“I wouldn’t want to be twenty-years-old now. I fear for what’s coming.”
- Hunter S. Thompson, 2003
Generational analysis is bullshit. Or so I’m told. Fit for netroots liberals and horoscope clippers, maybe. And to be fair, it’s mostly thinktank types who’ve been profiting off that whole Millennials Rising genre. One of the authors of that book is a former writing partner of Pete G. Peterson’s, the octogenarian billionaire who has spent the last couple of decades trying to kick over the Social Security ladder before us young’ns can scamper up and collect. Most of it reads like a debriefing after a recon mission–you can feel them sizing us up, drawing up blueprints for the generational counterrevolution that we’re living through right now.
So if you want to screech about the trappings of generational politics and the careless demonization of everyone born in a twenty-year stretch in one particular country, fine. I hear you. But this piece isn’t for you. You’re okay.
This is for my fellow Millennial. The one who gets his or her rocks off to visions of a glorious Boomer-hegemonic extinction, like those old claymation movies of dinosaurs getting nuked by meteor-fire. This is for those of you who, like me, need a vision of that mighty Boomer Brontosaurus keelin’ over for good–and the furry little dino-eating Repenomamuses scurrying across all the corpses to claim the planet once and for all.
Take a hit of that glorious vision, friends. It’s okay to get a little excited. Just as long as we keep in mind that the Brontosaurus, we now know, was nothing more than a big paleontologist fuck up–the misassembled and amalgamated remains of other great lizards. Yet it remains a useful word for ancient, gigantic beasts with acorn-sized brains and a penchant for mindlessly crushing everything in its wake.
A Pew poll from a few weeks back asked Americans how they felt about capitalism versus socialism. The results said all you need to know about how much longer we’re going to have to wade through this misery. You guessed it: until the Boomers finally croak.
For maybe the first time in modern history, we now have a generation that actually has warmer feelings about socialism than it does capitalism: 49% to 46%. And a few days later, amid a multi-billion dollar war on public sector workers, another poll was released demonstrating that a whopping 69% of Millennials think teachers are underpaid (56% for Americans of all ages).
Boomer technocrats long ago conceded that Millennials skew to the left on social and cultural issues, but have tried to muddy the waters when it comes to the economy–hence the “libertarian” con. But now, the verdict is in and it’s undeniable. Journalist Doug Henwood thinks “this may be the most left-thinking younger generation in modern history.”
Sure, polls have shown a general ambivalence on the part of the American public towards the free market for some time now. The 50-64 crew isn’t that much keener on capitalism–53% approve—but with 68% holding negative views on socialism, they’ve proven that they can still pop a Red-baiting boner with the best of them. It’s the Millennials who are the first to open their arms towards a left-wing alternative.
How could that even happen over here? I first heard the s-word from by my sixth grade history teacher–this was in the early days of Yeltsin. She said socialism is when you have to wait in line for hours just for a Happy Meal. (We had a visiting student from Russia–Elena–who solemnly confirmed the horror to us all.) According to most of our political discourse, “socialism” means either compact fluorescent lightbulbs or massive corporate-welfare checks. But considering the long saturation of Cold War propaganda in this country, I’d like to think it’s enough that the utterance of the word doesn’t send them into an anti-commie tizzy.
But maybe it’s not. Now that the student loan bubble has swollen past the trillion dollar marker as of last year, we have the president of the University of California system nodding approvingly at a proposal–drawn up by a liberal grassroots organization no less–to replace the tuition system with a 5% tax on all wages for 20 years after graduation. So de facto debt servitude is replaced by old school indentured servitude.
And yet the usually spot-on Hamilton Nolan of Gawker–a dyed-in-the-wool Millennial in every sense–is enthused about the proposal, which he calls, approvingly, “socialism.” Apparently, going back to the tuition-free heydays of CUNY and the University of California system–when those universities were among the most prestigious in the world–is completely off the table. But I can hardly blame him. With so many of us hammered down by six-figure student loan debt, actual indentured servitude that ends before our first colonoscopy sounds like Scandinavian social democracy. But that’s not even the worst of it. Read the fine print: it’s 5% of wages, income from “investments” is excluded. Tax the poor wage-slave, spare the wealthy rentier. Americans still can’t see the play even with Buffett rubbing his secretary’s tax return in our faces.
