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How baby-boomers ruined the world

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Natale Labia writes on the economy and finance. Partner and chief economist of a global investment firm, he writes in his personal capacity. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

Stereotypes of millennials are usually not flattering. However, a series of new studies now show that their predicament is not of their own making and that many of the problems faced by those born after 1980 – such as youth unemployment, the cost-of-living crisis, crippling student debt and unaffordable housing – are a consequence of those who came before them.

Thanks to the baby-boomer generation, millennials are the first in the history of humanity to be worse off than those who came before.

In “A Generation of Sociopaths – How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America”, Bruce Cannon Gibney argues that by refusing to make the most basic (and fairly minimal) sacrifices, they have bequeathed their children a mess of epochal proportions. 

Boomers did not address climate change when they could, gutted public investment in social programmes that would have benefited their children and grandchildren, and ushered in a new era of economic precarity that left their descendants poorer and more anxious. 

To paraphrase Philip Roth, they ensured “socialism for us and capitalism for everyone else”.

Through government programmes such as social security and other entitlements, they ran up huge debts that are now absorbing the taxes paid by millennials. 

With the US and many governments continuing to run eye-watering budget deficits to fund such benefits for the elderly, at far higher interest rates than before, it remains unclear how sustainable it all is.

“Because the problems Boomers created are growing not so much in linear as exponential terms, the crisis that feels distant today will, when it comes, seem to have arrived overnight.”

Generational inequality leading to social tension

Similarly, Jill Filipovic, in her book “OK Boomer, Lets Talk”, explains what she sees as the root of the intra-generational tension: millennials are leading worse lives than their parents did, and Boomers are to blame. 

Data show that, as Filipovic puts it, “life at 30 for your average Millennial looks close to nothing like as good as life at 30 did for the average Boomer”.

Baby-boomers’ true political legacy, she argues, was the Thatcher-Reagan revolution of the 1980s. 

This was a consolidation of benefits for the elderly, the lowering of taxes, and the shrinking of the social safety net for the young and disadvantaged. All this has resulted in ever greater generational inequality. 

Studies in Australia and the UK show worsening livelihoods and social discontent for the youth, particularly in the decade after the financial crisis. 

A report compiled by economists at the Resolution Foundation has laid out the extent to which Britain’s millennial generation (defined here as people born between 1982 and 2000) are worse off than previous cohorts were at the same stage of life. 

The authors found that millennials born in the late 1980s earned, on average, 8% less at the age of 30 than their counterparts from Generation X did at the same age (Generation X is defined as people born between 1966 and 1981). 

The audit also found that the typical weekly pay of graduates aged 30-34 fell by 16% in real terms between 2007 and 2023.

According to research from the House Buyer Bureau, UK house prices are currently sitting at 8.8 times the average earnings. This is an all-time record, and has more than doubled since the 1970s.

In Australia, the latest Scanlon Report, which maps social cohesion, says that almost half of 18- to 42-year-olds – that is millennials and Gen Z – said they were “just getting along financially”, and the same amount believed the things they do in life are worthwhile only a little or only some of the time.

South Africa among the most extreme

This discontent is extreme in South Africa. 

The structural inequalities left over from apartheid, which continue to benefit white Boomers, mean that young people of colour – particularly women – face an almost impossible set of challenges.

South Africa’s generational wealth inequality – alongside its racial and gender inequalities – results in an unholy trinity of social divides. 

With the SA Reserve Bank looking to keep interest rates at their highest for 15 years, first-time home ownership is more difficult than ever. 

Credit card and student debt payments for indebted young people have spiralled. Public education and healthcare has disintegrated, with just under half of children who enrol in Grade 1 making it to Grade 12, and only 28% of people aged 20 or older completing high school. Youth unemployment is at a simply terrifying all-time high of 49.83%. 

Of course, not everything can be blamed on one previous generation. 

One should not equate inadequate progress with total failure. The Boomers didn’t create a perfect world for their children — but they didn’t inherit a perfect world from their parents, either.

Boomers should not be blamed for the inadequacies of successive ANC governments, even if most of the politicians themselves are indeed from that generation. 

However, there can be no doubt how difficult the current malaise of generational inequality, high house prices, high cost of living, high debt and stagnant wages makes life for the young. 

Combined with existential issues such as the climate crisis and collapse of the global order, this means that for those born after 1980, it is hard to have any hope at all. 

Former Greek finance minister and Marxist economist Yanis Varoufakis has simple advice: “There are two kinds of young people. The sensible ones who try to adapt themselves to the world around them, and the mad ones who try to adapt the world to their own ideas of how it should be.”

