Time for baby boomers to go

Cecil Whig - - & - Dana Mil­bank

— Take the baby boomers. Please. The ide­al­ists of the 1960s have come a long way from Wood­stock. Af­ter a quar­ter-cen­tury of mis­man­ag­ing the coun­try, they have pro­duced Don­ald Trump, who with his nar­cis­sis­tic and un­com­pro­mis­ing style is a bright orange sym­bol of what went wrong with the mas­sive gen­er­a­tion. And polls show that boomers are the big­gest source of sup­port for Trump.

Among vot­ers be­tween age 50 and 64, Trump leads Hil­lary Clin­ton by three points in Wash­ing­ton PostABC News polling and by a point in NBC-Wall Street Jour­nal polling, equal to the older, smaller Silent Gen­er­a­tion’s sup­port of the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee in the lat­ter poll. The gen­er­a­tional sup­port for Trump’s burn-it-all-down cam­paign is the lat­est re­minder of why the baby boomers are in the run­ning to be re­mem­bered as the Worst Gen­er­a­tion.

But, if I may claim a rare mo­ment of gen­er­a­tional pride, there is good news in the polling, too. Gen­er­a­tion X — my much-ma­ligned gen­er­a­tion — has turned em­phat­i­cally against Trump. The NBC poll shows Clin­ton lead­ing by 22 points among those be­tween 35 and 49 — a more lop­sided re­jec­tion of Trump than even the mil­len­ni­als mus­tered.

This raises hope af­ter the de­ba­cle of boomer gov­er­nance. “It’s re­ally the boomers that are driv­ing the hy­per­par­ti­san­ship and po­lar­iza­tion and grid­lock,” says David Rosen, a con­sul­tant spe­cial­iz­ing in gen­er­a­tional ef­fects in pol­i­tics. Begin­ning with the boomer-led 1994 Repub­li­can Rev­o­lu­tion, “that’s where you see the ori­gin of the in­sane pol­i­tics that we have right now. Trump is in some ways tak­ing that style to its most ab­surd and ridicu­lous ex­tremes.”

But maybe this is the boomers’ last gasp. “Hope­fully,” Rosen tells me, “when Gen X comes to power it will re­pu­di­ate the boomers and the en­tire legacy of this style of pol­i­tics and move us to­ward some­thing that is more prag­matic.”

Be­fore the emails start pour­ing in, let me make clear that this isn’t an in­dict­ment of in­di­vid­ual boomers, nor of boomers’ con­tri­bu­tions to art and sci­ence. But as a gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers, they have been dis­as­trous. Boomers seized the White House in 1992 and the House in 1994 and have gen­er­ally dom­i­nated gov­ern­ment since. Clin­ton, like Trump, is a boomer, which guar­an­tees that the gen­er­a­tion will con­trol the White House through at least 2020.

And what does this gen­er­a­tion have to show for its quar­ter-cen­tury of lead­er­ship?

Boomers in­her­ited the sole su­per­power af­ter the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion won the Cold War — and squan­dered U.S. in­flu­ence with two long and in­con­clu­sive wars.

They gave us the fi­nan­cial col­lapse of 2008, the worst econ­omy since the Great De­pres­sion, a crush­ing fed­eral debt and worse in­equal­ity. They de­voured fos­sil fu­els and did lit­tle about global warm­ing while al­low­ing in­fra­struc­ture and re­search to de­te­ri­o­rate. They ex­panded en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams and are now poised to bank­rupt those pro­grams. Their lead­er­ship has led to de­clin­ing con­fi­dence in re­li­gion, the pres­i­dency, Congress, the Supreme Court, banks and big busi­ness, schools, the me­dia and the po­lice. They may leave their chil­dren (the mil­len­ni­als) worse off than they were.

Boomers, cod­dled in their youth, grew up self­ish and un­yield­ing. When they got power, they cre­ated po­lar­iza­tion and grid­lock from both sides. Though Viet­nam War-protest­ing boomers got the at­ten­tion, their peers on the right were just as ide­o­log­i­cal, cre­at­ing the re­li­gious right. Boomers are twice as likely to iden­tify as con­ser­va­tive than lib­eral, a fig­ure that hasn’t changed much in two decades. And Trump cap­tures his gen­er­a­tion’s self­ish­ness: his mul­ti­ple draft de­fer­rals, his claim that he’s “made a lot of sac­ri­fices” by erect­ing build­ings, his vow to have huge tax cuts and mas­sive mil­i­tary in­vest­ments.

Gen­er­a­tional pat­terns re­peat over time, as re­searchers Wil­liam Strauss and Neil Howe showed. A “civic” gen­er­a­tion is fol­lowed by an “adap­tive” one, then “ide­al­ist” and “re­ac­tive” gen­er­a­tions. The boomers are ide­al­ists — same as the gen­er­a­tions that led the United States into the Civil War and the Great De­pres­sion. Gen Xers are re­ac­tive — cyn­i­cal and prag­matic — and clean up ide­al­ists’ messes. Mil­len­ni­als, like the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion, re­build in­sti­tu­tions.

Hap­pily, Gen Xers, the cleanup crew, could be­come the plu­ral­ity in Congress as soon as 2018. The ques­tion is whether my gen­er­a­tion, work­ing with the mil­len­ni­als, can break the boomers’ grid­lock and deal with the many crises boomers left us.

Gen Xer that I am, I’m not con­vinced my cyn­i­cal co­hort has what it takes. But Rosen is hope­ful. “When we see na­tional emer­gen­cies ar­rive, Gen­er­a­tion X will be able to get things done when it needs to,” he says.

And this much is for sure: Af­ter a quar­ter-cen­tury of boomer mis­man­age­ment and the mon­stros­ity that is Trump, we can’t pos­si­bly do worse.

Dana Mil­bank is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at danamil­bank@wash­post.com.


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