Whereas the average state tuition in the early 1980s ran around $8k (in 2008 dollars) for four years, most Millennials are forced into the mid-five-figures range for a second rate public university education. (Pell Grants–when the Boomers were attending college–covered 77% of the cost for a four-year public university. For us, the figure is 35%.) And it’s a servitude from which we can never escape. Forget bankruptcy. Default on a student loan and the government will garnish your wages until they get it all back, plus interest. They can even go after your social security money, off limits for all other debts.
The actual cost of universal free higher education is more than manageable—out-of-pocket costs are around 1% of GDP. That’s a relatively tiny pinprick from the federal budget that could transform higher education overnight into a truly public good. And yet the US government is already spending tens of billions of dollars on higher education. But they’re not using it to pay our tuition. They’re using it just to prop up our heinous student loan system—through tax deductions and credits, inflating the cost for all. They’re bending over backwards just to fuck us and collect.
Mike Konczal sees this as just another sign of a “submerged state”–the unholy fertilizer that keeps the American libertarian discourse in full bloom. None of the “welfare,” but all of the “state.” And it explains everything from how the government subsidizes mortgages to our health care system. A submerged state, according to political scientist Suzanne Mettler, is what you get when a government refuses to distribute funds and services directly to individuals and families, and instead uses tax breaks or payments to private companies all in order to hide the hand of government and exaggerate the role of the market.
But for this, blame not the Boomer, but his overrated progenitor. It’s the generation that made capitalism work so well for so many–the Band of Brothers–who are the real culprits here. The New Deal electorate and the Great Society coalition. Sure, the ruling class reactionaries hated FDR’s reforms, but as Michael Harrington pointed out, “these same reactionaries benefited from the changes that the New Deal introduced far more than did the workers and the poor who actively struggled for them.”
“After the Great Society program in the 1960s,” says Leo Panitch, “left-wing Democrats, rather than calling for more public housing to rebuild America’s cities instead called for the banks to lend money to poor black communities…one of the effects of winning those demands was a channeling of those communities more deeply into the structures of finance, the most dynamic sector of neoliberal capitalism.”
The Boomers grew up under a capitalism that had to be hammered and shaped into respectability over a thirty year period. But for us, we’re left staring at the monstrosity in its natural state. With a quarter-century’s worth of quasi social-democratic reforms either neutralized or withered away, and with no more credit to hose us down, we’re able to see the beast for what it truly is.
While a liberal looks upon the New Deal and Great Society generation as a pantheon of benevolent patriarchs, I see a bunch of technocrats who slapped together a crude simulacrum of social democracy and called it “free-enterprise.” Just as in the submerged state of 2012, they did their best to make the government’s hand all but invisible, all the while using the machinery of the Cold War to purge labor radicals–McCarthyism’s real target–leaving us helpless after the onslaught began. They then told their children–the Boomers–to scorn these dirty reds, and to thank good ol’ American capitalism for the chicken in every pot.
So by the time Reagan had gone to war against “the state,” the children of labor union households and GI Bill dads didn’t know any better. The ruling class walked away from a relatively informal compact which they honored only while it worked for them. Instead of handing out raises, they just started pocketing all the profits for themselves. And so began nearly four decades of stagnating wages.
Unlike the nations of Western Europe, American workers failed to get a good deal of the social democratic compact written into law, which means it was all the easier to dismantle over here. Not necessarily the case elsewhere. The labor policies and institutions that rose up in the 1930s in places like Scandinavia “were the result of conscious theory rather than the political improvisation of the New Deal,” says Harrington. So much for pragmatism over ideology.
As Cornell historian Jefferson Cowie put it, “the biggest social democratic achievements in American history were an aberration.” The Boomers inherited the largesse of World War II, but without the laws, social traditions, and institutional structures to keep the bourgeoisie from gobbling it all up. “The benefits of the welfare state become one more fact of life for those who did not have to struggle for them, something to be exploited for convenience,” as Harrington put it.
But student loans are just one prong in the Boomer phalanx–and maybe the least ghoulish. Even if they can’t rope us into the student scam and even if they fail to turn us into dutiful little low-wage baristas and register-jockeys, they can always sick the multi-trillion-dollar U.S. Security State on us.
