How the baby boomers — not millennials — screwed America

Hippies dancing during an anti-war demonstration staged by the Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam at Golden Gate Park’s Kezar Stadium on April 15, 1967.
Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Everyone likes to bash millennials. We’re spoiled, entitled, and hopelessly glued to our smartphones. We demand participation trophies, can’t find jobs, and live with our parents until we’re 30. You know the punchlines by now.

But is the millennial hate justified? Have we dropped the generational baton, or was it a previous generation, the so-called baby boomers, who actually ruined everything?

That’s the argument Bruce Gibney makes in his 2017 book A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America. The boomers, according to Gibney, have committed “generational plunder,” pillaging the nation’s economy, repeatedly cutting their own taxes, financing two wars with deficits, ignoring climate change, presiding over the death of America’s manufacturing core, and leaving future generations to clean up the mess they created.

I spoke to Gibney about these claims, and why he thinks the baby boomers have wrecked America.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

Who are the baby boomers?

Bruce Gibney

The baby boomers are conventionally defined as people born between 1946 and 1964. But I focus on the first two-thirds of boomers because their experiences are pretty homogeneous: They were raised after the war and so have no real experience of trauma or the Great Depression or even any deprivation at all. More importantly, they never experienced the social solidarity that unfolded during war time and that helped produce the New Deal.

But it’s really the white middle-class boomers who exemplify all the awful characteristics and behaviors that have defined this generation. They became a majority of the electorate in the early ’80s, and they fully consolidated their power in Washington by January 1995. And they’ve basically been in charge ever since.

Sean Illing

So how have they broken the country?

Bruce Gibney

Well, the damage done to the social fabric is pretty self-evident. Just look around and notice what’s been done. On the economic front, the damage is equally obvious, and it trickles down to all sorts of other social phenomena. I don’t want to get bogged down in an ocean of numbers and data here (that’s in the book), but think of it this way: I’m 41, and when I was born, the gross debt-to-GDP ratio was about 35 percent. It’s roughly 103 percent now — and it keeps rising.

The boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it. They habitually cut their own taxes and borrow money without any concern for future burdens. They’ve spent virtually all our money and assets on themselves and in the process have left a financial disaster for their children.

We used to have the finest infrastructure in the world. The American Society of Civil Engineers thinks there’s something like a $4 trillion deficit in infrastructure in deferred maintenance. It’s crumbling, and the boomers have allowed it to crumble. Our public education system has steadily degraded as well, forcing middle-class students to bury themselves in debt in order to get a college education.

Then of course there’s the issue of climate change, which they’ve done almost nothing to solve. But even if we want to be market-oriented about this, we can think of the climate as an asset, which has degraded over time thanks to the inaction and cowardice of the boomer generation. Now they didn’t start burning fossil fuels, but by the 1990s the science was undeniable. And what did they do? Nothing.

Sean Illing

Why hasn’t this recklessness been checked by the political system? Is it as simple as the boomers took over and used power to enrich themselves without enough resistance from younger voters?

Bruce Gibney

Well, most of our problems have not been addressed because that would require higher taxes and therefore a sense of social obligation to our fellow citizens. But again, the boomers seem to have no appreciation for social solidarity.

But to answer your question more directly, the problem is that dealing with these problems has simply been irrelevant to the largest political class in the country — the boomers. There’s nothing conspiratorial about that. Politicians respond to the most important part of the electorate, and that’s been the boomers for decades. And it just so happens that the boomers are not socially inclined and have a ton of maladaptive personality characteristics.

Sean Illing

It’s interesting that Ronald Reagan is elected right around the time that boomers become a majority of the electorate. Reagan himself wasn’t a boomer, but it was boomers who put him into office. And this is when we get this wave of neoliberalism that essentially guts the public sector and attempts to privatize everything.

Bruce Gibney

Right. Starting with Reagan, we saw this national ethos which was basically the inverse of JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” This gets flipped on its head in a massive push for privatized gain and socialized risk for big banks and financial institutions. This has really been the dominant boomer economic theory, and it’s poisoned what’s left of our public institutions.

