Lefty Parent

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Living & parenting without the rule book

Shot Across my Boomer Bow

March 31st, 2012 at 13:13

I think there are way too few conversations going on between us Baby Boomers and our kids’ generation about our commonalities and areas of divergence and friction. Given that, when our young adult son Eric posted a link on Facebook the other day with the following intro…

Everyone should read (and share) this. Everyone.

Followed by posting a provocative quote from the linked piece…

“From every corner of the institutional spectrum, the whole of American society has been rearranged so that the limits of vision coincide exactly with the death of the Boomers.”

I took notice!

Eric, now 26, has emerged from his youth into adulthood as a thoughtful person not prone to hyperbole, and someone I (biased perhaps) would consider a thoughtful spokesperson for his circle of young adult peers and his “Millennial” generation.

Eric’s must read is a piece in the April 2012 edition of Esquire magazine, “The War Against Youth”, by 36-year-old Canadian Stephen Marche, who writes a monthly column for the magazine, “A Thousand Words about Our Culture”.

FYI… Per a short Wikipedia article on Marche, he was a finalist for the 2011 American Society of Magazine Editors award for columns and commentary. Also noted in that article, is that during a Canadian election campaign in October 2010, the Toronto Globe and Mail published online a commentary by Marche where he “effusively taunted a candidate for mayor of Toronto for the man’s obesity”. Assuming both these citations are true, Marche perhaps combines an incisive social criticism with a penchant for anger and at times hurtful words. But given Eric’s nod, I don’t necessarily want to judge the message by the messenger.

Marche’s Thesis

The provocative opening rhetorical salvo of Marche’s piece encapsulates his angry shot across us Baby Boomers’ bow…

The recession didn’t gut the prospects of American young people. The Baby Boomers took care of that.

Setting a context for the past three decades in which members of Eric’s “Millennial” generation were born and now entering adulthood, March elaborates…

Twenty-five years ago young Americans had a chance. In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation… This bleeding up of the national wealth is no accounting glitch, no anomalous negative bounce from the recent unemployment and mortgage crises, but rather the predictable outcome of thirty years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young.

Marche’s summation of that trend calls out an ugly bifurcation between the older and the younger among us…

If you follow the money rather than the blather, it’s clear that the American system is a bipartisan fusion of economic models broken down along generational lines: unaffordable Greek-style socialism for the old, virulently purified capitalism for the young. Both political parties have agreed to this arrangement: The Boomers and older will be taken care of. Everybody younger will be on their own.

And as a result…

The situation is obviously unsustainable: At the exact moment when the United States and all other Western countries are trying to deal with aging populations, they are failing to capture the energy and potential of the people who will have to work to support those aging populations. We have arrived at a moment, just before the 2012 election, in which the hedges, the corner-cuts, the isolated decisions about young people from a host of institutions have accrued to the point of a continuous catastrophe. The question rises from the wreckage: How long can you eat the young?

Given that that last question perhaps harkens back to his rhetorical excess of taunting a candidate for his obesity, if you read the arguments in his piece he has a point.

Marche says Baby Boomers are to blame, not by intent, but more by selfish naiveté and inaction, as in that activist wisdom from the 1960s that goes something like, “If you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem”.

Marche’s Case

Marche calls out the scope of the areas where our young people are facing this disenfranchisement…

Government, academia, the professions, corporations, unions, and both political parties — all continue to mine the vulnerability of youth in service of the needs of their aging power base.

I think there is merit to this argument, because I have certainly had at least anecdotal experience to this effect. What follows is my attempt to lay out the key points of his argument that older Americans are disenfranchising the young.

Taking Away Youth Voting Rights

According to Marche, the recent trend particularly in red states to create stricter ID requirements for voting has impacted the number of young people able to vote in elections. Many young people are being prevented from voting since they do not have current photo IDs, including being away at college on election day where they don’t have an ID with a local address.

I tend to agree. Most people attend college in their first adult years when they are likely to be developing their political consciousness (with any coursework in social studies presumably contributing to that development). Further, habits (including voting and political activism beyond just voting) developed in those first adult years are likely to carry forward into their years beyond. Development of those good habits of democratic citizenry are stymied rather than encouraged.

