I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.” [MUSIC PLAYING]
I’ve been fascinated by the fight over the baby boomers. You maybe remember OK, boomer, this dismissal of boomer politics that got popular on the internet for a minute and drove boomers totally crazy. That came, of course, during Donald Trump’s presidency. And it reflected frustration in having our fourth boomer president. And then it’s not like there was — well, there was a bit of a generational handover, actually. Joe Biden — he’s not a boomer. He’s born a few years before the boomers. But I don’t think that’s the kind of generational handover a lot of young people were looking for, which I think gets to the point of this generational frustration. There is a sense — and not just a sense, a reality — that America’s elder generations have kept a hammerlock on power. They’ve not used that power, in many cases, all that wisely. You look at the climate, for instance. And the world they’re leaving, the economy they’re leaving, is not in great shape. And even now, if you look at how a lot of boomers vote, there’s a feeling among the young that they are the ones blocking progress on these issues. And this is a live fight. I mean, if you just turned on “Saturday Night Live” the other night, you heard it.
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(SINGING) Baby boomers, greatest generation. You got all the money, now we got the vaccination. Crash the economy three whole times. But when it comes to the vax, we the first in line. Got a job out of college, no student debt. Retirement funded 100 percent. Voted for Trump —
So I’ve been wanting to do a show on this. First, is it useful to talk about this at all? Generations are big and diverse. What’s the point in talking in categories of that size? But then also, what is the critique at its core? I mean, you don’t get a lot out of OK boomer. Whenever there’s this much anger, though, lasting for this much time and emerging in this many cultural forms, you got to assume there’s something real there, something worth trying to understand on its own terms. But one thing about it is, it’s not just one critique of the boomers. There’s a left critique that’s more about economics and power, and then a right critique that, at least usually, is more about cultural libertinism and individualism and institutional decay. So I wanted to put these critiques together to see if they added up to something coherent. Or maybe it’s just a bunch of carping millennials. And I say that as an often carping millennial. Jill Filipovic is a writer, commentator, a lawyer, and she’s the author of the book “OK, Boomer, Let’s Talk How My Generation Got Left Behind,” which is a very nice encapsulation of the economic case for millennial rage. Helen Andrews is a senior editor at The American Conservative and author of “Boomers, The Men and Women Who Promised Freedom and Delivered Disaster,” which is a pretty searing critique from the right. As always, my email is email@example.com. Here we go.
So welcome, both of you, to the show. Helen, I want to begin with you. Why is generational analysis valuable? I mean, we’re dealing with pretty arbitrary time periods. Generations, they contain multitudes. So why are boomers or any other age cohort a useful descriptive category for understanding American society?
The clue that first got me thinking that the boomers might be worth analyzing as a generation rather than through historical events that they happened to be around for was that the 1960s was a global phenomenon. A lot of people attribute ‘60s protests in the United States to the various issues that they centered around, things like the anti-war movement. But you saw the same kinds of student protests in countries that didn’t have a draft or in countries where they had completely different records in World War II. And the parent-child dynamic was just totally alien to what it was in the United States. So that got me thinking that the ‘60s might have been a product just of the youth generation having such demographic heft, there being just so many more young people around. And that was the reason the ‘60s protests took the form they did and were so universal across the civilized world. And then I started following the boomers through their political career. And you saw the same kinds of coincidences across the globe as they came into power in the 1990s. You saw neoliberal triangulators, who were trying to reconcile the left and capitalism, and the same types of leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in different places. So any phenomenon that is happening in countries that have very different histories and issues sets, but similar demographic bulges, I thought was an indication that generations were worth looking at as generations.
So I can buy that. So then, Jill, let’s say I’m a boomer who thinks my generation wasn’t really that bad. And I’m tired of everybody yelling at me. I mean, sure, every generation, we make a few mistakes. But ultimately, we boomers, we left the world better than we found it. And the problem is that millennials are just particularly self-pitying, and they just want to blame the fact that life is hard on everyone else. Convince me I’m wrong.