Sean Illing

So what’s your explanation for the awfulness of the boomers? What made them this way?

Bruce Gibney

I think there were a number of unusual influences, some of which won't be repeated, and some of which may have mutated over the years. I think the major factor is that the boomers grew up in a time of uninterrupted prosperity. And so they simply took it for granted. They assumed the economy would just grow three percent a year forever and that wages would go up every year and that there would always be a good job for everyone who wanted it.

This was a fantasy and the result of a spoiled generation assuming things would be easy and that no sacrifices would have to be made in order to preserve prosperity for future generations.

Sean Illing

I’ve always seen the boomers as a generational trust-fund baby: They inherited a country they had no part in building, failed to appreciate it, and seized on all the benefits while leaving nothing behind.

Bruce Gibney

I think that’s exactly right. They were born into great fortune and had a blast while they were on top. But what have they left behind?

Sean Illing

Something that doesn’t get discussed enough is how hostile so many of these boomers are to science. It’s not hard to connect this aversion to facts to some of these disastrous social policies.

Bruce Gibney

This is a generation that is dominated by feelings, not by facts. The irony is that boomers criticize millennials for being snowflakes, for being too driven by feelings. But the boomers are the first big feelings generation. They’re highly motivated by feelings and not persuaded by facts. And you can see this in their policies.

Take this whole fantasy about trickle-down economics. Maybe it was worth a shot, but it doesn’t work. We know it doesn’t work. The evidence is overwhelming. The experiment is over. And yet they’re still clinging to this dogma, and indeed the latest tax bill is the latest example of that.

Time after time, when facts collided with feelings, the boomers chose feelings.

Sean Illing

What’s the most egregious thing the boomers have done in your opinion?

Bruce Gibney

I'll give you something abstract and something concrete. On an abstract level, I think the worst thing they’ve done is destroy a sense of social solidarity, a sense of commitment to fellow citizens. That ethos is gone and it’s been replaced by a cult of individualism. It’s hard to overstate how damaging this is.

On a concrete level, their policies of under-investment and debt accumulation have made it very hard to deal with our most serious challenges going forward. Because we failed to confront things like infrastructure decay and climate change early on, they’ve only grown into bigger and more expensive problems. When something breaks, it’s a lot more expensive to fix than it would have been to just maintain it all along.

Sean Illing

So where does that leave us?

Bruce Gibney

In an impossible place. We’re going to have to make difficult choices between, say, saving Social Security and Medicare and saving arctic ice sheets. We'll have fewer and fewer resources to deal with these issues. And I actually think that over the next 100 years, absent some major technological innovation like de-carbonization, which is speculative at this point, these actions will actually just kill people.

Sean Illing

I hear you, man, and I’m with you on almost all of this, but I always return to a simple point: If millennials and Gen Xers actually voted in greater numbers, the boomers could’ve been booted out of power years ago.

Bruce Gibney

I think that’s fair. But given how large the boomer demographic is, it really wasn’t possible for millennials to unseat the boomers until a few years ago. And of course there are many issues with voting rights. But that’s not a complete excuse.

More than voting, though, millennials have to run for office because people have to be excited about the person they’re voting for. We need people in office with a different outlook, who see the world differently. Boomers don’t care about how the country will look in 30 or 40 years, but millennials do, and so those are the people we need in power.

Sean Illing

I guess the big question is, can we recover from this? Can we pay the bill the boomers left us?

Bruce Gibney

I think we can, but it’s imperative that we start sooner than later. After 2024 or so, it will get really hard to do anything meaningful. In fact, I think the choices might become so difficult that even fairly good people will get wrapped up in short-term self-interest.

So if we unseat the boomers from Congress, from state legislatures, and certainly from the presidency over the next three to seven years, then I think we can undo the damage. But that will require a much higher tax rate and a degree of social solidarity that the country hasn’t seen in over 50 years.

