Boomers  v Millennials?

“Boomers had it so easy when they were young, now their cohort is too large and powerful as a group. The free love hippies of the 60s morphed into the ‘me generation’ of the 80s and are now illiberal and conservative in outlook. They have bequeathed a more dysfunctional world than they inherited.” On the other hand “Millennials need to stop buying avocados and fancy coffees so they can save up for a mortgage. They are boring and  puritanical about alcohol, drugs and sex (i.e. they are having less of all three), whilst being obsessed with gender fluidity and gender neutral pronouns. They’re also into cancel culture online, valuing safety over free speech.”  

 

That’s my summary of what is often portrayed as a ferocious civil war between altruistic and progressive millennials (born between ‘81 and ‘96) and us, their parents’ generation of baby boomers, (born between ‘46 and ‘64), which is characterised as selfish and conservative.

 

This narrative of inter-generational divides (even hatred) has always bothered me deeply, partly because I loathe the idea of being lumped together with a whole load of Nimbyish old codgers screaming ‘over my dead body’ whenever anyone mentions a change to our triple-locked pensions, and partly because I genuinely feel sorry for any younger person currently paying an exorbitant rent with no prospect of owning their own home for the foreseeable future. Happily I have some good news to impart which challenges this narrative from a new study by researchers at the Nuffield College, Oxford, more of which later.

 

But first, let’s examine whether the criticisms that get laid at the door of both baby boomers and millennials have any validity whatsoever.

 

 

*The Critique of the Boomers

1. We benefited from a golden period with increasing material wealth and prosperity when ‘we’d never had it so good’. Education improved for all and science gave us medicines to fight infectious diseases and then put a man on the moon. All of which implies that we experienced few anxieties, but (I don’t know about you) my memory is also of recessions, inflation and the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation.

2. We are too noisy and powerful. Baby boomers have been likened to a pig being swallowed by a python, because of the sheer size of our cohort. As we have passed through the body of the snake we have shaped and disproportionately defined every decade by what we were doing, ending up quite literally running the world with Presidents Clinton, Bush and Trump (all born in 1946) and Prime Ministers Blair (b. 1953) and Brown (b.1951).

3. When young we trusted no-one over 30, when old, no-one under 30. Baby boomers have a strong and favourable opinion about themselves, with an approval rating for our own cohort of 83%, compared to 58% for millennials. We are proud of having remade the world by liberalising the laws in relation to censorship, abortion, divorce and equal rights. Perhaps this self-satisfaction makes us less forgiving of younger generations.

4. Boomers are thought to be responsible for everything good and bad that happened in the 1960s. In fact it was people from the ‘silent generation’ (our parents) who drove what happened in the 60s because in 1969 even the oldest boomers (like me) were just reaching adulthood. So blame the generation which came before us for the sexual revolution, militant feminism, the contraceptive pill, LSD and for all that wild rock music (Gloria Steinem was born in 1936, Germaine Greer in 1939 and Mick Jagger in 1943).

5. Boomers have left the world a worse place than they inherited. We have helped to destroy the nuclear family with our divorce rate, ignored climate change and our disproportionate electoral power has led to Nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard housing constraints), and a tax system which protects the value of assets (like pensions, property and investments) rather than incomes. Guilty as charged you may think, but the Nuffield study has something surprising to say about that. 

 

 

The Charge Sheet Against Millennials:

1. Millennials have slovenly financial management. We boomers saved hard to buy our first home. We went without until we could afford to pay for what we wanted. Unlike millennials who want their smashed avocado on toast and their designer coffees. This is factually inaccurate. In 1989 young and old spent a similar proportion of their income on non-essential items like entertainment, holidays and eating out. 

By 2014 the older generation was able to spend 20% more than the younger generations; so millennials cannot be accused of wasting their income on fripperies. A tipping point came in 2008 (the financial crash) after which boomers' average disposable real income went up by 26% compared with Generation X, (b. ‘65-’80). Their income was up by 3%, whilst millennials’ income was down 4% compared to Gen X. So millennials are the first generation to know that, for them, things are going backwards and that they are definitely worse off than their parents.