Well, that’s pretty much the same thing that people said about the boomers when they were young, right? There is a whole book written about them called “The Culture of Narcissism.” If you read Helen’s book, it certainly draws on a lot of the descriptions of boomers when they were young people. I think one thing that’s very poorly understood about the boomer generation — and perhaps this is me being slightly defensive of them — is that they’re an incredibly politically polarized generation. So boomers, much more so than millennials, much more so than the silent generation, more so even than Gen Xers, are really split politically down the middle between liberals and conservatives. And I think what we’ve actually seen and what I hear, especially from liberal boomers, is the sense of, well, wait a minute. We were trying to make the world a better place. And then there were political forces who we didn’t vote for who may have been part of our cohort, who now you’re using to blame our entire generation. There’s some fairness to that defensiveness. That said, I would say, liberal boomers kind of won the culture. Conservative and more moderate boomers won American politics. And so the generation wide legacy, yes, does have some positives. But overwhelmingly, we’re now living on a planet that’s flooding and burning. So I think it’s a little hard to say that boomers left it better than they found it.
On the flooding and burning point — and I guess I’ll send this one to Helen, but it’s really for both — one thing I thought about, reading both of your books, is how much the boomers are actually a stand-in for technological change, some of which they generate and some of which they didn’t. I mean, the planet is burning. But the driving of fossil fuels as the way you power economies, I mean, that predates the boomers. And then, obviously, it grows during their heyday. But a lot of the things that I think they get tagged for come from scientific advances that they weren’t even the ones to necessarily create. I mean, a lot of the sexual politics changes come from the pill. A lot of — and this is a theme of your book, Helen — a lot of social changes come from television. I mean, how much are boomers, Helen, simply the generation that happened to be largest and then in power when a lot of the electricity revolutions innovations came into full flower?
I don’t think you can blame technology for the way the world is today and the wreckage that the boomers left us. For example, when we talk about the world today being a lot tougher for millennials than it was for the boomers, one of the things we’re talking about is the loss of power on the part of the working class. Their wages are not growing the way that they used to in the days of the boomers. A one-income family can’t make it the way that they could in the time of the boomers. Some of that is attributable to technology, but a lot of that is due to changes in what the boomers did to the left. That is, the boomers were the generation of the new left. And the reason they called themselves that is because they were rebelling against the old left. They deliberately wanted the left-wing party in the western democracies not to stand for working class people and unions, but rather to stand for identity politics type interests. The hinge moment in America for that is the reforms to the Democratic National Convention in 1972, when they nominated George McGovern. The way that delegates were chosen was then tilted toward or to favor identity politics. So the boomers made a choice to have their left-wing party champion identity politics, rather than working class people and unions. And so that’s the reason why the working class was then so vulnerable to these technological changes. The technological changes would have happened either way. But I think they would have had better defenders in the left-wing parties if the boomers hadn’t replaced the old left with their new left.
Is this what you think they did wrong? I mean, my understanding of your take on the boomers is that they unleashed a kind of cultural reckoning on America. And you do talk about the new left questions in the book, but you’re a Trump supporter. He’s not a huge fan of unions himself. Or is it your view that we should go back to a much stronger union and redistribution style politics? Is that the politics you want to see return?
No, I would like to see the Republicans become the working class party of the future. Because I don’t think the Democratic Party as currently constituted is going to turn around and start championing their interests. And so I think there’s room for Republicans to be a little bit nicer to labor and to unions as a part of that realignment. But realistically, Republicans protecting working class interests may have a different issue set than it did when the old left was championing unions in the 1940s and ‘50s. It may look like having different positions on things like trade and immigration, which are actually areas where Trump and the working class were quite together.
Jill, give me your economic critique of the boomer legacy.
