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Retire, Bitch: The Never-ending Showdown Between Baby Boomers and Millennials

Art is imitating life, as the tension between generations is beginning to boil over into new works of fiction and nonfiction alike. But are young people and their retiring parents really so different?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In Daniel Torday’s new novel, Boomer1, a 31-year-old man sits in front of a Grateful Dead poster in his parents’ basement, where he lives, puts on a rubber David Crosby mask, and stares into his webcam to begin recording another so-called “Boomer Missive.” His name is Mark Brumfeld, and he is a relatively unremarkable specimen of his generation—drowning in student loan and credit card debt, unable to find steady employment, and searching for an easy scapegoat for the all-encompassing disillusionment he feels about his life. And so he directs his ire at none other than the largest generation in American history, the baby boomers, anyone born in that postwar, pre-Pill population surge between 1946 and 1964.

“They were meant to retire at the age of sixty-five, these parents of ours,” Mark rants into his computer. “They grew up amid a world in which they made a promise, signed an unwritten social contract: you worked until you were sixty-five and then you stepped aside. But not these baby boomers. That was the promise that was promised them—but more important, that was the promise that was promised us. And they have not retired. … They have jobs. They have the jobs. They have all the jobs.”

Mark’s videos go viral. They tap into something that many dissatisfied people his age are feeling but cannot quite articulate, that the expiration date on even the most modest version of the American dream has come and gone. (“He wanted a lot of things,” Torday writes of his troubled protagonist, “mostly things he’d never have no matter how hard he tried.”) Before long, other disgruntled millennials start making their own copycat “Boomer Missives,” ranting about the impossibility of homeownership and how much they have to pay into a Social Security program that probably won’t exist when they’re old enough to need it.

Although Torday—who studied under George Saunders in Syracuse’s writing program and shares his mentor’s knack for sneakily empathetic characters—has created a lightly fictionalized world in which, for example, it is very easy for anyone to buy a rubber David Crosby mask, the anti-boomer sentiment he captures in Boomer1 is also a visible phenomenon on the real, live internet. A friend recently brought to my attention the bizarro-Twitter account “Cursed Boomer Images” (@WeWuzBoomers, 43,000 followers and counting), which collects the sort of garish political memes that some boomers have been known to share on Facebook. “Old Economy Steven” (some guy’s circa-1970s high school yearbook photo captioned with phrases like “FAILS OUT OF HIGH SCHOOL … GETS JOB, BUYS HOUSE, RETIRES HAPPY”) remains an enduring social media presence. “Baby Boomers vs. Millennials” is apparently a popular segment on Ellen, although since I am a millennial I have never seen it. And although (or perhaps because?) it is a phrase originally coined by boomer icon Danny DeVito, it is hard to imagine a more stinging millennial-to-boomer slur than the popular social media mantra retire, bitch.

There exists right now in our culture perhaps the most pronounced generation gap since the 1960s, as boomers and millennials begin transitioning into new phases of life. And according to population projections based on the U.S. census, a massive cultural milestone is slated to take place next year: In 2019, millennials will likely surpass baby boomers and officially become America’s largest living generation. Emphasis on “living.” The baby boomers will remain the largest generation in American history—78 million strong at its height—and will probably hold that record for some time to come. (As of 2016, millennials numbered 74 million in America.) But as time passes and mortality does its thing, the boomer population will see a gradual, steady decline in years to come. Given that they are a generation that has never done anything quietly or subtly, they still seem to have some rage to get out of their systems before going into that good night.

Torday’s novel addresses the popular and wide-sweeping narrative that boomers are hunkering down with “all of the jobs” and refusing to retire, hogging all sorts of cultural space, and in doing so stunting the economic and emotional growth of the generation below them, some of whom are their literal children. In Boomer1, though, this leads to things getting quickly and dangerously out of hand. First the AARP website is hacked. Bob Weir’s home is vandalized. Iconic boomers Jann Wenner, Philip Roth, and Oprah are all doxed. An enterprising prankster breaks into the Eddie Bauer mainframe and makes it so that every item sold in its stores is marked $666.66. These attacks dominate the news; a (barely) fictionalized David Brooks writes a widely shared op-ed decrying “Millennials Gone Wild.” In the novel, persecuted boomers like Brooks start using a new phrase to describe the mayhem: “domestic generational terrorism.”

Far-fetched? I hope. But as Torday (who describes himself as being on the bubble between Gen X and millennial) suggests, intergenerational strife runs hot and deep, and it will have a lasting impact on the culture and political climate we are creating. Like so many impassioned conflicts, the culture clash between baby boomers and millennials seems to stem as much from their similarities as their differences. Is our current generational war a true divide, or is it merely the narcissism of small differences—most of which are in the varieties of narcissism itself?