“Be mad,” he says. DM

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    The definitions of ‘generations’ are so broad as to be meaningless: Thatcher and Reagan were elected in 1979 and 1980 respectively, when the later-born Boomers were too young to vote, and I’m pretty sure the rest of the Boomers constituted a minority of voters anyway. Given voting patterns in the West, where it is generally older voters who can be bothered to drag themselves to a polling station, I’d suggest that Boomers actually were responsible for Tony Blair’s Labour victory, not Thatcher’s Tory one. Likewise in the States, Boomers would have been responsible for Clinton’s liberal agenda, rather than the Reagan and Bush senior years – and also Bush junior and Obama, on ideological opposites, so in the end, much ado about nothing in the inter (not intra) generational blame game.

    Wanna blame something for the growing burden of social security? Blame medicine and the artificial longevity of humans today – and the socialist paradise of China has the biggest problem of all in that regard, not the West. Those pesky bloody Chinese Boomers who voted for, um, nothing actually, just tried to survive the Cultural Revolution with their necks intact! For the record, I’m a Gen-X, not a boomer.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Says the best skipper standing on the shore

  • Denise Smit says:

    You know very little of SA and the West cannot compare with our education. This man is Italian where everything is successfull of course.

    • Rob Fisher says:

      Remembering a true gentleman
      by MIKA WILLIAMS
      May 17, 2018
      Described as an “impeccable and quintessential gentleman” Count Natale Luccio Labia died at his Wynberg home on Sunday November 13, aged 92.

      His son, Natale Labia, 32, who lives between Johannesburg and London, described his family’s rich heritage.

      “My family is originally of Italian, Venetian descent. My grandfather, Prince Natale Labia came to South Africa as the first Italian ambassador but passed away after marrying a South African,” he said.

      Natale describes his father, who was born in South Africa on September 28, 1924, as a “charming, modest, graceful, humorous and very sociable man”.

      Count Labia met and married Countess Sylvia Labia, 73, in Johannesburg in the 1970s.

      Natale told the Tatler his father enjoyed skiing, playing tennis and holidaying in Italy.

      He had conveyed the very important lessons of modesty and grace to his children.

      His daughter, Antonia Labia, 35, of Constantia, fondly recalls memories of her father in Italy where she said he “seemed his most relaxed and invigorated self.”

      She said treating all people with equal respect no matter who they are; loving your children unconditionally and enjoying life to the fullest are some of the greatest lessons her father bestowed on his children.

      Antonia said the Casa Labia Cultural Centre and Cafe in Muizenberg reflects her family’s colourful heritage.

    • T'Plana Hath says:

      Holy cow, Denise. The man *literally* has a cinema complex (again, risky Google search, but anyway …) named in honour of his family and their contributions to arts and culture in South Africa!
      Your comment is profoundly unfair.

  • Johan Buys says:

    The millenials have a lot to be grateful for. Work-life balance is one. Across Europe, working hours per year are down 30% since 1964. Imagine the outcry if we asked young germans to work 2098h a year instead of the 1350h a year they do now!

    For scale, that means and extra 2h per day… The milenials I know would have a hissy fit.

    The problems facing the next generation are probably most acute in the countries with aging and shrinking economies that have defined benefit retirement systems.

    Climate change is the undeniable big problem the other generations (baby boomers and before them) leave behind.

  • Rob Pompe says:

    Hopefully the millennials learn from Baby Boomers mistakes so next generation will not suffer the same fate.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    Message to all the post baby boomers…Work harder, save more, borrow less, and the big one, whine less, much much less. From a boomer

  • Ed Rybicki says:

    We boomers sneer at millenials…because without boomers, where would they find their cell phones or smart TVs, and by the way, thanks boomers for not having ten children and diluting the millenials’ inheritances!

  • Roslyn Cassidy says:

    Wow, Rob and Denise. Such a personal attack. Not cool. Cheap shot.

    A few weeks ago there was a “DM fact of the day” that somewhat contradicts the writer’s position: $90 Trillion is what millennials could receive in assets from their boomer parents and grandparents, making them the wealthiest generation in history.

    Makes me think I can’t be sure of anything I read.

    • Natale Labia says:

      Hi Roslyn, thanks for the comment. That fact of the day is absolutely right, but they are not contradictory. Notwithstanding structural problems like climate change, my argument is that inherited boomer wealth directly exacerbates inequality for the next generation. The worse off majority will have to deal without the social safety nets the boomers enjoyed.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    I look forward to hearing all the twaddle Gen Z is going to heap on the Millenials when it’s their turn to play the blame game

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    “Youth unemployment is at a simply terrifying all-time high of 49.83%. ” Is this correct? There is a HUGE informal economy out there. Take a look at Kasinomics by GG Alcock. It will open your eyes to a vibrant economy that is worth a lot of money. Many, many people so called “unemployed” are well employed or self employed in this informal economy.