There are the wars, of course–now pretty much the only way for a good many of us to get a debt-free education. And if you make it through Afghanistan without the “signature wound”–shredded genitals and two legs blown off, on the rise as of last year–you have PTSD, suicidal despair, and drug addiction to look forward to. Or maybe even a shoot-out with the cops–a fate that seems to be growing more and more common among Millennial combat veterans.
Then there’s the ever-popular Drug War, always trolling for some fresh blood. The Millennials are, after all, the least white generation in U.S. history, making us perfect fodder for the country’s ongoing race war. The Boomers didn’t start it, but they’re the ones who amped it up and tried to make us like it–the ones who sent D.A.R.E. officers into our schools and told us to rat out our pals. As The Wire’s David Simon has pointed out, it was Clinton–the first Boomer president–that passed some of the most draconian “anti-crime” laws. Even business in the for-profit juvenile prisons sector is a-boomin’. Same goes for our expanding network of privatized immigration detention centers–a direct beneficiary of the Tea Party campaign for a brutal crackdown on “illegals.”
My soon-to-be father-in-law likes to tell us stories about how he and his brothers used to outrun the local West Virginia cops–gunning it Dukes of Hazzard style–how they’d get dragged into courtrooms where the judges would give ‘em a stern talking to before sending them back to mama for a spanking. But the mass murders at Columbine unleashed a White Terror that put an end to whatever was left of that America. Whereas post-Stalinist Russia saw the release of dozens of classic gulag memoirs, I expect our very own Kolyma Tales out of a rustbelt juvey hall within the next couple decades.
Much of the Patriot Act itself was comprised of legislation creeping around the halls of powers well before 9/11, much of it written with the burgeoning “anti-globalization” movement in mind and especially “ecoterrorists”–a name for Millennials who take issue with carcinogenic drinking water and the Mengele-like torture of animals. Throw a brick through the window of a fur store, and you can be charged with violating the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006. And if they nab you for that, you’re lucky if you don’t end up in a “Communication Management Unit”–no mail, no visits, no talking.
The fact is that being arrested is pretty much a rite of passage today–or the end-of-the-line for your hopes and dreams if you happen to be a darker shade of pale. In 1967, 22% of Americans could expect to be arrested before they hit 23 years of age. Today, it’s 30.2%.
And now, with the spread of broadband Internet, Boomers have opened up a new front: the decade-long crusade on filesharing. No more coddling us with “Don’t Copy that Floppy!”. Take the case of Hana Beshara, proprietor of the dearly departed link sharing video website NinjaVideo. SWATed up Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents stormed into her home last year and now–just a couple of weeks ago–she was sentenced to 22 months in prison and fined over $200,000 in restitution to her “victim,” the Motion Picture Association of America. Or there’s Aaron Swartz of Reddit, charged with the crime of attempting to create a database of academic papers and reports–largely the work of unpaid graduate student labor in the first place. He faces up to 35 years in prison and a fine of $1 million. Or Joel Tenenbaum, the kid who’s being sued for $4.5 million for sharing a handful of Nirvana mp3s. Remember that video of Texas Judge William Adams viciously beating his teenaged daughter? He claimed that it was her Internet downloads that set him off. Just a little “discipline,” he said, after “she was caught stealing.”
Which is why I love the Tea Party so much. They don’t dick around about any of this. It’s a full-scale generational war they’re after. Sociologist Theda Skocpol’s The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism devotes a good chunk to understanding the generational warrior inherent in Tea Party politics. Skocpol refers to the clash as “the ‘grey’ versus ‘brown’ divide.” Grey meaning the old white people who dominate all of our political and economic institutions, and brown meaning the young, most racially diverse generation in the history of this country: ours.
Grey versus brown is “a tension that superimposes divisions by age and experience, income, and ethnicity…the Tea Party is very much a reaction by older white conservative Americans who resent and fear what they think might be the political accompaniments of a nation transformed by rising younger cohorts with different experiences, values, and social characteristics.”
Fittingly, the Tea Partiers have chosen the Ryan Budget as their very own spiritual lodestar–the Port Huron Statement of the old, white and reactionary. The Ryan Budget–and the GOP campaign around it–divides the American populace into “those who are 55 or older now, and those who are younger.” Meaning Boomers will receive Medicare and Social Security checks unchanged, whereas Millennials get the axe–despite the fact that many of us have been paying into these programs for the past 15 years. Let the record show that it was they who fired the first shot.