Generations are uncomfortable to think about for too long, not only because it feels insultingly reductive to suggest that you inherently share things in common with strangers born within a 20-year span of you, but also because if you take any sort of generational analysis to its natural conclusion, you wind up thinking about mortality, finality, and your own death. Still, as much as I hate the word “millennial,” I am at least grateful that our generational moniker does not permanently infantilize us or directly conjure the image of our parents having (a statistically notable amount of) sex.

Although the start-and-end dates of the millennial generation are a little hazy and subjective (Pew puts millennial birth years between 1981 and 1996, although in some corners the word is just a barbed synonym for “young person”), the baby boom was an empirically proved event, an unprecedented uptick in American births after the triumph of World War II, all the way up until the popularization of the birth control pill in the mid-’60s. (Generation X is sometimes referred to as “the baby bust.”) The economy was soaring, morale was strong, and any strain on the primacy of the nuclear family was hidden beneath the Frigidaire-shiny veneer of 1950s Americana. “Boomers didn’t have to aspire to the American Dream; they felt that they were born into it,” write the marketing analysts at the Yankelovich Center for Social Science and Research, the first group to study the habits of baby boomers. “The presumption of prosperity freed them from the psychological burden of worrying about basic survival and allowed them to pursue other, more self-absorbed, self-focused things like fulfillment, enlightenment, and meaning.” Cue the requisite psychedelics-and-campus-protests montage, set to Jimi Hendrix playing the national anthem.

Something striking about Generation Ageless, the 2007 book cowritten by two Yankelovich marketing experts, Ann Clurman and J. Walker Smith—and, hand to god, blurbed by the CMO of Outback Steakhouse, one of those cherished institutions that boomers believe millennials are killing—is that, at least to this millennial, pretty much all of the insults once lobbed at baby boomers sound eerily familiar. “Baby Boomers have been chided for being self-centered, self-absorbed, self-confident, and utterly self-centered, even narcissistic,” the experts write (self-centered enough to use the word “self-centered” twice in a sentence). “There’s no argument there. Guilty as charged. But so what? It’s all part of a generational sensibility rooted in numbers and mindset, and there’s nothing bad about it per se. Boomers could not have turned out any other way.”

Although we tend to think of generations as defined by their cultural artifacts and the historical milestones they lived through—Jimi is still wailing beneath this paragraph—the folks at Yankelovich have found that the mood and identity of a generation is most profoundly shaped by “the economy and technology,” in that order. (“Pop culture and politics,” they write, “while also important, are typically the least so of these elements.”) Our attitudes toward technology and the economy happen to be two of the greatest differences between boomers and millennials; the latter are much more likely to have a doom-and-gloom view of the economy, having come of age in close proximity to the financial crisis, thus harboring a general distrust in the system that allowed it to happen. As the late cultural critic Ellen Willis—one of the keenest observers of her own generation—wrote in her great 1989 essay “Coming Down Again,” “The paradox of the 60s generation is that we felt secure enough, economically and sexually, to reject security.”

In May 2013, around the time that the oldest millennials were in their early 30s, Time magazine published an infamous cover story dubbing them “The ME ME ME Generation.” (I probably do not even need to tell you that it was illustrated by a photo of a young woman taking a selfie.) Of course, this has been the party line for lazily insulting millennials: that they are narcissists who lack the neck muscles to look up from their phones for too long, that they are “entitled” to things they have not sufficiently earned, that they cannot be bothered to care about things that don’t directly affect them. These charges have been lobbed at us with a surprising amount of venom from the largely baby-boomer-controlled media. A Gen Xer acquaintance of mine recently said that, in his view, the main difference between his and my generation is that “millennial” was engineered to be a derogatory term right out the gate.

Josh Tickell, the documentarian and author of the sobering new book The Revolution Generation: How Millennials Can Save America and the World (Before It’s Too Late), does not believe that this smear campaign against millennials is a coincidence. “The social stigma that was strategically attached to Millennials at a young age has over time also become a powerful political weapon,” he writes. “It has cemented a disempowering context for a generation of young people. And it has paved the way for institutional ageism at many levels of our economy and civil society. … Even the established frame of reference for you, Millennials, the one in which you are lazy, narcissistic, entitled, and self-absorbed, is a purpose-driven creation,” he writes. “Behind its rinse-lather-repeat retelling by the media machine is an insidious goal—to disenfranchise, disempower, and shut you down before you even walk through the door.”

When we talk about the starkly divided state of our nation these days, we tend to think of opposing political parties. But as Tickell (a Gen Xer who is nonetheless sympathetic to the millennial plight) points out, today’s young people “are essentially voting against their parents’ generation. This is critically important: the two largest generations in history are voting in diametrically opposing directions.” Most of us are familiar with that striking electoral map that was retweeted endlessly in the days after the 2016 election, claiming that if no one but millennials had voted, Hillary Clinton would have received 504 Electoral College votes to Donald Trump’s 23. (Take this logic one step further and it’s unlikely either would have been their party’s candidate.) We are a country divided not merely between blue and red, but green and gray.

