Boomers have had all the luck of cod in a cask in recent generational warfare. Lyman Stone declared at The Atlantic that “The Boomers Ruined Everything.” Joseph Sternberg accuses the Boomer bloc of The Theft of a Decade, stealing Millenials’ economic future, while Helen Andrews’ forthcoming book focuses on six superstar Boomers who “delivered disaster.” Jill Filipovic’s OK Boomer, Let’s Talk blames the wrecked prospects of Millenials on Boomers who have had their brains addled by Fox News. Bruce Cannon Gibney calls the sorry lot A Generation of Sociopaths. It seems clear that somebody bought too many toys, partied too hard, and ended up with a messy house and a messier homelife–but who? If the other side to this story is just avocado toast, the Boomers must really be pretty bad.
One does wonder, though. Is the world into which Boomers were born and came of age one that their progeny want to inhabit? To wit: Brenda and Ken got married in the mid-1960s at the Lutheran church where they were both baptized and confirmed in the decades previous. Brenda had just graduated from high school. There was a cake and punch reception at the parish hall. They meant to take a honeymoon to Alton, Illinois, half an hour north of the wedding. But the motel was hot (no AC), and Brenda missed her friends at home, so the newlyweds came back after a couple of days. Home was a little trailer (no AC) parked on a property owned by Ken’s parents. After a few years, they were able to move to a house where Brenda cared for their little boys while Ken worked at the glass factory.
Memes have dealt with all of this. You can’t get an adult job out of high school any more, you can’t pay for college by walking beans during the summer, your first assemblage of gigs means your first house is a decade away, weddings are for gay guys, and babies are for female hillbillies. Times have changed, and the Boomers, we’re told, have changed them.
Assessing these changes is trickier than it looks. The rash of ticked-off publications directed against Boomer hegemony do not agree on the details. Criticisms from the right focus on policies aimed toward squeezing more out of Boomer-held assets. Leftist critiques get mired in a conflation of Boomer with conservative that neither formal polling nor personal experience bear out. (Ask any conservative if the problem with Boomers is their conservatism.) It is certain that the Boomers are not above social or political reproach. However, collective guilt remains a more widely accepted charge than any proposed inventory of offenses.
Whenever Millennial fangs come out over student debt and the housing market and the gig economy, are they really suggesting that they’d be going full Ken and Brenda if only they could? Is the Millennial dream to get married at ages 18 and 19, to live in a trailer on the old man’s lot, and for Mother to stay home with the baby (and, what joy! Babies!) while Daddy heads for the factory every morning? Is it possible that the Millennial interest in owning a home has something to do with homes looking way better on Instagram than shared apartments do?
There I go avocado-toasting. Well, I’m Gen-X, which means I have Zoomers in my life. They critique my generation’s parenting with such barbs as only teens have the omniscience to hone. Soon they’ll make the jump from judging parenting to judging public policy, and how sharper than a serpent’s tooth that will be. Yes, Boomers circled the wagons and made it harder to get through college, buy a house, and get a job. They wanted all those things to be worth more. Of course they wanted that on the basis of their own possession of those things. But they were also parents who wanted those things to be worth more to their children—that is, us. No one circles wagons because they like how circles look. They like how circles provide security to insecure people.
Even worse, the Boomers were humans, subject to the laws of unintended consequences. So they let their children do things their parents would never have imagined, like squat in their basements for years on end. That’s just what made sense in the brave new housing market that grew out of a bunch of little decisions whose cumulative effect could not have been entirely envisioned. Generation of Sociopaths author Bruce Cannon Gibney told Vox, “[Boomers] assumed the economy would just grow three percent a year forever and that wages would go up every year and that there would always be a good job for everyone who wanted it.” This is like saying that in January of 2020 we all assumed the shelves of Walmart would never want for toilet paper. Sure, everyone knows that times of plenty don’t last. Even the Boomers knew that as they boomed through the 80s and 90s, middle-aged masters of their own little universes. But no one knows the character of the want that will inevitably follow, or how to prepare for its particulars.
