The Age of Millennials has drawn to a close. The Pew Research Center, the arbiter of such things, has officially defined the “Millennial” generation as those who were born from 1981 to 1996. This does not mean the end of Baby Boomers talking shit about Millennials online, mind you; if anything, they’ve got even more stuff to complain about as a younger, albeit nameless generation puts us to shame.
The asininity of online discussions about generational difference masks something important: the political generation gap is today wider than ever before. It is wider than the gap for which the term “generation gap” was coined, between the postwar Boomers and their elders.
While the first generation gap was a factor in divisive issues such as the Vietnam War, recreational drug use, and whether or not rock music was any good, it was the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential race that gave a sense of its true scope. Those under 40 were 12 percentage points more likely those over 60 to support McGovern, Nixon’s Democratic challenger. On his blog Honest Graft, Boston College political scientist David Hopkins contrasts this figure with data from the 2016 election, in which those under 40 were 17 percentage points more likely to vote Democratic — an all-time high.
Generation gaps are easiest to diagnose when they coalesce around titanic cultural events. The Vietnam War was the precipitating issue for the ’60s generation gap in the U.S., which pales in comparison to the generation gap in Russia caused by the fall of the U.S.S.R. And during China’s Cultural Revolution, the young, Mao-loyal Red Guards — some of whom were middle-school aged — went out on a state-sanctioned rampage, destroying Chinese cultural artifacts and inflicting bodily harm on the teachers who once led their classrooms.
The horrors of the Cultural Revolution are somewhat less salient in the West than other 20th century authoritarian crimes, but in China they have left a serious scar on the nation’s psyche. (In The Three Body Problem, the blockbuster work of Chinese science fiction that has attracted a wide readership in the U.S., the intimate violence of the Cultural Revolution leads one young scientist to become so disillusioned in humanity’s potential for goodness that she asks aliens to come destroy the earth — obligingly, they take her up on the offer, and three novels’ worth of chaos ensues.)
Lately, though, our nation’s conservative commentators have taken to raising the specter of an All-American Cultural Revolution by referring to the recent wave of campus activism as evidence of “Maoism,” as if undergrads disrupting some speaker they find offensive were magically a precursor to Nancy Pelosi personally leading an army of antifa supersoldiers on a purge of every Republican over the age of 40.
While it’s obviously possible for young leftists to go too far or to be mistaken about a particular policy or issue — they’re college students, after all, working through their political beliefs in a polarized era — this non-issue gets amplified by outrage-based conservative media outlets who assemble every minor campus excess into a narrative that universities are growing more repressive by the day. By some metrics, this is the opposite of what’s happening: the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education tracks changes in campus policies towards free speech and reports 10 consecutive years in which the number of universities with “severely restrictive speech codes” has declined. With Breitbart running stories with titles like “Top 10 Craziest College Campus Stories of 2017,” though, you can see how Boomers might be encouraged see Mao lurking in the shadows of every “safe space.”
Part of the reason that Boomers find it easy to see Millennials so differently is that to them, the country is pretty much the same as it was when they were young. The lack of a politico-cultural upheaval of the World War II/Cultural Revolution variety allows them to see the Millennial experience as basically the same as theirs, plus those damn phones (and these, and those, and all these damn phones too).
The economic conditions that structure the Millennial experience, though, are extremely different. The bulk of the explanation for this difference has nothing to do with Millennials; it’s actually the Boomer generation that experienced unique economic conditions that allowed them to thrive.
Discussions of Millennial-relevant economic trends tend to focus on the rising cost of housing and the explosive growth in tuition costs. More recent attention, though, has focused on the macroeconomic puzzle of the growing productivity-wage gap. Worker productivity — the amount of economic output given a fixed economic input — has risen steadily since the end of WWII. For the first 28 years, wages kept pace, but in 1973, the “great divergence” occurs, which someone on Twitter recently termed the “avocado toast gap.”
The graph is indeed striking. But which time period is “normal” — 1945 to 1973, or 1973 to the present?
The fundamental determinant of wages is the value of labor, and the value of labor in the postwar U.S. was extremely high: the rest of the worlds’ factories were destroyed, while ours were not. Globalization hadn’t taken off, so there was no competition between, say, auto workers in the U.S. and auto workers abroad. In a globally connected economy where nearly any job can be hypothetically automated or outsourced, the value of American manufacturing labor is simply lower than it was before. The erosion of union power has certainly exacerbated the trend, but collective bargaining can only increase wages if the revenue is there to begin with.
The reason this matters for understanding contemporary intergenerational conflict is that relative wealth is all we can really observe in our own communities. A wave of headlines accompanied a 2016 report headed by Raj Chetty called "The Fading American Dream": for the first time in history, people born in the early ’80s (the oldest Millennials) were only 50 percent more likely to earn more money than their parents, a metric Chetty refers to as “absolute mobility."
But if you dig into Chetty’s actual data, a different story emerges. Among people born during World War II, an astonishing 90 percent earned more than their parents, who’d been slapped with the Great Depression to deal with in the decade before they had kids. Similarly, when the oldest Boomers were born in 1946, there was an 86 percent chance they’d out-earn their parents. But by the time Generation X came about in the early ’60s, “absolute mobility” had already decreased to around 60 percent.
Although the idea of “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps” has long been part of the American mythology, this is actually the lived reality of a significant number of Boomers — after all, boomers were much more likely to be first-generation college students than Millennials are. Meanwhile, while the poverty rate has declined since 1959 overall, in the wake of the Great Recession, young people have become more likely to be impoverished than olds. All of this helps to illustrate the uniqueness of the Boomer generation, and perhaps the genesis of their disdain for Millennial concerns.
It seems unlikely that Boomers will ever fully appreciate the effects the economic changes of the 2000s have had on the lives of Millennials. And in the absence of some kind of massive culture-dividing event, age has become the primary point of political cleavage. This was particularly pronounced in the 2016 Democratic Iowa Caucus, when Bernie Sanders won 84 percent of Millennials and Hillary Clinton won 69 percent of the vote among Boomers. The long-term case for optimism is that such a climate seems to be energizing young voters, setting up a generation who’ll be politically active for their entire lives.
But given the distribution of power in society, it’s almost an inevitability that economic concerns specific to Millennials will go under-addressed in the short run. For now, if we want to affect any sort of meaningful change, the best we can do is focus on increasing intergenerational communication in the hopes of forging a mutual understanding. In other words, call your grandparents!
Update: This article has been amended to remove the political characterization of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.