That will not be easy, and there’s no way around the fact that millennials will have to sacrifice in ways the boomers refused to sacrifice, but that’s where we are — and these are the choices we face.

This article was originally published on December 20, 2017.


Who raised the boomers? The so called greatest generation.

Hey, I have an idea – let’s turn a simple class narrative (rich vs. rest) into a new generational narrative because that was was so divisive when millennials were on the other end! Remember that Boomers are retiring poor — if they looted the till, where did it go? We’ve instituted generational wealth transfer by removing inheritance taxes as the behest of rich, not the 45% of Boomers retiring with no savings.

How can one write about the ongoing train wreck this nation has been put through without even once mentioning the word "Republican?"

This is breathtakingly stupid. If you substitute the word "Republicans" for "boomers" it makes sense. The boomer Clinton delivered to the boomer Bush Jr the biggest surplus in our history, and within a year Jr turned it into the biggest peacetime deficit in our history. Every single thing the author, and Mr Illing, who is usually more intelligent than this, ascribe to boomers belongs to the Republican Party. To pretend otherwise is deeply dumb and dishonest. I know it’s hard to be an author, and to have to think up things to write about, but Mr Gibney should be ashamed to have committed this drivel to paper.

The author was correct when he stated that we wont have the resources to fix the mess. We’ve already hit peak oil. By 2040 the world will be pumping the amount of oil it pumped in ~1980. Nothing short of a miracle energy will stop the downward slide of western civilization. We’ll have periods of crisis’ followed by leveling off or even a small period of growth in an ever downward spiral.

Tribecan could not have articulated it better. Mr. Illing is usually much more insightful than this. One of the few times I’ve been disappointed in his choice of subject matter and his blatant support of a narrowly thought through point of view.

There is one thing about the Baby Boomers and part of the succeeding generation

We were the ones that were brain damaged by lead in petrol – sufficiently brain damaged that when we were at the "violent age" from 17 to 25 the the murder rate DOUBLED

This was caused by lead damaging our sense of empathy and also our ability to plan ahead and take responsibility for our actions

We were all damaged to a greater or lesser extent – and that damage does not heal

Is it surprising that we behaved badly in terms of politics???

Lead? Oh man, Nancy Reagan told me it was the acid.

This is the third time Vox has posted this article. Why? This broad-brush indictment is overly simplistic and absolves everyone who followed the boomers of any responsibility.
Destroyed sense of social solidarity? Tell that to the African Americans, Mexican farm workers (led by Cesar Chavez), gay people, women, and all others that fought mightily through the 50s, 60s, 70s and on to gain social equality and oftentimes just plain acceptance. Did boomers create the socially destructive force called Facebook? The attempted strangulation of social safety programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc?? You can lay that at the feet of Republicans, not an entire generation born in the 50s and 60s. And as for exercising civic responsibility, the very low percentage of today’s young (of voting age) who disregard their right and responsibility to vote is simply astounding.

The previous generation isn’t the Boomers. It’s Gen-X. The last year for boomers is 1964. Then it’s Gen-x starting from 1965. Then Millenials from the early 80’s.
Im GenX and we were the first whiny assholes who wanted everything handed to us after getting a bullshit degree that wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on.
It doesn’t matter anyhow. The generation labels are too vague anyhow. Look up the reason for them.

yes tanks good posts

This is preposterous. Elections are not taken generationally. Half of us in the baby boom generation opposed every action you are accusing us of. And yet every policy you mention — lowering taxes, fighting two wars without paying for them, ignoring global warming — is a direct policy of the Republican party. So, roughly half of all the Boomers opposed these policies, but all Republicans supported them, or at least voted for elected officials who did. It’s nice that you want to deflect blame generationally, but that’s just not how demographics work. Place the blame where it belongs, not on a generation, where blame is diffuse, but on a party who has set out to bankrupt this country in order to avoid helping the poor and aged.

