Did Boomers Ruin America?
A Millennial defense of Baby Boomers (well, kind of)
This week, I’m on Ezra Klein’s excellent podcast, in conversation with conservative writer Helen Andrews about how Baby Boomers ruined America. Both Helen and I have written books on the matter, mine from a left-wing perspective and hers from a right-wing one. I think conservative Boomers ruined America, she thinks liberal ones did. Reading Helen’s book (or most of it, at least) and speaking with her over the course of recording the podcast was enlightening. She and I agree on virtually nothing. We don’t share the same goals, nor, predictably, align on just about any policy proposals. We don’t see the world the same way, don’t agree on what’s good or bad, don’t even agree on what factually happened, or who has real power, or what actions and which people caused which effects. We can agree that Boomers left behind a real mess, but we don’t agree on what that mess is.
What I found most useful about the conversation with Helen, though, is that it sharpened for me just how stark the differences are between the ideal world of the religious right and that of the feminist left. Each of our assumptions about and reflections on Boomer culture and influence tell you a lot about what we assume about the past and what we hope for the future.
That isn’t exactly news, but I suppose I assumed that on a lot of these questions we were in fact seeing a generational shift. Yes, abortion remains politically contentious and lots of young white men feel very strongly about being able to purchase any war-caliber weapon of their choosing, but young conservatives have often seemed to me more interested in latching onto amorphous culture-war issues that can’t really be dealt with via policy-making — things like “cancel culture,” whatever that means this week. But when it comes to issues like women working outside of the home or same-sex marriage or even healthcare, my sense has been that young conservatives care a lot less than their fathers and grandfathers. They aren’t particularly interested in helping women stay in the workforce, and if asked they might say they think mothers should stay home with young children — but they also might not, especially if the best-looking female members of the College Republican club is standing nearby. They certainly oppose the Affordable Care Act and Medicare for All, but they might be willing to concede that lack of affordable healthcare is actually a problem. And while they continue to be hyper-focused on the T in LGBT, many of them are fine letting the LGB members of the acronym live their lives in relative peace.
That isn’t to say that young conservatives are socially liberal, or not massive impediments fairness and equality. It is to say that I didn’t think Phyllis Schlafly was still around.
Then I talked with Helen.
Helen and I are around the same age, and I was struck by how Schlafley-esque she was both in conversation and in her book. And even though I find just about everything she writes to be wrong and frankly sometimes odious, I don’t compare her to Schlafly as an insult: Helen, like Schlafly, is incredibly intelligent; she’s well-read and sharp; she’s far more articulate than I am; and she’s fearless — I have to imagine her opinions don’t always make her particularly beloved among her peers at places like Yale. I wasn’t expecting to go on Ezra’s podcast for a debate, but it was impossible for both Helen and I to not volley arguments back and forth. I think a lot of her ideas are completely nuts, but I enjoyed talking with her — honestly, how often do we get to seriously converse in long format with people who hold our polar-opposite political views, who we also take intellectually seriously and believe are arguing in good faith?
From what I gather reading Helen’s book and talking to her, her biggest objection to the Baby Boomer legacy is the New Left and the shift to focus on what she calls “identity”: an emphasis on gender and race in politics (for example, the civil rights and feminist movements), plus the dumbing-down of education that she argues came along with expanding educational opportunities to more people. America, it seems, was a much better place, full of churches and decency, before Boomers came along and ruined it with anti-war protests and women’s rights and Black power and addiction to television and public vulgarity.
To me, this is the exact opposite of the problem. There is first the fact that Boomers, while foot soldiers in many of the movements for gender and racial equality, were neither their founders nor their leaders in the 50s, 60s or 70s — and so giving Boomers all of either the blame or the credit for feminism and civil rights is probably misplaced. And there is second the fact that the overwhelming majority of Boomers were not active participants in these movements. Did they support them from afar? The liberal ones did; the conservative ones vehemently opposed them, no matter how badly Fox News anchors now want to lay claim to Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy. To the extent that a small minority of Boomers did help to keep these movements chugging along, they never completed the task — not through any fault of their own, I’d argue, but because they were facing down a conservative backlash that stymied their efforts, and was partly brought about by other Baby Boomers.
Helen and I can both point to the same outcomes as evidence to bolster very different arguments. She sees high rates of women in the workforce and the related higher age of first marriage and childbearing (and higher rate of childlessness and births outside of marriage), along with the inability of a single blue-collar wage-earner to support a family, as convincing evidence of the damage feminism has wrought. I see much of this as the normal course of history — until the Baby Boomers were born, women had been steadily marrying later and having fewer children for more than a century — and the bottoming-out of blue-collar wages less the fault of female workers sucking up men’s money and more the fault of conservative political policy: The refusal to raise the minimum wage, the decrease in top-level taxes, the opening-up of corporate tax havens, America’s unique and astronomically expensive employer-based healthcare model, etc etc. The problem as I see it isn’t more women in the workplace; it’s that women entered workplaces that had been created by and for men, according to the rhythms of men’s lives (and men who had wives at home); then it was women, not the workplaces, that were told to adjust.
