Baby Boomers – those who are currently between 50 and 70 years old – are often blamed by younger generations for many issues, from those associated with pensions and healthcare, to the unaffordability of housing, and even the vote to leave the EU. Jennie Bristow outlines the discourse and explains its implications.
Amidst the raw outrage that followed the EU referendum vote on 23 June 2016, one generation found itself to be a particular target. ‘Baby boomers, you have already robbed your children of their future. Don’t make it worse by voting for Brexit,’ appealed James Moore in the Independent the day before the vote. ‘“This vote doesn’t represent the younger generation who will have to live with the consequences”: Millennials vent fury at baby boomers for voting Britain OUT of the EU’, reported Alex Matthews for the Mail two days later. As the recriminations flew, an image took hold: hordes of wealthy, powerful Baby Boomers, engaged in a generational conspiracy to do everything possible to rob the young of their rightful future.
‘This is not the first time our generation has suffered this kind of treatment,’ complained Philip Bronk from London on the Independent’s letters page. He echoed the now well-established cultural script of Boomer-blaming:
‘The baby boomers subsidised their lives with massive public borrowing, then voted for austerity; they enjoyed final salary pension schemes, then abolished them; they enjoyed free university education, then voted to abolish that too; they enjoyed public utilities, then sold them off; and now, after enjoying a lifetime of EU citizenship, they’ve voted to take it away from us – not even to save money, but simply to give them a nationalistic thrill. Enough is enough!’
Such generational bitterness evades some of the more nuanced features of the Brexit vote: such as the split within generations. Older people were more likely to have voted ‘Leave’ than younger people, but polls suggest that just under two-fifths of Baby Boomers (generally – albeit contentiously – defined as those born between 1945 and 1965, now aged between about 50 and 70) voted to remain in the EU.
As for why the Boomers, as a generation, should be associated with a vote to Leave, the media narrative offers little specific explanation. A destructive selfishness is presumed – although, as Judith Woods suggests in the Telegraph, many Brexit-voting Boomers were ‘genuinely convinced they were doing what was best for Britain, regardless of the fallout’. Knee-jerk post-Brexit Boomer blaming seems to rely most heavily on a generalised, and increasingly consolidated, sentiment that the political, cultural, and economic difficulties that we face today are the fault of people born in the two decades after the Second World War.
The narrative of Boomer-blaming is the subject of a recent article, which sought to understand the evolution of claims that the Boomer generation are responsible for myriad social problems – from overpriced housing to the global economic crisis to the difficulties afflicting pensions and healthcare provision. I conducted a media analysis of articles published in a sample of national British newspapers from 1986 to 2011, to understand how the discussion of the Boomer generation has changed over this time. I found that, while the Boomers have been of some interest to British newspapers for a number of years, it is only in recent years that this generation has been constructed predominantly as a problem; and that it has been constructed as a problem in two main ways.
First, the Boomers are constructed as an economic problem. As a relatively large generation, they stand accused of using a disproportionate share of society’s resources. This coincides with a wider anxiety about the effects of an ageing population, and the problems afflicting the welfare state. Thus, the trope of ‘Boomergeddon’ is used in 2006, in articles speculating about the impact of the Boomers’ impending retirement, and reflects and reinforces a negative image of ‘ageing’.
Particularly since the global financial crisis of 2007-8, Boomer-blaming has also focused on their historical location: children of the ‘post-war Boom’ whose coming-of-age is associated with the 1960s. Not only are they draining the pension pot, it is claimed: they have used up everything. Back in 2008, the journalist Sarah Vine wrote in the Times that members of this ‘extraordinary generation’ were not only ‘economically blessed’:
‘they also had some of the most hedonistic and uncomplicated fun since the Romans: all the sex (by the time that we came of age, HIV had put a stop to all that), the best music (I’m sorry, Coldplay is no match for Jimi Hendrix), all the easy idealism of privilege.’
A heavily-moralised narrative constructs the Boomer generation as a cultural problem, via their association with the Sixties, and in turn blames this generation for political mismanagement, economic crisis, and a selfish, hedonistic approach to life. The trope of ‘Boomergeddon’ comes to symbolise the problem of a generation that, allegedly, has dominated society by its size and outlook, and wreaked havoc for those born later.
As I outline in my article, Boomer-blaming incorporates a number of troubling simplifications and assertions. The assumption that the Boomer generation as a whole shared a particular experience associated with some of its members (university education, final salary pension schemes, ‘all the sex’), and that the Sixties generation somehow missed the Seventies, refuses to recognise inequalities, differential experiences, and historical shifts, and imposes a uniformity of opinion on a heterogeneous group.
The elision of ‘Baby Boomers’ with ‘old people’ presents the elderly as a burden to society – even when they are still actively middle-aged. This, too, should give us pause. In the making of “Boomergeddon”, we can see how apocalyptic warnings about a demographic pensions time-bomb lead to a discussion about the problem of longevity, with its implication that economic problems would be ameliorated if only unproductive older people would shuffle of this mortal coil with greater haste. The narrative of post-Brexit Boomer blaming, meanwhile, has been replete with cries of ‘generational betrayal’, underpinned by the claim that the older generation ‘will not be around to see the damage wreaked’ by the decision to leave the EU. According to such logic, disenfranchisement is too good for them.
Boomer-blaming often wraps itself in the clothes of ‘inter-generational justice’. I suggest that its effect is rather to foment division, and encourage a fatalistic sense of resentment and powerlessness among young people.
