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Maea Lenei Buhre
Maea Lenei Buhre
The downturn of the pandemic economy has hit many groups hard. But for many millennials — those born between 1981 and 1996 — and Generation Z, who follow them, that pain — plus a number of other factors — are creating questions about who is responsible. Over the next few nights, economics correspondent Paul Solman is going to examine this. He begins tonight from the perspective of some millennials.
As we have long reported, the downturn of the pandemic economy has hit many Americans hard.
And for a number of millennials born between 1981 and 1996, and Generation Z, who follow them, that pain, plus a number of other factors, are leading some to ask, who is responsible?
Over the next couple of nights, economics correspondent Paul Solman is going to examine this generational tension, beginning tonight from the perspective of some millennials.
Baby boomers, greatest generation, got all the money, now we got the vaccination.
On "Saturday Night Live," this season, an OK, boomer, takedown.
Got a job out of college, no student debt, retirement funded 100 percent.
It just sort of encapsulates the sort of whole sense of unfairness, where it's always the boomers first and their kids last.
Bruce Gibney, author of "A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America," says vaccinating the elderly first made perfect sense from a public health standpoint.
The challenge is, is that after years of abusive behavior on the part of the boomers, this might be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Gibney says the pandemic has fueled a growing resentment of baby boomers, which he marks a bit earlier, those of us born between 1940 and 1965, rather than just after the war.
It's a resentment among millennials, 1981 to 1996, whose economic prospects have been supposedly been sacrificed to help greedy, ungrateful boomers, oblivious to the realities facing the young.
The millennials and Generation Z have the Peter Pan syndrome. They don't ever want to grow up.
This 2019 TikTok video helped popularize the phrase "OK, boomer," as a retort to the boomer critique:
You're going to mature and you're to realize nothing's free, that things aren't equal, and that your utopian society you have created in your youth is simply not sustainable.
How do real-life millennials respond?
Very offended, because I am a very hard worker.
All we want to do is sit around, watch Netflix or play video games.
Like, based on everyone I know and even myself, I'm not sure where that notion comes from.
The biggest thing is, like, we want their things. Like, we want their house and we want their bank account.
A boomer myself, by Bruce Gibney's broader definition, since I was born in 1944, I asked four millennials for their take; 37-year-old Travis Barker lives outside of Denver, Colorado, was laid off during the pandemic.
In Gilroy, California, 29-year-old Sonya Reyes, daughter of Mexican immigrants and mother of two, put herself through college, only recently saved enough to move out of her parents' home. Briana Nicholas, 28, an accountant in Philadelphia, has two hundred thousand dollars in student debt for her degree in historic preservation. And 34-year-old Joe Caputo in Oklahoma City worked odd jobs for years, all college grads, heading toward middle age, scraping by.
I have a four-year degree. I have — honorably discharged in the military. I have worked overseas. I have never been arrested. I never failed a class. And yet I still feel like I'm behind the eight ball. There's no doubt that you guys had it easier than we do.
Like Travis said, no matter what you actually accomplish or feel like you accomplish, you don't feel like you're actually moving forward in life. It's like you don't feel like you can actually become a full adult.
We had to move from San Jose to Gilroy because San Jose was just too expensive.
But you're a two-income family, right? You can't afford even to buy a house in Gilroy?
No, the houses in Gilroy are a bit cheaper than San Jose, but not like to the point where I by myself and my husband can afford a house.
Renting is basically all I kind of see for my wife and I for the foreseeable future, just because we can budget for it.
OK, we bought houses when they were way cheaper. But does that make us sociopaths?
The most important thing about sociopaths is that they really — they don't have a great sense of obligations to others.
For Bruce Gibney, writer, jackpot winner as an early investor in PayPal and Facebook, the economic anxieties of millennials are the result of decades of sociopathic choices by boomers who grew up in a booming America.
They had an enormous tailwind, and they really — they decided to set a direction that really only benefited themselves.
They, you mean me, right? You mean me and my friends?
I do. I do.
Every stretch of farm and factory to market road earns profits for all the nation.
Gibney says we boomers benefited from investments in roads, new schools, education, paid for with taxes on previous generations.
But when it was the boomers' turn to give, we continued to take, tax cuts, expanded Medicare and Social Security, an imbalance that led to an explosion of debt. Gibney points out that, when he was born, in 1976, the national debt was about a third the size of the annual economy. After decades of boomers at the helm, he says, it's now some 130 percent.
And while millennials are the largest portion of the work force, the Federal Reserve just reported they have less than 5 percent of the country's wealth. The boomers meanwhile, had four times that percentage at around the same age.
Do you blame my generation for the difficulty that the millennials, for example, are now having, high college costs, high student debt, can't afford a house and so forth?
I do, to a large degree. And we see it in the explosion of student debt, which the government didn't keep records on in the early 1960s, because it wasn't economically significant.
Today, it's $1.7 trillion. The schools were in excellent shape when the boomers came of age. They are in appalling shape now, worse in the aggregate even than our roads and bridges. That is astonishing levels of political neglect.
Nothing has been done with respect ,at a serious level, regarding the environment. And it's not as if the boomers didn't know that these were going to be problems.
Did the millennial panel agree that the policies, that we put in place or just allowed to happen are what have put you at such a disadvantage?
That's certainly how it feels to me.
After 30, 40 years, you look back on the policies and you see the income gap ,your purchasing power and the cost of education and housing has gone way up compared to wages.
And once you look back on that, and you still don't acknowledge your part in that in, that's when it kind of becomes hard to understand how they justify that.
Well, they is me, right?
Exactly, yes, you. How do you justify that?
No. Individually, these people, I don't think, are sociopaths, like you referenced that book. But, on a policy level, absolutely are. It's hard to describe you guys as anything other than that.
Briana Nicholas had a less clinical diagnosis.
Boomer is kind of like a filler word for status quo. Like, it's not the generation itself. It's just the fact that, like, the unwillingness to understand that things have changed, things are changing, and kind of keep it the way it is because it worked for them, assuming that it'll work for everyone else. And that's just not true.
But wait a minute. What about the '60s, when boomers worldwide were coming of age and pushing back against previous generations for civil rights, feminism, gay rights?
Don't we get credit for that?
No. And if you look at the chronology, you can see that this is just true, desegregation of schools, Brown vs. Board of Education 1954. Average boomer is 2. Pretty sure they're not on the Supreme Court.
Civil Rights Act of 1964, average median boomer is 12, again, not a constituency, not in power. Voting Rights Act of 1965, again, not a constituency, not in power. Median boomer is 13. And so on down the line.
And the legion of boomers who started Earth Day, voted against the tax cuts, carried the flag for social change?
Yes, I agree that, while boomers are, as individuals, good and bad, just like any other generation, any other group of people, as a political generation, they have systematically favored policies that have benefited themselves, at the expense of others.
So what now? Any hope for the millennials?
Well, we're going to pass on. And, as I pointed out to the panel, the amount of money that boomers have made and saved will go to you all, right?
It's a little morbid to have to wait for your relatives to die to have some kind of financial success.
I should be able, with my career, with my husband's career, be able to save enough money to have financial security, plus living in an adequate home.
And who's to argue that she shouldn't be?
Well, in our next story, we will hear the somewhat surprising response from the boomers themselves.
I want to apologize, because I don't feel we're leaving a better world for them.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Paul Solman, born in 1944.
Watch the Full Episode
Paul Solman has been a business, economics and occasional art correspondent for the PBS NewsHour since 1985.
Frank Carlson is a general assignment producer at the PBS NewsHour, where he's been making video since 2010. @frankncarlson
Maea Lenei Buhre is a general assignment producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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