Yeah, so it’s interesting hearing what Helen says because it just strikes me as entirely ahistorical and the kind of polar opposite conclusion that I came to in researching my book. If you look at the political decisions that were made that really did gut the American middle class and working class, yes, Democrats are certainly not innocent parties here. But many of those decisions and many of those huge changes came about when boomers field the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and then again in 1984. So you had Reagan who came in, increased tax havens for corporations, refused to increase the federal minimum wage, which we’re still arguing about, which has certainly damaged working class earning power, gutted union power and union membership. When you look at the ways in which the American economic landscape has changed, comparing boomers to millennials, one of the biggest differences is that when boomers were young, they saw their future as invested in. So, when boomers were young adults, the federal government was spending $3 in investments into the future, things like infrastructure, education, research for every dollar it spent on entitlements. Now that’s flipped. So the federal government is spending $3, and as soon as boomers all are retired, that number will have ticked up to closer to $5 for every dollar it spends on future investments. So as boomers have gone through the course of their lives, they’ve seen the government work for them. Millennials really haven’t. We’ve been the ones stuck footing the bill. And when it comes to this gap between the middle class and the working class and the degree to which working class earnings have really seen the bottom fall out, which is what’s happened over the past several decades, that’s been a pretty direct result of a systemic dismantlement of the kind of L.B.J. Great Society policies, of F.D.R.‘s social welfare policies, of strong protections for unions. I mean, a tax on union memberships and right to work laws are not Democratic inventions. Those were coming from Republicans, and often boomer Republicans. So, from my view, it really is this shift to conservatism among baby boomers, and sort of Reagan conservatism in particular, that was then bolstered by this kind of ‘90s Clinton era centrist Democratic Party that really saw it, I think, to compete on the cultural issues that Republicans made salient and did kind of cede ground on a lot of the most important economic issues that Americans needed to thrive.
I’d like to disagree a little bit with Jill’s analysis. And the issue that I think highlights the difference between her position and mine is higher education. If you’re talking about differences in the way the economy looks today versus the way it did in 1950, a huge difference is the fact that lots more people today go to college. Now I think that channeling as many high school seniors as we can into the four-year college track is actually a bad idea. And it was the boomers that did that. Jill’s line in her book is that the boomers took advantage of all of this investment in their futures and then pulled the ladder up behind them. When it comes to higher education, I wish they had pulled that ladder up behind them, but instead, they doubled down. The boomers were the generation that said going from 15 percent of Americans going to college to 30 percent of Americans going to college was good. Therefore, kicking that number up even higher to 50 percent or 70 percent must be even better. And at a certain point, you hit diminishing returns. And that’s bad for the economy. That’s bad for the people who start college and then don’t finish. So the story of the boomers and the story of higher education, they’re tied together in ways that go beyond the usual PC liberal colleges or left-wing line.
What’s your take on the higher education affordability, Jill?
Sure, so when Helen says that there are diminishing returns and that’s bad for people who start college and don’t finish, the only reason it’s bad is because of the student loan debt that young people now have to take on, right? So I’m not sure it necessarily is a bad thing on its face to have a more educated population. In fact, I’d say that that’s quite a good thing. Obviously, I don’t think it is necessarily appropriate to funnel every single high school graduate into a four-year college. But I think having more opportunities for more people to pursue high school education is good. The bad part of it comes along with skyrocketing education costs and the fact that getting a college education now is many, many times more expensive than it was when baby boomers were young. And part of that, again, does come from these systematic dismantlings of programs that were put in place that baby boomers benefited from, for example, Pell grants, which used to cover a majority of a student’s need-based costs and were grants. During the Reagan era, Congress cut Pell grants, and instead, filled that gap with student loan aid. Then you saw during the Clinton era, there was the privatization of Sallie Mae. Boomer politicians, or largely boomer politicians, created the universe in which I and I think all three of us on this podcast entered college in, which is that student loans were divorced partially from financial need, that Sallie Mae could be a private lender and also its own collection agency, and that grant-based aid had been stripped out in a way that it simply wasn’t for boomers. So the problem of higher education to me is not a problem of an overeducated populace. It’s a problem of a deeply indebted populace. And that’s a solvable political problem that boomers and other politicians have instead exacerbated.
So I want to pull out the cultural critique here, alongside some of the economic issues and policies we’re talking about. Helen, you write in your book that the baby boomers have been responsible for the most dramatic sundering of Western civilization since the Protestant Reformation. That’s, I think, a bigger claim than college affordability or too much college access. So what do you mean when you say that the boomers were a once in a 500 years kind of cultural catastrophe?
