Boomers, Millennials, and the American Dream

Guest post by James Judson

Why Millennials May Have a Point

It seems everyone is down on Millennials lately. On a daily basis social media blogs and clever YouTube songs surface to mock the latest generation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZthGh758pYY who, based on their nontraditional viewpoints, seem to deserve such shame. Millennials are branded as idealistic, self-indulgent, narcissistic paradoxes who are slow to reach independence in their lives compared to other generations, especially their Baby Boomer parents.  But if you listen, Millennials have an insightful message, a story to be told.  Every generation is a reflection of the society they experience, and to shame the generation is to shame the society they inherited.

They tell me I am a Baby Boomer.  Born in 1962, I technically meet the criteria. , not one of the cool kids, never really feeling accepted or a part of my generation de jure.  Truth is, I have been riding in the caboose of a very long train ride my entire adult life.  I have watched, backstage, a generation of older brothers, sisters, coworkers and politicians trampled their way to prosperity to seize the very end point of the American Dream.

In no other time in US history, other than the Millennials, have there been more humans in a generation than the Baby Boomers.  They have occupied the workforce, politics, and shaped our institutions.  They may be the last generation to live better than their parents.  Baby boomers grew up believing, witnessing and living the American Dream.  And for most of them, the Dream was a pleasant one.

Pre-Boomers

I am blessed to have a Mother and Mother-in-law still alive and healthy into their 90s.  I can see that growing up in the 1930s shaped them. My Mother recalls her older brother shoveling dust out of the attic of their farm home during the Dust Bowl years.  My Mother-in-law remembers the religious persecution her and her family encountered based on her controversial religious beliefs in this country (she was Catholic).  My Mother and her siblings used to stay after school in high school to use the locker room showers to avoid the weekly Saturday night one-by-one bath ritual. I asked my Mother once if she ever felt poor growing up. She said no.  No one had much of anything, they ate very well because of the farm and everyone seem to be living in the same conditions.  Wealth, it seems, is a relative state of mind.

The point is that generation endured a Depression, widespread poverty, a World War, Christian religious discrimination, Polio and “ketchup is a vegetable” Ronald Reagan.  They also witnessed the emergence of technology spanning from black and white photos using box cameras and shared party line landlines with neighbors, and yet lived long enough own a hand held wireless device and create a Facebook account.  To be fair, both my Mother and Mother-in- law are secure in their older age by the generous steady hand of society’s safety nets for the elderly.  Pensions, Medicare, and Social Security all delivered on their promises.  At an early age in life, despite their struggles, they believed in the American Dream. Both would tell you they had a great life

What is the American Dream?

Briefly, the American Dream is the opportunity to live an economic life whereby each year is potentially better than the ones before it.  It is a set of beliefs that society, social institutions, politicians and humankind are working towards a better future.  Most importantly in my opinion, it is centered in the belief that in the end, at a time where you are the least productive, most vulnerable, that social programs will exist to provide each person a compassionate standard of living.  The American Dream is not void of responsibility nor the requirement to become the best version of oneself, but is a set of promises and dreams shaped by each generation before it.

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In the above schematic graph, the American Dream is depicted as on steady decline for each generation.  Each generation including the Boomers had the opportunity to believe, pursue and embellish the American Dream.  Each generation after that will encounter a declining version of the American Dream, the hardest hit being the Millennials.

I am in my mid 50s and did not give up on the American Dream until recently. I received an accounting degree from a state university in the 80s at age 21 and was instantly and gainfully employed and on my way to prosperity.  I had no student debt, thanks to my parents and a reasonable price tag for my degree. I got married at age 24, lived in apartments, bought a first time house at age 26 and eventually a bigger house at age 40, and raised 3 millennial children, all of which are amazing human beings.  I was able to get steady employment, promotions, and provide for my family. Over time, however, I watched my Social Security eligibility age be raised to 67 because an actuary in a cube apparently knows me better than my doctor and unilaterally determined I will live a long time so I should not be able to receive the benefits I have paid into for 34 years steadily until the prime years after 67.  Who knows if Medicare will survive the latest tax plan aftershocks? I have worked hard, saved, and lived a responsible life.  But the American Dream my older siblings and parents enjoyed in their older age is gone. It’s like believing in Santa Claus, then scaling back to believing in the concept of Santa Claus, then realizing Santa Claus retired and doesn’t do that gig anymore.   Millennials must see him as a fat old man who is worthless. 

Millennials are Getting a Bad Start

I have several friends who run Marathons and Ultra races.  Through numerous trials, they will tell you the struggles of the first few miles are as important as the last miles.  Push too hard and you will not finish.  Lag and your time and placement will suffer.  Stop believing the race is possible early on and you are finished. Like a race, the defining elements of a generation are not if they endure their share of struggles, it is more the timing of when those struggles occur in their lifetime and the dream of finishing strong.  The American Dream and all of its promises appear broken to Millennials at a very early stage of their journey.  Millennials are generally a very educated, bright bunch of young people.  They understand that our financial institutions were bankrupted by greed and needed a life sustaining bailout.  They comprehend our health care system is broken. They have watched their parents, family and friends become commodities to companies that offer no lasting promise or job security. They painfully understand the rising cost of a college education and the dilution of a college degree.  They are the grand prize winners of paying 1000% more than in the 1980s for an underemployed future. They understand firsthand they are hedging their futures with personal debt to pay for it all and will similarly be left with paying public debt created by politicians who no longer are public servants, but private servants to a party and themselves. They are drawn to politicians who see the world as needing a major overhaul, not just a tune up. They haplessly understand The American Dream does not apply to their generation as it has for every generations before.

The Cure

Millennials are in the inevitable position to make widespread changes to our society, institutions and political processes, if not for any other reason, for the sake of their own livelihood.  Two natural phenomena will aid in their quest.  Baby Boomers will retire and Baby Boomers will die.  If the congressional leadership is an indicator, politicians generally just die.  Millennials are actually positioned the best to fill the huge vacuum left once this occurs in the workplace, institutions, politics and society.  They are inherently equipped for the task.  Millennials are generally a very accepting generation.  They embrace technology, social media, relationships (albeit more virtually), and are very open minded regarding race, religion, sexual preferences and orientation. They are very well positioned for the inevitable moment when whites become a minority in this country and all the other future demographics.  They will have to reconstruct a society and its values based not on paying forward the ills of the version they have witnessed, but rather clear a new path to reconnect to the American Dream trail that has been off course for so many years.

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