Boomers ruined everything? This is no time to play the generational blame game

Oliver Burkeman
These judgments come with a large dollop of bias – we’re all motivated to believe that our age group is superior. As a member of Generation X, I naturally derive much of my self-esteem from reflecting on the fact that I’m neither older nor younger than I am. On one hand, the baby boomers’ ruination of the planet (and the property market) was well under way before I’d even learned to ride a bike. On the other, not being a millennial or Z-er, at least I learned to ride a bike, rather than spending my childhood in a darkened room staring at a screen in preparation for a career writing articles explaining to my elders why the films they liked as teenagers were actually horribly problematic. In short, I have examined the evidence for the merits of each generation, and reached the dispassionate conclusion that mine is best. Perhaps you’ll object that this is a load of nonsense; my defence is that almost everything we think we know about the generations is nonsense. Partly, that’s just because there’s too much variation within generations to generalise very much, and the lines we draw between them are arbitrary. But it’s also because it’s all but impossible to pick apart what’s attributable to membership of a given generation, versus being a given age. For example, a phenomenon known as the “reminiscence bump” means older people retain more vivid memories of their youth than their middle years, and those memories are more likely to be positive, too. So as you age, and other memories fade, you’re more likely to conclude that life today, and young people, are much worse than in the past. Then again, “the boomers ruined everything” argument, beloved of millennials, isn’t much less suspect. There’s plenty wrong with the world today and, well, of course that’s the fault of an earlier generation. But the true test of boomer awfulness will come in 50 years, when we see if the generation levelling the charge screwed things up any less. The most blatant instances of this confusion are the insults hurled at millennials and Generation Z: mainly that they’re a) narcissistic and b) irritatingly entitled and uncommitted in their attitudes to their jobs. There’s a case to be made that these claims are false, yet as the psychologist David Costanza explains, even if they’re true, they’re probably age-related. Younger people have always tended to be more narcissistic. And we use the first part of our careers to try things out, so it’s hardly surprising that the older you get, the more likely you are to be satisfied with your job. So we should be honest with ourselves. Even when there’s merit in our judgments of others, there’s such a large dollop of bias – motivated by a need to feel superior, or to find someone to blame – that we can’t trust any conclusions we reach. In my case, I assume it’s a form of mid-life crisis: I’m trying to distance myself from death, by defining myself against an older cohort; at the same time, I’m bolstering myself against the threat of professional replacement by people with more energy, and life ahead of them, than I have. Which is a pity. If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, we’re all in the same handbasket; it might not be the best use of our time to be debating who has the best seat. Read this In his 2018 book The Happiness Curve, Jonathan Rauch marshals uplifting evidence that life gets better after 50, regardless of your generation.

As a member of Generation X, I naturally derive much of my self-esteem from reflecting on the fact that I’m neither older nor younger than I am. On one hand, the baby boomers’ ruination of the planet (and the property market) was well under way before I’d even learned to ride a bike. On the other, not being a millennial or Z-er, at least I learned to ride a bike, rather than spending my childhood in a darkened room staring at a screen in preparation for a career writing articles explaining to my elders why the films they liked as teenagers were actually horribly problematic. In short, I have examined the evidence for the merits of each generation, and reached the dispassionate conclusion that mine is best.

Perhaps you’ll object that this is a load of nonsense; my defence is that almost everything we think we know about the generations is nonsense. Partly, that’s just because there’s too much variation within generations to generalise very much, and the lines we draw between them are arbitrary. But it’s also because it’s all but impossible to pick apart what’s attributable to membership of a given generation, versus being a given age. For example, a phenomenon known as the “reminiscence bump” means older people retain more vivid memories of their youth than their middle years, and those memories are more likely to be positive, too. So as you age, and other memories fade, you’re more likely to conclude that life today, and young people, are much worse than in the past.

Related: Why playtime for adults won’t bring your childhood back | Oliver Burkeman

Then again, “the boomers ruined everything” argument, beloved of millennials, isn’t much less suspect. There’s plenty wrong with the world today and, well, of course that’s the fault of an earlier generation. But the true test of boomer awfulness will come in 50 years, when we see if the generation levelling the charge screwed things up any less.

The most blatant instances of this confusion are the insults hurled at millennials and Generation Z: mainly that they’re a) narcissistic and b) irritatingly entitled and uncommitted in their attitudes to their jobs. There’s a case to be made that these claims are false, yet as the psychologist David Costanza explains, even if they’re true, they’re probably age-related. Younger people have always tended to be more narcissistic. And we use the first part of our careers to try things out, so it’s hardly surprising that the older you get, the more likely you are to be satisfied with your job.

So we should be honest with ourselves. Even when there’s merit in our judgments of others, there’s such a large dollop of bias – motivated by a need to feel superior, or to find someone to blame – that we can’t trust any conclusions we reach. In my case, I assume it’s a form of mid-life crisis: I’m trying to distance myself from death, by defining myself against an older cohort; at the same time, I’m bolstering myself against the threat of professional replacement by people with more energy, and life ahead of them, than I have. Which is a pity. If the world is going to hell in a handbasket, we’re all in the same handbasket; it might not be the best use of our time to be debating who has the best seat.

Read this

In his 2018 book The Happiness Curve, Jonathan Rauch marshals uplifting evidence that life gets better after 50, regardless of your generation.