The Lasting Legacy of Baby Boomers

Earlier this year marked the inauguration of America’s oldest president, Joe Biden, who at 78 years old emerged victorious in a battle of two septuagenarians. Joe Biden is four years older than his predecessor, 74-year old former President Donald Trump, and 74-year-old Bill Clinton, the president in 1992. How is it that 29 years later, our ruling generation remains the same? In this first installment of a three-part Regional Focus, we’ll examine America’s generational past, present, and future and how demographic shifts are poised to reshape American politics. 

     The Baby Boomer generation was born between 1946-1964. The generation was named after the unprecedented increase in birth rates after World War II, partly because American soldiers returned home ready to start families. Currently numbering 73 million Americans, the Baby Boomer generation was only recently surpassed in 2020 by Millennials as the largest demographic group. Yet Baby Boomers have not felt the need to pass the power of leadership to the next generation, despite holding a full majority of seats in Congress for twenty-one out of the thirty-four years. Clinton, George W. Bush, and Trump are part of the Baby Boomer generation, as well as who many predict will be the generation’s swansong: Biden, who has selected Kamala Harris, a 56-year-old Gen Xer as his Vice-President and de facto successor.

     Having occupied many positions of power over the years, the Baby Boomers leave behind a long and complicated legacy. They grew up in the prosperous world of post-WWII America, where job openings were plentiful and opportunities rife. For example, the average annual college tuition in 1965, adjusted for inflation, was $450. For reference, the average in-state university in 2020 cost $25,000 for a single year. 

The Baby Boom generation legislated numerous tax cuts and unprecedentedly large entitlement programs designed to benefit almost exclusively themselves. 

When discussing his 2017 book “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America,” author Bruce Gibney said, “The Boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it. They habitually cut their own taxes and borrow money without any concern for future burdens. They’ve spent virtually all our money and assets on themselves and in the process have left a financial disaster for their children.”

Ruy Teixeira, a Boomer and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, argued that the Baby Boom generation’s supposed arrogance is explainable: “[Boomers] grew up in an era when there was something close to full employment almost all the time. Wages were going up with productivity, and productivity was going up very fast. Incomes were growing at the rate of 2 percent a year, something that we haven’t seen since.” The Baby Boom generation’s actions have made it empirically harder for the good times to keep rolling. 

The Boomer generation failed to invest in safeguarding the American economy’s future. Post-war industrialism generated, among other things, America’s vast interstate highway system built during President Eisenhower’s tenure. At the time of Ronald Reagan’s election, America was widely held to have the most advanced infrastructure in the world. Today, the American Society of Civil Engineers maintains that America has at least a $4 trillion deficit in deferred infrastructure maintenance.

 “It’s crumbling and the Boomers have allowed it to crumble,” said Gibney. 

The Baby Boom Generation is often held culpable for the decay of the American public education system. Reagan established a substantial precedent of dramatically slashing educational budgets – even threatening, at one point, to abolish the Department of Education entirely. The overall result of the failure to invest in American public schools was America’s falling annual international education rankings. Higher education has likewise suffered. Boomers themselves benefitted from the Higher Education Act of 1965. The act provided tuition grants, guaranteed student loans, and work-study funds, allowing a large number of students to attend college for virtually nothing. Neglect of financial aid programs has encouraged enormous tuition hikes and predatory loan companies to prey on younger generations.

     Climate change is another area in which Boomers have been highly criticized. The Boomer generation is responsible for a tremendous uptick in fossil fuel usage, and older Congress members have routinely blocked legislation aimed at combating the effects of carbon emission. When President Obama was elected and attempted to curtail fossil fuel usage, the massive backlash led by the Boomers partly led to Trump’s success in the subsequent election. This backlash saw a rollback on dozens of restrictions on fossil fuel usage, America’s exit of the Paris Climate Accords, and a President who mocked a man for “listening to the scientists.” The Baby Boomers’ dependency on fossil fuels is widely unsupported by popular opinion in a country where renewable energy already provides three times the number of jobs that the fossil fuel industry does.

     But perhaps the most significant impact of the Baby Boomers is on the fundamental class structure of the U.S. In 1963, the top effective tax rate was a stunning 91 percent. At the time of America’s largest economic boom, it was the mentality of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” that embodied the American approach to society. However, Baby Boomers flipped that notion on its head by pushing for privatized gain and the socialized risk for big banks, which led to the Great Recession of 2008, and then harshly diminished the power of unions while loosening tax regulations on massive stock buybacks – policy moves that economics say directly caused massive increases in the salaries of CEOs and a marginal tax rate which sees the top 400 most wealthy Americans paying less than the bottom 50%. At the time of writing this article, American wealth inequality is more extreme than it was in 1788 France, the year before elites were executed en masse and social hierarchies were upended.

Whether in the realm of infrastructure, wealth inequality, climate preparedness, or social security, the Baby Boomer generation in America has earned much criticism for their handling of America’s future. Their great failure as a generation is that, in dining on America’s resources, they have failed to reserve and invest for their children and grandchildren; for the first time in the Western World, younger generations are expected to live worse lives on average than the generations that came before them. There’s no question that the impact of Boomers will live on in the future, but their influence, after four decades of dominating American politics, is finally dwindling. In the next two installments of the Regional Focus series, I will cover what the massive power vacuum this generation will leave means for Americans.