I’ve changed my mind (a little) about how we discuss generations.
First, let me illustrate my longstanding gripe.
“I am probably the biggest fan of the millennials you’ll ever meet,” retired Navy Adm. William McRaven, who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said in a recent CBS interview. Critics “talk about millennials being soft and pampered and entitled? Well, I’m quick to say that you’ve never seen them in a firefight in Afghanistan. … This is a fabulous generation, and anybody that worries about the future of the United States, I don’t think you need to worry.”
I can’t stand that kind of talk.
Imagine that I said, “I am probably the biggest critic of millennials you’ll ever meet. Fans talk about millennials being brave and courageous. Well, I’m quick to say that you’ve never seen them mooching beer money in a 7-Eleven parking lot.”
This might instantly strike you as unfair — and it is! That’s the point.
There are about 83 million millennials, defined as Americans born between 1981 and 1996. It’s difficult to generalize about a group of people this large. Within the ranks of millennials there are pro-life Mormons and pro-choice atheists. There are immigrants and descendants of the Mayflower settlers. Some obsess over the best way to make avocado toast, and some obsess over the best way to clean an M1 rifle.
I would leap at the opportunity to buy beer for the millennials who raided bin Laden’s compound. But some random guy who was playing video games when bin Laden was taken out? He can buy his own beer.
In other words, characteristics can be generalized, but character is formed by individual deeds. There is no transitive property to glory or blame. A hero in one generation isn’t less heroic because of the misdeeds of someone else his age. Generational pride is the cheapest form of identity politics.
On the other hand, it’s true that you can make some useful generalizations about various generations. There are roughly as many millennials in America as there are Germans in Germany. And while painting “the Germans” with too broad a brush can have its pitfalls, there are still some things you can say about Germans that you can’t say about Swedes or Costa Ricans. So it is with any generation.
Joseph Sternberg, an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, has a new book, “The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future.” He casts a thoughtful, nuanced and important light on the plight of millennials. Crucially, Sternberg does it from a center-right, pro-market perspective rather than from the more familiar center-left view that often gets mired in larger identity-politics formulations.
Millennials entered the workforce in large numbers around the time of the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the deep recession that followed it. That, along with policies in areas such as housing and education pushed by allegedly self-interested baby boomers, had dire consequences for a large swath of young people. Entering the labor market during a severe downturn puts a drag on lifetime earnings. Saddling yourself with college loan debt can, too.
Sternberg’s argument that millennials — whether they fought in Afghanistan or not — have legitimate complaints about how the system is failing them strikes me as a valuable and worthwhile form of generational stereotyping. It’s rooted in empirical facts and figures.
But Sternberg’s attempt to blame the boomers for the millennials’ travails strikes me as the wrong kind of generational stereotyping. And I say that as a Gen Xer for whom bashing baby boomers is a birthright.
I have no doubt that some of the policy missteps Sternberg lays at the feet of the boomers can be attributed to certain generational attitudes. (They were the damn hippies, after all.) But many of those attitudes were inherited from the “Greatest Generation” or earlier.
More to the point, the policies the boomers implemented were hotly debated among boomers themselves, and virtually none of them expressly argued from a desire to self-deal for their own generation at the expense of others. Just as there are millennial socialists and millennial anarcho-capitalists, there are boomers in those categories as well. If we’re going to assign blame — and why not? — it’s more helpful to put it on those who were wrong rather than indicting an entire generation of some 75 million people.
If it’s wrong to demonize millennials, it’s probably wrong to demonize the boomers, too.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.