Ok Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind by Jill Filipovic Photos illustration by Salon/Atria/One Signal Publishers/Gary He
Last fall, the meme “ok Boomer” hit the internet like a bomb, due in no small part to a provocative New York Times article about the meme that was guaranteed to play on the notoriously fragile egos of the Me Generation. The dismissive turn of phrase, Taylor Lorenz wrote, is used “to reply to cringey YouTube videos, Donald Trump tweets, and basically any person over 30 who says something condescending about young people.”
The reaction was swift and whiny, thereby providing overwhelming evidence for the thesis embodied in the two-word meme, which is that Boomers take themselves way too seriously. But it wasn’t just the narcissism that frustrated younger people, but the blindness to economic and social realities that have left Boomers holding most political power and wealth in this country, while their children and grandchildren face increasingly uncertain futures.
Journalist Jill Filipovic has decided to step into the fray with her new book “Ok Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind,” a sober-minded and gracious effort to explain, in painstaking detail, the way political forces converged to create a world where Boomers benefitted from American prosperity but left little in the way of wealth and opportunities for those who came after them. Filipovic isn’t here to dismiss, condescend to, or annoy Boomers, but instead have a real conversation about the world they’re leaving behind, and what it might take to fix things so the later generations aren’t left behind.
Watch my conversation with Filipovic on “Salon Talks” to hear more about her book and how to heal this generational warfare.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with the genesis of this book, which was the expression “ok Boomer,” which hit the internet like a nuclear bomb, except instead of radiation, the fallout was all whining from Boomers. What did you think about that entire controversy?
I mean, it was very silly. The book is playing on the meme to kind of go into what is now a cultural touch point. The book is not about the meme, but I do think you’re right, that Boomer response to “ok Boomer,” which I think one Boomer called the n-word of ageism, in which they all sat around and whined about, is pretty reflective of I think some of the many complaints that Millennials have about Boomer entitlement and sort of general lack of ability to take responsibility for the world they’ve left us with.
I think legitimately for a lot of Boomers it had never occurred to them that they had any kind of responsibility for, or that even that there were disparities between their generation and other generations. You write about how Boomers have hoarded a lot of wealth and opportunities for themselves, and nothing has trickled down to especially Millennials and now Generation Z. How big are the gaps really between Boomers and Millennials when it comes to education, housing, economics, that sort of thing?
The gaps are huge. Going into this book, obviously we’ve all heard that Millennials are behind. But in the process of researching and writing it, I was surprised how bad things are. Millennials are not only going to do worse than our parents, but will probably do worse than our grandparents. We’re the first generation in U.S. history that has not done better than the previous generation.
One of the more shocking statistics that I found from that Stanford Center on Wealth and Inequality is that we’re not for social welfare programs, so things like food stamps, cash welfare. Millennials would be the most impoverished generation since the Great Depression, so we’re in trouble. Something like 1 in 5 Millennials lives in poverty. Our rates of home ownership are actually going down, even though more of us are now in our 30s, and the oldest Millennials are turning 40 this year. We are tremendously in debt. We’re the most educated generation in history, but we’re also carrying with us huge student loan debt. The average Millennial has about $33,000 in student loan debt, whereas Boomers, when they were the same age, had more like $2,300 in debt. You could pay for a college education by working over the summers.
It’s just a totally different world for Millennials. I think some more progressive Boomers understand that and are sort of horrified what their generation has left us. But the more conservative Boomers who have been the ones who have had a monopoly on political power really managed in their generation to climb the ladder. They had affordable education, they had affordable housing programs and then they pulled it up behind them. Millennials have really been left struggling at the bottom. Part of what’s so frustrating is that this was totally preventable.
I’ve had this conversation and it’s been really antagonistic with some people about how Millennials are falling behind and there’s a tendency to agree that that’s true, but an unwillingness to believe that Boomers did anything that caused this problem. I guess I want to drill down into that. How is this their fault?
I mean, it’s most of the fault of Boomer politicians and Boomer-elected politicians. Boomers have been dominant in American politics and American culture for decades now. They’re still the largest age group that makes up the U.S. Congress. There’s not a single Millennial in the Senate. There’s a small handful of Millennial Congress people. It’s been true that Boomers have been dominant since Boomers came of age.
When Ronald Reagan was elected, he was the first president, kind of came in on the fumes of Boomer energy. 1980 is really where you see a huge turning point on a lot of these issues. It’s where you start to see radical underinvestment in public education and where you then start to also see rapidly rising higher education costs. You see the government investing less in grants for college, and instead offering more in loans that students then have to pay back. You also see rapidly rising healthcare costs, which have just absolutely animated Millennial life. 1980 is this turning point where we start to see American healthcare costs skyrocket, and we started to see American health outcomes decline.
