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Boomers are in charge, and they still haven’t peaked

Get ready for more generational clashes, this political scientist says

Young activists gather at the Capitol in 2021 to urge policymakers to stop approving fossil fuel projects. Generational frustration has only grown as boomers continue to dominate American politics, author Kevin Munger argues.
Young activists gather at the Capitol in 2021 to urge policymakers to stop approving fossil fuel projects. Generational frustration has only grown as boomers continue to dominate American politics, author Kevin Munger argues. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For Kevin Munger, generational conflict is no joke.

“Jokes about millennials and jokes about boomers are everywhere in pop culture,” says the political science professor at Penn State University. But the numbers don’t lie.

Baby boomers are the largest generation in American history. They still control the majority of wealth and both political parties, and their influence will only grow over the next five years, Munger says.

“At the earliest, boomer power will peak sometime in the late 2020s,” he writes in a new book, aptly titled “The Generation Gap.”   

That means the current decade will include a lot of political resentment, piled higher than a piece of avocado toast. 

When Munger looks at the data, he no longer sees the traditional pyramid shape of bygone days, with a broad base of young people supporting a smaller tip of retirees. The generation born between 1946 and 1964 changed all that. The boomers made the age distribution chart look like a pagoda, and while their mortality and the arrival of youthful immigrants eventually turned that into a pillar, even now they bulge out near the top.

Everyone knows there’s an epic fight brewing over the fate of Social Security, though policymakers keep putting it off. Eventually, they’ll have to choose between reinvesting in those benefits and pivoting to millennial priorities like forgiving student debt. 

Meanwhile — and in Munger’s view, purely by coincidence — a digital revolution has been binding Gen Z together in new ways. As demography and technology collide, it’s no wonder we’re all confused about what comes next, Munger says. 

“There’s a sense of demographic inevitability that Democrats have been relying on,” he says, since the party tends to draw younger and more racially diverse voters. Still, there are no guarantees. “The big question is which of the two parties is better able to adapt to a post-boomer landscape.” 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You focus on boomers. What’s so special about them?

A: The No. 1 takeaway is that the boomer generation is the unique one. It seems like millennials are the unique generation, but that’s not the case. Boomers are so powerful that they define what normalcy is. Our conception of “normal” American postwar society is just the boomers’ experience of the world. 

Q: You say the generation gap right now is unprecedented. But how can you tell? Haven’t older people always clung to power, and younger people been unsatisfied?

A: We have very good data on who was in Congress for the past 250 years. I can see that the boomers started to enter the House of Representatives pretty young. By the time the median boomer was 25, the youngest you can be to serve, they already made up 10 percent of the House. The millennials have yet to reach that 10 percent mark, despite the fact that the median millennial is now 32. 

It’s a zero-sum game. The fact that the boomer generation is so large and powerful means that it’s a lot harder for younger generations to start the process of getting involved. 

In a lot of European countries that have a parliamentary system, there’s a youth-focused party, usually a “green party.” If you get 10 percent of the vote, you get 10 percent of the seats in the legislature, and that allows you to build up a base of donors and activists, begin the pipeline of talent for politicians, and kind of have a virtuous feedback loop. But in the U.S., because both of the parties are so visibly controlled by the baby boomers, we have pretty significant alienation among millennials. This is reflected in both lower levels of voter turnout compared to previous generations and less participation in the institutions of politics.

Q: Is there any way to change that? 

A: This is the truth about our country right now. A bunch of people were born after soldiers came back from World War II, six or seven decades ago. The ocean of demography is determining what kind of things we can do on top of it. 

In the short term, more intergenerational understanding would be good, because I do think the boomers are going to continue to vote at high rates. They feel removed from contemporary culture even while they’re still very much dominant in politics.

The best way to bridge this gap is not on social media. Get involved in some kind of real-life organization or community. 

Congress is a zero-sum game, with generational losers and winners, Munger writes in his new book, out in June. (Courtesy Columbia University Press)

Q: I’m imagining lots of eye rolls and frustration. You’re a millennial yourself. How do you move past punchlines like “OK, boomer”?

A: I’m not trying to write a screed about how the boomers ruined everything. I’m just trying to say the generational divide is quite serious right now, and a lot of the things that are dysfunctional or confusing about our politics and culture are downstream of this fact. 

Q: Where is Gen X in all of this? Are they going to feel skipped over?

A: Whenever I talk to slightly older professors about this, they’re Gen X, and they always get a bit puffy about it. But the fact is there just aren’t very many of them. So, yes, they’re going to have less power. 

Q: And what about Gen Z, who are in their teens and twenties now?

A: When we surveyed Gen Z, those who said climate change is the most important issue they face also have very high levels of generational linked fate — they feel their fortunes are connected to others in their group. They can’t really think of their lives except in terms of how their generation is going to respond to climate change.

One thing I think is underappreciated is how social media short-circuits the intergenerational transmission of culture and values.

In the past, kids watched cartoons, and the cartoons were made by older people. But today, a huge percentage of the media that young people consume is created by, for and about other young people. That means they are more in their own world.

Q: You believe boomers haven’t even peaked yet. So how does this all end? Is it going to be chaos?

A: The baby boomers are not going to go away tomorrow, but they’re also not going to be here forever. And so the specific timing of all this is quite important. 

The most important thing is building new institutions, parties, structures and communities to replace the world the boomers had run for so long. I guess my advice for younger generations is not to think, “Oh, if we just do the right tweet, we’re going to take power.” You need to think about the long term.

Whichever groups are best organized when the boomers let go of power at some point, and are best able to step in and fill the gap, are going to be the groups that control things in the future.

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