Millennials have a reputation for being entitled, self-absorbed and lazy, but a new book argues that their parents are actually a bigger danger to society.
In “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Boomers Betrayed America,” Bruce Cannon Gibney traces many of our nation’s most pressing issues, including climate change and the rising cost of education, back to baby boomers’ idiosyncrasies and enormous political power. Raised in an era of seemingly unending economic prosperity with relatively permissive parents, and the first generation to grow up with a television, baby boomers developed an appetite for consumption and a lack of empathy for future generations that has resulted in unfortunate policy decisions, argues Gibney, who is in his early 40s. (That makes him Generation X.)
“These things conditioned the boomers into some pretty unhelpful behaviors and the behaviors as a whole seem sociopathic,” he said.
The book comes as Americans of all ages are sorting through a new political reality, which Gibney argues that boomers delivered to us through years of grooming candidates to focus on their political priorities such as, preferential tax treatment and entitlement programs, and then voting for them in overwhelming numbers. Though these circumstances are new, making the argument that a generation — particularly boomers — are to blame for society’s ills is part of a storied tradition, said Jennifer Deal, the senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, a leadership development organization with campuses in San Diego, Colorado, North Carolina and Latin America.
“There are a lot of people who like to blame the baby boomers for stuff and this has been going on for as far as I can tell since the late 60s,” Deal said.
Indeed, a 1969 article in Fortune magazine warned that the group of then-20-somethings taking over the workplace were prone to job-hopping and having their egos bruised. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it is. There’s no shortage of articles describing millennials similarly. Both are indicative of a natural human tendency to want to explain the world and other people through the lens of group mentalities, said Deal.
“Everybody can think of someone older or someone younger who has done something annoying,” she said. “Everybody likes a good scapegoat.”
Still, Gibney, a venture capitalist, argues there is something inherently different about the boomers from the generations that preceded them and those that followed: a sense of entitlement that comes from growing up in a time of economic prosperity.
Before the baby boomers came around, the so-called Greatest Generation came of age in a time of war and depression and learned firsthand the benefits of social solidarity and so they continued to invest in society throughout their lives, Gibney said. Younger Generation X and the millennials have suffered through the dot-com crash, great recession and other economic woes. “I don’t think that people much under 40 believe that prosperity is automatic anymore,” Gibney said.
It makes sense that these experiences might produce some generational conflict, said Heidi Hartmann, an economist and president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Millennials, now the largest generation, came of age in a weak labor market with high levels of student debt and have waited for the boomers to give up their tight grip on their jobs to make room.
“When a big generation graduates from high school and college into a soft labor market, they’re obviously going to start looking at how the other generations are doing,” Hartmann said.
Millennials’ concerns about a lack of good jobs and high levels of student debt are real, Hartmann said, but she doesn’t blame the boomers and their focus on keeping their entitlement programs secure. Instead, it’s an outsize focus on other priorities, like defense, she said. “If you cut the benefits for the boomers, you’re not helping their children at all because then those children are going to have to support those boomers,” she said.
Gibney sees it differently. He points to a general election where both candidates were hesitant to discuss entitlement reform or tax increases as one of the reasons why climate change, high levels of student debt and a last minute, backstop approach to infrastructure may continue indefinitely.
“My assertion isn’t that all boomers are sociopaths, but that a sufficiently large percentage of them behave in ways that appear to be sociopathic and because they’re such a large generation … any personality defects could easily translate into political dysfunction. I think that is what happened.”