The opposite trajectory happens in most of our economic peer nations in Western Europe. They start controlling costs and they start getting better health outcomes. We get the worst of both worlds. Again, really kicking off in 1980 in this year where you have a Boomer leader coming into office and things unfortunately don’t get much better even under a Democratic president. First Boomer President Bill Clinton, who is the person who basically unfettered Sallie Mae and allows them to become not just a totally out of control student lender, but also their own collection agency. I think many Millennials who have student loan debt have a particular opinion of Sallie Mae now.
For that, you can blame, I mean, not just Clinton, congressional Republicans as well, but all of these seeds were planted when Millennials, when the earliest Millennials were just being born and when many of us didn’t even exist yet. There’s this impulse now I think the point to, for example, Millennial consumer choices, the sort of stereotypical of which is avocado toast. And to say, “This is why you guys can’t afford to buy a house,” without recognizing that the cost of a new home is almost twice what it was when Boomers were young adults. The cost of rent is much higher than what it was.
Young Millennial parents pay significantly more to have babies, to insure their families, in out-of-pocket health care costs than Boomers did when they were young adults. We’re more in debt. Our day-to-day costs for every aspect of adult life are more expensive. At the same time, the way working class wages have just seen the bottom fall out. Now you have to have a college degree to make something close to what a Boomer with a high school education would make in their early ’80s. We’re also making less.
Then on top of that, we are also a much more racially diverse generation. Millennials were about 56% white. Boomers, when they were our age, were more like 80% white. America’s longstanding even before America existed, history of racial discrimination really planted the seeds for now a Millennial generation that is immensely suffering because of systematic racism and things like housing that has not allowedBblack families to build the kind of wealth that white families did. That’s naturally going down to their Millennial kids and being magnified and perpetuated forward. Racism in education and where you can live and what kinds of jobs you have access to.
Then in wage discrimination, so really across the board. I know this is a very long answer. But our history of racism and then these really explicit, specific political decisions that were made in the 1980s and ’90s have set Millennials up for generational failure.
That leads us to today, Millennials, like you said, have the oldest are turning 40 and the youngest into their 20s. They’re sort of in their prime earning years, and we just got hit with the worst economic crisis, one that’s even worse than the 2008 one, one that’s as bad, it looks, as the Great Depression. How do you anticipate that exacerbating these problems, or do you?
Amanda, we are so screwed. I know you are Gen X, but Millennials are particularly screwed. We obviously got hit by the Great Recession of 2008 when older Millennials were in our initial earning years. Many of us didn’t get jobs, were fired from our first jobs, took lower rates of pay. Researchers suggest that that will probably, just that recession, will impact our lifelong earnings.
We were already starting at a deficit, and now this spectacular financial collapse hits us. The industries that it’s hit are really overrepresented, are dominantly Millennials, so things like food service. We hear a lot about Millennials working in the gig economy and that’s true. A lot of us do have gig jobs or cobbled together a series of gigs in order to make ends meet, and those jobs have been absolutely decimated.
Again, Millennials are also racially diverse and we know that people of color have been hit, not just health-wise by coronavirus, but financially have really shouldered many more of the burdens that white people have. We know that people under 40, the majority of which as adults anyway, are Millennials, have experienced much significant economic disruption then folks over 40 have. This is really, really hurting us. I think it’s hurting Millennial women in particular. Women’s prime earning years start a little bit earlier than men’s because women have children and then some drop out of the workforce and many then experience intense discrimination for being mothers. It really is in your late 30s that for women, your earnings start to peak. For men, it comes a little bit later, which is right where Millennial women are now, right when an economic downturn is hitting. And when a pandemic is hitting, that means that you can no longer outsource things like childcare. You have to now divide your time if you have a kid between working and taking care of a child.
Many Millennial dads are doing their part, but many, many, many aren’t. I think we’re going to see a huge hit both to Millennials as a category, and then to particular sub categories, female Millennials, and Millennials of color.
Well, and to talk about the gender issue, kind of to switch gears a little, since the Millennials were teenagers, you’ve been the subject of a bunch of hand-wringing articles and cable news segments about sex, family, marriage, all these things. You’ve been accused of being too sexual, too averse to getting married and unwilling to have families. What did you find in your research was the true story about Millennials? Are they a bunch of spoiled ne’er-do-wells that . . .
Well, true story is we are the generation that older folks think are doing it wrong no matter what we do. Millennials were in high school when we were younger and in college, there was this whole state of hand-wringing about hookup culture, which I know you’ve written about quite a bit, and this total fear of teen sex and these crazy stories about rainbow parties and girls getting their hearts broken because they’re giving it away without being committed. There’s this whole moral panic about Millennial hookup culture.
Then the study comes out by a researcher named Jean Twenge, and it finds that Millennials are actually having less sex than previous generations, which then fuels a totally separate moral panic about Millennials not having enough sex. We’re all in our bedrooms watching porn and posting on Instagram, instead of going out and meeting people and having the sex we apparently should be having. No matter what the research finds or doesn’t find, it gives folks license to freak out about what Millennials are or are not doing in the bedroom.