We’re not even the first ones to fall into their cross-hairs. They lined up their own moms and dads for “assisted-obsolescence” decades ago. Overrated though they were, the New Deal and Great Society electorates had little faith in laissez-faire. For a prissy Ruling Class Boomer like Grover Norquist, their extinction over the past fifteen years has been a most joyous occasion:
“We’ve had four more years pass where the age cohort that is most Democratic and most pro-statist, are those people who turned 21 years of age between 1932 and 1952…That age cohort is now between the ages of 70 and 90 years old, and every year 2 million of them die…their idea of the legitimate role of the state is radically different than anything previous generations knew, or subsequent generations…one-size-fits-all labor law, one-size-fits-all Social Security. We will all work until we’re 65 and have the same pension. You know, some Bismarck, German thing, okay? Very un-American.”
It’s not like Millennials are better people or anything. No, actually, fuck that. We are better people on the whole–we play well with others. But that’s one thing I do worry about: we’re all too nice. That’s the problem with the goody-two-shoes nature common to so many Millennials, especially the ones out in the streets. We’re just not mean enough.
Boomers know how to get mean. But we just can’t do it. This is how creeps like Jon Stewart and Obama manage to make in-roads with us. Remember that shot of the Iranian revolutionaries with the captured and bloodied riot cop? And they protected him from everyone else? Admirable, brave, and–tactically speaking–probably the right decision. But a dangerous omen, I fear.
All of the hippies who skulked off into the world of children’s programming to ride out the counterrevolution have cursed us with both our potential salvation (respect for the commons) and our ultimate weakness (pacifist nonsense). Who would deny that Obamaism was the canniest of Boomer plots to dope Millennials with that perfect cocktail of lefty-flirtation, racial inclusiveness, and pathological congeniality? It wouldn’t surprise me if the DNC had brought in old Sesame Street writers to help deconstruct our brains.
But mostly our decency stems from the fact that we’ve all been muzzled and defanged by student debt, slave wages and mass unemployment. Unlike our parents, we’ll never even get the chance to gobble up our own children and leave them with the tab. So let’s stick to the Marxian materialist route: the Boomers are a generation soaked with the spoils of war–the biggest war in human history, from which only the USA walked away relatively unscathed. They were always going to be total shits.
And in that respect, we should pity the Boomer. They’re like the frog soaking in the pot of slowly-warming water. They can barely feel it. As Mark Schmitt put it:
“A baby born in 1956 would have graduated from high school in about 1974, from college in 1978 or so. Look at almost any historical chart of the American economy, and you see two sharp breaks in the 1970s. First, in 1974, household incomes, which had been rising since World War II, flattened. Real wages started to stagnate. The poverty rate stopped falling. Health insurance coverage stopped rising. Those trends have continued ever since.
Second, a little later in the decade, around the time today’s 55-year-olds graduated from college (if they did—fewer than 30 percent have a four-year degree), inequality began its sharp rise, and the share of national income going to the bottom 40 percent began to fall. Productivity and wages, which had tended to keep pace, began to diverge, meaning that workers began seeing little of the benefits of their own productivity gains. The number of jobs in manufacturing peaked and began to drop sharply…If there was ever going to be a generational war in this country, that high school class of ’74 would be its Mason-Dixon line.”
Which is why, psychologically, this Great Depression of ours can never hurt us like it hurts them. I see it all the time: the unemployed Boomer thinks himself a loser. He’s spent his life watching his peers accumulate wealth and power. Now he feels like the rug has been pulled from under him. Something has gone terribly wrong. When he files for food-stamps, he feels exactly what the Ruling Class wants him to feel: shame and personal failing.
Whereas a Millennial shrugs and swipes the SNAP card at the farmer’s market for a quart of fresh cider and a pomegranate muffin. Why should she feel guilty? Even if she grew up in one of our country’s bourgeoisier enclaves, she could point to a handful of peers who graduated top-of-the-class, worked hard, played by the rules, but live with mom and dad. And despite all that guff about how we’re all lazy freeloaders, most of her friends probably have two or three jobs, each one barely hovering over the minimum wage. Few among them have managed to nab that most beautiful of American luxuries: health insurance coverage. For her, it’s taken for granted that capitalism is unfair–that hard work, socially beneficial skills, and playing by the rules guarantees nothing.
