What the Hell Are We Going to Do About the Boomers?
My relatives are losing their minds. Literally. There’s a mother whose strokes in her hippocampus have left her with no short-term memory. Walk out of the room for five minutes, and upon return, she asks, “When did you get here?” The knobs have been removed from her stove so she doesn’t burn the house down, forgetting there’s soup on it. An aunt sleeps 18 hours a day, like a cat, and occasionally lapses into a waking dream state in which her long-dead mother is still alive. She still insists on driving her car to the grocery store. There’s a father who lives alone in a huge house, drinks half a liter of rum a day, and regularly calls in the early evening, emotional, drunk, lonely, and with nothing to talk about but stories of his past that we’ve all heard a hundred times before. There are older relatives needing constant care from daughters and sons or being tended to in homes that cost upwards of $20,000 a month. All of them refuse to give up their independence, insist on being attended to, and cling to their life’s wealth as if it’s the only thing saving them from drowning.
They go on living, on and on and on and on, as huge, necessary chunks of their lives — mobility, money, memory — flake and break away, leaving them demanding more and more from the remaining young.
Speaking of money, vast swarms of financial predators, large and small, circle them. They get daily calls from India about computer protection programs they never purchased. They’re bombarded with emails promising a return of what they lost or never had — better memory, more money, greater mobility, youthful skin, regular bowel movements, and a good night’s sleep. Hair. Sex. The scams get more inventive every week.
Last week, my father-in-law received a call from our “daughter.” The girl on the phone had all the names down — his, hers, ours — and said she had flown to some Midwestern city because her “aunt” had died, and now she needed money. Unbeknownst to the criminals, we had just left his house that morning. A friend’s older uncle received a call from a stranger claiming to know his “secret,” which would be revealed to the world unless a few thousand dollars’ worth of Walmart gift cards were purchased and left in some to-be-disclosed location.
“What secret?” he asked.
“You know,” the caller said.
“But I don’t!” he said, and they hung up.
I’ve deleted thousands and thousands of emails off an aunt’s computer, nearly all of them some sales scam or another. This is the same aunt who’s bought thousands of dollars’ worth of Iraqi dinars, anticipating millions more when the currency is devalued (or something).
They buy more garbage than China can produce. They fill their carts at the Dollar Store, shove all the crap into overloaded cupboards at home, and then go back for more. I wish I was either kidding or exaggerating here, but I’m not. If anything, this is a shadow of the truth.
The boomer generation’s youngest member is now 54, and as a group, they are 65 million strong, the largest generation in U.S. history. They are the children of the late 1940s, the ’50s, and the early ’60s, who came of age in an era of unprecedented prosperity and hard-earned luxury. No wars, no famines, no economic disasters occurred their entire lives. (The hardships they endured pale to what had come before.) The one great threat, the fall of capitalism to communism, never happened. (Like almost everything else in their lives, they exported the violent part of that conflict to Asia and South America and other places where the people weren’t white, even in their own country.)
They grew up with massive infrastructure projects — the U.S. interstate highway system, the power grid, and the water supply — which were all completed while they were still young. Their parents were forged in a time that saw two world wars, the Great Depression, and pandemic disease; a generation who vowed that their children, the boomers, would never suffer as they had. Hardened like steel by their experiences, the Greatest Generation succeeded. Universities were state-funded. The government was greatly expanded to include Medicaid and Social Security. Peace was built through diplomacy and U.S. dollars. The environment was protected. Parks were built and waterways cleaned.
So, what have the boomers done as they have aged?
Well, for one, they elected Donald Trump (and Ronald Reagan, and also Bill Clinton). Before that, they put their own in charge of every state government and federal agency they could and promptly began turning entire systems toward their personal needs. By the 1980s, they were the largest voting demographic in the United States, precisely when income inequality began to rise. By 2007, the 1% increased their wealth by 278%, while those in the middle, the working class, saw a mere 35% increase.
They took full advantage of state-funded universities, and then, when they no longer needed education, they shifted all the financial burden to students themselves, increasing college costs by more than 600% since 1980 and slashing public school budgets.