Neither is it so difficult to look down the years to our own dotage. Our children will expect goods delivered to their doorsteps within moments of ordering them, while shaking their fists at us for enthralling the market to Amazon. They will count disposable clothing and light-speed connectivity as daily bread while weeping over the despoiled planet. They will visit our deathbeds in HAZMAT suits. They will know everything is terrible, and have none of the tools to fix it. The Boomers should have known that crops that don’t need weeding were too good to be true. We should know the same about cheap everything arriving “free” two days after we feel an itch to own it. The kids shall inherit the earth. The best we can do for them is to model integrity, humility, and acceptance of reality. They are less well served by our grousing that the toys the mean grownups bought (for themselves, yes, but also for us) are a lot of work to pick up.
Children will always have grounds for criticizing their parents, because all parents are sinners. Why, then, are elders the only protected identity group in the Ten Commandments? The offices of father and mother are derived from the Fatherhood of God. Honoring even sinful authorities teaches us how profoundly honorable authority is. Catechisms of the Reformation (and beyond) agree that parental authority teaches children to operate within the structure of a well-ordered society, practicing the deference and observing the gracious governance they will need to exercise throughout their lives. It’s fun to characterize Boomers as the generation that handed out stones and scorpions at the Sunday School picnic. It’s also suspiciously easy. Weren’t we ourselves a little too cool for Sunday school, and didn’t stones and scorpions look better than lame bread and eggs? And from the other direction, history suggests that the Oompa Loompas would be glad if Boomers’ parents fell into the garbage chute as well.
Boomer-smearing refuses a random demographic the charity we would like to see shown to every other category of humans. It fails to recognize that few Boomers are guilty of voting for every policy and making every life choice that has proved damaging. A wise Monkee once said: Running the world is a bitch, and they were totally unprepared for it. We’ve managed to forgive ourselves for struggling to arrive at autonomy, understand citizenship and stewardship, and head households. Are we supposed to be kind to everybody except our moms and dads?
Spring is the time of beauty, hope, and hunger. Those in the spring of life have rosebuds to gather, but crops to plant. However, radical social changes and technological advances mean that the grownups can’t help with the devilish details of planting in the way that previous generations could. It makes the grownups easy scapegoats for the insecure young. If there is blame to be laid at the feet of the Boomers, it is not that they have laid up wealth, but that they failed to teach what wealth is. Those for whom it is spring now have no idea what good might come of being beautiful, hopeful, and hungry in a shabby, borrowed trailer with another beautiful, hopeful, hungry person who is signed on for good (and would never throw away that perfectly good margarine tub). No wonder they are so lonely. How sad also for their parents, who overhauled the social order for the very purpose of protecting their children from loneliness.
But laying blame is unbecoming of children. “Honor thy father and thy mother” does not include an expiration date, or a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power. Power is an attribute of God; among humans, God distributes authority. Martin Luther’s Large Catechism explains it this way:
We must, therefore, impress it upon the young that they should regard their parents as in God’s stead, and remember that however lowly, poor, frail, and queer they may be, nevertheless they are father and mother given them by God. They are not to be deprived of their honor because of their conduct or their failings.
Boomer conduct and failings are theirs to recognize and make right—but this happens personally, not politically. Welcoming crashed fledglings back home, offering care and provision for grandchildren, and helping young families as they struggle through a less family-friendly world are, in many cases, acts of repentance. Boomers are in their harvest time. They do well to allow those they love to glean even among the sheaves, and to let fall also some of the handful on purpose.
For younger generations, acts of history are ours to learn from in humility for the good of our own children. It’s no secret that fathers sometimes drink too much and pass out wearing nothing but a tent. When such things happen, faithful children cover their father’s shame rather than broadcasting it. It’s a favor we’d all want returned, and the manifestation of St. Paul’s admonition to young Pastor Timothy: “[B]e thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”
Speaking of word, conversation, and charity, the Boomers have as much claim as anyone on something Brenda and Ken learned way back in confirmation class:
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.
Boomers as a generation are a strawman, and Boomers as individuals are both our neighbors, and our mothers and fathers. The errors of the past are most effectively corrected, and the sins forgiven, with a spirit of cooperative goodwill. Maybe we should make sure that the people with the wisdom, and (as everyone keeps pointing out) the money, are on our team.