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Baby boomers on their role in social change and how luck affected their prosperity

The COVID-19 shutdown and recession may have exacerbated an already growing division in popular culture between Millennials and baby boomers. On Wednesday, we heard from millennials. Tonight, we continue our look at generational tensions over economic disparities with perspective from the older generation, including our own economics correspondent, Paul Solman.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we continue our look at generational tensions in our country over economic disparities.

    The COVID-19 shutdown and recession may have exacerbated an already growing division in popular culture between millennials and baby boomers.

    Tonight, we hear from that older generation and from our own economics correspondent, Paul Solman.

  • Briana Nicholas:

    No matter what you actually accomplish or feel like you accomplish, you don't feel like you're actually moving forward in life.

  • Paul Solman:

    The millennial's lament. We heard it last night from a group of millennials.

  • Sonya Reyes:

    2020 came, still had no income. So we were living with my parents.

  • Travis Barker:

    I still feel like I'm behind the eight ball.

  • Paul Solman:

    And the pandemic has only made economic matters worse, even for our group of college grads, a group hit less hard than those without higher degrees.

  • Joe Caputo:

    Renting is basically all I kind of see for my wife and I for the foreseeable future.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, who to blame? More and more these days, it's, OK, boomer. That is, the Baby Boom, roughly, those of us born between the end of World War II and 1964, is fingered as the culprit.

    So, tonight, we give my generation the right of reply.

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    Beating up on baby boomers, it's sort of the last acceptable prejudice.

  • Paul Solman:

    Professor Lenny Steinhorn wrote "The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy" 15 years ago, when blame was already being assigned.

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    You see all of these essays and all of these articles and all of these people going on TV criticizing baby boomers, as if they're somehow singularly selfish or narcissistic or the me generation and all of that.

    And so I wanted to be able to correct the record, correct the history and put it in historical context.

  • Paul Solman:

    Part of the context, says Steinhorn, 65, is pure luck, growing up in a booming economy, as a group of boomer panelists we assembled happily did, like Joe Ferreira, 56, a high school history teacher in Massachusetts.

  • Joe Ferreira:

    When I left school, I had no debt on my shoulders. And the total amount after my second graduate degree that I had in debt was literally a $1,000 personal loan.

  • Paul Solman:

    Bert Foer was a classmate of mine at Brandeis University, became a lawyer, founded the American Antitrust Institute.

  • Bert Foer:

    When it came time to get jobs in college, the government was hiring and there were jobs in the government. And we had that advantage because of a growing economy, a booming economy, if you will.

  • Paul Solman:

    Norma MacKay from the Chicago suburbs, a retired software engineer.

  • Norma Mackay:

    I had five job offers without me doing any bit of work. I got offers from IBM, Bell Laboratories, Rockwell International, Sun Microsystems. I got to reject IBM. That was really something.

  • Paul Solman:

    Alison Adderley, a 62-year-old community college professor in Orlando, Florida.

  • Alison Adderley:

    I bought my first house when I was 24.

  • Paul Solman:

    How much did it cost?

  • Alison Adderley:

    Fifty-one thousand.

  • Paul Solman:

    That home has about tripled in value. By contrast:

  • Briana Nicholas:

    You have to lower your expectation. It's not viable.

  • Paul Solman:

    When we were their age: There was less inequality, homes were cheaper, the middle class stronger, taxes on the wealthy higher. Climate? Outsourcing? Off-shoring? No issue.

    So, did our panelists feel guilty about what's happened on our watch?

  • Norma Mackay:

    I want to apologize, because I don't feel we're leaving a better world for them. I guess we shoulder all the blame, right, because we're the people that were in charge.

  • Joe Ferreira:

    I feel somewhat guilty. Like, we dropped the ball.

  • Paul Solman:

    The other half of the panel, however, disagreed.

  • Alison Adderley:

    I don't feel guilty because I believe that it was just circumstance that put us at that time period. I do feel responsible. I don't feel guilty.

