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27 November 2019

It’s easy to hate baby boomers – but resentment dulls our political imagination

Castigating the luck of one generation blinds us to the failures of the system that delivered it.

By Eleanor Penny

The sins of millennials are exhaustively catalogued: our feckless narcissism, our lazy entitlement, our censorious political puritanism, our single-handed annihilation of the market for diamonds, mayonnaise, golf, cereal, marriage, divorce, etcetera. You can forgive some people for bending that ire back on itself – claiming instead that the boomer generation squandered the planet’s resources while merrily profiting from secure jobs, free education and cheap housing. They pulled the ladder up after themselves and blame us for not being able to jump high enough. “Ok, boomer” has become the eye-rolling battle cry of under-35s known to history as generation rent, generation zero hours, generation burnout, generation up-late-at-night-fretting-about-climate-change. The reprimand has touched such a nerve that some workplaces have started to ban the phrase.

Those graduating into adulthood in a post-crash world can statistically expect to lead poorer, less stable, less healthy and shorter lives – and possibly spend our later years fighting for the last water supplies in a crumbling ecosystem. The young never experienced the wage growth or healthy social welfare net of their parents and grandparents. That systemic disillusionment has led to startling levels of leftwing radicalism. As Keir Milburn, the authore of Generation Left observes, we can’t dismiss millennial socialism as the dreamy optimism of youth: “In the 1983 election, for example, the Conservatives led by 10 percentage points among 18-34 year olds”. In the 2017 election, 60 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted Labour; older generations were blamed for delivering Brexit. And with good reason: age is directly correlated with an increasing likelihood of voting Leave.

Clearly, there is a generational slant to contemporary political divisions. In response, many people have criticised older generations for selling out the young – for inheriting a rich country and effectively bankrupting it. The figure of the boomer stalks the millennial imagination as a frightful bogeyman of cultural and political reaction.

The anger is necessary. We should be angry at dismal jobs and dwindling chances of a habitable planet. Yet sometimes that anger, directed full-knuckled at the over 50s, seems less like righteous outrage and more like inflamed resentment that one has been denied the signifiers of a stable, middle-class lifestyle. The “OK boomer” discourse mistakes thwarted expectations for structural critique. Invoking this clash of generations can obscure crucial class differences and distract from where power truly lies.

The famed boomer benefits – easy access to credit and rapid asset inflation – stemmed from economic reforms in the last century that substituted salaried incomes with personal debt. In the years leading up to the financial crisis, property speculation ran rampant. When the bubble burst in 2008, it wasn’t the average, suburban fifty-somethings who were bailed out to the tune of £500 million – it was the finance sector, which consolidated its power and insulated itself from democratic reform. 

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Of course, many boomers benefitted from this economic legacy. House pricing mechanisms in the UK have technically made 20 per cent of over-65s millionaires. But many others have been left scraping to get by. The famed gains of the boomer generation in propertied wealth were always unevenly shared, and remain so. Those who don’t have assets to fall back on are retiring into a system of gutted social care and paltry pensions. Those who can afford social care usually do so by selling or remortgaging their home.

Boomers without personal wealth find themselves in desparate circumstances. The Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaign highlights the struggle of working class women who had the rug pulled from underneath them when the coalition government raised the pension age in 2011. They, too, had access to cheap education and steady jobs. But their generational benefits were contingent on the whims of the state – and could be confiscated as easily as they were given.

Since 1986, the UK has seen a fivefold increase in pensioner poverty – a reality that is exacerbated among those from ethnic minority backgrounds. The boomer generation also includes the Windrush Generation, many of whom have been stripped of their jobs, homes, social safety nets and citizenship. These aren’t the people we refer to when we talk about boomer habits – which rather implies that the “boomer” category isn’t just about age, but about class, race, and a specific relation to the British state.  

Castigating the luck of one particular generation blinds us to the failures of the system that delivered it. Social mobility was always about giving a few select members of the working class a leg up so they could clamber over their peers to stability. Hierarchies, by their nature, don’t allow room for everyone at the top. For every boomer who climbed the social ladder are those facing a miserable retirement and frayed social safety net.

Luck is not always the same as power. The system that delivered benefits to baby boomers is the same system that crushed unions and ushered in an unsustainable, debt-based economic model. You don’t hate baby boomers: you hate capitalism.

Listen, I’ve jumped merrily on the boomer hate memes anyone else with a Twitter account. It’s a fun stick with which to prod older centrists enraged at the suggestions of wealth taxes, cheap avocados or the concept of an Ariana Grande. But without an analysis of class, race and power – and an acknowledgement that economic inequality affects every generation – the trope becomes a way to recast collective daddy issues as political critique. 

Class differences will become more acute as my generation ages and wealth is passed down from rich boomers to their children and grandchildren. As the economist Thomas Piketty prophesies, the gap between those who live off wealth, and those who live off work, will yawn even wider. 

When we bring class analysis back into the equation, we don’t need to look back in rose-tinted envy at the comforts of a social system premised on doomed economic models. Generational resentment dulls our political imagination. We don’t need to begrudge people their steady 9-5 wage and basic safety net when we stand on the precipice of a shorter working week and universal basic services. Across the world, the young, angry and dispossessed are swelling the ranks of socialist movements that stand on the cusp of power. We could be about to build a world unrecognisably more beautiful than the mid-century entente between labour and capital. We don’t need envy, when we have hope. 

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