The People Who Stole the World

The lure of the generational blame game

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“Then he took his darling child, kissed him, and dandled him in his arms, praying over him the while to Jove and to all the gods. ‘Jove,’ he cried, ‘grant that this my child may be even as myself, chief among the Trojans; let him be not less excellent in strength, and let him rule Ilius with his might. Then may one say of him as he comes from battle, ‘The son is far better than the father.’”—Hector’s farewell to Astyanax, The Iliad, Book VI

Have you heard? There’s a war going on right now. No, not the one in Afghanistan, not the ones in Syria, Libya, or Yemen. And not the fathomless quagmire in Iraq. The war I’m talking about is happening here, now, raging on our streets, in our homes, on our computers, in our minds.

The battle lines were drawn before you had any say in the matter, and the fate of everything hangs in the balance. As the old world crumbles around us, as we struggle for control over the scraps that are left, the young stand defiantly against the old, Millennials against the Baby Boomers, and vice versa. Other generations have no choice—they’re going to have to pick a side.

Even more than left versus right, this generational opposition has laid out the coordinates of the great political battle of our time. That’s the sense one gets, anyway, from the endless headlines heralding generational blame and bloodshed from either end of the great divide. A small sampling from the incessant, mucky stream of Millennial-baiting propaganda will dredge up an ample haul: “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation” (Time); “We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists” (Fox News); “Want to get work done? Don’t hire a millennial, business owner says” (New York Daily News); “Blame Millennials for President Trump” (Daily Beast); “Millionaire to Millennials: Stop Buying Avocado Toast If You Want to Buy a Home” (Money); and (my personal favorite) “Millennials are killing the golf industry” (Business Insider).

And on the flipside, reports of the Boomer menace are framed thusly: “How ‘baby boomers’ took over the world” (Washington Post); “Our parents are ruining the entire world” (Business Insider); “The economy is still all about—who else?—Boomers” (USA Today); “Baby boomers have been a disaster for America, and Trump is their biggest mistake yet” (Washington Post); “A Better Name for Baby Boomers: ‘The Laziest Generation’” (The New Republic); “How the baby boomers—not millennials—screwed America” (Vox). And so on.

If you can escape the deafening roar of today’s generational clickbait, you can faintly discern a much older and deeper cultural narrative out there. From the “Half-Way Covenant” in the 1660s, which sought to herd straying youths back into the fold of the Puritan church, through the successive modern revolts of the “Lost Generation,” the “Red Decade,” and the tirelessly mythologized youth-culture insurgency of the 1960s, our country has largely understood itself through intergenerational conflict. And this has pretty much furnished the template for most of the culture wars now raging across the deranged landscape of the great American civitas.

Kids Those Days

You’d think Boomers would tone down their Millennial-bashing after getting blasted in their own youth and young adulthood for also being “entitled” and “selfish”—it wasn’t for nothing that they were labeled the “Me Generation” (following Tom Wolfe’s christening of the 1970s as “the ‘Me’ Decade”) and got blasted for their all-consuming “culture of narcissism” (Christopher Lasch in 1979). But you would, of course, be wrong. You would also think that, at some point, we would collectively reckon with the knowledge that every generation has been scolded for the same shit.

For instance, before the torrent of apocalyptic concern for all the ways Millennial selfishness, entitlement, and techno-obsession would destroy everything we hold dear, the adult world was fretting about Generation X for the same reasons. If you don’t believe me, just flip through the 1990 issue of Time magazine with the cover sporting a brooding group of black-clad “twentysomethings” who, according to one of the articles inside, “would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. . . . They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial.”

And way before that, in a 1925 article in the Hull Daily Mail titled “The Conduct of Young People,” one anonymous author laments, “We defy anyone who goes about with his eyes open to deny that there is, as never before, an attitude on the part of young folk which is best described as grossly thoughtless, rude, and utterly selfish.”

And way, way before that, a letter published in a 1771 issue of Town and Country manages to sound laughably familiar, in sentiment at least: “Whither are the manly vigour and athletic appearance of our forefathers flown? Can these be their legitimate heirs? Surely, no; a race of effeminate, self-admiring, emaciated fribbles can never have descended in a direct line from the heroes of Potiers and Agincourt.”

And way, way, way before that, in 350 B.C., the civilization-defining mind of Aristotle was fixated on things my grandpa now complains about during the holidays: “Young men have strong passions, and tend to gratify them indiscriminately. . . . They think they know everything, and are always quite sure about it” (Rhetoric).

In many ways, then, what my Millennial generation is now suffering at the liver-spotted hands of the Boomer gerontocracy is little more than an obnoxious rite of passage. And the eternal return of all things annoying will probably ensure that our rebellion against the Superego strictures of our parents’ world will soften as we eventually take up the mantle of old farts wagging our fingers at new batches of young people.

