Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.
At 56, Mitzi Caulfield is new to politics. She’s always voted, but never before donated to a campaign, never imagined herself in the middle of a political conflict, and definitely never carried a sign like the one she’s holding on an autumn afternoon in Long Beach, reading “Boomers for Yang–OK!”
Caulfield was born at the tail end of the baby boomer generation that came into being during the two decades following World War II, and she is still years away from retirement as a medical office manager in Whittier. And as her handmade sign indicates, even she has felt the heat of resentment from younger generations frustrated with the age group in power.
In 2019, the dismissive catchphrase “OK, boomer” came to symbolize tensions arising from younger millennials and Gen Xers impatient with progress on climate change, healthcare, social justice, and economic inequality in the age of Trump. Caulfield shares many of those concerns.
“We have 27- and 29-year-old children, and our son said to us, ‘You’ve ruined it for us.’ And we have,” Caulfield says, smiling beside her husband, John, a Boeing employee. “I was just wondering: What could we have done differently?”
Her answer was to volunteer for a presidential campaign, donating money and time canvassing for the 44-year-old entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who is vying for the Democratic nomination in 2020. Caulfield’s spirits were high as she stood with other volunteers outside last November’s California Democratic Convention in Long Beach, in stylishly cropped gray hair, sunglasses, and a campaign T-shirt that declared her candidate’s one-word slogan: “MATH.”
As for the layered message within her visually colorful campaign sign, she explains, “Some boomers are feeling insulted by the phrase ‘OK, boomer.’ I’m not insulted at all. It’s like, ‘Check yourself.’ It’s all good. I’m proud to be a boomer.”
The spotlight on this generational conflict comes just as many boomers–currently aged 55 to 75–are easing into retirement and all the economic and healthcare crises that come with age. While the “OK, boomer” meme was a relatively gentle pushback from generations X, Y and Z on their elders, it touched a nerve. One conservative radio host compared it to “the N-word,” while several outraged newspaper columnists cried ageism.
“These people run the most powerful country in the world and they’re flipping out over a hashtag?” complains author Bruce Cannon Gibney, an outspoken critic of the boomer generation, which he accuses of having low savings, high bankruptcy rates, and uncertain levels of personal responsibility. “No parent of a teenager is writing an op-ed in the New York Times about how aggrieved they are that their teenager said, ‘Whatever, dad’ when the dad’s like, ‘How do I make the Twitter work?’ Who cares?”
It also comes amid an ongoing campaign of criticism of younger Americans for their cultural quirks, their avocado toast and brightly colored hair, and for daring to be social critics of the generation in power, complaining of unequal opportunities and uncertain prospects in the future. Some in the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls are aiming their message at this increasingly important segment of the voting population, with proposals that include student loan forgiveness and marijuana legalization.
Divided, but shared concerns about economic inequality
According to a Pew Research Center study released in 2018, the current political divide between generations is as broad as it has been in decades. Millennials, born between 1981 and 1996, make up 28% of the adult population, increasingly lean “more liberal and Democratic,” and are the most ethnically diverse adult generation in U.S. history.
Millennials also hold a more positive view of immigrants (79%) than boomers (56%) and overwhelmingly oppose Trump’s plan to expand the wall at the Southern border. They are the most at ease with same-sex marriage, fear climate change, and support increased government services, particularly regarding healthcare.
There is also alignment among the generations on one issue: “Roughly half of boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials say that economic inequality in the United States is a ‘very big’ problem,” reported Pew.
These trends helped fuel the 2018 midterm election that swept away 41 congressional Republicans nationwide and delivered control of the House of Representatives to Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party. Young voters (between 18 and 29) greatly increased their turnout in that election to 31%, according to a Tufts University estimate, and that turnout will likely only increase during the high stakes 2020 election. But generational conflict won’t disappear, even with Trump’s removal from office, especially if his replacement is another chief executive in his or her 70s.
Currently, the leading Democratic candidates include former Vice President Joe Biden, 77; Sen. Bernie Sanders, 78; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, 70.
In his biting 2017 book A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America, Gibney writes that boomers are responsible for many of the world’s problems while standing in the way of progress. The generation has been fully in power since Bill Clinton ascended to the White House at the beginning of 1993.
“Just look at the birth dates of the people running for president and it’s still basically boomer versus boomer,” Gibney tells Capital & Main. “The frontrunner for now, Joe Biden, was literally the first boomer to be elected to the Senate. He’s still around, running for president. It’s been 47 years!”
Gibney’s book describes boomers as an incoherent wave of cynics and narcissists, robbing the future of resources through “generational plunder,” after inheriting the spoils of postwar America. Indifferent to soaring debt and the crumbling social fabric, it has been a generation defined by “deceit, selfishness, imprudence, remorselessness, hostility,” writes Gibney, leaving the nation at a crisis point on multiple fronts.
“Young people have just had enough of their legitimate interests being ignored,” adds Gibney, a venture capitalist born in 1976. “They’ve had enough of self-serving policies. They’ve had enough of the condescension, because the first salvo in the generational wars was all these snitty articles about millennials a couple of years ago about how they’re killing Kraft Singles and ignoring much more serious macro issues.”
Averages hide the distributions
At the same time, the stakes could not be higher as aging boomers enter Life After 65. Some are caring for older parents. Calls to privatize Social Security continue to pour in from Republicans, and cuts made during the last recession to social programs that impact older adults have not been restored, says Steven P. Wallace, an expert on aging issues and associate director at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.