Note: the above is based on the author’s article, published in The British Journal of Sociology.
Jennie Bristow is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University. She is the author of Baby Boomers and Generational Conflict (Palgrave Macmillan 2015), The Sociology of Generations: New directions and challenges (Palgrave Macmillan 2016), and co-author of Parenting Culture Studies (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).
Having worked all my adult life, and having worked to pay my way through college before that, having paid my dues, paid my bills with no help from anyone, having NOT bought all the latest gadgets but saved hard AND been the bank of mum and dad for my kids when they needed help, the post baby boomers really annoy me. The ‘want it all, want it now’ generation are selfish, self centered, they want a house full of everything, brand new the moment they get married or move in with a partner!! They are happy to have 6 kids, never work but expect the tax payers to keep them. My kids have been raised to WORK for what they want, not just sit and whinge!! The baby boomers have financed the younger generation and now some of the younger generation wants to grab everything!! They don’t have the concept that you have to work for what you want. The ‘selfie’, gimme gimme generation are going to be sorry when they get to post 50 and they’ve made no effort to save, no effort to work. Guess what, you won’t have the generation who paid your way around anymore to bail you out!!
I am really fed up with the constant sniping against baby-boomers. I am slightly out of the age range, having been born in 1943, but close enough to have had pretty well the same life experiences. The dreadful article by Sarah Vine to which you refer raised my blood pressure at the time and added to the fiction of an “economically blessed” generation. My upbringing in the North of Scotland was pretty typical. Post-war there were severe shortages until rationing was abolished in 1954. The Health Service didn’t get into its stride until the early to mid 50s. Like many families we shared an outside toilet with the neighbours until the late 50s and took baths in a tin tub in front of the fire in the sitting room. There was no telephone in the house, nor TV, fridge nor washing machine until 1957/8. No one of our family or friends owned a car. There were no overseas holidays and indeed few holidays at all that did not involve going to stay with relatives. Our carbon footprint was minute. Up to the mid-50s only 10-12% of students went to university. Despite getting a reasonable job I was in my mid-30s before I finally saved enough to get a deposit on a first property and that was common. Renting in bedsits was the norm and as we scrabbled around for a shilling for the gas meter neither I nor my friends regarded ourselves as “economically blessed”. My own mother looking at her great-grandchildren a few years ago commented that they received more presents in one Christmas than she and my father had been able to give me in my entire childhood. Ironically it is in fact Sarah Vine’s generation that is the real beneficiary of we baby boomers. It does not matter if our homes are worth £300k or £3 million we still need somewhere to live and it is our inheritors who will truly realise the gains in the housing market. Another factor ignored by critics of our generation is the psychological uncertainty engendered by the Cold War. OK there was no nuclear war in the end but the threat was all too real as underlined by films such as Fail Safe, On The Beach, Dr Strangelove and The Bedford Incident.
This is not meant to be a “poor us” piece. We did live in interesting times and we did have a comfortable life compared to our parents. We shall have a much better retirement than previous and perhaps successor generations. But let us please end the fiction that we plundered the planet’s resources and left nothing for the future.
As a baby-boomer myself I have lots to complain about my generation, I do believe they sold their children’s and grand children’s heritage away, they turned their backs on the steady progress made through the fifties and sixties for the fast life offered by the Tories. Not all but most of my generation.
There is of course a debate to be had about Europe and the EU which is not taking place. I personally did vote remain but not for the reasons that the media peddle, I voted to prevent the debate we are now having, and the chaos that it has brought, do I support the EU, not really I campaigned against it in 1975, but what I didn’t want was for this government to use this debate as a smoke screen to allowing them to continue to dismantle the state.
The problems facing us inside Europe are exactly the same as we have here at home, Neo-Liberal politicians dismantling the state, we only have to look at the way Greece has been treated to understand that those politicians in Europe have the same agenda as Neo-Liberals here.
My grouse with my generation is on the whole, they have stood back, whilst benefiting from the progressive periods since the war and allowed all those achievements to be swept away under the guise of modernisation, when reality it was nothing of the sort.
They can of course redeem themselves, by recognising their ignorance in the recent past, and get out their armchairs and do something about saving the NHS, by voting every single Tory out of office, and look at what a post war Labour Party achieved.
We are leaving the EU whether we all like it or not, what we should all now accept is there is an alternative and to carefully consider what can be achieved when people come together to achieve it. The post war Labour Party proved what can be done, this chaos has been deliberately constructed so that this government can complete the Neo-Liberal agenda that Thatcher started.
People are the real economy, they are the real creators of wealth, the point is most just don’t realise it.
Nice commentary on how things aren’t quite as black & white as is often simplified in the press / discussions. But fundamentally we do have some intergenerational issues that need to be worked out as shown here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/07/revealed-30-year-economic-betrayal-dragging-down-generation-y-income
Now I’m not saying every baby boomer is rich but there are many that purchased houses and the rise in house price alone will pay off the tax bill for their entire life.
As you rightly discuss Tuition Fees / Housing Prices / Pensions are all things that are causing problems to generations coming through – so while you attempt to minimize blame on the boomer generation. What do you suggest about dealing with the problems that are coming?
As austerity bites and we shift money from the young to the old (NHS and social care) because of the ageing population – what do you suggest. You say it’s not fair to blame the boomers, technically they voted for these policies, so what do we do about it?