Future Flail

Still, the rules of engagement on the generational battleground have shifted in at least two key ways. First, what drives our generational discourse, for the most part, is not some moral imperative to preserve the integrity of inherited social values or notions of otherwise upstanding selfhood—though condemnations of the youth lend themselves, as always, to broad complaints that no one gets married or goes to church anymore. Instead, the taken-for-granted terrain of today’s intergenerational conflict is determined, first and foremost, by the needs of capital.

As the old world crumbles around us, as we struggle for control over the scraps that are left, the young stand defiantly against the old, and vice versa.

These days, when we fret over the tasks that need to be done and the roles that need to be filled in order to reproduce and maintain the fabric of social life into the future, we’re almost exclusively worrying over economic questions, which generally amount to: Who is ruining which segment of the economy this time? Why? What is it about the internal hardwiring of this or that generational cohort that is prompting them to be so destructively inattentive to productivity, savings, returns on investment, etc.? And, for God’s sake, our (mostly Boomer) apostles of austerity wail, who is going to foot the bill if these impaired economic actors can’t be made to function more appropriately in the capitalist economy?

The second drastic shift in the Boomer-Millennial wars concerns the very different ending slated for our scripted production of the cross-generational airing of grievances. In past generational rows, the endless scolding of feckless youths by their elders generally exposed old folks’ greater anxiety about the lamentable futures—individual and collective—awaiting their children if they didn’t straighten up and fly right. Hanging in the balance of our current generational conflict, though, is a future whose prospects we collectively acknowledge to be, well, fucked. The real battle isn’t over securing the health of social life in the coming years; it is, rather, over which generation history will blame for setting fire to America’s future.

Lowering the Boom

In A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, Bruce Cannon Gibney joins the generational fray, and his title and subtitle alike leave little doubt as to whom he sees as the guilty party responsible for our current mess and our beggared future.

The book is hyperbolic, yes: if you fancy yourself a literalist, you’ll probably experience the journey from page one to page 367 the same way you would a sustained epileptic fit. If you give the book enough space to do its thing, though, you can really appreciate Gibney’s acid disdain for Baby Boomers. (I, for one, was hooked a few pages in when he refers to Boomers as “a plague of generational locusts.”) If applied well, a good dose of hyperbole can be genuinely effective in lifting an argument into the air, giving readers a full view of something that would look quite different at eye-level. And Gibney’s argument takes off like a B-52:

The central theme of this book is that America’s present dilemma resulted substantially and directly from choices made by the Baby Boomers. Their collective, pathological self-interest derailed a long train of progress, while exacerbating and ignoring existential threats like climate change. The Boomers’ sociopathic need for instant gratification pushed them to equally sociopathic policies, causing them to fritter away an enormous inheritance, and when that was exhausted, to mortgage the future. When the consequences became troubling, Boomer leadership engaged in concealment and deception in a desperate effort to hold the system together just long enough for their generational constituencies to pass from the scene.

So far, so familiar, at least to the younger wing of the generational culture war: Boomers have screwed everything up. From climate change to extreme wealth inequality, from total bipartisan gridlock to decades of wage stagnation, from mass incarceration to the presidency of Donald Trump, from unprecedented levels of individual and national debt to the rampantly anti-intellectualist erosion of the power of facts and reason—whether things are currently screwed up isn’t really a point Gibney is willing to debate.

What makes the present national breakdown a historical anomaly, though, is that the fault lies not with an elite class of career politicians or a cabal of corporations and conniving capitalists, but an entire generation: the Boomers, a group that, for Gibney, encompasses all of “the eroding middle-class white cohort born 1940 to 1964.” Their selfish reign of mismanagement has destroyed our economy, our politics, and our climate. And it didn’t have to be this way. “Had America pursued more reasonable policies,” Gibney writes, “it might have continued the pattern of growth of the golden years after World War II and before the arrival of Boomer power.”

System of a Down

How can we explain this calamitous, pathological selfishness at the root of the sustained crisis of Boomer mismanagement? Leaning heavily on the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Gibney insists that Boomers, as a whole, are self-evident sociopaths “characterized by self-interested actions unburdened by conscience and unresponsive to consequence, mostly arising from non-genetic, contextual causes.” Boomers have repeatedly put the gratification of their own immediate, generationally specific desires above consideration for the long-term consequences doing so would have for them, the country, and their children. Their manifest sociopathy distinguishes them as a singularly antisocial group, devoid of the lowest-common-denominator feelings of collective responsibility for maintaining a livable society for all.

