Baby boomers, the generation born roughly between 1946 and 1964, are sometimes stereotyped in trendy hipster political discourse as having backward and socially unenlightened politics, as well as assumed to be generally condescending and bitter toward younger generations.
This type of discourse usually carries with it the implication that “boomers” are a classless, homogeneous category of people that have led relatively privileged lives with easier access to stable employment, housing and so on. This, however, is a gross distortion and does not represent reality for the so-called baby boomer generation as a whole.
The generation referred to as baby boomers grew up in a long period of U.S. capitalist economic prosperity. Following the Great Depression, World War II physically decimated the rival European and Japanese centers of industrial production, leaving U.S. imperialism alone to preside over and profit from a prolonged period of global capitalist reconstruction and expansion. This favored position of the U.S. economy led to extraordinary profits and increased living standards for millions of working-class people, although the extremes of wealth and income inequality continued and vast parts of the population languished in poverty or near poverty.
Booms and busts continued
The boom-and-bust nature of the capitalist system also had not been eliminated. The “golden age” of relative capitalist profitability in the 1950s and 1960s eventually gave way to a series of sharp economic recessions in 1969-70, 1974-75 and 1980-81. Despite fluctuations, factory and manufacturing employment went on a 40-year (and counting) decline. As post-WWII conditions of capitalist expansion were replaced with new conditions that challenged profitability, the capitalist ruling elite swung into action, launching an offensive to take back as many concessions won by the working class over the decades as possible.
This ruling- class political offensive — sometimes referred to as “neoliberalism” — insisted on weakening or smashing any barrier standing in the way of capital accumulation, including social insurance, trade unions, rent control, minimum wage laws, and so on. They wanted a return to the capitalist norms of unhindered concentration of power and wealth at the top of society. This era of pain and suffering was inflicted upon the boomers, and now shapes the world millennials’ experience.
The economic crisis of 2007-09 has had a further devastating impact on boomers as they age. The majority of baby boomers are still in the workforce, unable to retire. As much as 29 percent of baby boomers between the ages of 65-72 are still working or looking for work, the highest rate of any generation since the Great Depression.
With the privatization of the pension system and continual cuts to Social Security benefits, many elders who have already retired cannot afford to sustain their retirement. Many are being funneled into the same low-wage service work that is becoming the norm for millennials. Given the trajectory of current capitalist economic trends, many elders, including baby boomers, will have to work until late in life, if not until death.
The same privatized health care system that routinely denies millennials and younger generations much-needed care is also putting an unbearable burden on boomers, who need more care as they age. Although they are generally living longer, boomers are experiencing higher rates of health issues such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension, all of which require extensive medical care that is often unaffordable under the current system. According to the University of Southern California, only 50 percent of baby boomers will be able to afford their medical costs.
Elders and youth in the same sinking boat
In summary, capitalism is hurting elders the same way it is hurting youth.
A generation-versus-generation approach to politics obscures class-based interests and should be rejected. The problems millennials face are not the fault of the boomers but of the same capitalist system that has been viciously attacking the boomers for decades.
As older millionaires, billionaires and corporate oligarchs die off, there will be younger capitalists to replace them who will oppress the next generation of workers just as cruelly. The interests of the working class of any generation will always stand in irreconcilable conflict with the interests of the capitalist ruling class that hoards all the wealth.
A generation-versus-generation approach also obscures the real history of militant struggle that working-class and poor boomers waged against the injustices of the capitalist system. From the Civil Rights Movement to organizing against racism and imperialist wars, to fighting the cops and the Klan, leading the charge for women’s and LGBTQ rights, laying the foundations for the anti-nuclear and environmental struggles of today, and so forth, boomers were there fighting in the streets down through the decades, and many still are fighting!
Millennials have nothing to gain from the antagonism towards older generations, nor vice versa. Neither millennials nor boomers are “responsible for destroying the economy.” Capitalism is what destroys economies, here and abroad.
Older and younger working-class and poor people have been and will continue to fight together against the capitalist system!