We’re All Boomers Now
Will we never be free?
Generation Gap: Why the Baby Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture, by Kevin Munger, Columbia University Press, 216 pages.
“If you look back on the Sixties and think there was more good than bad, you’re probably a Democrat,” Bill Clinton remarked in 2004. “If you think there was more harm than good, you're probably a Republican.” For once, the former president was telling the truth, although probably not in the way he intended. The sociocultural divisions produced by America’s decade of discontent are embedded in our politics today, perpetuated by the political, cultural, and economic dominance of the generation that was formed by that era. It’s a generational dominance that was inaugurated, in many ways, by our first Baby Boomer president himself, William Jefferson Clinton, who was aptly dubbed by Pat Robertson “the poster child of the 1960s.”
Today, anti-boomer politics are a bipartisan affair. Tracts have come from writers on both sides of the ideological spectrum, often from the boomers’ main generational antagonists, the millennials. OK, Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind by the feminist writer Jill Filipovic was published in August 2020; six months later, The American Conservative’s Helen Andrews published Boomers: The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom And Delivered Disaster.
The most recent broadside comes from another millennial, Penn State political science professor Kevin Munger. Generation Gap: Why the Baby Boomers Still Dominate American Politics and Culture is less an anti-boomer screed than an analytical effort to map the battlefields of the nation’s generational warfare, cataloging what the author describes as “Boomer ballast.” Even as “it feels like the time has come for the twilight of the Boomers… Boomers still control both major political parties, the center of electoral power, all of the major institutions (except tech companies), the mass media, the majority of wealth, and huge amounts of real estate.” Munger predicts that boomer power will actually “increase over the next five years as more of them retire and spend more time and energy participating in electoral politics and consuming culture and media.” The earliest boomer power might peak is “sometime in the late 2020s.”
That prediction looks increasingly close to vindication: If Trump and Biden are their parties’ respective nominees, it would be the third consecutive presidential election cycle in which the combined age of the two major party candidates sets an all time record. In the 2020 presidential election, “the combined age of the two major party candidates—Donald Trump at seventy-four and Joe Biden at seventy-seven—was 151 years old,” surpassing the “previous record of 138 years old, which was set all the way back in 2016 by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton,” Munger writes. “These are not anomalies; they are trends.” Biden is technically a member of the Silent Generation, having been born in 1942—ironically, his victory is the only thing that interrupted 32 consecutive years of boomer presidencies.
In Congress, too, the “oldest House of Representatives in history was inaugurated” in 2017, and “the oldest Senate in history is currently in office, surpassing the record set by the previous Senate in office between 2018 and 2020.” In 2023, just after the book was published, the Senate got even older still, although the House got slightly younger. As 2024 looms on the horizon and boomer ballast shows no sign of receding, Munger’s sociological study of the politics of age bears a closer look.
The emergence of what Munger describes as “cohort consciousness”—i.e., attachment to one’s generation as an organizing sociocultural group identity—comes, at least partially, as a result of substantive differences in the preferences, priorities, and interests of the boomers, millennials, and Generation Z. Some of that is simply what Munger describes as “life-cycle concerns.” For example, by virtue of their age, boomers are going to be more preoccupied than millennials with issues such as Social Security. But the nation’s warring generations perceive themselves as having radically different values and worldviews, too, and age divisions therefore serve as a proxy for deeper tensions. That may explain why Americans are clinging more tightly to their generational identity than they did in the past. Today, Munger writes, “every generation reports higher levels of generational identification,” with “the largest growth among younger generations.”
The particular growth in the generational identification of younger Americans is likely rooted in their alienation from the nation’s dominant institutional culture. “Media consumption skyrockets when people enter their sixties,” Munger explains, so boomer “preferences shape the type of cultural products on offer for everyone else.” TV news networks on both ends of the political spectrum rely on boomers as their core viewer demographic. Advertisers cater to the same cohort.