This bracing indictment is fairly compelling, despite all the inherent limits of generational scapegoating. How else could we account for the fact that the complacent, narcissistic beneficiaries of the New Deal welfare state—who lavishly benefited from one of the greatest surges in public investment in infrastructure, higher education, and social-welfare spending—would pull up the ladder behind them, leaving for their kids a legacy of punitive government austerity, crumbling infrastructure, a higher ed system that replaced public funds with endlessly rising tuition rates and student loans, and feckless giveaways to corporations and plutocrats?

The specter of generation-wide sociopathy gives us a way to understand how and why Boomers would routinely spend as much of their inheritance and hoard as many benefits as possible for themselves, while seeing no problem in effectively denying other generations the chance to thrive and take advantage of the same benefits.

Young and Feckless

Many will object to these sweeping condemnations, and more than a few Boomers I’ve spoken to about them have resorted to what Gibney would deem the quintessentially sociopathic, self-absorbed defense of shouting “not all Boomers!” and insisting that they personally aren’t at fault. Fine, but the proof of Boomer destruction is in the pudding. And even if plenty of individual Boomers feel they’re not at all the people Gibney says they are, they still didn’t do enough to stop it.

Again, this argument is pretty damn compelling—and if you, like me, have come to harbor much bile and resentment towards the Boomers, then reading Gibney’s book will be cathartic as hell. And as the many trespasses of the Boomers stack up, you can’t help but grow more receptive to the notion that there must be something inherently off-kilter in Boomers’ collective habitus that has culminated in such maddening, self-serving hypocrisy. Still, for all the gratifying culture-war revenge it visits on the pampered Boomer set, A Generation of Sociopaths ultimately runs afoul of its broader indictment.

From the first chapter on, one gets the sense that Gibney is more concerned with proving the soundness of the sociopathy thesis than with letting the abundant damning evidence against the Boomers speak for itself. To do this, though, requires that we give Boomers more credit than they deserve. We’re urged to imagine that they can be meaningfully judged as a single, self-conscious entity whose “overriding policy ambitions have been defined not in conventional terms like race or gender, but by age and life cycle.” But, frankly, there isn’t enough in Gibney’s book to make this claim stick. This is, in part, because it’s impossible to pretend the wide variation of life experiences for Boomers outside Gibney’s core demographic set, and their own distinct yet disparate impacts on our political economy, can be safely set aside in a story dominated by white, middle-class Boomerdom, as if they have a statistically negligible bearing on the national history of the past seventy years.

The deeper problem, though, is that such monolithic generational categories end up becoming “essentializing” concepts with an internal life of their own. And when we superimpose them onto the past, we can end up artificially reshaping historical reality to better fit with the concepts we already have in mind. This is what has happened with the Boomer category itself as we—and especially the Boomers among us—have colored in the identity of a generation, not so much as it actually existed at the time, but as an abstract expression of present memories, desires, regrets, and undying ambition.

This is the case, for instance, when Gibney spears Boomers for making up the demographic that registered the greatest support for the war in Vietnam while also going to great lengths to avoid enlisting or getting drafted (using college deferments, fabricating medical excuses, even resorting to criminal action or exile). Regardless of the rosy picture we have today of a vehemently anti-war, flower-powered cohort, “As a group, the Boomers managed to be simultaneously for the war and against serving in it.” Is it a sign of Boomers’ internal sociopathic confusion that they trumpeted the sacrifice of tens of thousands of soldiers while avoiding participating in the war effort at all costs, even if that meant passing the buck on to poorer, less educated, disproportionately black and brown draftees? Or does it simply highlight the significance of the internal political and social divisions that make it difficult to talk about Boomers in monolithic terms?

If we try our best to see past all of this, though, and return to our current, cosmic mess—which is what Gibney’s book starts with and circles back to at the end—we are left wondering how useful any of this is. Is it just one big cautionary tale? Is the point simply to justify that gnawing disdain many of us have for Boomers for depriving us of any sort of viable future?

In many ways, what my Millennial generation is now suffering at the liver-spotted hands of the Boomer gerontocracy is little more than an obnoxious rite of passage.

As the indictments gather steam throughout A Generation of Sociopaths, it eventually becomes clear that Gibney hopes for his portrait of Boomer assholery to bind other generations around the tried and tested trope of a common enemy. In bits and pieces he offers some rousing proposals for ways that younger generations can harness the tremendous negative capability of Boomer-bashing to start, at long last, to right the sinking ship Boomers have put them on, though he warns that time is running out. But the localized appeal of an anti-Boomer crusade elides the radical, long-term challenges of the undeniably global crises that will continue to suffocate our collective future. When Boomers and our memories of them are dead and gone, what will move us to take the actions necessary to atone for their sins?