2. Millennials are boring Puritans who don’t drink or take drugs. Not true for drugs but true for drink. Small increase in cannabis use (compared to the 1990s but lower than the 1970s) but with alcohol there is a massive generational effect which is seen across the western world. Many fewer millennials are drinking alcohol 5 times a week and in Gen Z (b ‘97-’12) almost none are doing so.

3. Millennials have stopped having sex. Not altogether, but there is a significant decline in people who have lost their virginity between the ages of 15-18. This may be to do with opportunity because many are still living at home or in flat shares, or the fact that fewer younger people are in stable relationships. However, the statistics across all age groups and in a wide range of countries, shows that frequency of sex has fallen from an average of 5 times a month to 3. (In Japan sex has almost disappeared!) Nobody is sure why, unless people are more discerning and campaigns like ‘me too’ are having a major impact.

4. Millennials embrace gender fluidity and gender neutral personal pronouns.  There is a significant difference between generations when it comes to knowing someone who uses a gender neutral pronoun - 75% for the younger generations compared to 30% for boomers. When it comes to gender fluidity only half of 18-24 year olds identify as exclusively straight, compared to 70% of boomers, so it would appear that younger generations (especially younger millennials and Gen Z) are more comfortable with these notions that gender is not fixed.

5. Millennials embrace cancel culture. This is not straightforward. On social justice issues there is a clear generational divide, so that questions like ‘would you mind if a relative married a person of colour’ show that 35% of boomers said they would mind in 1994 but since then those figures have been declining across all cohort groups. On cancel culture the stats are quite murky. If asked if it was better to feel safe online than to speak freely, 62% of teens said they thought safety was more important than free speech, whilst 18-29 year olds were for the most part supportive of free speech. Surprisingly it was the over 60s who identically matched the statistics of the teenagers in believing that safety comes first when online.

 

 

Thus are the battle lines of this inter-generational war drawn: we boomers dislike millennials for their financial fecklessness and puritanism, whilst millennials think that boomers are selfish old fogeys who have ruined the planet that their grandchildren will inherit. Happily, just as some of the perceptions of each generation are false, so is the narrative of this confected conflict. As we move from anecdotes and stereotypes to representative data, it shows that there is actually an enormous overlap in attitudes and values between boomers and millennials. Obviously this won’t suit those who benefit from stoking all divisions in our society via so-called culture wars, but research by Nuffield College, Oxford actually shows that millennials and boomers have remarkably similar attitudes in the following ways:

 

1. It's just not true that boomers are Nimbys. The Nuffield study shows that the over 60s are just as keen as the under 40s on having new, affordable housing built in their local area. 

2. Young adults also strongly support increased spending on social care just as much as the elderly do themselves.

3. On wider economic policy there is also remarkable agreement between generations. The gap between them on attitudes towards redistributing incomes from the rich to the poor, and raising taxes in order to increase public spending is very small.

4. Some disagreement occurs on attitudes to immigration. Generally boomers want to see numbers reduced, but under 40s are either comfortable with current levels or a small rise. This is about culture more than economic policy, which may explain why millennials aren’t buying the divisive rhetoric of some politicians.

5. The most significant finding in the Nuffield research is that not only do boomers and millennials mostly share similar views, they are also sensitive to the challenges faced by the other group. After all, boomers are most often parents to millennials. If a boomer family member is struggling financially, the millennial offspring will support extra funding for the older age group, and if their millennial children cannot afford housing, then boomers are more than happy to say that they should receive help. In other words, they have each others’ backs.

 

 

We boomers may have been born at a different time and into a different world than our millennial children. The sheer size of our cohort may have given us a power denied to the generations that have come after us. However the narrative that this has led to a war between us greedy, selfish old people and puritanical, pampered young people, is, happily, just not true.  As with most of these apparently divisive issues, there is a great deal of common ground between the two groups. 

 

And, as ever, the one thing we all have in common, is our shared humanity.

 

Tricia x

 

*I have been listening to the Origin Story Podcast with Ian Dunt and Dorian Lynskey: ‘Boomers you never had it so good.’

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