A few years ago The Atlantic published a piece about the Millennial Generation’s anger at their situation – too often jobless and even more often underemployed. That anger has not abated, but it has sharpened and focused on the Baby Boomers, where, arguably, it should rest. There won’t be a citation or a link here, because this is not a finding of polls, but the result of countless conversations with Millennials, who feel themselves to be another Lost Generation created by another, profligate generation of neo-flappers.
Boomers, to generalize, tend to see ourselves as the generation born into the civil rights movement, joining it, winning it and remaining supportive of equal opportunity. We see ourselves as the generation that killed off a terrible, unjust war; as the generation that created the modern women’s movement, and mostly won the battle; as the generation that welcomed the gay-rights movement, and now enjoy its fruition.
Thirty-year-olds don’t see us that way. Not at all. They tend to see us as the pampered generation that screwed it all up, the generation that inherited a world of boundless growth and optimism and turned it into a world of gross inequality and lowered expectations.
Funny thing is, everybody’s right. In the first place, Boomers are hardly a monolithic political bloc. To varying degrees, we are all of the things we think we are and all of the things the Millennials think, too. The Millennials are closer to a left-leaning bloc, and they are not all angry, but perhaps they all should be.
The questions are, how did it all get so screwed up? How did a generation of social liberals let the world slip away? And are we doomed to generations from here on with bad jobs, no education or crippling educational debt, and a future dominated with rising sea levels and soaring temperatures?
Answering such questions is no challenge to the intellect, but it calls for courage. To understand the problem, it is useful to look at it from a black person’s point of view. Every African American understands this bitter fact: the invitation for black people to join the middle class came at the same time the doorway to the middle class slammed shut for just about everybody.
Following the Second World War, America, which had fought no battle on her own turf, turned victory into the greatest sustained period of explosive economic growth, and democratic distribution of wealth and income, in recorded history. The destruction of that era commenced in the mid-1970s, but built real steam in the 1980s, not coincidentally with the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan. It was the labor movement that had democratized the American workplace, effectively doubling wages for average workers between 1945 and 1970 and fueling the economic boom. A former union president himself, Reagan took on organized labor with a vengeance, dismantling the union of air traffic controllers and appointing members to the National Labor Relations Board who allowed companies to engage in coercive anti-labor tactics.
Even before Alzheimer’s robbed Reagan of what meager mental resources he had, he also bought a simplistic form of Arthur Laffer’s supply-side economic theories – the idea that tax cuts always pay for themselves – and stuck with it long after it was shown not to work, either theoretically or in Reagan’s own economic management. He took a trillion dollars and shipped it across the Potomac River to the Pentagon, all the while cutting taxes, mainly for those who didn’t need tax cuts. The flaws in the arithmetic would not have eluded a good third-grader, but a terrified Congress was willing.
The deficit he created – twice what he had inherited from Jimmy Carter – was not righted until the Clinton Administration, and it blew up again in the administration of George W. Bush. So much for Republicans and their self-proclaimed hatred of deficits.
Reagan, moreover, championed deregulation of business. When he took office, America had the greatest telecommunications system, and the most innovative one, in the world. Ditto for airlines, railroads, trucking, insurance and, especially, banking. He and his successors relaxed the regulation that was supposedly choking those industries, and every one of them has suffered almost as much as its consumers.
Al this is to point to the following: While Baby Boomers were doing all that social feel-good stuff, we assumed the economic system would remain in a happy stasis. It never does. We were taking care of people’s rights – rights that mean nothing in an economy that has been stolen from the people by economic royalists who had an eye out for sleepy idealists. While these people were killing the labor movement, they stole people’s pensions and made it impossible to sue them – all by buying congressmen; and then they made it easier to buy congressmen.
The right, meanwhile, was never dead and never exempt from the same phenomenon. They focused on gun rights and opposing every movement for social justice, and the royalists, who cared nothing about those issues, made common cause with them to gain their tacit, blind complicity in stealing the economy.
It hasn’t worked out too well, and it points to a single, inescapable conclusion. Boomers have one more fight to undertake, and it is more daunting than all the others put together. It is for economic justice, and Boomers must win over and work with and not against the Millennials.
The Occupy movement was a faltering start. Its leaders, to the extent that there were any, didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Tea Party and be taken over by entrenched interests, so they eschewed hierarchy, fundraising, institutionalization of any kind. And Occupy is pretty much gone. Anyway, the tools of organizing and protesting, as we have known them, are useless now. No one pays the least attention to the dozens of daily, orderly marches and sit-downs and speeches in Washington. They’re just part of the usual kooky scenery there. If you organize a mass protest in Michigan, it might get covered by Free Speech TV, where it will be seen by hundreds.
What’s needed is to fight money with money. Don’t have any? Yes, indeed, you have. But it takes massive organization, and it takes strikes and boycotts and threats backed by angry millions to move the system.
There’s a lot to overcome. The usual suspects are trotting out academics by the score to defend the gross and growing inequities in the system.
Yet, grassroots movements can be found. They are nascent, but one or more will gain steam against the monied few. Some fewer of the few even come to their senses from time to time. There’s People for the American Way, and others. CREDO Action is perhaps closest to the target right now, selling cell-phone service and promoting progressive causes..
American democracy can be resuscitated. But more than ever, it’s about the money. It will take a crusade, and the crusade can close the new generation gap.