Ode to Troy

Hector’s farewell speech to his son, Astyanax, is one of the most powerful and timeless scenes in all of literature. Its power resides in the stripped-bare essence of that eternally familiar, primal act: to wish greater things for one’s progeny than what one has endured in this life; to hope that your children will be better than you. It is a ceaselessly bittersweet wish—and the bitter-sweetness of it is underscored by the fact that Hector is preparing to battle Achilles outside the walls of Troy, and he knows he will die. As every parent inevitably must, he accepts that he won’t be there to see what will become of his child’s future in the world that he and his generation will inherit from their parents.

Hector’s parental wish is rendered even more poignant as we ultimately learn that it was made in vain. Soon after he is slain by Achilles, Troy will fall, and the victorious Greeks will lay waste to the city. Little Astyanax, whose father blessed him with the wish for better things, will be thrown off the ramparts like a wriggling, defenseless sack, plummeting to his death. The conquerors come to this gruesome decision out of fear that, if left alive, the son may one day return to avenge the father and steal back what the Greeks plundered.

This enduring scene figures as an apt metaphor for our time. The Greeks and Trojans seemingly embody the internal Boomer conflict between the responsibility to preserve the tenets of a roughly just society and their selfish desire to seize everything for themselves. And each new Boomer-led attempt to ruin our planet, to engineer our financial ruin, to steal the world and make it the exclusive property of the rich, amounts to a concerted bid to toss their children over the ramparts. Whether “they” do it out of pure greed and selfishness, or out of fear that the rest of us will, as Gibney hopes, rise up against them, is pretty much immaterial at this point. One way or another, Troy will be sacked and abandoned by the time the great wheezing course of Boomer hegemony finally gives way to eternal retirement in Jimmy Buffett’s assisted-living resort.

Atoning for the sins of Boomerism will be a task that all of us must take up and that none of us will live to see completed. Is there really any discernible end point at which future generations will have the luxury to ignore, as we have, the horrors we’ve wrought? Can we say when future generations will be able to “return” to the garden-variety developmental challenge of defining themselves as we once did, piecing together their own generational identities from a stable of issues and concerns that apply to them and them alone?

In A Generation of Sociopaths, it eventually becomes clear that the author hopes for his portrait of Boomer assholery to bind other generations around the tried and tested trope of a common enemy.

The capitalist accessories of our quest for generational belonging—from the products we consume and integrate into our personalities to the narrowing set of viable ways to make a living in today’s economy—have provided us all with infinite, shiny reasons to further segregate ourselves, to feel solidarity mainly with those in our age bracket. As a result, these tried and true staples of our inherited intergenerational discourse have been pulling double duty as effective tools in an endless class war that enables a powerful few to hold dominion over the fractured, powerless many. Coming generations can ill afford such arbitrary divisions when the bulk of their waking lives will be collectively eaten up in the unavoidable, thankless chore of cleaning up the mess we’ve left them. At the same time, though, this very tainted legacy is why generational identity and intergenerational solidarity will likely mean something more substantive from now on—something that has, buried in it, the blood of proletarianization.

The Last Generation

The triumph of Boomer evil over the past half century can, in almost every well-chronicled theater of generational battle, be rewritten as the triumph of the destructive neoliberal caste over everyone—including other Boomers—in the endless class war. Yes, as Gibney repeatedly insists, Boomers in general can and should be blamed for willfully, gleefully selling off the bulk of the common world they inherited to the conquerors. And yes, acknowledging as much makes for a fleeting rush of vindictive gratification and schadenfreude. However, the shiny inter-generational grudge match between Millennials and Boomers is not only a waste of time, but also a luxury that most of us, younger folks least of all, are unable to afford.

This is why, from here on out, generational belonging will have to mean something much more consequential, something that is rooted not in the glancing peculiarities of the neoliberal market order, but in the mutual, cross-generational struggles that transcend them. Out of these struggles, a politics self-consciously defined “by age and life cycle” can start to take root: generations in themselves, to paraphrase Marx, can become a generation for itself.

Perhaps then a generation will come to mean something less arbitrary, less focused on a descriptive category superimposed onto one group of people or another, telling them who they are based on what they own and how they earn a paycheck. Perhaps then to be part of a “generation” will mean just that—to feel a collective, affirmative duty to cultivate the as-yet-unwritten force of possibility to make the world anew that comes with being born, the generative potential to shake loose the grip of what has been on what the people could be.

Our shared stake in setting aright the crimes and excesses of our elders may finally be—and, indeed, must be—an equalizing force strong and pervasive enough to drive successive generations to declare themselves the all-inclusive class that the lavishly mythologized Boomer ideal claims to be but never actually was. We will simply have no other choice but to atone, to become, out of many, one. The coming generation may yet be defined, not by what distinguishes age groups from each other, but by what unites them in common struggle. When that realization takes genuine hold, succeeding generations may at long last earn the hallowed and ancient benediction of posterity by atoning for our sins. Then may one say of them as they come back from battle, “the children are far better than their parents.”

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He received his BA and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in 2009.

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