Thursday, March 29, 2012

Generation FAIL: Baby Boomers Suffering In The Great Recession

I'm actually not one who puts very much stock into generational stereotypes. It seems to me that arbitrarily grouping a set of people born over a two decade period who come from the full spectrum of backgrounds and experiences to make generalized statements about their attitudes and behaviors is not terribly valuable. When considering the Baby Boomers, for example, the formative experiences of someone born right after World War Two who spent their college age years either fighting in Vietnam, protesting it or getting deferments going to business school, and someone born the year after Kennedy was shot who didn't come of age until Reagan's first term were about as different as digging the Beatles versus Duran Duran. Not to mention that a suburban kid raised in a big house on a leafy cul-de-sac was always going to have very little in common with a black or Hispanic kid raised in an inner city high rise housing project, even if they happened to be born in the exact same year.

I wrote the disclaimer above because the article I'm excerpting below from the Toledo Blade leans heavily on such generational stereotypes. Despite that flaw, it is still quite enlightening:
For most of their lives, baby boomers knew an America ascendant, a nation that incited their occasional fury but rarely let them down.

Fueled by new ideals and rock and roll, they created a counterculture, protested the Vietnam War, and marched for civil rights.

Through it all, the boomers radiated optimism, and why not? After swelling the college ranks, they moved up with each new degree and contact, becoming the yuppies who laid the foundation of the business world.

Then came the Great Recession, a calamity emerging as another defining moment for a fabled generation.

The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression hurt young and old, but it saved its harshest slights for the children of the baby boom, the demographic bulge of Americans born from 1946 to 1964.

Seemingly overnight, members of a generation once called forever young have been made to feel overpaid, overexperienced, and overaged. Baby boomers suffered layoffs and setbacks at record rates in recent years.

Many will never fully recover, having lost too much too late in life.

That collective sigh gathering in Ohio and other graying states comes from a vaunted generation suddenly fearful and bewildered.

Unemployment spiked for all age groups in the recession, and it remains highest for young workers. But displaced baby boomers face their own special purgatory. Once they are unemployed, older workers are out of work longer. And the older they are, the harder it is to get back to hard-earned careers.

Many a Woodstock alumnus has slipped into the era's most dreaded classification: long-term unemployed.

A recent national survey found that job seekers 55 and older had been out of work a numbing 56 weeks, which is 20 weeks longer than the average furlough for younger job seekers. More than half of older job-seekers were considered long-term unemployed, having been out of work six months or more.

Throw in plummeting home values, diminished 401(k) plans, and threats to Medicare and Social Security, and it's no wonder many baby boomers now look warily toward retirement and question what happened to their world.

"We find ourselves at the vortex of a perfect storm," said Frederick Lynch, a sociologist who forecasts a contentious future for boomers in his book One Nation under AARP: The Fight Over Medicare, Social Security and America's Future.

Anticipating steady labor and a comfortable retirement, Mr. Lynch said, his generation met globalization, outsourcing, game-changing technology, and a preference for younger workers.

As they face layoffs and rejection, some older workers blame age discrimination. Others cite simple economics. Experienced workers tend to make higher salaries and put stress on the company health-care plan, making them fatter targets for downsizing employers.

Older workers are also, according to the stereotype, slower to embrace new technology and new ways of doing things. That can make landing a job far tougher for an unemployed 50-year-old, especially with younger generations swelling the crowd.

Dallas Davis, an unemployed sheet-metal worker in Cincinnati, took computer classes while looking for work and touted his new skills at job interviews. "But the job market is so different now," Mr. Davis, 53, said. "Instead of being one of five people, you're one of 100, or one of thousands going for the job."

For many of the nation's 78 million boomers, retirement planning has been replaced by crisis planning. Those without jobs are scrambling to find one. Those with jobs are hanging on tight.

"I think we're going through this huge fundamental change," Mr. Lynch said. "We thought we would have our parents' lives. Then came this earthquake that many people still don't see."
The article continues on with a number of interviews with different hard up Boomers who have been slammed by the economic crash, but you get the idea.