I also remember when I was growing up, there was a teen pregnancy panic in the ’90s, this tremendous moral panic about babies having babies and it’s high teen pregnancy rates, and that was true. Teen pregnancy rates were high. They weren’t as high in the ’90s as they were in the ’50s, the sort of height of the nuclear family, but they were high. That is now radically decreased. The average age of a first birth for an American woman is as high as it’s ever been. Now that’s its own source of hand-wringing, that Millennials aren’t having enough babies, that we’re getting married too late, that we’re not having enough children.
I mean, my conclusion essentially is that every generation has done something different than the one before it. Every generation is a subject to this “the kids are doing it wrong” narrative. Boomers certainly were, and Millennials have just followed the path that Boomers tread. So Boomers also got married later than their parents. Boomers also had fewer children than their parents. Boomers also went to college in record numbers. Boomer women entered the workplace in record numbers.
Millennials are just magnifying those existing trends, and overwhelmingly I think those sort of lack of a safety net for Millennials, the lack of a ladder is obviously a bad thing. But I think when you look at the decisions that Millennials are making in response to some pretty terrible circumstances, I’d say we’re a generation of pretty thoughtful, responsible people.
I think that’s fair. I’m a Gen Xer, I’m on the younger side of Generation X. We definitely think the Millennials are like the goody two-shoes, good kids. I do want to ask about that because Gen X is forgotten in all of this. We’re the generation between the Millennials and Boomers and mostly we’re okay with not being part of this fight, but where do you see Xers in this whole story of these generational tensions?
It’s funny. Every time I read about the book, there’s always some Gen Xer being like, “You always forget us.”
I’m fine with that. Leave us out.
I sort of think Gen Xers are the Jan Bradys of the generation wars. Millennials, Millennials, Millennials. Obviously Gen Xers got hit by the recession as well, the 2008 recession. Gen Xers actually initially got hit a lot harder than Millennials did because they were older. They were more established.
The difference though now is that, A, Gen Xers were better off by, I would have to go back and look at the numbers, but I think they were sort of average in they’re kind of early 30s, right when the 2008 recession hit. Those Gen Xers were a lot better than early 30s Millennials are now. They did have further to fall, but then they also recovered. When you look at where Gen Xers ended up compared to where Millennials ended up, Gen Xers really did make up most of their losses from the recession. Millennials didn’t. Millennials took a hit that is still hitting even 12 years later. That’s a huge difference.
One thing I talk about in the book that I think is actually kind of under-explored in these generation debates is the impact of mass incarceration and the rise of mass incarceration. That’s one place where Gen Xers really got socked. Gen Xers who are young adults in the 1980s and 1990s, and as incarceration rates rose and hit their peak in 2009. Gen Xers that were kind of that prime age for policing and incarceration, which is 20s and 30s.
At the point where we hit our incarceration peak, the generation that had the largest number of people behind bars were Gen Xers. That obviously has huge impacts on your future ability to make a living, on where you can live, on whether we can vote.
I think how Millennials got hit is that we were kids when the incarceration boom began. We really had this kind of cradle-to-adulthood relationship with incarceration. A ton of Millennials kids’ parents had a parent who went to prison, so Millennial kids experienced that trauma. Millennial adolescents were sent to juvenile facilities in larger numbers than any other generation. A lot of us were put in jail when we were kids. Then we hit adulthood as mass incarceration was peaking. Then it started to go down, but it went up like this and it’s going down like this. The decline is a lot more modest than the scale up. I think it’s going to be Millennials and Gen Xers that are really caught up in that long tail of mass incarceration. We don’t know yet in terms of generational numbers, which generation kind of got hurt the worst by this system. But I think both Millennials and Gen Xers have a pretty strong claim to that.
I mean, the Gen Xers also were kind of the canaries in the coal mine for a lot of these questions. They didn’t pay as much for their college educations as Millennials did, but they certainly paid quite a bit. They were the first generation that did start taking out pretty substantial amounts in student loans. They also obviously got hit by the housing crisis. Gen Xers were much more likely to own their homes as young adults, but many of them lost those homes or were caught up in foreclosures. I certainly don’t want to send a message that any generation including Boomers has been universally successful or privileged, and Gen Xers, I think you’re right, we do often forget them. They experience I think in a slightly smaller scale, what a lot of Millennials are now living through.
I hate to cut it short on this, but I have to ask the question of what can be done. I mean, how do we fix this?
We fix it through politics. I think there’s often a temptation to individualize solutions in the U.S. That’s not going to cut it here. These are huge systemic generational issues. The number one thing that we need to do, and that Boomers frankly needs to do, is kind of get out of the way and start to share their reins of power. Boomers have a lot to teach us. They have a lot of knowledge and a lot of learned wisdom, especially progressive Boomers who have been more or less, have been shut out of politics much more than their conservative counterparts, but we need Millennials in office. We need Millennials running organizations and companies. We need Millennials on the pages of all of our newspapers and heading up our newsrooms. We need Millennials who are now the largest American generation and are not children anymore, are well into adulthood and starting to press toward middle age, actually being given a fair share of the power and influence in our country.