For as long as there have been people, old people have said, “Kids today. . .” and young people have said, “Old people just don’t get it. . .” There have been jokes and stories and songs written about the phenomenon. Most of them treat it humorously, which seems about right. There have recently been some who take the generational differences more seriously, sociologists and marketing folks, for example. And now, probably thanks to the marketing folks, the different generations seem to take it more seriously themselves, especially the Baby Boomers and the Millennials.
In the press and on social media, you see it constantly. Boomers accuse Millennials of being lazy; Millennials accuse Boomers of selfishly destroying the world. They seem serious about it. It’s not just general complaining. Each group is trying to pin blame on the other group, as if having someone to blame would fix anything.
It’s easier to dismiss the Boomers’ complaints. Every new generation in history has been considered lazy by their elders. It’s never because of actual laziness. It’s because each new generation learns to adapt to a changing world. They do things differently than their parents did. People seem to have a natural affinity for hazing. Any hardship that I went through built my character, so others should go through it, too. Boomers are jealous of the fact that Millennials face different hardships than they did.
The Millennials’ complaints seem more difficult to dismiss, but they’re not really. One common complaint is that Millennials are the first generation to be worse off than their parents. That’s simply absurd. We’ll ignore the fact that we can make pretty good arguments for Gen Xers being worse off than their parents and maybe even Boomers being worse off than their parents (Remember, we’re talking about a generation who came of age during Vietnam and has since suffered through Watergate, the two-income trap, stagflation, trickle-down economics, and the aftermath of 9/11). Generations being worse off than their parents is just something that happens periodically throughout history. It happened in many cultures with colonialism and slavery. It happened with the fall of Rome. And I’m sure it happened many times before that. There’s nothing special about Millennials in that regard.
The more serious complaint was mentioned earlier, that Boomers are selfishly destroying the world. The selfish part of that can be dismissed easily. Boomers are no more or less selfish than any other generation. They have consistently done what they thought was best for themselves and their friends and families. They fought for civil rights, women’s rights, and peace. They weren’t always successful, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
As for the accusation that Boomers are destroying the world, it’s a bit of irony that the generation that invented environmentalism has been given that legacy. Boomers legitimately got us the EPA, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Air and water quality are better than they were 40-45 years ago.
I know, though, that what Millennials are actually talking about is climate change. Climate change is real, and horrifying. There’s no denying that. But blaming Boomers for it is a bit much. It didn’t start with the Boomers, it goes back at least as far as the industrial revolution. When the Boomers reached adulthood, the prevailing wisdom was that we were going to run out of fossil fuels rather than cook the planet with them. In the 1980s, when I first heard about climate change, it was Boomers sounding the alarm.
As for not doing enough to mitigate climate change, the Boomers are guilty, but no more guilty than Gen Xers and Millennials. We would still be part of the Paris Accords if Millennials had only shown up to vote in 2016. The fact is, climate change is a very difficult problem which is unlikely to be solved with personal choices. It doesn’t matter what generation you’re a part of, we have all failed to act properly. Singling out the Boomers is just passing the buck.
I see two basic reasons for the feud between Boomers and Millennials. One is a very old problem, that is somehow both important and trivial. That is a basic lack of empathy. It’s trivial because it is so common it’s barely worth mentioning. But it’s important because the lack of empathy makes us all think we would have done something differently given the opportunity. Boomers assume that if they had smartphones and tablets when they were kids, they would have still gone outside to play with their friends in person. Millennials assume that they would have been fighting for trans-equality in 1965. Neither of those assumptions are true or very realistic. If Millennials had been born in 1950 instead of 1990, they would be just like Boomers. And if Boomers were born in 1990 instead if 1950, they would be the “lazy” and “antisocial” ones.
The other reason is more difficult. Our view of history has changed. We used to believe in progressive history. Some, like Hegel and Marx, believed it literally. They thought that history had a purpose it was building towards. For others, it was more figurative. When Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he was expressing this figurative view. The basic idea is that we get better, we learn from our mistakes, and things improve as we move forward. This view gave us a kind of optimism. Major changes were seen as good. Iron improved upon bronze, the printing press improved upon scribes, coal fired power improved upon wood, internal combustion engines improved upon steam engines.
That view has given way to a kind of pessimism about the past. Everywhere we look we see slavery, genocide, and ecological destruction. And, this is the key, we blame the people of the past for those things. We are coming to a view of history as an ongoing moral catastrophe. We only see what we did wrong in the past. With our lack of empathy, we fail to understand why things happened the way they did.
I don’t have the time for a full philosophy of history, but I believe these are the reasons that Boomers and Millennials are fighting today. The Boomers think the Millennials are squandering the improvements they were given, while the Millennials think the Boomers caused more damage than anything else. Neither view is fair.
People are people are people. We need to remember that. Boomers are no better than Millennials and Millennials are no better than Boomers. We are all reacting to our given circumstances. Instead of focusing all our energy into blaming others, we should be working together to fix our common problems. Blame doesn’t fix anything. It’s time we recognize that.