Putting aside the silly generational stereotypes, there is one important observation that needs to be made about those Americans who were born between 1946 and 1964. These are people who had the amazing good fortune to be raised and come of age within the greatest period of economic expansion ever seen in human history. Yes, some were born into abject poverty, but during this period climbing up the ladder out of destitution was also less difficult than at any other historical time and place.

My point is that even the youngest Boomers had approximately a quarter-century of working adulthood during this time of unparalleled plenty. The fact that so many of them have become destitute so quickly now that the debt fueled bubble has popped for good speaks huge volumes about the average person's ability to prepare, plan and, yes, save for the future.

Please realize, however, that I'm not singling out the Boomers as if they are at all inferior in character and judgement to those who came either before them or after them. I'm sure that given another 20 years of such prosperity my peeps, Generation X, wouldn't be any better off on average were the crisis to hit as we are getting ready to retire. Though most Boomers will never recognize the fact, they won the generational lottery, and the prize was that they got to live most of their lives during a time of fantastic cheap oil fueled abundance the likes of which the world has never seen nor will ever see again. That so many of them squandered that great gift...well, chalk it up to human nature, I guess.

Bonus: Yes, Boomers, now it really is the beginning of a New Age, just not the one most of you were expecting as you reach your golden years


  1. ...and yet there are boomers in the 1% - some of whom still get those bonuses...

  2. It's just returning to worldwide norms. Work for low wages, not making enough money to live in retirement, inflation eating away your savings. Raise children, with the expectation you will live with them when you are unable to work, looking after their grandchildren. None of this gonna travel around in an RV blowing money...

    1. Yep--I can't wait to see how that adjustment is going to go. Not well, I would imagine.

  3. Your analysis is spot-on, BH, much better than the article. I've noticed the Panglossian world-view you describe many times among boomers, indeed it is strong in the entire demographic of those who came of age from the end of WW2 to the early 70s. It is hard to explain to many that this time of expansion was the exception, not the norm. I think the resulting cognitive dissonance is one of the key drivers behind the rise of the Tea Party, and even to a certain extent the Occupy movement. Both movements imply a restoration to a more prosperous past, but reality shall dictate otherwise.

    1. Sadly, though I empathize with the Occupy movement, I have to agree. What many of them seem to want is a return to the glorious 1990s (or earlier in the case of the Tea Partiers) when everyone could get a good paying job and consume with impunity.

    2. Speaking of "progressive" boomer cornucopianism, here's another rebuttal of Peak Oil as a "myth," posted on the usually sane "Counterpunch." It reduces everything in PO theory to Hubbert's hypothesis, which 40 years on of course can be found to contain errors, with no mention of EROEI, and a recurring chorus of "technology will save us."

    3. "Rather than running out of oil and/or gas any time soon, I think the bigger danger is that we have more than enough oil and other fossil fuel energy resources to sustain us for quite a few decades if not centuries."

      Some of his points do have some validity, but CENTURIES worth of fossil fuels? Please. Of course he is an ecologist, so I wouldn't expect him to be an expert on either geology or economics.

  4. For many, the Oil Age was great,
    And supported a fine mental state;
    But born early or late
    Is no reason to hate:
    We all must accept our fate.

  5. As a 'gen-x'er, who awoke to the demise of it all in Rockford, IL in the middle-late 70's. I have a special disdain for the Boomers. In general I see Boomers as the greedy fucks who had it all and blew it. Bunch of smug fart sniffing twats. fuck 'em.
    I need to go play a bunch of Mark E. Smith just to get my head sorted, now.

  6. Lew..., I can understand your anger. And disgust. I was born in 1962. I turned 50 this March. On the trailing edge of the baby boom generation. I caught all the grief and very few of the benifits. Believe me as someone who also saw more than one boomer succumb to drugs, violence and a host of other ills, I tell you truly it was not all a picnic. For me it has been a ugly shock to realize that it was a fluke and not the norm, for the economy and the standard of living in this country. I feel very bad for you and the next generations that will get it much worse. Its to bad it had to end this way. I wish you and me could have had a small slice of the American dream. Instead, we both get nothing. Yours Defshepard.