Boomers tend to be wealthier than their younger counterparts and thus more likely to donate to political campaigns, and older voters consistently turn out at much higher rates. Even as younger millennial and Gen Z blocs grow as a proportion of the population, boomers continue (and will continue for at least another decade, Munger predicts) to dominate America’s ruling institutions. “There is no escape valve for young political ambitions,” Munger writes. “They are stuck between the rock of our electoral institutions and the hard place of Boomer ballast.”
The result is protracted intergenerational conflict. Munger cites flashpoints like the conflict between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the millennial politico par excellence, and Nancy Pelosi, who resented Ocasio-Cortez’s lack of deference to House Democratic leadership—a “dispute over political tactics” that “reflects the growing social divide between Baby Boomers in positions of power and the rising tide of Millennial politicians who disagree about both political ends and means,” Munger writes. “The Squad,” which is more or less the House Freedom Caucus of the left, had an average age of 38.3 as of 2019, decades younger than the House average, and it has consistently served as a thorn in the side of the Democratic Party’s older, more patrician establishment.
These generational tensions are not confined to the Left. Listening to the tone that pervades youth conservative conferences and the rhetoric of young right-wing leaders, one encounters a much more gloomy and embittered disposition than that of the sunny, forward-looking Reaganite ethos. Charlie Kirk, the 29-year-old founder of the conservative youth group Turning Point USA, came on the scene in 2012 speaking the Reaganite language of “socialism sucks” and “free markets, free people.” Today, he rages on Twitter against “lower tax rates for gay corporations that hate America” and posits that “the modern cultural warfare the left is engaged in right now has done more damage to America in 4 years than the conservative boogeyman of ‘socialism’ has ever done in the lifetime of our nation.”
On all sides, battle lines are drawn between an increasingly bewildered boomer overclass and impatient younger cadres. None of this is entirely novel. In the Sixties, antiwar protests and campus uprisings led by groups like Students for a Democratic Society were a defining feature of the left. On the right, too, the conservative youth led by activists like William F. Buckley Jr. was enamored of its own kind of radicalism, immortalized by the Young Americans for Freedom’s founding “Sharon Statement” in 1960. In 1961, Tom Hayden, the author of the New Left’s famous Port Huron Statement, observed: “The new conservatives are not disinterested kids who maintain the status quo by political immobility, nor are they politically concerned but completely inactive sideliners.” What was “new about the new conservatives,” Hayden wrote, was “their militant mood, their appearance on picket lines.”
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There is an irony to the fact that today’s anti-boomer youth feel they are rebelling against the boomer paradigm. In many ways, they are following its blueprint. Munger himself notes that “the polarization between the antiwar left and the prowar right” was institutionalized through decades of boomer sociocultural dominance. “The centrality of the college campus to today’s culture wars,” too, “has a clear historical legacy from its role during the Vietnam War.” When Clinton said that the divisions birthed by the Sixties are still those that characterize our politics today, it was this phenomenon that he was gesturing towards.
Where Munger errs is his dismissive attitude towards those culture wars, which he argues have little relation “to the core functioning of the Boomers’ postwar society.” Citing E.J. Dionne, Munger suggests that America has “veered away from serious policy questions toward the symbolic ‘culture war’ conflicts that energize partisans today.” But the reason for the rising salience of those issues is the breakdown of the very social consensus that allowed American political culture to concern itself with other issues in the past—a breakdown that was catalyzed by the children of the Sixties.
The convulsions of the Sixties brought with them a fundamental instability characterized by a sort of rolling revolution in which old worlds are perpetually dying and new ones are perpetually struggling to be born. Its legacy has been a half century of turmoil, which has moved beyond its original generational vessel in the Boomers. Munger believes that, as younger Americans wield more power in the nation’s institutions, “American politics will move beyond” the debates of the boomer era. But these debates reflect deeper fault lines that are in the national bloodstream now, and no generational changing of the guard will rid us of their unhappy effects. For all their resentments towards their older counterparts, young Americans live in the world the Boomers wrought. And it’s here to stay. We’re all Boomers now.