So there’s one comparative point: Was America better before the feminist and civil rights movements, and is the ideal now to bring us back to then? Or are the feminist and civil rights movements important but incomplete? I think Helen would say that the country was better off when more women stayed home full-time and men were largely the primary breadwinners; I think she’d also say that most Americans agree that was a better model. I’d say that there’s a reason the single-earner model changed, and it happened in part because it was stultifying, inadequate, and even dangerous for a whole lot of women. There are indeed also a whole lot of women (and men) who are miserable with the current model, too — and I think that needs to change, so that it’s normal and supported to have both paid work and a life outside of work, and that both paid work and caregiving aren’t gender-segregated activities. Our options are not limited to “go back” or “stay here.” I think now is better than then, but I don’t think now is so great that we need to keep it, or that we can’t imagine something better.
I find these conversations especially fascinating when they’re with conservative women who graduated from elite institutions, who have good jobs in media, and who themselves have pursued the higher education and paid work they insist women don’t really want, because I just want to scream, How do you think you got here? Helen hints at the answer to that in her book when she writes:
“Any suggestion that the Western world might not be altogether better off for [boomers’] influence is immediately met with an indignant litany of all the segments of humanity who previously labored in a sad state of abject non-personhood before the boomers came along and broke their chains. So deeply ingrained is this sentiment that even the boomers’ harshest critics always hasten to add their reassurances that they would not want to undo the least particle of the legacy of the 1960s, only temper its excesses.
I am sympathetic to this line of argument — to a point. As a woman, if I had been born in another century, my schooling might well have stopped at age twelve. On the other hand, in this age I attended some of the best schools in the world until I was twenty-one and still didn’t receive an education that those benighted eras would have considered standard. Is this necessarily an improvement?”
To which I can say, after I plug my lower jaw back into my face: Hell yes this is an improvement.
For the record, I am unconvinced that the quality of schooling has gone down significantly, and I am certainly, wholly unconvinced that it has gone down so dramatically that it’s seriously a question of whether it’s better to get a Yale degree today or to be a 12-year-old drop-out a century ago. But even if I were to concede that the quality of higher education has declined, there’s a significant value difference at play here: Do you prefer that a small number of people have access to an extremely high-quality education based partly on skill but also partly on whether they qualify on the basis of race, gender, nationality, and religion, or do you prefer that a much larger number of people have access to a medium-quality education with fewer barriers based on identity?
I know what I would pick.
Helen is right that Boomers flooded into institutions of higher education in record numbers, and then encouraged their children to do the same (and we listened — Millennials are the most educated adults in America). To her, this is a bad thing: It’s now very difficult to make a middle-class life without a college degree. I agree with her on the difficulty, but disagree on the cause — it’s less that too many people are going to college, and more than working-class jobs have stopped paying fair wages, which has happened for a complex set of reasons, many of which are policy choices that we can change if we want to (spoiler: Republicans don’t want to).
I suppose this is what it comes down to: Do your politics draw you in forward motion? Or do you want to pull back back and retreat to what was?
Do you even fully understand what was?
I am not a historian, and I will happy admit that my grasp on life pre-Baby-Boom is tenuous and simplistic. I suppose, like many people, I don’t see the full picture, and instead imagine who I would have been and what opportunities I would have had — and it doesn’t look great. Most of what I love about my life — my husband, who I met in my 30s; my freedom; my job; my friends; living in a great city I chose; the travel and adventure and decades of fun I’ve been able to enjoy — doesn’t exist in this alternate version of me born a century early. Perhaps Helen does the same imaginative work but comes to a different conclusion — that she would have been one of the very rare few women who wound up in her same position, or perhaps that she would have been happier without a college education, married in her late teens or early twenties, and at home full-time with children. But I also suspect that while it’s possible I see a past I didn’t experience through a lens that is distorted and clouded over, she sees it through one that is artificially rosy.
So what of Baby Boomers? When we look at their legacy, what do we filter out, and what do we pull into the frame? I see a conservative half of the generation that won over American politics, and has dominated them for decades — even when Democrats are in charge. And I see a liberal segment, propelled by the tiny minority of Boomers who were activists for social change (and led by their elders), who won a handful of important legal victories (many of which have since been walked back); who didn’t do enough to stymy damage from the right; who were often self-involved and highly individualistic and disconnected from what was happening outside of their own family units; but who did permanently change, for the better, some aspects of American culture.
Mostly, I see a generation that did tremendous damage. But I also see a sliver of Boomers who were small in number but large in impact, who began dismantling institutions that were not serving a changing population, but never quite figured out how (or had the power) to put something new back together.
I suppose it’s now our job to build up over what they knocked down. And the question is whether we want to rebuild the pre-Boomer world that Millennials can only imagine, or whether we want to dream up something new.
Wyeth, N. C. (Newell Convers), 1882-1945, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons