Dana Milbank is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post, author of three books and a Gen Xer.
The nation is hopelessly split between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, facts and alternative facts, reality and Sean Spicer. But there is one notion that could, and should, unify us, or at least all of us under the age of 53 or over the age of 76: Pretty much everything that has gone wrong is the baby boomers’ fault.
Boomers took over the government in the early 1990s, when Bill Clinton’s 1992 victory installed them in the White House and Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994 gave the generation a majority in the House that persists to this day.
And how has that worked out for them? Well, the Greatest Generation survived the Great Depression, won the Second World War, brought about the enormous postwar economic boom, outlasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War and established the United States as the sole superpower. Since then, the boomers — the Worst Generation, if you will — have squandered most of that.
The United States, challenged all over the world, is receding and turning inward. The economy still hasn’t recovered fully from the financial collapse of 2008, the worst since the Great Depression. The federal debt is out of control, and inequality is worse. Boomers expanded entitlement programs that are wrecking the nation’s finances; they failed to act on global warming; they presided over declining faith in virtually all institutions, from religion to the Supreme Court; and their children may be the first generation with dim prospects of doing better than their parents did.
And now they’ve given us a president who is the epitome of boomer excess: narcissistic, impulsive and uncompromising.
This deterioration on the boomers’ watch was no accident. They grew up selfish and unyielding and have governed that way, creating the polarization that has paralyzed our politics and left us unable to solve the nation’s problems.
Given my own Gen X grievances against the boomers, I was delighted to learn that another Xer, venture capitalist Bruce Cannon Gibney, shares my generational hostility. In “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America,” Gibney delivers an unrelenting critique of the Worst Generation. Perhaps too unrelenting. He blames boomers for a lot of bad things that they did — and a lot more bad things that they didn’t do.
The core of Gibney’s argument, that the boomers are guilty of “generational plunder,” is spot-on. He accuses them of “the mass, democratically-sanctioned transfer of wealth away from the young and toward the Boomers,” and he’s right. In addition to making a mess of Social Security and Medicare, Gibney notes, they dragged the national savings rate down to 5 percent between 1996 and 2016, from 10 percent between 1950 and 1985.
But Gibney blames the boomers for everything: abortion, divorce, overeating, high inflation, taking deferments during Vietnam, failing to launch a mass movement calling for the rebuilding of Vietnam after the war, crime, poor educational standards, corporate tax rates, adjunct professors. At one point, he rails about “Pat Robertson fulminating about homosexuals, feminists, and praying for the deflection of hurricanes while his website minions opined on the afterlife of pets.” Robertson was born in 1930, a decade before the oldest boomer. Gibney also has words for “feckless non-entities like Marco Rubio.” Rubio, born in 1971, is nearly a decade younger than the youngest boomers.
Gibney complains that “many young boomers leapt at the neo-Malthusian nonsense peddled in the 1960s and 1970s by a slightly older generation of writers.” So is this the fault of the young boomers or of the Silent Generation’s Paul Ehrlich (b. 1932), who wrote “The Population Bomb”?
Even Earth-in-the-balance Al Gore is criticized as anti-environment, in “his original form as pork-barreling scenery wrecker.”
Gibney is just a wee bit sweeping when he pronounces that “the story of the past forty years has been the substitution of sentiment for science” and that “the Boomers were the first modern generation to harbor really negative feelings about reality and science.”
Surely we can give the boomers the blame they deserve for trashing the country while acknowledging that they have also been responsible for major advances in medicine and science, in arts and culture, in civil rights and the rights of women, disabled people and gay people. Can we at least give them some credit for rock-and-roll?
I’m no more qualified than Gibney to give the generation a psychiatric diagnosis, though I think the boomers are more properly labeled a generation of narcissists than a generation of sociopaths. (Our own cynical generation has trended more toward the sociopathic.) Generational theory tells us that the boomers are “idealists.” They believe passionately in their view of the world, and they are unbending. The problem is there are two halves of the baby boom: the Woodstock counterculture types and their ideological opposites, those who created the modern religious right. These have been at war since the 1960s, and that war, continued in politics, is what has paralyzed the country for a generation.
“As a group, the Boomers managed to be simultaneously for the war and against serving in it. Their responses to Vietnam were confused,” Gibney writes. But they weren’t confused. Gibney is conflating two entirely different groups of boomers.
It isn’t ill intent, or sociopathic instincts, that caused boomers to make such a mess of America. It is the collision of two strongly idealistic cohorts within the same generation. Their shared selfishness led boomers on both sides of the divide to believe that only they had the right answers and that there was nothing to be gained by compromise. Liberals increased spending on government programs. Conservatives cut taxes. And both allowed the culture wars to rage — on abortion, religious liberties, gay rights, gun ownership, civil liberties and more. Neither side yielded. Now they’ve left the rest of us, Gen Xers and millennials alike, to clean up their mess.
By Bruce Cannon Gibney
Hachette. 430 pp. $27