Joel Kotkin on the “screwed generation”

Hint: It’s not the baby boomers

Because I know you like it, let me lay some demographics on you. We are looking at two groups of Americans: one has lost 13% of its net worth since 2005; the other lost 37% over the same period. Since 1984, the median household worth of one has increased by 42%, while the worth of the other has declined by 68%. One has seen its share of the workforce increase since 2008. The other suffers unemployment at a rate 50% higher than the national average. And one of these groups claims to have invented rock and roll—no, not white people. We are talking about the differences between people over 65 and people under 35. All these fun statistics come from this article by Joel Kotkin, cheerfully titled “Are Millennials the Screwed Generation?”

It’s pretty much a rhetorical question. By virtually any metric except obesity, so-called millennials are doing much worse than their parents. That’s to be expected, since factors like home ownership and marriage—more common among older people than young—are prime determinants of net worth. Yet both the marriage and ownership rates of this generation lag behind those of the boomers at a comparable age, and boomers didn’t have a housing crisis or a $50,000 per-person national debt to contend with. They had a four-year recession for which they still haven’t forgiven Jimmy Carter.

That’s unfair, of course. Pretty much any broad discussion of the differences between generations is going to be specious, probably because the very notion of generational coherence is suspect. Only in advertising do the terms “boomer” and “millennial” mean anything. If the baby boomers have a generational character, it is as the largest cadre of people in American history who are around the same age. Ask someone what kind of people are all alike, and even a hardened bigot will take a while to get around to “people who are the same age.”

So let’s be careful when we talk about boomers and millennials as anything but demographic aggregates divided according to age. That being said, age may be the most pronounced socioeconomic indicator in 2012 America. Unless Kotkin’s figures are made up, only the divide between black and white is sharper. While we’re making generalizations, I’m going to say the same holds true with regard to our present politics.

At least one party is committed to lowering taxes on the wealthiest Americans, and they’re prepared to cut virtually every social program to do it. The other party is willing to raise taxes on the highest bracket, but they’re also prepared to compromise on Pell Grants, infrastructure spending and education. The most prominent issue on which candidates from both parties agree is that Social Security and Medicare are untouchable. Again, that’s a reduction; Paul Ryan, for example, would happily nuke both. But both parties are guided by the existential need to get votes, and boomers remain the largest and most readily identifiable voting bloc.

So whether “boomers” and “millennials” are real or not, a large portion of our political class perceives them as such. One group is also much larger than the other, and increasingly—in tax structures, in social spending v. deficit reduction, in gay marriage and war—their interests are opposed. And if you buy into this paradigm, it becomes immediately obvious which group is winning.

It is a fact that my generation’s prospects are dimmer than those of our parents. Why is a matter of opinion. The fortunes of countries rise and fall, and one cadre cannot be held responsible for massive trends any more than one president can be responsible for the state of the nation. On the other hand, the one thing you can definitively say about the boomers is that they were here before us. The massive redistribution of wealth away from the young and toward the old between 1984 and 2010 might not be their fault, but I would like to point out that I was seven when it started.

Maybe—just maybe—the generation that invented free love and pushed the divorce rate over 50% is a little selfish. Maybe the people who inherited the most favorable economic conditions in US history and bequeathed us a long global recession just in time for their retirement is a little irresponsible. Maybe the same phenomena that made The Wonder Years a treasured show of my childhood has made the boomers a little conceited. It is possible that conservatives are right, and this country has suffered a crippling crisis of character. We have made it clear to our leaders that anyone who tells us what we don’t want to hear will be run out on a rail. Less clear is who, exactly, “we” are.

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  1. I like your take. I read the same article when it crossed my facebook and was wondering how relevant it was to try and stoke some intergenerational flames. There’s certainly a divide between the generations, but they aren’t the result of some white vs black oppression, it’s a more benign sort of short-sightedness or selfishness. It didn’t really deserve a screed, I thought.

    It’s also the sort of gap that could be closed with a few policy shifts, like 1)eliminating the mortgage tax credit which redistributes income from renters to homeowners, and in 20 years once their political power wanes, 2)cuts in the pyramid schemes we call social security and medicare. An article about the solution to these problems would have been much more interesting to read than one that tried to make me angry at my parents, which I already am, for personal reasons.

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