As the author of One Nation Under AARP, a book about the boomers’ potential political responses to the growing threat of Social Security and Medicare cutbacks, I’ve been waiting for this 78-million-strong population to rally to the cause of defending these federal programs.
It hasn’t happened.
The major impediment to their mobilization? The way boomers have been perceived. Truth is: The boomers have become a “bad brand.”
A Selfish Generation?
In 1967, Time named boomers its Person of the Year. But today, self-critical boomer pundits and politicians have contributed to stereotypes of 48- to 66-year-olds as a profligate, selfish generation fixated on short-term gratification while running up mountainous debts that jeopardize not only their future, but also their children’s and grandchildren’s. (See the Next Avenue blog post: The Dirty Little Secret About Baby Boomer Debt.)
The term "boomer" has become an epithet of derision. Books and websites with “boomer” in the title usually flop. Advertisers shun the term “baby boomer” even while targeting this relatively rich demographic that controls $2 trillion in annual spending, according to eMarketer.com.
Time for Boomers to Rebrand Themselves
It’s about time that boomers “rebrand” themselves loudly and proudly, proclaiming their positive legacy of social and cultural change.
The boomers’ Greatest Generation parents are celebrated for enduring the Great Depression and for saving democracy in World War II. However, as Leonard Steinhorn argues in The Greater Generation, boomers receive far less credit for “fighting the war at home” against racism, sexism and homophobia.
Their older brothers and sisters may have initially led the 1960s protest movements, but it was left to maturing boomers to institutionalize long overdue changes in race relations, gender equity and gay and lesbian civil rights.
Ken Burns, the award-winning director and producer of PBS documentaries, recently wrote on Next Avenue that boomers are a “generation so influential and positive that it is hard to fathom the contempt directed our way.”
Boomers Bashing Boomers
But in order to mount an effective defense of government entitlements, this generation will need to transcend the divisive trend of "boomers bashing boomers" and replace their greedy, self-centered reputation with a more positive identity.
“Spoiled brat baby boomers!” is Rush Limbaugh’s stock putdown for his own generation. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol (also a boomer) wrote that The Greatest Generation’s major mistake was that “it begat the boomers.”
More moderate and liberal boomers are also critical of their cohorts.
Washington Post columnist and boomer Paul Samuelson, for instance, routinely chides his generation for failing to deal with the growing national debt.
Similarly, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson urges young people to “blame the baby boomers” for the nation’s economic woes. He challenged young adults in the Occupy Wall Street movement to redirect their criticism towards the boomer-driven, antitax Tea Party. "The real distributional conflict of our time," he argued, "is not between percentiles, much less classes, but between generations.”
The Daily Show comedian Lewis Black has offered this assessment: “’The legacy of my generation right now…is that we basically have screwed everything up.…We made greed kind of acceptable….We forgot what the social contract is. It’s unbelievable. We tore it up. And we were the people who said we were going to make it better. A-ha-ha-ha.’”
Mea Culpa Commencement Speeches
After the 2008 stock market crash, several high-profile boomer college commencement speakers issued a generational mea culpa for mismanaging the economy.
Speaking at Iowa’s Grinnell College, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman likened his generation to “the grasshopper generation, eating through just about everything like hungry locusts.” A contrite Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels told Butler University grads, “We borrowed and splurged and will leave you a staggering pile of bills to pay.”
Generational guilt, in turn, has led to proposals for collective atonement.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof suggested that boomers become “Geezers Doing Good,” emulating the Microsoft chief-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates and devoting the same intensity to a “give-back revolution” they once did to the sexual revolution.
In an April 2010 Atlantic cover story, Michael Kinsley proposed age-based penance in the form of a progressive inheritance tax that would reduce the debt wrought by old-age entitlements.
Dispelling the Boomers' Bad Brand
Apparently, it will be difficult for boomers to dispel their bad brand.
Few boomers—or anyone else—ever challenge these stereotypes. (One who did: Wall Street Journal Editorial Page economics writer and libertarian Stephen Moore, who extolled our economic achievements in This Boomer Isn’t Going to Apologize.)
What’s more, boomer bashing has become, to some degree, a luxury sport for upper middle class, well-educated boomers of all political affiliations.
Potential For Pain in Retirement
But if you're thought to be greedy and to have caused economic wreckage, anything you do to make a case for why you deserve government benefits will just come across as the same old sense of entitlement. Avoiding political activity to resist cutbacks seems to be a result of the boomers' desire not to fuel their bad image.
But this passive stance could lead poor, working-class and middle-class Americans to bear a terrible burden. Those groups would disproportionately face old age without pensions or adequate retirement savings.
Will boomer labels like "selfish" and "irresponsible" ever fade?
There is hope. Sort of.
A 2009 Zogby Interactive poll asked 4,811 adults of all ages to define baby boomers’ collective legacy. The most popular answer (42 percent): “ushering in an era of consumerism and self-indulgence.”
Another 32 percent was split between “nothing at all," "nothing really special” and “not sure."
But 27 percent hailed boomers for “helping to bring lasting change in social and cultural values and ending a war.”
Maybe that’s a start to help stave off what could be a national retirement crisis.