Steven P. Wallace, UCLA Center for Health Policy
“There’s also a large segment that’s struggling to make ends meet.”
“Talking about boomers as if they were a class, you’re really papering over a huge variation within that group,” says Wallace, who extensively studied generational conflict earlier in his career. “If you look at averages, it’s the healthiest, best-educated generation. The problem is that averages hide the distributions. There’s also a large segment that’s struggling to make ends meet.”
A boomer in Minnesota who exited the work force at age 62 because of a work-related injury in a factory is also not living the same life as a retired accountant in Southern California with a pension, he suggests. There are multiple cracks for aging boomers to fall through. “If you’re an older widow, you’re likely to be really struggling financially and more likely to be socially isolated, which has its own health risks.”
On the federal level, Wallace has heard little serious discussion of senior issues, even as national politicians talk of strengthening benefits. “In reality,” Wallace says, “nothing much has happened.”
One positive step came with California Governor Gavin Newsom’s executive order commissioning a state plan on aging, which marks the first time California will have a coordinated vision on improving the lives of its older population. Newsom’s 10-year master plan for aging, to be unveiled in October, means California will join New York, Minnesota, and Colorado as one of the few states planning seriously for its aging population.
Wallace says several states are looking to the example of Washington state, which passed a law last April creating a long-term care benefit program that will directly impact boomers heading into retirement, old age, and failing health. Washington’s Long-Term Care Trust Act will provide residents with up to $36,500 over a lifetime for a variety of healthcare needs, including nursing and wheelchair ramps. The savings in Medicaid costs could reach $3.9 billion by 2052.
Advances in longevity need to be matched with ongoing “quality of life” support for those at retirement age, says Kim McCoy Wade, acting director at the California Department of Aging. “We really need to take a fresh look at the aging framework that was built in 1965 for our country and look where we are in 2020.”
Healthcare and housing are at the top of everyone’s priority list, but many boomers are likely to outlive their savings, while fixed incomes can’t cope with rising rents. Wade points to a new University of California, San Francisco, study that shows fully half of the Americans slipping into homelessness are older than 50. “Half of those folks [over 50] are becoming homeless for the first time in their life,” she adds, “so aging is becoming a time of social insecurity.”
Social scientists and political leaders have been anticipating the oncoming wave of aging baby boomers for decades, along with the stress on society their senior years would bring. But this won’t be an issue unique to boomers, says Wade. “The age wave is being led by the boomers, but it does not ebb afterwards,” she says, looking at data showing that the need will remain steady for generations to come. “It’ll be the new normal that we have more older people than young people.”
The promise of ‘intergenerational justice’
The Trump years have shifted some longtime political and generational allegiances. Robert Farnsworth, the 67-year-old CEO of a tech company based in Irvine, has been an active Republican his entire adult life, writing checks and hosting fundraising events in his home—until this year, when he re-registered as a Democrat and became a volunteer for millennial candidate Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
In his campaign, Buttigieg has called for “intergenerational justice.”
Farnsworth was not drawn to Buttigieg’s youth, but his time in the military, including a seven-month deployment in Afghanistan—plus “his sharpness, his intelligence, his ability to inspire, the ability to articulate issues without getting down into the weeds,” says Farnsworth. “He’s nuanced.”
Farnsworth considers himself a patriot, and left the GOP as the conservative principles once espoused by the party of George H.W. Bush gave way with the arrival of Trump and his adopted party in Washington, D.C. Though he’s solidly within the largest segment of the boomer generation, that designation means little to him. He’s a modern Californian, who is comfortable with technology, drives an electric car, and calls climate change “an existential threat.” Farnsworth rejects broad criticism of boomers as an especially destructive generation, as well as the notion that there is tension with younger Americans.
“I categorically disagree,” says Farnsworth, who founded his company 33 years ago. “My company’s created hundreds of jobs and most of my staff is young and energetic. I employ a lot of baby boomers, and I find that millennials are just as enthusiastic in their work ethic.”
While Buttigieg is on the campaign trail promising a younger generation’s perspective, Farnsworth expects boomers to be remembered in the federal budget. “Social Security and Medicare need to be stabilized because the funds are on a downward trajectory,” says Farnsworth, who is confident those looming crises will be dealt with. “I don’t have any concerns about baby boomer issues not being addressed.”
Gibney has noted Buttigieg’s rise in the polls ahead of the early Democratic primary and caucus states, along with the presence of 45-year-old Yang on the debate stage. “If the question is, what has Mayor Pete actually done, it’s a legitimate question turned right around against people who’ve been in the system for a very long time,” Gibney argues. “What has Bernie Sanders actually done?”
At 62, the Center for Health Policy Research’s Wallace himself is right in the middle of the boomer generation. The UCLA professor also worries about the future for his 30-year-old son, and whether the world will be habitable in the way he knows it today.
“There’s a legitimate set of concerns,” says Wallace. “And so I think what’s happening is those concerns are being deflected onto the baby boom generation rather than being focused on where the root causes are.”
He remembers the ’60s generation as one that largely pushed for social change, embracing movements for black power, women’s liberation, gay rights, and more. A half-century later, one of the most profound social changes was perhaps the one least expected for millennials looking to change what boomers have left them.
“They’re concerned with what the future is going to bring them,” Wallace acknowledges. “They may be the first generation in many generations who don’t do better economically as a group than their parents.”