I have had people ask whether or not that was hyperbole. And my answer is that it was not. The way to make that analogy work and to really get your head around just how world historically disruptive the boomers were is to think about it in terms of media. The Protestant Reformation was a direct result of the advent of the printing press and the popularization of the written word as a medium of communication. And the only revolution in media comparable to that since then has been the rise of television and a visual media. And the baby boomers were the generation, the first generation to be raised by their TVs and to have their minds shaped by visual media, rather than text. There were a lot of people at the time in the 1950s saying that this shift to TV was going to make everybody dumber and eliminate a dimension of critical thinking from the way people process information. And looking at the legacy of the baby boomers and even more at what the rise of social media has done, I think it’s time to consider the possibility that the doomsayers about TV were absolutely correct. So, yes, that the rise of TV was obviously as important and as momentous as the rise of the printing press and the printed word. So it really isn’t that much of a stretch to then say that the Cultural Revolution that followed from it was equally momentous.
But what Cultural Revolution did that create? You’re very much speaking my language here. I am a huge fan of the televisual media critics, the McLuhan’s and Postman’s. And I think they’re way under-read today. But I don’t think the issue here is that it destroyed critical thinking. I think that would be a pretty hard case to prove. But it definitely changed culture. And it changed what people expected from culture. So how did it change that? How did it change what the boomers thought was the culture they wanted to build and participate in?
You can see it in politics, which has been cannibalized by the methods of advertising, rather than the methods of persuasion. Television reduces people’s attention spans. It has an intrinsic bias towards flash over substance. So, basically, anything that people are trying to think critically about. If the information that’s in their minds is information that they got through TV, it’s going to be data of a very superficial kind. And so even if they then try to process that data in their minds in a thoughtful and serious way, it’s going to come out the other side equally superficial. So you see that in literature in the decline of the novel. You see that in the academy in just the difference between what an academic book sounds like today versus the prose that you saw in an academic book in 1950. It’s just anywhere you look, you see things looking a lot more superficial.
Jill, do agree that our intellectual and cultural outputs are so much worse than they were pre-boomer and pre-television?
No, I don’t. I think often, these issues are a whole lot more complicated than TV is good or TV is bad, or the internet is great or it’s broken all of our brains, right? I think that there is certainly plenty to critique about the ways in which, as Helen says, television has decreased our attention spans, has moved us toward a more kind of advertising mentality than a persuasion mentality. That’s all quite well taken. But the idea that that has led to a kind of a greater poverty in cultural output, I actually think is demonstrably false. I think we’re seeing a greater diversity in people who are creating cultural products. I think that we are seeing a challenge to kind of an old guard about what is valuable and what’s not. To me, that’s incredibly exciting to have new visual mediums, to have new technologies, to have new kinds of music and art and ways of speaking and rhetoric that’s all introduced into this canon. I think it makes art and literature and television and music all the richer and more interesting.
This is where I do wonder how much is generations and how much is technology. Because I think we’re a little bit on a straight line from television and then to cable and then to internet and then to — and Jill, you and I come out of blogging, which was the one great golden period of all this. And then it goes over to social media and Twitter and TikTok and so on. And so there’s more of everything, but there’s also more fracturing of everything. And to me, one of the unifying threads of both of your books is that the boomers preside over this individualization of both commerce and culture and policy-making, for that matter. But sometimes I wonder whether or not some of that fracturing doesn’t just reflect a kind of ideology that took hold for who knows what reason, but it actually reflects the direction these technologies went and what they allowed. When you have 500 cable channels, you’re going to be able to nichefy the audience in a way you don’t when you only have a couple of networks. And so, how much of the individualization that you’re talking about just stems from the fact that we lost some of that common ground?
I think that’s right. It’s almost, I think, impossible to compare today’s internet to the television that boomers grew up with. Because boomers grew up in kind of a monoculture when it came to popular culture. There were a handful of television stations. And they have now certainly lived their adult lives through that really dramatic shift. I think there’s a couple of things happening. There’s the reality that technology has now allowed this hyper individualization, right? And then there’s also the reality that America is just a much more diverse place than it was when boomers were young people tuning in to Leave it to Beaver. America has many more immigrants. We have people from many more different countries who speak many more different languages. We’re a much more racially diverse country. And so when you look at where millennials and folks younger than millennials are oriented, I agree with many of these critiques that the sort of hyper individualization, the ability to really ensconce one’s self inside a universe where most people look and think and believe like you do is ultimately not a great thing. That said, I think the monoculture that boomers were raised in was pretty suffocating and, frankly, not exactly fertile ground for the kind of incredible creativity that I think is one positive outshoot of technology that we see now.