Exploiting College Graduates

Marche points to statistics that while the cost of a college education has greatly increased since 1980, the quality of that education has deteriorated. And increasingly, those college graduates are having to take unpaid internships rather than getting paying jobs out of school. Unpaid or minimal-pay internships are becoming the “new normal”, giving even major corporations the opportunity to exploit young workers desperate for even a path towards the possibility of scarce jobs that actually pay real salary…

The practice of not paying young people for their labor has become so ingrained in the everyday practice of American business that we’ve forgotten how bizarre and recent the development is. In the early 1980s, 3 percent of college grads had had an internship. By 2006, 84 percent had done at least one. Multiple internships are common. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 75 percent of employers prefer students who have interned or had a similar working experience.

Of course they do! You get to try someone out on the cheap! If they don’t work out, not much ventured. If they are competent at their work you get their labor for a period of time at little or no cost. One of our son Eric’s close friends with a business degree did an internship at a company for at least half a year before he was actually paid.

Graduate Degrees

Marche points out that for increasingly more professional jobs these days, graduate degrees are required, degrees that have generally become hugely expensive to obtain, saddling graduates with major debt for years, hopefully repayable by getting high paying jobs. I know someone who put himself and his family in considerable additional debt to get his MBA, hoping to leverage that degree to get a high-paying job to pay off his previous debt. Instead he spent the next 18 months not able to find any job at all! I also hear about other young adults in our extended family with graduate degrees doing unpaid internships. This includes people that do several years of graduate work to get degrees as social workers or therapists and then must do hundreds or even several thousand hours of traineeships and/or internships which are mostly unpaid before they have the opportunity to get their professional credentials and put out their shingle.

By the time you jump through all those hoops, there may be a glut of people with comparable credentials, so its a crap-shoot at best, often in the best circumstance saddling decades of debt…

Naturally, a glut of lawyers decreases their value. So kids pay more for a worse education that leads to lesser prospects in order for the schools to prosper temporarily. Even for doctors and lawyers, an accrual of property or any rise in net worth happens much later in life than it did twenty years ago. The standard debt-repayment plan for physicians is ten years, but twenty-five is a commonly accepted option. For the new professional class today, life begins at forty. That’s not just an expression.

Unionized Blue-Collar Jobs

Marche calls out the disparities in manufacturing jobs between recently hired versus long-time workers even in many union shops…

Manufacturing jobs, having been exported to the Third World, are now returning to America at Third World rates. Newer workers at unions across the country earn ten to fifteen dollars an hour less than established workers, and the unspoken but widely reported understanding with the AFL-CIO is that the wage of these workers will not increase. In other words, Boomer workers make almost double what their young counterparts do, and will continue to do so regardless of how long a young worker stays in the same job.

I’m no expert onf this, but this seems to be the brave new world of unionized trades and professions. Two-tier union contracts that maybe “grandfather” some benefits to existing workers but change the playing field for newer hires.

Troubling Implications

Marche notes that this exploitation of young people is a global phenomenon with its connections to recent unrest in the “Arab Spring” as well as the U.S. “Occupy” movement, plus protests and riots in various countries in Europe…

The UK has 21.8 percent youth unemployment, France 22.8 percent, Hungary 26.1 percent, Italy 28.2 percent, Spain 47.8 percent. Around the world, young people are beginning to be defined by their unemployment: the mileuristas of Spain, “those who earn less than a thousand euros”; the NEETs of England, “not in employment, education, or training”; the hittistes of Tunisia, “those who lean against the wall.” Revolutions or unmanageable riots have inevitably followed the rise of masses of bored, underemployed young people.

Many of us progressives are heartened by the “Arab Spring” and “Occupy” movement, naïve perhaps that the economic privilege being challenged (particularly by the latter) may soon extend to those of us like myself with good jobs squarely in the middle class. Could a large swath of young adults in my own kids’ generation never have the opportunity to join me in that middle class? Will those young adults quietly accept that fate? I wouldn’t, and I’m pretty uncomfortable feeling like I’m on the wrong (privileged) end of this divide!

As a Boomer and a person who is determined to be aware of my impact on the world and be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, I take no solace when Marche writes…

Boomers did not set out to screw over their kids. The wind just seemed to blow them that way.

