Generational warfare is nothing new. When today’s boomers were college-aged hippies, they were warning each other not to trust anyone over 30. Soon enough, millennials will be shaking our fists at the youngsters, demanding they get off our environmentally friendly, succulent-speckled rock lawns.
What’s different now, though, is that there is a moneyed system interested in sowing generational discord and stoking fear. Call it the Boomer Anxiety Industrial Complex. It’s a largely right-wing machine targeted at older Americans, encouraging a nearly manic obsession with the alleged wrongdoings of younger, more liberal people. Shocking stories about college students encroaching on free speech are a staple. So are more pedestrian narratives about college students being too sensitive, too emotional, or too “politically correct.” This didn’t start with millennials; the seeds of the anti-PC/“college students versus free speech” propaganda were planted in the ’90s, part of a backlash against Bill Clinton, the first boomer president.
Today, Fox News is the primary anti-millennial television outlet, but there’s also generationally tailored content on websites like Breitbart and Townhall, and hackneyed memes that circulate among the over-50 set on Facebook and Twitter. Boomers are more likely to watch Fox News than almost any other network, and close to half of them told Pew that in the previous week, they’d gotten political news from Fox.
That’s bad news. As part of this right-wing political project, the higher-ups at Fox have also learned that nothing fires up their boomer audience like fear: fear of immigrants, fear of Islamic extremism, fear of a changing world, and even fear of mainstream media sources. As one character in the movie Bombshell put it, “You have to adopt the mentality of an Irish street cop. The world is a bad place. People are lazy morons. Minorities are criminals. Sex is sick but interesting. Ask yourself, ‘What would scare my grandmother or piss off my grandfather?’ And that’s a Fox story.”
It enables boomers to avoid taking responsibility for the world they’re leaving their children.
This is odd because boomers also lay claim to everything from the civil rights movement to second-wave feminism to antiwar activism to some of the best music America has ever produced. And it’s not just aging lefties who say boomers were the OG activists, protesters, and social justice warriors; even the conservatives of Fox claim to be anti-racist and celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. (whose legacy they have distorted beyond recognition, casting the civil rights icon as apolitical and President Donald Trump as his ideological heir). Boomers on the left and the right cast their early adult years as a period of idealism and progress. They think of themselves as having improved the world.
A few boomers certainly did, but overall, the boomer generation brought us a rapid national shift away from the ideals of gender equality, racial justice, and pacifism. Perhaps this generation-wide self-delusion helps explain why boomers have such a casual relationship with the truth. In a study of “prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook,” researchers from New York University and Princeton found that Americans over 65 share false or misleading content at seven times the rate of younger ones, regardless of ideology.
Boomers, in other words, take credit for 20th-century social progress while binge-watching Fox News and disseminating conspiracy theories on Facebook (where algorithms feed them more and more of the same). According to a Nielsen publication aimed at media advertisers, “The aging brain likes repetitions — and will believe information that is familiar to be true.” This is Fox’s persuasion strategy: Repeated themes that, because of said repetition, begin to feel spot on.
Here’s a smattering of what Fox News viewers and readers of FoxNews.com have heard from anchors, contributors, and guests: “Millennials are abandoning religion for good”; “Millennials clean their bathrooms less frequently than other age groups”; “Most Americans think millennials are selfish and entitled”; “Most millennials are intimidated by plants”; “The millennial generation is going to be the first generation that doesn’t do anything”; “Millennials are lazy, they have a lack of drive”; Millennials are “easily offended cocoon-dwellers”; “Millennials, yes, they are officially the most narcissistic generation”; “Are millennials to blame for all of the world’s problems?” “Are millennials going godless?”; “Halloween is ruined, and it’s all thanks to millennials”; “In 2017, the average terrorist is a millennial”; Millennials are “psychotic”; And “they’re the most pampered, ignorant — biggest crybabies I’ve ever seen.”
The message: Millennials are a threat to the American way of life.
The target: boomers. Keeping them aggrieved, annoyed, and afraid is good for business.
The result: a ginned-up generation war.
This doesn’t just help keep conservatives in power; it enables boomers to avoid taking responsibility for the world they’re leaving their children. A true reckoning with the consequences of boomer policies and decisions casts a harsh light on the children of the Greatest Generation. It reveals how few of the boomers’ own ideals they managed to live up to. And, hopefully, it will inspire the many well-meaning boomers to do something before it’s too late.