Let me pick up on that, that monoculture idea. Helen, what’s your most sympathetic description of what the boomers understood themselves to be rebelling against in terms of the culture?
The boomers certainly did view their parents as their enemy. They saw themselves as waging a cultural war in generational terms. And that made a lot of sense for the 1968 student protesters in France and Germany because their parents’ generation was that of fascism and collaboration. But it makes a lot less sense among the student protesters in America. Their parents had been the good guys in World War II. So when they were trying to come up with things to rebel against, the worst they could say was that they had it too good. You read some of these old new left tracts, and what they’re complaining about is that their middle class upbringings were too prosperous and had presented too few challenges. So I tend to think that the culture the boomers were raised in had a lot going for it. Hollywood was never better than it was in the 1940s. We still watch movies and TV from the 1950s. So the monoculture that people complain about and that the new left student rebels of the ‘60s tried to overthrow was actually pretty kind of great.
That doesn’t seem quite even fair to me as a description of these new left tracts, which I’ve enjoyed reading in my time, too. They’re rebelling against the war in Vietnam, Jim Crow, and racial apartheid in the South, although, frankly, not only in the South, a society in which women broadly are expected to stay home and, to the extent they do work, are not given access to the opportunities of equal power or income. I mean, I think they had a more far reaching critique. There’s a materialism thread in their critique. But I think their critique had a lot more to do with oppression than that gives it credit for.
I refer you to the opening line of the Port Huron Statement. We are the children of our generation raised in at least modest comfort. And the modest comfort was a big part of what made life so empty in the view of Tom Hayden and his friends in the SDS. One of the reasons they were so impatient with the old left was that they thought union style goals, like raising people’s wages, were no longer the most important thing in life. So you are correct, Ezra, that the war was a big part of their agenda. But in terms of what spiritually animated them, I think it was a sense of emptiness and surfeit that things had been too easy for their generation.
Jill, what’s your sense of what the boomers were pushing against?
Well, I think there’s a real conflation happening here between the Boomers and the new left. If the new left was actually representative of baby boomers, I think we would have had a president McGovern, right? I don’t know that we would have had a Ronald Reagan. But I think part of what’s happening here is taking what was, in fact, an incredibly tiny sliver of the baby boomer population, folks who were participating in anti-Vietnam War protests who identified as part of the new left or the SDS, even folks who were showing up at civil rights protests and feminist protests, tiny, tiny minority of a huge generation, and certainly not a representative one. That said, boomers know as adults, nearly every one of them seem as to want to take credit, at least for the civil rights and feminist movements. And so I do think there was a real sense of obligation on the part of young baby boomers who were progressive, which, again, is probably not even a majority of the generation, to show up and to work to make the country a better place. Yeah, I think one thing that is important to recognize is that the leaders of these movements were typically not baby boomers. So the folks we think about leading the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, even the anti-Vietnam War protests, are older than baby boomers. Gloria Steinem is not a baby boomer. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not a baby boomer. Malcolm X was not a baby boomer. Baby boomers were often the foot soldiers of these movements. They showed up. They put their bodies on the line when they were young, when they were teenagers, high school students and college students. But they weren’t necessarily the ones coming up with the kind of intellectual underpinnings of these movements, nor organizing them nor forming them. And so I think that that is very important context here. And again, these movements also were, unfortunately, not representative of most of the American public. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Helen, one of the threads of your book is that the boomers style themselves as a generation about liberation. And that is liberation from various kinds of oppression, liberation potentially from materialism and old structures of family. And your argument is that that liberation, in many cases, does not bring happiness, that that freedom brings only chaos. Could you talk a bit about that?