Tickell’s book includes, in its first chapter, the most existentially horrifying list I have recently come across: “The Top 10 Species Extinction Threats That Millennials Will Absolutely Have to Deal With.” They include such things as desertification, overpopulation, water scarcity, climate change, ocean acidification, terrorism, the refugee crises, global recession, and (I’ll pause here if you want to hit that vape pen) mass extinction. “Given this future,” Tickell writes, “it’s a wonder that people ask why you, Millennials, are such a high-anxiety generation.”

As more millennials come to power and more books and articles are published that are more sympathetic to our plight, I do sometimes worry about overcorrecting the “lazy and entitled” narrative. Increasingly, millennials are defined by the overwhelming structural problems we face (“Generation Screwed”) or, just as exhaustingly, we are talked up as generational superheroes with the mandate and ability to “save the world.” Still, given the fatiguing subtitle of Tickell’s book, I was surprised at how enlivening a read it was. Like Naomi Klein’s trenchant and practical handbook No Is Not Enough, the final pages of The Revolution Generation lay out a clear vision of the work that must be done if millennials do not want to irrevocably harm the species. They’re big asks—abolishing the Electoral College, getting corporate money out of politics, establishing and maintaining a universal minimum wage—but they are also clear, noble political goals that will attack structural problems from the root.

Ultimately, that is what rang a little false to me about Boomer1: I want to believe that even the most disenfranchised millennials know there are far more nefarious bogeymen than the guitarist of the Grateful Dead. The “boomer boomers,” as these militant millennials begin calling themselves, go after icons of baby boomer pop culture like Paul Simon and Stephen King, and eventually they make plans to vandalize the Social Security Administration. But what about the leaders of corporations that willfully endanger the future of our planet and value profit margins over human life? (They’re not that hard to find; until recently, one of them was our secretary of state.) What about the avaricious bankers who led us into a financial collapse, and the politicians who bailed them out? Or the university presidents and student-loan sharks who have created a climate in which college is 400 percent more expensive for millennials than it was for boomers? It’s notable that the politicians who have appealed most viscerally to liberal-leaning millennials—whether it be Bernie Sanders (who is, interestingly enough, not a boomer but a member of the prior, so-called “silent generation”) or the millennial democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—have been speaking this language and asking these very questions.

One thing I have noticed more and more about my generation is that we are able to recognize the oppressor, however large and systemic it may be. In the grand scheme of things, David Crosby’s all right.

Another problem with talkin’ ’bout generations is that it’s too easy to fall into abstractions and generalizations, to lose sight of the humanity. I do not personally know any baby boomers who are squatting in low-stress, well-paying jobs as though they were rent-controlled apartments, jobs that would magically become available to millennials if boomers simply retired at a reasonable age. I do know several people’s boomer parents who were unceremoniously laid off late in their careers and who found great difficulty getting back into a rapidly digitizing workforce obsessed with (underpaying) young blood.

Both of my parents retired last year, and a few years before they turned 65 at that. To watch them transition into this new phase of life has provoked in me a strange combination of dread and calm. The former because it is hard to take their advice when so many cultural messages are telling me that, if I am even lucky enough to get a retirement, mine will be utterly unrecognizable from my parents’ experience (perhaps I and my robot husband will buy a pied-à-terre in the coastal city of Chicago, Illinois). But that latter, the calm, comes from the simple reality of seeing them getting by. They survived the anxieties of draft cards, nuclear dread, social upheaval, recessions, gas shortages, health problems, the housing crisis, and putting two kids through college, and still here they are, making it work.

“Generation is not actually just an identity,” Gabriel Winant wrote earlier this year in an essay for n+1. “It’s a relationship: no children without parents, no millennials without boomers. … If we see our millennial identity as a relationship to our elders, rather than an abject identity, then an avenue of transcendence short of apocalypse opens up: in this collective relationship, new solidarities may form, new varieties of care, love, and responsibility may take shape—and from them, power. Millennials may yet figure out what we need to do politically from the labor we’ll need to perform in our lives.” Sure, admitting this does not have the tart thrill of retire, bitch, but thinking about generations as fluid relationships rather than fixed identities feels at once more productive and more human.

And perhaps that is the strength of things like novels and records—to awaken us to similarities with those separated from us through space, time, and birth date. (A recurring joke in Boomer1 is how many of its millennial characters actually like the Grateful Dead.) Fiction allows us to pivot between perspectives and explore identities more nuanced than heroes and villains. I found the most sympathetic character in Boomer1 to be Mark’s mother, Julia, a reluctantly aging survivor of the counterculture trying to make sense of this new-old world. “C’mon,” she tells her son. “Don’t they know that our generation was the generation that invented revolution?” Perhaps it is that distinctly American delusion that, for more than 200 years, has united us all.