Grimacing, I read the rest of the paragraph…

But no matter what their motivations, a painful truth grows truer with every passing year: Through its refusal to act, the generation in power is willing to do what other generations before them would not — sell their children’s birthright for a mess of their own pottage.

Though it might be tempting to dismiss Marche’s argument due to his angry and at times unfocused rhetoric, I think he has touched a very key sore spot in the rules of engagement between my generation and my kids’.

I think those of you reading this who are Baby Boomers yourself need to read Marche’s piece, and even if he has not presented it in the most thoughtful manner, consider it through the lens of say Stephan Stills, one of the great bards of 1960s folk-rock who wrote the lyric in his 1967 song “For What It’s Worth”…

There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

Forgiving me the naval warfare metaphor, but a shot across your bow, perhaps not so expertly fired, is still a shot across your bow.

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3 Responses to “Shot Across my Boomer Bow”

  1. LdeG Says:

    Before you have a conversation about his conclusions, check his facts. I got suspicious when I read this “In 1984, American breadwinners who were sixty-five and over made ten times as much as those under thirty-five. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost forty-seven times as much as the younger generation. Does he mean that those over 65 in 2009? Was there a single baby boomer over 65 in 2009? No. And what do “made ten times as much” and “made almost forty-seven times as much” mean? Not individual earnings.

    Another thing to consider when blaming boomers for the current state of affairs – the boomers were not in the majority in the House or Senate during when most of the financial and other deregulation that made today’s huge income inequality possible. (Of course we didn’t create Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, either.)

  2. Cooper Zale Says:

    LdeG… yours are good points. Those 65+ in 1984 were from the GI Generation, and in 2008 from the next Silent Generation, pre Boomers. And you may be right that these two generations may well have been the majority of Congress when deregulation was passed. Marche’s argument is not well crafted, though I think most of the issues he raises are important ones.

    I do think at this point in time Boomers do hold the political center of gravity in Congress, but are hopelessly split ideologically between progressives and conservatives. Seems to ring true with Strauss & Howe describing us a “prophet” generation about ideas and values rather than practical solutions. As someone more on the progressive side of the Boomer cohort, I am hoping that more pragmatic but still mostly progressive younger Gen-Xers and Millennials will tip the political balance towards pragmatic solutions leaning more to the progressive side of the spectrum.

    Your thoughts?

  3. Lisa deGruyter Says:

    Looking at this infographic
    http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/info-CONGRESS_AGES_1009.html

    I’m not sure the balance has shifted to boomers, although it was clearly there in 2009. Especially on the Republican side, the Gen-Xers gained a lot in 2010, and there are still a lot of Silents on both sides.

    On my more cynical days (which seem to outnumber the others) I think the generational thing is more ginned-up controversy to divide and conquer us. On the better days, I try to remember when we didn’t trust anyone over 30, and that what our parents said then was true – the younger generation always think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, so does the older one, and both blame the other.

    I read your next post and was pondering. Like you, I am attracted to grand schemes explaining everything in neat patterns, but I have come to take them with a grain of salt. People, politics, and the world in general are messy and complicated. Years ago, my husband and I showed up at a 60s party in jeans and embroidered peasant shirts, and were reminded by the plaid bermudas and Johnny Mathis albums of every single other person there that other people had lived through some completely different decade then.

    As someone who is prophetic but also practical, I think we accomplished a lot. My strategy was to “work within the system” and I think I made a difference – and intend to do more. Every morning I get up and think the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but looking back to the mid-70s when I was the age my daughter now is (she is the last of the Gen-Xers, her brother is the first of the Millenials), there have been major improvements. Our parents were handing us a world where the air was poisoned, the rivers were on fire, DDT was killing the birds and fish, some schools were still segregated, women were told flat-out they wouldn’t be hired just because they were women, more than a third of the people in the world were undernourished (it’s less than half of that now.) Come to think of it, my mother was that age in 1947, and her mother in 1924. I’m thinking they looked at the world and said “Isn’t this a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” Meanwhile, Americans and Canadians have not much to complain about, however awful we think things are. Not that we can just kick back – the price of freedom (and prosperity) is eternal vigilance and all that.

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