The fundamental legacy of the boomers, if you had to put it in a single sentence, is that they are institution destroyers. And it has to do with exactly what you say, that they believed, above all, in liberation. That’s the thing about institutions. They do constrain your choices. That’s what they’re designed to do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. So there is no institution that the boomers encountered that could withstand their absolute commitment to liberation. Unfortunately, we now see that an America denuded of institutions is not actually such a great place. They decided that churches could no longer put moral constraints on their parishioners. They thought that the family was too constraining. And unfortunately, when you abolish these institutions, what you do get is chaos. So the challenge for millennials has been growing up and navigating a world without institutions. And I think that’s one of the main reasons why millennials have such little patience with the boomers and their pretense of idealism. Because we’re growing up in the aftermath of it. And it does not look so great to us.
Jill, what’s your read of the boomers’ sort of institutional legacy and the sort of culture they end up creating?
So I have, perhaps not surprisingly, the total opposite view of Helen. The idea that boomers killed the family, killed the church, I think is pretty flatly absurd. Yes, a whole series of cultural changes happened partly because of boomers, partly because, as we discussed earlier, of technologies, like the contraceptive pill, that really did shift opportunities for women in particular, also for African Americans. And that, in many ways, kind of recalibrated American culture so that it was less hierarchical. And I think that’s right that some of the old institutions began to recede. In my view, the problem is not that these institutions were deeply beloved, doing sort of overwhelmingly positive good for all Americans, and boomers kind of came through and wiped them out. I think part of the reason why we’ve seen things like a decrease in church attendance, which is certainly very pronounced among millennials, why we saw things like the increase in a divorce rate among boomers once divorce laws really were liberalized, is because many of these old institutions weren’t working in the first place. I certainly don’t look around me and see an America without institutions. I look around me and I see an America that has been rendered incredibly unequal and that the benefits of some of these old institutions, like, for example, marriage, only accrue to a fairly privileged chunk of society. And part of that I do think is a boomer legacy. Part of that I think is, frankly, the unfinished work of some of these boomer progressive movements. I think right now, part of what millennials are facing is that we have hollowed out economic prospects. We are going to be the first generation that is not going to do as well as our parents. We’re not even going to do as well as our grandparents. We have far less in wealth. We make less money. And yet, many of us have cultural trappings and social trappings that were certainly beyond the scope of what our parents had. And so we’re living with this kind of dissonance. And millennials who are relatively lucky — and I think it’s fair to say that probably all three of us qualify — folks who have graduated from a four-year college, who are members of a professional class, we’re going to be pretty OK. The real problem is that so many members of our generation and members of our generation that are disproportionately Black and Brown are going to do so much worse than perhaps they otherwise would have. And so what I see as the problem is not necessarily the boomer dismantling of old, imperfect, and frankly often, no longer particularly useful institutions, but rather a failure to build up something different and something that would support millennial life and support young people that reflects an increasingly egalitarian country when it comes to things like race and gender, not when it comes to things like economics, and a country that simply hosts a wider variety of people and viewpoints who want different things.
Jill’s position on the family is one that I hear a lot from people on the left, and in particular, from boomers themselves. The line is that there was an old model of the family that wasn’t working. And the boomers came in and shook it up. And naturally, there was some chaos attendant upon that. Because chaos is inevitable whenever you have a revolution. But we’re finding our way to a new equilibrium. The problem with the family that millennials are most worried about and are most likely to face is not divorce. It’s never getting married in the first place. So that’s an indication to me not that the family was shaken up and then discovered a new equilibrium or is on its way to a new equilibrium. That says to me that the boomers broke the nuclear family. And it has not yet been repaired if millennials are not even finding their way toward getting married in the first place. That’s a sign that there’s something that’s gone wrong with the way we are coupling up.