Not only haven’t they retired unless compelled (25% say they will never retire), but they have also hollowed out the core jobs and societal features that brought so many of them into the middle class and beyond. Universities are now taught by underpaid adjuncts with no benefits. Unions are all but gone. Wages have been stagnant since the boomers themselves maxed out salaries and moved into investments and capital 30 years ago: property, stocks, funds, and such. They hold the vast majority of the world’s wealth yet continue to argue for austerity, lower taxes, and fewer services. In England, the British baby boomers hold 80% of the U.K.’s wealth and bought 80% of all high-end cars, 80% of cruises, and 50% of skin care products. They also voted in Brexit.
Nothing has prepared us for the baby boomers’ return to infancy.
And they aren’t passing it on. One survey found that nearly a third of U.S. baby boomer millionaires would rather pass their inheritance to charities than to their own children or government institutions or into future savings. Fifty-seven percent said each generation should earn their own (damn) money (thank you very much). More than half thought it was more important to invest in children than adults, though heaven forbid that investment applies to schools.
They locked their own health care money into place — through state and company pensions and Medicare—and then slashed it for everyone else.
They did great things in their youth, it should be acknowledged. We cannot deny that. They brought the civil rights movement, cleaned up a lot of the environmental mess, maintained peace, defeated the Russians. But if they fought the sins and demons their parents never fully conquered — racism, sexism, disease, and poverty — they took for granted the foundations their parents laid to make their victories successful. And now they are abandoning and squandering them.
They are completing a kind of circle, one in which medical breakthroughs, and wealth, and leisure, and consumer goods, and the information age vastly improve lives at the start yet somehow make it tragically worse at the end. For children, 21st-century progress makes lives safer, with less threat of disease or hunger or violence, than ever in history. It opens their future to hope and possibility. For those at the end, it creates only the illusion of more youth. The 21st century makes a young life better, but it makes an old one worse.
Nothing has prepared us for the baby boomers’ return to infancy. We babysit and change diapers and monitor — feed and clean and nurture — infants and children because they are moving forward into life and hope. We care for the elderly because we owe them the dignity at the end.
But what if they don’t care for dignity?
There is, of course, an obligation to care for those who raised us, who had children themselves and helped them into the future. (Ignore for a moment that the generation to follow the boomers, Gen X, is one of the smallest in U.S. history and is only grudgingly allowed to keep a fraction of the reward they inherited from their parents.)
Children are a kind of tyrant, one we endure because they are also powerless and need us. But what if the tyrants also have all the power? What if these children insisted they needed no help, thank you very much, and how dare you take away their ice cream? What if these children had already tasted the pleasures of adulthood, and instead of needing to learn how to manage responsibility and power safely, were no longer capable of managing their power and responsibility at all?
The boomers are not leaving as adults, with dignity and wisdom and forbearance. They are not accepting the decrepitude of age with courage or honor. Their rage at the dying of the light is a childish, petulant howl. They are Benjamin Buttoning out this world. Clinging to their wealth and insisting on their independence as they grow ever more dependent on those around them, they keep building and buying and voting to meet their own selfish wants as the world withers around them.
We, as a nation, as a species, as families and individuals and communities, are frighteningly unprepared to handle the boomers as they age.
They were given enormous power—one might even say they were spoiled beyond measure—and then they took more power and more reward to feed their ravenous appetites, and now they cannot let it go.
We don’t have the foundational philosophy, social structure, or institutions to deal with this huge and unprecedented generation of the elderly. Thousands of years of cultural and social evolution created complex notions of wisdom and honor and respect for the elderly, not to mention time-honored transfers of responsibility and control. In return for their sacrifice to the generations they birthed, those generations honored a filial obligation to see them through to the painful and inevitable end. It is one thing that the boomers failed to make the personal sacrifices necessary for their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s future; it is quite another that even unto the very last day, they still demand that everyone meet their selfish demands.
A lot has been written about the damage the boomers have done over the decades (here is a great article), and a lot will continue to be written, but I fear we have yet to grasp the magnitude of the problems that lie ahead as this generation loses ever more of their senses.