America Defeats the Baby Boomers

by Jerry Cayford

Boomer-bashing is everywhere. Maybe it’s warranted, but a reality check is in order, because the bashing starts from an easy and false idea about how power has moved in American society. The recent change in House Democratic leadership is almost too perfect an example. As a “new generation” takes power in the top three offices, we quietly ignore the most interesting generational story. We griped about the old guard clinging to power, and we cheer for our new young leaders, but we don’t mention that political power skipped a generation: it passed from the pre-Baby Boom generation to the post-Baby Boom generation. The Boomers themselves were shut out of power. As usual.

Wait! Before you insist the idea of Boomers shut out of power is ridiculous, that Boomers run the world, that at most the effect would be trivial and the concern petty, let me tell you another story, one whose outlines are well known. My father came out of graduate school in 1963 into the best seller’s market academics have ever seen. The Baby Boomers were just starting to hit college age, and universities were scrambling to hire enough professors to meet this huge wave of incoming students. He waltzed into a tenure-track position at a good university in one of the most desirable cities in the world. A few years later, he got tenure, despite publishing only one paper, not even as lead author (an unthinkable feat in the publish-or-perish jungle I encountered some decades later). He stayed there the rest of his career.

Now, it is no disrespect to my wonderful father, who is smart, a terrific teacher, and a valuable asset to his university, to acknowledge that his career started at an opportune time. Contrast his experience with my sister and her husband’s, smack in the middle of the Boomer generation. The year her husband came out of grad school, there were six openings in his field in the whole country. Universities now faced shrinking enrollment as the Baby Boomers passed college age, but were stuffed with tenured faculty still in their thirties and forties. My brother-in-law got one of those six positions—a one-year, non-tenure-track post—saw the writing on the wall, and used that year to apply to the Foreign Service and a viable career.

The Baby Boomers got pretty much shut out of the academy. I tell you this story to show I am not peddling conspiracy theory, just demographic facts. (I’ll get to the conspiracy part later.) The academy is just one kind of power, the power to shape some of the thinking of the generations coming up, and some of the public conversation. I will argue that a similar dynamic occurred in the corporate world and in politics.

Let me address terminology first, though. Some people would say that one of the incoming Democratic leaders, Katherine Clark, was born in 1963 and is therefore a Baby Boomer. This is wrong; 1963 is solidly Generation X. Yes, there is a convention among certain nerdy technocrats, blind to cultural nuance and aware only of demographics, to end the Baby Boom generation with declining birth rates around 1964. But the real dividing line—the change in values and cultural consciousness—is earlier, as documented by novelist Douglas Coupland, a keen observer. The widespread adoption of the term “Generation X” comes from Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, which is about his generation (he was born in 1961, the same year as Barack Obama). Coupland is right, the technocrats wrong, and those of us who grew up through that cultural seismic shift knew the kids coming behind us—born in 1960, ‘61, ’62—were a different breed, conservative and materialistic, strangers to us Baby Boomers.

And that brings us to why it matters who gets power. Only when those who get it have different values and viewpoints from those who don’t does it really matter. Only then will the leaders make choices and decisions at odds with those they lead. And that is my thesis in drawing attention to the exclusion of Baby Boomers from power: this exclusion has been central to the suppression of progressive values in American society.

That the Baby Boomers are significantly more liberal than the generations before and after us is uncontroversial. A perfect graphic illustrating this came out during the 2020 election, showing polling on support for Biden or Trump by birth year. (NY Times newsletter 10/7/20) The graph’s curve moved from wholly Biden among the youngest voters, steadily toward Trump as people got older, with Trump support peaking at the middle of Gen X. Then it swung back until Biden support peaked at the middle of the Baby Boomers, then back to Trump for the Traditionalists (the generation of Dick Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and the old guard whose grip on power is just now loosening), and finally back to Biden among the remaining members of the Greatest Generation. Again, this is just demographics.

What demographics don’t show is the very unequal distribution of power among those generations. What happened to the Boomers in the academy is particularly clear and particularly extreme because of tenure, but the same basic dynamic was at play in business. As people grow up, they consume more, so the huge numbers of Baby Boomers created a growing demand for consumer goods. The one kind of power our generation did exercise was as consumers: in music and clothes, gadgets and movies, housing, style, and other cultural goods, we had a huge impact. In these very visible ways, we shaped the culture, and the generations brought up in our shadow can be forgiven for seeing us as a dominating presence.

The supply side of that demand explosion, though, followed the logic of the academy. Junior managers just a little older than the Boomers got promoted rapidly to meet demand. The Boomers’ own careers then followed behind this rapid growth onto job ladders where the rungs above were occupied not by a random age distribution and steady attrition, but by a glut of Traditionalists still in their prime. Disproportionately, the Baby Boomers never made it to the seats of power at the top of the business world.