  • Bert Foer:

    I don't buy this generational guilt at all.

    I think that we were lucky. We were on a ladder that was going up with no help from us. The ladder meant that things, assets were increasing in value in ways that they are not today.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, you don't feel guilty about the tax cuts, the offshoring, the things that you think have put millennials at a disadvantage?

  • Bert Foer:

    I have probably opposed all of those things during the last 40 years. So I don't feel guilty about it. I feel frustrated. I have wanted to leave a better world for my kids and grandkids.

  • Paul Solman:

    But boomers voted for the folks who pushed these policies, no?

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    Politically, you have a very diverse country, and people vote for any number of reasons at that particular point in time.

  • Paul Solman:

    In fact, since the 1980s, boomers have, by and large, split about evenly in presidential elections. So, about half of us voted for tax cuts and freer markets, half not. Half our panel feels guilty, half not.

    And, look, says Steinhorn:

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    Economic change is often beyond the control of a generation because you're living through it. You're managing. You're trying to raise a family. You're trying to sort of support — support yourself. You're trying to put a roof over your head and food on the table and have a meaningful, if you can, livelihood in that matter.

  • Paul Solman:

    Instead of feeling guilty, he argues that baby boomers have plenty to be proud of.

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    Fundamentally, the baby boom generation took on the outdated norms of the generation before it and began to transform America.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sure, the greatest generation survived the Depression, helped win World War II. But that's not their whole legacy, says Steinhorn.

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    They were the ones who chose to move into the Levittowns and exclude Black people from those suburbs, who continue to deny the rights of women, to force gay people to go through implosive therapy or electroshock therapy because they didn't fit in.

    So, the baby boom generation saw that and fundamentally changed it.

  • Paul Solman:

    Civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ, and disability rights, no panelist felt guilty about this history.

  • Norma Mackay:

    I am very proud, yes, demonstrations on campus, peaceful demonstrations. I was there every day at lunchtime.

  • Alison Adderley:

    We may not have brought it to complete fruition, but we started a lot of it. I, as a baby boomer, I'm going to take some credit for that, as I take some blame for the other stuff as well.

  • Paul Solman:

    But what about the existential threat that millennials will face after we're long gone, global warming?

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    Under baby boomers' watch, did this happen? Sure. But this is something that's been going on for 175 years, since the dawn of the industrial era. And we are really, fully realizing the consequences of all of that now.

    So, to say that one generation is responsible for that, that's ahistorical.

  • Paul Solman:

    And please don't forget, says Steinhorn:

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    It was the baby boom generation that basically motivated Earth Day and jump-started the environmental movement.

  • Paul Solman:

    So, then how valid really is it to generalize about one generation at all?

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    You have to look at history as a far more complex phenomenon than the sort of generational divide that is really artificial as framing right now.

    So, why are we pitting a generation against each other, when, in fact, all they're basically doing is pointing a finger at baby boomers for a few bad mistakes that took place during those years, not recognizing how society has transformed since the 1950s in fundamental, deep, institutional, personal, interpersonal ways.

  • Paul Solman:

    Bert Foer agreed.

  • Bert Foer:

    You can't blame one generation, because one generation never has power, at least not for much time.

  • Paul Solman:

    Alison Adderley?

  • Alison Adderley:

    I agree. You cannot group any whole group of people together and say that they all think alike.

  • Paul Solman:

    But, as a member of the generation that popularized the phrase don't trust anyone over 30, there is one part of the millennial critique that Steinhorn applauds.

  • Leonard Steinhorn:

    I think OK, boomer, is a great phrase. I think every younger generation should stick their thumb in the eye of their elders and poke them and prod them and basically say, OK, keep — stop giving us your wisdom and stop telling us what to do. It's our turn now and we're going to do it.

  • Paul Solman:

    Handing off the baton with some relief, then, for the "PBS NewsHour, " Paul Solman.

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