Well, I’m not sure that’s totally right. When you look at which millennials get married and why and when you look at why millennials say they aren’t married or why they’re delaying marriage, it is very much an economic issue, right? Of course, there are cultural issues involved, too. I didn’t get married until I was 34. And I, frankly, never really planned on getting married. That is certainly, to some degree, an individual choice. But when you look at overwhelmingly, millennials do still say they want to get married. The ones that haven’t gotten married typically say one of two reasons. One is, I haven’t found the right person yet, which I actually think it’s probably a good thing if we live in a culture where marriage has a romantic aspect to it, and we take our time finding someone who we actually would like to spend the rest of our lives with. And if we don’t find that person, then we feel OK staying on our own. And B, the second reason millennials give for not being married is that they don’t feel like they’re financially ready. So, one thing that has really shifted is the idea of marriage as kind of a capstone to adult life, right, versus a cornerstone of adult life. Is marriage something you do after you have all your ducks in a row? You’ve graduated from college or from the highest level of education you plan on attaining. You have a steady job. You feel like an adult. And therefore, you get married, which is very much how millennials see it. Or is marriage kind of a cornerstone to adult life, something you put in place in order to build adulthood off of, which is how — I’m not sure that’s actually how boomers saw it, but it’s certainly how their parents saw it. So there has been that shift to the understanding of marriage, but along with that have come these profound disruptions to the American economy that have really affected millennials. And so you see that actually, millennials who are highly educated who have college degrees and who are relatively affluent, yes, we get married much later. We tend to get married in our 30s. But our marriages are the most stable in half a century. Our marriages are — they’re happy. They are much less likely to end in divorce. They’re, by kind of all measures, I think, very good marriages. What you see on the other side of things, though, is because the bottom has fallen out of working class wages, in part because of conservative economic policies, you see that working class folks would like ideally to get married, but don’t feel like marriage is realistically on the table because they feel like many young people feel like they haven’t achieved the kind of financial stability that is that baseline for adulthood that would allow them to get married. And so, to me, do we want to incentivize people getting married is a sort of bigger question that I’m not even sure that I agree with. I think it’s OK to have a wide variety of family setups. But if we do want to incentivize marriage and we do want to make it possible for more people to get married, then I think the first thing to solve are these widespread economic inequities. And the first thing to solve is to help shore up working class wages.
But let me try to bring children into this conversation, too. Because I agree on the cornerstone, capstone. But I’ll direct this one to you, Jill. One thing we do know is that millennial families are having fewer children than they want to be having. We know this in survey data. It’s all over anecdotal reporting. And part of it comes from economic pressure. Part of it comes from affordability problems. As people like to point out, there are more dogs than kids in San Francisco now. Part of it also comes from this cornerstone, capstone issue, when you’re getting married later. And a lot of people do have children outside of marriage, but a lot of people don’t want to do that so they wait. Then it turns out that you’ve had a kid or two. And by the time you want to have three kids or four kids, you actually don’t have the time anymore just biologically to do it. And so we do see a lot of families that are not able to achieve the sort of size of family that the people in them had originally wanted. Doesn’t that bespeak some kind of failure that is more than just an economics failure?
Sure, I think it’s a broad failure of both the state and how we imagine work should look. The reality is, sort of post-second wave feminism, women have entered a workplace that was constructed by and for men, according to the somewhat natural flow of men’s lives. And so these really crucial years when you’re building up your reputation at your workplace, when you’re working the kind of jobs that will put you in a better position for later on, are the same years in which women are having children. And pre-second wave feminism, the answer to that was essentially, well, women, or at least, middle class, upper middle class white women, didn’t work after they had children. Now we’ve seen a huge shift. We have, obviously, many more women in the workplace. But we haven’t adjusted workplace norms and workplace policies. So of course, you see women delaying childbearing because I think we’re all sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. There are some policy solutions to this, but not all. I think the jury is kind of still out on the degree to which family friendly policies incentivize childbearing, that they do a little bit, but it’s certainly not — we’re just, we’re not going to return to a time in which American women are having an average of three or four or five children. And I think that that ship has largely sailed. But when you look at surveys of women who either haven’t had or are not planning to have their ideal number of children, you see them list a couple of reasons. And the two top ones are time and money. So the money one I think we’ve kind of gone over. That’s obvious, right? And especially in a country where child care can outpace the cost of rent, you can understand why families don’t have the number of children they may otherwise want if they can’t afford them. But the time piece I think is also really important. Americans today work about a month more every year than we did half a century ago. So we’re spending much more time at the office. And at the same time, parenthood, and especially motherhood, has gotten much more intensive. So women today, working mothers, spend more time with their kids than mothers did in 1965, when many more of those mothers were at home full-time. So the expectations for what you do as a parent have been so far ratcheted up while expectations for work and the amount of time that we dedicate to our employer have ratcheted up as well that I think women are really caught right in this impossible between space. I think what’s often missing in these conversations is that we focus very heavily on women’s choices, when, in reality, not all of this, but at least some of this, is solvable policy wise.