We Millennials have all the same ludicrous delusions of grandeur as our parents, but now, we’re ready to shuck capitalist gospel out the window. The Boomers call us spoiled, and ask us to do more with less, telling us to tamper our dreams. But the best thing we Americans have going for us is our entitlement, sans the free-market faith.
Look at Japan. They’ve been in something like a depression for twenty years. But where’s their Occupy? Instead, they have a new word–hikikomori–to describe the phenomenon of young men who refuse to leave their bedrooms, and the shame-ridden parents who try to keep it all under wraps. These kids did what a generation must never do: they’ve internalized the judgment of the free-market, a horrible and depressing process currently playing out among the Boomer unemployed over here as they head into Year IV of this hell.
Boomers felt it was their destiny to get rich–that if they just put in the hours, wealth would rain down from the heavens. And they could look to their peers for confirmation. From around 1820 to 1970, mom and dad could tell junior that life, for him, really would be better. That’s 150 years of rising wages. That’s a hell of a stretch–a success that no other country could claim. The Boomers stewed in those juices just long enough to believe all that free-market bullshit, even as they were yanking the rug out from under each other.
Way back in 1892, Friedrich Engels knew that success was the real curse of the USA. And that a powerful, anti-capitalist left could never take off in this country until the game stopped paying out: “Only when there is a generation of native-born workers that cannot expect anything from speculation any more will we have a solid foothold in America.”
Sound familiar? That’s what Occupy is for most of us–a guttural roar that capitalism will not do. The Boomers are right that it all smacks of entitlement. We are entitled. The world, and this country in particular, is awash in capital. With the billions floating in and out of this city every day, it’s amazing that you can walk around Manhattan and not end up with at least a grand worth of cash sifting around in your shoes like beach sand. The big lie is that the coffers are empty and budgets must be balanced. What a fucking joke. American workers have spent hundreds of years building this country and amassing this wealth, and it’s about time we claimed the vast majority of it.
But batten down the hatches, because if there’s one thing they’ve made abundantly clear, the Boomers are going to cling to life and power until the very last EKG blip, fleecing us all the while. Conservative apostate David Frum recently characterized the contemporary GOP’s platform as “a going-out-of-business sale for the Baby Boomer generation.” Which is pretty much the Democrats’ platform too. They just have better table manners.
We’ll be spending the rest of our formative years diving for cover from their collective Death Rattle. Thirty years from now, even if we walk away with all of our soft tissue intact, John Roberts will probably still be Chief Justice.
Boomers know what they’ve wrought. Climate change? Don’t believe the polls. They know it’s happening. Yeah, if you confront one of them, he might put up a denialist front for a couple of minutes. But keep pelting him and it all crumbles, giving way to “well, it’s too late.” Translated: “I’ll be on, or near, my deathbed when the shit really hits the fan. You, youngster, will be hauling your family across the country George Romero style, scavenging for orphans to sell off as catamites to the warlord chieftains.”
But as they begin their transition from their autumnal years of denial to the sad introspection of their wintry decades, I’m starting to think that they know something has gone wrong–a mutation of some kind. Since the Boomers’ adolescence in the 1960s and 70s, they’ve undergone a metamorphosis not unlike Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly. In the teleportation pod on the left, party-hearty Jimmy Buffett. But in the pod on the right, hidden from view, a tiny little Grover Norquist, buzzing around in the corners. Zap! The DNA passes from pod left to pod right, fusing the two specimens. A few seconds later and the journey is complete. Out steps the mutated Boomer–an entirely new creation.
At first, they’re strong. They can kill, fuck, and maim whomever they please. They always get what they want. But after a while, the rot begins. One morning, they find a powerful, but hideous mutant staring back at them in the mirror–with a knack for crawling up the walls and vomiting acid upon its enemies. And, most importantly, ready to leech a little lifeforce from their own unborn child stirring in Geena Davis’s womb, all for just a few more years of power.
Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has spent the past few years chronicling this ghastly mutation step-by-step–unraveling the seemingly incongruous strands and the hideous parentage of Boomer ideology. Their embrace of American libertarianism–with all of its absurdities, vulgarities and utopianism–was the final cry for help.
Like Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly slowly lifting the shotgun to its temple, the Boomers are ready for us to assert Millennial hegemony and put them out of their collective misery. Trust me, it’s the humane thing to do.
Cross-posted to Exiled Online
If you like this article, please subscribe.