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    My message to Genzennials (to me, you’re all the same):

    “May your children be exactly like you”.

  • JOHANN SCHOLTZ says:

    Urgh he really is an annoying person

  • Mike Newton says:

    That is merely your opinion.

  • JDW 2023 says:

    Millenial here. I can agree in sentiment with this article and the examples given having read widely on this topic myself. I have a professional degree that I worked hard for and tried from a fairly young age in my working life to set myself up well economically. Sure I have been lucky enough to see parts of the world (a long time before Covid) and have uncapped wifi in my rented home but those have come with significant sacrifices. In my late thirties I am still nowhere near to be able to afford a house and see yearly how my income gets me less and less. I wont be getting a new car any time soon nor travelling overseas. And the weak economy makes it hard for me to make changes in my profession. The system does at times feel like it’s set up to make people grind monthly and not actually get anywhere. Just my two cents.

    As a side note, I really don’t get why some people here feel the need to take personal digs at Natale. Just grow up. Its an opinion piece with examples to strengthen what he is saying. Thank you Natale for sharing your insights.

    • Terrence B says:

      Another Millennial here with a slightly different take. Followed the pathway of the vast majority of my generational cohort (the most educated generation in history). Changed degrees in my 2nd year when I realized my degree had little value in the market place (for some reason, a perspective that was remiss among my peers). Geared my life towards delayed gratification, stability and autodidacticism (you literally have the summation of human knowledge at your fingertips) rather than a consumptive lifestyle.

      Millennials are playing asset catch-up (experience > future-building assets) by virtue of the fact that they’re only economically viable in their late 20s and are usually unmarried (look at economic outcomes of stable, monogamous family units vs non) . Universities prolong adolescence rather than gear scholars to the realities of the real-world.

      @JDW without sounding like a typical boomer, you’ve demonstrated the stat above. You valued experiences (travelling) and status-building assets (new car, also why?) over future-building assets and now you’ve realised in your late thirties (unmarried? So no dual-income) that you dont have a good base to carry you forward in a trough of a cyclical economy (the economy is better than 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, 40 et al years ago)

      I’m in my early thirties, I own the property I live in. I’m married. I stay within the constraints of my income. I don’t buy new cars (again, why?). I’m building a legacy.

      Hard? Yes. Impossible? No.

    • D'Esprit Dan says:

      My folks were born in the 1930s and my siblings and I in the 60s. None of us has ever owned a brand new car. In fact my first two cars weren’t much younger than me! My first property that I owned was a small apartment that I now rent out. But it took until my late 40s, and married with a dual income, before my wife and I could afford to pay off my apartment. In my mid 50s now and own the lovely house we live in, along with a holiday home we intend to retire to in a few years, from where we’ll travel the country, continent and hopefully some of the world.

      No doubt things are difficult now – for all generations – but hang in, work hard, and things will change. Enjoy what you have and work for what you want, mostly, just enjoy life without needing the affirmation of material wealth. It’ll come. I know this probably isn’t what you want to hear, but I’ve lived a very rich life so far without being materially rich and I’ve had a blast along the way!

  • Bob Dubery says:

    Boomer here.

    I recently played a short set at a local open mic night. I included a song by Karl Wallinger, who had died earlier that month. One of the reasons Wallinger is notable is that 30 years ago he was writing songs warning about climate change. He said in interviews that to him the problem was obvious and so was the lack of action.

    That’s something my generation must cop blame for. We did see it coming, and then we turned a blind eye.

    The author is right about the Thatcher/Reagan era as well.

    We now see pensions paying out less, pension ages getting pushed out in the UK and EU. We might think that younger folks today have a better work-life balance, but they are going to have to maintain that balance for longer.

    I’m also not sure that it’s true that they do have a better work-life balance. In the 80s I knew people with no obvious source of income who could spend most of their time sitting in trendy coffee bars talking about the affairs of the day, great and trivial, and do so for whole days nearly every day. Do we see that now? We also need to beware of statistics, or at least their basis, in countries like the UK where you can have a zero hour contract, hours worked per week/month/year are likely to be down.