America boomed during and immediately after WWII. Those who were already adults at that time benefited the most economically. They had too many children (the boomers), who were treated kind of like little soldiers—expected to be obedient, quiet and conforming. Many boys were drafted and sent to die in a war that made no sense. The boomers rebelled en masse against the older generations because of the callousness, greed, hypocrisy, prejudice and stupidity they saw in their elders’ world. We called it the "generation gap." Now the milleniels have some of that same anger against the boomers. Maybe it’s inevitable in a rapidly changing world, but the sooner you can see the longer expanse of history and understand that every generation is born into an imperfect world, the sooner you can devote yourself to improving it.

"Hard to overstate the cult of individualism?"
This country was founded and built on the concept of individual rights,personal freedoms and liberties.
"Those that prefer Security to Liberty deserve Neither."
Yet,authors such as this lament the lack of social solidarity,and disapprove of market-based solutions to problems such as infrastructure and education.We have been maligned every time we attempt to reform a Social Security system designed when the typical lifespan was around 68 years old.That program alone will be 80% of our budget by 2030.Refusal to raise taxes to fund necessary programs?No,refusing to cede more control to government and return to the individualism you despise;because your real complaint is not against boomers,but anti-socialists who refuse to accept that merit has no value,that people can decide better how to raise their family than a village,that majority rule is mob rule and that is why individual rights are so imperative.
This is not an indictment of boomers;it is a criticism of capitalism,and an appeal for more progressive(read socialist) policies.A recipe for disaster.

it’s kind of hilarious and though i’ve not read the book.. it’s hard to not think of it as a giant bag of stats. all the social progress that happened is because of boomers. were they all pointed in the same direction? no of course not.. neither is any fucking generation.

every bit of struggle and social change was paid for in blood. lot’s of people were always trying to do the right thing. pretty much every green/womens/progressive etc movement that exists today got its birth in the 60s.

are there always capitalists and me first fucks gobbling up a much as they can of everything and exploiting everyone and everything regardless of consequences?? yes of course.

laying it all on "all the boomers" is dumb. it’s unregulated capitalism that fucked us. capitalism that poured money into politics and every crack of influence to control the process and swing it all in the favor of corporate gains.

Well you certainly hit a nerve with a lot of the Boomers in the comments. Many of them are obviously not prepared to hear this.

I am so so so so so so tired of this simplistic argument being dragged out repeatedly over the years. Let’s overgeneralize, shall we? If we can blame an entire generation for the ills of the world, we’ll feel all better and don’t have to think about that anymore. I imagine that it sells books, though. I will just bet that any book title with the word "Sociopaths" it in does really well in market research these days. Throw in some scary phrases like "generational plunder," and you’re off to the races. The statements made by the author about how "They," those pesky spoiled boomers, believe and behave fail to match up with the actual lives and the many amazing contributions by the diverse and talented group of people labeled Boomers.

Baby Boomer is a code phrase for any problem that a writer wishes to create a target for. Conservatives slam baby boomers for "radical environmentalism," and for creating the "soft culture" the Millennials supposedly wallow in. Some writers complain that Boomers squandered the economic engine that the War Generation supposedly dropped into their lap, only to watch the boomers fritter it all away. Others complain that the Boomers themselves created the overheated economic engine that is sinking Mother Earth, etc. This particular writer blames boomers for the rapacious, scortched earth economic policies that have left nothing for future generations, while conservatives blame Boomers for the hippie-generation Peacenik culture that has turned men into feminized mice, etc.

In reality, the problem is Republicans. The problem is the GOP. There are plenty of Boomers who tried to rein in the environmentally irresponsible policies of the Big Corporations, but have always been thwarted by the GOP. There are plenty of Boomers who tried to rein in government spending, and tried to limit the profligate Great Society promises with a safety-net that more sustainable, but were thwarted by GOP politicians who pushed through endless tax cuts so that their biggest donors live like kings at the expense of the rest of us.
Many Boomers have frequently addressed the problems currently destroying our planet, but are thwarted by — just say it – by Republicans. Not by "generational plunderers," supposedly schooled only in spending, but not earning. Hogwash. We’re being plundered and destroyed by Republicans. Plain and simple.

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