Boomers had Vietnam. Millennials and Gen X’ers had Iraq and Afghanistan. Boomers and Gen X’ers suffered through enormous manufacturing job losses and wage stagnation, and they absorbed a devastating body blow during the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent Great Recession. Millennials are wrestling with record-high levels of student debt and the growing threat of job displacement via automation. Boomers who grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s had to tangle with modest cancer survival rates and inadequate mental health services, but at least the cost of a brief hospital stay wasn’t enough to bankrupt them and their families. Millennials and Gen X’ers, on the other hand, have access to the highest quality of health care the United States has thus far managed to produce, but many of them simply can’t afford to take advantage of it.
Every generation gets saddled with unresolved problems created by their predecessors, and no generation ever manages to make it through life without creating new problems for themselves and their descendants. Boomers, like every generation that came before them, have proven both those observations true. They mostly ignored the scientific community’s warnings about climate change, helped establish an economy that has left American workers gasping for air, and orchestrated a war on drugs that backfired spectacularly. And don’t even get me started on their contributions to the back-breaking national debt the United States has accrued over the past twenty years.
That being said, Millennials give Boomers too much credit for the nation’s biggest problems. Climate change became an inevitability the moment when, way back in the 19th century, humanity began using coal to generate electricity in homes and factories. Boomers could have been much more aggressive in trying to mitigate the impact of climate change so that future generations would have more time to solve the problem, but even that may have proven an insurmountable task given another inconvenient inevitability that Millennials too often ignore—the increase in carbon dioxide emissions in India and China, the two most populous nations on Earth.
When it comes to the loss of manufacturing jobs in America, the story is much the same. From Eli Whitney’s cotton gin to Henry Ford’s assembly lines, humanity’s natural instinct to invent more efficient means of accomplishing difficult tasks has caught up with us many times before, and now it’s catching up to us again. The simple fact is that, thanks in large part to technological advancement, American manufacturers are now able to produce more than they ever have before with much fewer workers than they’ve needed in the past. Boomers may have exacerbated the consequences of our shift away from manufacturing by electing politicians who supported NAFTA and tax cuts for the rich, but they aren’t responsible for initiating the processes that led to that shift.
The Boomer legacy is a mixed bag of impressive triumphs, baffling failures, and missed opportunities. They dropped the ball on climate change, but they hit a home run with the Montreal Protocol. Their support for preemptive war brought a lifetime of unnecessary pain and misery to far too many American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, but they did also play an instrumental role in ending the Cold War. They failed to foresee the disastrous consequences of deregulating Wall Street and the too-big-to-fail institutions that brought about the Great Recession, but they did us all an enormous economic favor by laying the groundwork for the internet as we know it today.
Millennials tend to look past all the good and focus strictly on the bad. The Boomer story, they say, is a story of selfishness, narcissism, and greed. It’s a story about an entire generation of rapacious consumers whose singular focus on the acquisition and retention of wealth discouraged them from contemplating the potential long-term ramifications of their me-first lifestyles and politics.
Millennial angst isn’t entirely without merit. For many Millennials, home ownership is a goal that lies firmly out of reach. The middle class is shrinking, thanks in part to a significant rise in the cost of living combined with decades of wage stagnation. Income inequality is the worst it’s been in half a century. In short, the American dream is starting to look like a pipe dream. But to place all the blame for these problems squarely on the shoulders of avaricious Boomers and their collective short-sightedness is exceedingly cynical and unfair.
For their part, Boomers have clung tightly to their own false narratives and absurd caricatures of Millennials. While many Boomers stubbornly refuse to take any responsibility for their own failures and mistakes, they ironically insist that Millennials’ biggest problem is — you guessed it — a lack of personal responsibility. They say that Millennials are just a bunch of “snowflakes” who need to suck it up and deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. They claim that Millennials are extraordinarily lazy and entitled despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. They’ve been talking trash about Millennials for years, and now they have the audacity to object when Millennials bite back with their snarky “OK Boomer” meme?
Boomers and Millennials alike are embarrassing themselves with this pointless intergenerational war of words. We don’t have time for petty arguments over the precise amounts of blame that each generation should have to bear for the problems with which we’ve all been cursed. Boomers are facing a retirement crisis. Millennials are facing a student debt crisis. The entire globe is facing a climate crisis. These challenges necessitate immediate action, and we’ll need to call on the combined talents, wisdom, and innovative energies of Americans both young and old to figure out the right way forward.