Mergers and corporate concentration exacerbated this effect by shrinking the number of seats of corporate power in the society. This concentration started when Baby Boomers were mid-30s or younger, and it has continued throughout their careers. One wonders how much it was caused by pro-corporate Traditionalists reacting against anti-corporate Boomers, but that’s a bit conspiracy-sounding. Let’s just say a complicated history favored Traditionalists keeping the power they had acquired so easily; I’m trying to sketch the big picture and stay out of the weeds.

The political history does not have as simple a logic as the academy or the economy; nevertheless, the same thwarting of Baby Boomers happened in politics. The current hand-off of power from Nancy Pelosi and her two lieutenants to Hakeem Jeffries and his two lieutenants, involving only three offices, may be mostly symbolic of power passing from the Traditionalists over Boomers into the hands of Gen X. But if we dig deeper, the larger pattern holds the same for lawmakers as for academics, driven this time not by demographic inevitability but by the historical accident known as the “Watergate Babies.”

Matt Stoller tells the story in “How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul” (The Atlantic, October 24, 2016; more detail is in his eye-opening book Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy). Just months after Nixon’s resignation, the blue wave election of 1974 swept a huge freshman class of Democrats into office. (The 1970 and 1972 elections also brought many new Democrats into Congress.) As Stoller says, “Over the next 40 years, this Democratic generation fundamentally altered American politics.” What generation were these Watergate Babies? Traditionalists, of course. The oldest Boomers turned 28 in 1974, extremely young to get elected to Congress. Of the 69 first-time House Democrats elected in 1974, two were Baby Boomers and 55 were Traditionalists, alongside twelve from the Greatest Generation. (These numbers go by the conventional generation boundaries. In fairness, I would date the Boomer cultural change earlier than the demographic one; but an earlier boundary would make only a marginal difference to this Traditionalist dominance of Democratic Party politics.) Once again, the doors to power are closed to Boomers just as their careers start. This time, incumbency in political office has a similar dynamic to tenure in academia, making the exclusion effectively permanent.

Remember that cultural values are the issue, because the story is more interesting than a one-dimensional left/right spectrum. A variety of progressive values are being excluded from power. Beyond being generically more liberal, Boomers brought politics into the center of attention, and with a particularly populist orientation. Power to the people. Almost the only thing I remember from Sunday school is singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” eight or ten years before I knew who Bob Dylan was. Rock music was art, and a forum for serious discussion. The Beatles’ “Revolution” is not a simplistic response to the revolutionary zeitgeist. Doonesbury chronicled our generation best, the beautiful and the ugly, our idealism and its failures. For a “sixties revival costume ball,” several Doonesbury characters dress as the Kennedy cabinet, “the Best and the Brightest.” (“Lay some hubris on me, fellahs.” “We can WIN the war in Vietnam!!”) They mockingly quote Kennedy’s beautiful inaugural address, from memory—“The energy we bring to our endeavors will light our country! The glow from that fire can truly light the world!”—and they laugh, then stop laughing: “God. What’s happened to us?” “I dunno, man. I dunno.” Self-criticism without shirking.

It’s no secret that Democratic leadership has relentlessly recruited centrists and blocked progressive candidates for decades. The shutting out of Boomers has meant not only that the Democratic Party is at odds with its activists, and is far to the right of its base, but also that it has ceded populism to the Republicans. Populism is the most powerful political force of our time, and not by accident. Suppression breeds backlash. The Traditionalists’ respect for authority and their hierarchical thinking have controlled the reins of power even as the left-populism of the much larger Boomer generation has seeped throughout American culture. That the backlash manifests finally as right-populism and comes from the fringes is only natural when the values of the Boomer mainstream are blocked. The Establishment’s continuing hostility to populism is shown by the media’s reserving that term for the right-wing, conspiratorial, wacko version, while Bernie Sanders’s highly successful left-populism is assimilated to the term “socialism,” if it is acknowledged at all. (See Thomas Frank’s 2020 book The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism, the latest of his brilliant political analyses.)

The Democratic Party’s recent generational passing of power, then, is a perfect symbol of the dynamic we’ve seen all our lives. The Traditionalists, who have always enjoyed easy access to leadership roles, seek out like-minded Gen Xers to take over. Still, if the Baby Boomers are destined to pass through this life always the chorus, never the lead, the chorus is, in the end, a powerful voice.

Like the Democrats, Republicans are well right of their voters, meaning the whole of government is. In a democracy, leadership far out of step with the people is ultimately unstable. Either the democracy crumbles or the leaders get back in step. Our current national drama is the struggle between these two resolutions. The good news is that we are finally seeing the first steps by leadership toward an overdue correction. From timid but significant climate policy actions (long delayed by suppression of the Boomer-driven environmental movement) to tentative revival of the moribund antitrust laws (resistance to corporate power being among our defining generational markers), progressive Boomer values are making their reappearance on the political stage. Look for the chorus to grow louder.

The show is not over, and we are still here.

Keep the faith, man. We shall overcome.