From time to time I read rants by Gen Xers (the generation born between 1965 and 1982) about how Baby Boomers have stolen all the good jobs and there is no upward mobility because we are hogging everything. How we are completely self-absorbed, selfish, and fatuous. We’re whiners, too.
I get tired of these rants because I haven’t had the wonderful free ride the envious Gen Xers describe. Neither have many of my friends from the Baby Boom. The generation that graduated in the 1960s and 1970s, whether from high school or from college, has faced unprecedented competition for jobs our whole lives. This employment competition never slacked off except in the technology bubble days of the late 1990s, when there were jobs available at all levels, from those that merely expected a person to show up and be able to walk and talk at the same time, to much more skilled positions. Gen Xers, by contrast, have had minimal competition for entry level jobs. Their struggle is for jobs that call for depth of experience (which they still might not have) and for technical know-how (which they have a better shot at than the long-out-of-school Boomers). So why all the complaining about us?
Is it that the Baby Boom wants to be front and center in our national culture, and has refused to pass the torch to younger people? Pretty much. But this has happened before. In the 1960s there was a batch of major movie stars who were still playing leading men long after they were of grandfather age: Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, and Gary Cooper. Frank Sinatra, a 1940s icon, was still front and center in his revived musical career, marrying a kid (Mia Farrow) to recapture his long-gone youth. The hard split between the Baby Boom generation and the Greatest Generation wasn’t merely political, pro or anti the Vietnam War. It was social. The older generation detested rock and roll and refused to listen to it. The younger generation grew facial hair. Substitute rap music and tattoos and it all sounds very recent, doesn’t it?
As for materialism, I don’t think Baby Boomers can be considered more materialistic than any other generation of Americans. We have had more opportunities to own more things than previous generations, it is true. But once credit became available to the bulk of the middle class, credit card debt began appearing at all age levels. A large portion of the credit card debt in this country is owed by people well under the age of 40.
Baby Boomers got through college without creating the credit card debt that college students routinely create now because none of us had credit cards. Did we have fun during college? Yes. But many of us had allowances, or worked part-time to pay for our fun. Today’s college students put their fun on credit cards and walk out of school with an average debt of at least $2,500. (Some experts say as much as $6,000.) This is personal debt, not living expenses or tuition debt. It’s for electronics, clothing, and vacations, and other luxury items that college students that came before either were given, earned, or did without. There were always wealthy kids in colleges. Their parents bought them cars, and not just jalopies, as the expression used to be, but nice cars: A cute little MG or an expensive antique Ford. And let’s not count the dozens of Villager sweaters and skirts, fancy makeup mirrors, and office typewriters. The Baby Boomers had plenty of material goods. None of them were paid for on credit because our parents did not have credit cards, either. Cash ruled.
The Baby Boom may have had more financial backing than previous or later generations, but many of our mothers went back to work at lousy jobs to finance our educations. That’s one reason we didn’t have enormous college loans. For four years, every penny my mother netted from her job went to pay for my college costs. She always told me it was the best investment of her life, which was very gracious of her. I repaid her by graduating and by then supporting myself as an adult. Yes, Baby Boomers mostly did manage to support themselves, instead of having to go home to live with their parents indefinitely. But some stayed behind, and a significant portion of us have always been underemployed. Plenty of us are facing the future without pensions, savings, or sizable Social Security benefits to come. Especially the women who, like me, did the stay-at-home mom thing while freelancing, and worked various jobs instead of having one straight-line career–and have the spotty resumes to prove it.
Even so, as a group the Baby Boom has worked just as hard, and for equally long hours, as any modern generation. Until the 1940s, the typical office work week used to include half Saturdays and was 44 hours. For a short period, a few decades, the 40-hour work week was the standard. But in the 1970s, when the Baby Boom went to work, we started hearing about young lawyers and ambitious yuppies working 80-hour weeks. Today, the new work week for everyone with a serious job unofficially includes evenings, weekends, and even vacations. There is mandatory overtime. There are 12-hour work days. Cell phones, PDAs, and laptop computers make it possible to interrupt and enslave workers no matter where they go. My husband and I did escape by vacationing in Antarctica and a few other very inaccessible places in the world. But on all of our travels, we’ve carried computers or phones and checked in regularly. Much time was spent working by computer in our hotel rooms.
Do the Baby Boomers have better jobs than the Gen Xers? The ones who prospered do. But there are many, many Baby Boomers who merely scratch a subsistence living and have never done better than that. Artists, writers, teachers, adjunct professors, store employees, and more. There are many more of us who have had a toehold on prosperity, but have been merged, downsized, laid off, and globalized right out of our careers. We have never recovered that toehold. We never will, either, because many of those jobs no longer exist, and because ageism severely limits job prospects. Yes, in theory anyone can work at service sector jobs. But as people age, their physical abilities diminish. Not every person can work all day standing on hard concrete and running a cash register, or sitting at a computer screen and answering customer complaints, or lifting cartons and stocking shelves. With a huge available work force, large companies carefully screen potential hires and illegally rule out older workers who might actually need to use medical benefits. Another ploy is to limit older workers to fewer hours of work per week than what will qualify them for benefits. As for good jobs, well, those are hard come by for anyone over age fifty who doesn’t have a particular skill that is in high demand, or a solid network of well-placed contacts. A run of good luck helps, too. I myself have been laid off numerous times from promising jobs because of mergers, downsizing, globalization, and more. This is despite having gone back to college numerous times to update my skills. I think I’ve finally given up on that, considering how little it gained me in the long term.
I have heard more outright whining from Gen X than I ever have from the Baby Boom. But maybe I wasn’t listening carefully until my generation was being attacked by a younger group. I certainly did my share of criticizing the older generations when I was young myself, and I know they criticized the Baby Boomers. The persistent tone of Gen X seems to be a combination of envy and jealousy. Did my generation sound like that to the ears of older generations? Perhaps so. The Gen Xers want what the Baby Boom has. They’ll get it; it’s only a matter of time. The Baby Boomers had to wait their turn, too. Were we as pushy about wanting it right away? Probably. A lot of us had to fight our way into our jobs to begin with, facing overt sexism and/or racism that today’s younger generations simply can’t imagine. I don’t recall being snide, but we probably were. Apparently, kindness only comes with age and wisdom.
Whether Generation X likes it or not, until the Baby Boomers have mostly died off there still will be so many of us that we will be an important cohort of the American people. Even when we finally do start dying off in droves, probably funerals and estate issues will become a hot topic of public discussion. When something is happening to 76 million people in a population of 305 million, it is news.
Every generation feels it is special and that it is not getting its due. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first literary success was a tale of the Lost Generation of just after World War I, a generation that felt very cynical and very sorry for itself indeed. Look what came after: That generation lived through the Great Depression as adults, the next generation lived through it as children and went on to fight World War II and be tagged the Greatest Generation, and the conformity generation after that war felt compelled to wear gray flannel suits and live in cookie-cutter suburbs. And so it goes, with every generation pushing its way to the forefront of our national consciousness, demanding center stage by sheer vigor and numbers. The Baby Boom still has a lot of years to live. The oldest of us are only 64. There might be several more decades in which to fume and fuss about those young whippersnappers who are trying to bench me. I’m not yielding the field until I absolutely have to.