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    Nice opinion piece! I stand to correction but I believe the Baby Boomer generation comprised those persons born between 1946 and 1964 (Gen X includes persons born in 1965 – not from 1966)
    Listen Son, Baby Boomers like any generation before or after them ‘played’ what was in front of em. Baby Boomers were ‘war babies’ or the children of a generation of men and women (oftentimes suffering PTSD or living with persons suffering from it). They lived in uncertain times. There was the Cold War and peeps were having No Nukes Concerts (well worth a listen – you will find the music of our generation was way better). Then Aids happened – and boy was that scary – and millions of people died. In South Africa,we also had this smallanyana thing called Apartheid (you may have heard of it) and at the time it was getting way more attention than Climate Change. My point is (& I am not big on excuses) that if our Generation left you unable to afford a house – it’s not cos we were short-sighted, or didn’t give a rats ass – it’s cos we were doing exactly the same thing your generation is doing right now – which was ‘trying to make sense of all the madness, deal with it and get by’ (for want of a better description)
    As I said, yours is a good opinion piece, it’s worthy of discussion and debate – but between you and me a ‘load of bollks’ 😂😂

    • T'Plana Hath says:

      Unexpected Sex Pistols reference!

    • Bob Dubery says:

      I’m a boomer. I was born in the UK, lived there until I was 13. I still watch a lot of TV news from the UK.

      I’m not so sure that there was less certainty then. It was certainly a dull world (though starting to get a little less dull for me and my school chums who were towards the tail end of the boom) because our parents wanted certainty and security for us.

      My memory of England is frozen forever at age 13 for me. That’s England as it was when I left it, when I had spent two years in secondary school. I see so many things on the news now that make me think “well, that happened when I was a kid too, but there was always somebody around to notice it, to intervene, to take care of it.” We actually had a lot more certainty, but we didn’t know it then because it was just the way things were.

      Kids feeling isolated or marginalised and/or picked on at school? You bet that happened. But a teacher would notice, quiet words would be had, and support would be provided. It’s just how things were. At government schools anyway (Eton and Winchester may have had a different set of processes).

      Much of this disconnect, this regression, can be traced back to the Thatcher era. That woman certainly changed Britain, she even changed the Labour party, and so every Government after her was changed before they even got into power.

  • Grumpy Old Man says:

    Nice opinion piece! I stand to correction but I believe the Baby Boomer generation comprised those persons born between 1946 and 1964 (Gen X includes persons born in 1965 – not from 1966)
    Listen Son, Baby Boomers like any generation before or after them ‘played’ what was in front of em. Baby Boomers were ‘war babies’ or the children of a generation of men and women (oftentimes suffering PTSD or living with persons suffering from it). They lived in uncertain times. There was the Cold War and peeps were having No Nukes Concerts (well worth a listen – you will find the music of our generation was way better). Then Aids happened – and boy was that scary – and millions of people died. In South Africa,we also had this smallanyana thing called Apartheid (you may have heard of it) and at the time it was getting way more attention than Climate Change. My point is (& I am not big on excuses) that if our Generation left you unable to afford a house – it’s not cos we were short-sighted, or didn’t give a rats ass – it’s cos we were doing exactly the same thing your generation is doing right now – which was ‘trying to make sense of all the madness, deal with it and get by’ (for want of a better description)
    As I said, yours is a good opinion piece, it’s worthy of discussion and debate – but between you and me a ‘load of bollks’ 😂😂

  • Ari Potah says:

    Of course, Baby Boomers did and do nothing about climate change. They, or most of them, know it is a natural phenomenon and has nothing, nix, nil to do with human behaviour.
    This does not, however, excuse pollution and deforestation for which they are primarily responsible.

  • District Six says:

    Mike + The Mechanics – “The Living Years”

    Every generation
    Blames the one before
    And all of their frustrations
    Come beating on your door

    I know that I’m a prisoner
    To all my Father held so dear
    I know that I’m a hostage
    To all his hopes and fears
    I just wish I could have told him in the living years

    Crumpled bits of paper
    Filled with imperfect thought
    Stilted conversations
    I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

    You say you just don’t see it
    He says it’s perfect sense
    You just can’t get agreement
    In this present tense
    We all talk a different language
    Talking in defense

    Say it loud, say it clear
    You can listen as well as you hear
    It’s too late when we die
    To admit we don’t see eye to eye

    So we open up a quarrel
    Between the present and the past
    We only sacrifice the future
    It’s the bitterness that lasts

    So don’t yield to the fortunes
    You sometimes see as fate
    It may have a new perspective
    On a different date

  • T'Plana Hath says:

    (This comment is NOT aimed at the author, I enjoy your writing, your style, and your family’s cinema on the regular … even though booking tickets from a workstation is a ‘risky Google search’ at best. Here’s where I take issue:)

    “Boomers did not address climate change when they could”.

    Um, thanks to MY generation, YOUR generation still has F@#KING OZONE!!

    I’m pretty sure you have no idea what that is but 𝐲𝐨𝐮’𝐫𝐞 𝐰𝐞𝐥𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐞 nevertheless.

    Now excuse me while I go and put all the lead back into the petrol …

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