shirt, and wade into the conversation.
During a short conversation with a Millennial who was
complaining discussing about Boomers and their views about Millennial habits (to me, a product of Gen-X, pre-Boomer parents, with a dash of Millennial disgust), I mused a bit on what each of these generations thought about each other. A clip from the television series “The Newsroom” of a Boomer raking the Millennials and the US over the coals is a classic of the debate (“Worst. Generation. Ever.”). A bit of searching will turn up a bunch of counterattacks, of course. This is the kind of thing that can go on all day (see the NYC vs LA/SF debate, for example), or any long running feud you care to name.
Given that the Boomer generation is nearing retirement (or in early retirement, for those of them with civil service gigs), and the Millennials are still in their youth, it is tough to pass judgement or compare on an entire group that hasn’t entirely played their entire hand just yet. It may be that even trying to judge any particular one in these groups is a fool’s errand, since we are all a product of our times and our surrounding culture. The most extreme example, and probably one of the most insightful to this conversation was that given in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Someone from a more “backward” (heavily in air quotes, here) area of the world asked why the Europeans had become the ones to rule the world, and the answer, as posited by the author, Jared Diamond, was that a lot of the deck was stacked in favor of the Europeans, simply because of things like geography, biodiversity, and things that happened after the last Ice Age.
In the same way, we can look at the Boomer/Millennial divide, especially in the United States, and propose that given what the Boomers had, it was almost hard not to follow the course they took. At the end of the Second World War, America had it all; practically untouched by the war, with huge manufacturing capacities (and still capable of exporting oil!) and with the heady feeling that technological progress had saved the day. The kids who grew up then, who could get a job whenever they wanted, with little more than a high school education, or buy a house on a workingman’s salary – no wonder they wound up like they did. Only with a few exceptions did people look around and realize that it was a sham, and consciously change their course of their lives. Most did not, and went on a trajectory that wound up with them “buying in” (instead of “selling out”), and settling into a reasonably comfortable future.
Likewise, with the Millennials – being born in the 1980s to 2000s, they came of age during the dot-com boom and bust, the aftermath of 9/11, and a declining world power, a shrinking middle class, cheap technology that actively encouraged narcissism, and very importantly, with student loan debt that was immune from bankruptcy protection. Yes, a few Millennials may have some of the characteristics of the Boomers, due to some non-traditional parenting they may have gotten, but as a whole, the complaints, commentary, and praise about their worldviews are spot on, and probably expected, given the cards they were dealt.
So, where does that leave us, all of us, from this generational mixing pot we find ourselves in? For one, we might want to take a step back and be cognizant of these things, and of the world everyone grew up in (and importantly, those years in which they were from about 15 to 25). As I told the Millennial who was berating the Boomers; “Yeah, the Boomers have to stop complaining about the Millennial work ethic, and take a big hit on their pensions. And the Millennials have to realize that the Boomers happened to luck out, and they are going to have to work harder, no matter what.”
Frankly, it is truly is a mess. Elders of every generation have always complained about the younger, and the younger have always railed against the old guard. As much as the words “This time it is different!” are anathema to me, in this certain case, it might ring true, just a bit. The profligate use of fossil fuels by the Boomers allowed an enormous amount of largesse to be passed around, and it made them wealthy beyond any previous generation’s imagining. When listening to the rant of the actor in the Newsroom clip, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots between the “great things America had done” to the amount of cheap energy and seemingly limitless energy they had at the time.
Once put in the context of the energy situation (and soon to be climate and environmental catastrophes coming down the road), the Boomer/Millennial sniping can be seen a bit more clearly, and understood. It is sad that the Millennials and their offspring will inherit a world on the skids, but perhaps, after a time, things will settle back to a more steady state world.
If there is a generation that might bear the brunt of criticism, it might be the so-called “Greatest Generation” that won the Second World War, which is slowly fading in our collective rear view mirror. It has been written about before; here, here, here , here, and here. In reading some of the comments, one in particular by PrinceOfTheWest, are noteworthy, especially with this tidbit:
All in all, it may be that it is difficult to fault anyone, in any generation. We are products of our time and our world. Perhaps we have to stop complaining about “us versus them” and do the difficult work of looking at people individually, and how they handle the circumstances they are born into.
We’ve got a lot of work to do; Boomers, Gen-Xer’s, Millennials. Sniping between the generations is not new, but now, there’s a world that is seriously in trouble. We are going to have a hard time of things, and inter-generational squabbling will get us nowhere.
Questions for those in the audience:
- Is the tagline “Greatest Generation” a bit silly, in some perspective?
- What should the Boomers be doing, in particular? Wipe out those crazy student loans? Realize their pensions are untenable?
- What should the Millennials be doing, in particular? Start going to boot camps, and get off Facebook/Instagram/social media?
- How can these generations interact with each other better?