Ezra, I’m so happy to hear you talk about the biological realities of fertility. Because one of my biggest frustrations in debates about the ‘60s and the sexual revolution is the way that the pill is overrated as marking a brand new era in human control over fertility, that it made so many people believe that childbearing was now something that was entirely under an individual’s control. The truth is that after the pill, we’ve become pretty good at not having babies when we don’t want them. But we have not gotten much better at all at making babies arrive once we do want them. And that’s a fundamental problem with the capstone model of marriage. Exactly as you say, that by the time you get around to having a capstone marriage, you just don’t have time to have three or four children. Millennial women are on track to have 25 percent of them end up childless, to reach the end of their childbearing years, having no children. And when you survey women, the percent that say they want no children is generally about 5 percent. So that’s 20 percent of women who are going to never have children at all simply because they couldn’t put the pieces together in time. Not because they didn’t want them, but because they just couldn’t make it happen. And I think that’s a lot of human misery out there that deserves to be addressed.
So when you think about addressing it, where do you approach that? Do you see that as a cultural or an economic problem?
If you were a time traveler who fell asleep in 1955 and woke up again in 2020, one of the first differences that you would notice is women in the workplace. It used to be that 3/4 of families were one-earner families. And today, that has just about flipped. About 2/3 of families are two-earner families. And the problem with that is not that women are in the workplace. Women being in the workplace is fine. It’s that many women would prefer a breadwinner model family and aren’t able to afford it. This incidentally is the knock-down rebuttal to any boomer who disputes millennial complaints about how hard we have it economically. It is simply the case that you could put together a middle class life on one income in their day, and you can’t do that now. And that’s a huge problem. That’s a huge decline in the quality of life for a lot of people. So I think addressing the two-income trap is the first thing we need to do to make raising kids easier. And if raising kids is easier, more people will do it.
So I want to go back to something you were talking about earlier, which is that one way of reading this is that there was a period of change from institutions that many thought were not working for them. But what hasn’t really happened is that alternative institutions emerged and began functioning well. And I have a personal slight obsession with the failure of some of the alternative living structures and ideas of the boomer age. I love reading books about the commune era and also why it failed. Because some part of me always thinks that seemed like a reasonable idea. Maybe it should have worked. People underestimate this. There’s a great David Brooks piece in The Atlantic about it from a year or two ago. The nuclear family as we think about it now, that Leave it to Beaver family, that was a really small punctuated period in American life. We used to have giant extended families that all lived together. Then there was a moment of sort of the nuclear family. And now we’re in these more fractured families, where we’re trying to basically buy the roles that extended families do for us. What went wrong in alternative institution construction? Like, not how can we go back, but why haven’t we been able to go more forward?
A big piece of it is that there was a tremendous disconnect between boomer cultural shifts and then the political universe that more conservative boomers created. So when you had these institutions or attempts to create new institutions like commune living, those were coming typically from the left among boomers. But in the political sphere, you had a real right-wing backlash that the same generation also helped to fuel, right? So again, we talk about boomers. It’s really hard to talk about this one generation as a coherent whole. And so you had these tremendous cultural changes, but you unfortunately didn’t have many of the necessary policy shifts to go along with it that would have allowed those changes to be sustainable or to perhaps morph into something more useful. There’s an academic named Dorothy A. Brown, who has a book out now about the racism of the tax code. Totally fascinating. I really recommend it. But one of the things that she points out is that we often think about things like the tax code, right, as racially neutral, as perhaps gender neutral. But in reality, that’s not actually how they function and that the people who are writing these policies are reflecting their own lives, assumptions, and ideals into them. And the boomers who were living on communes and who are the new left were not necessarily the same people or were certainly not the same people who were writing, for example, the Reagan era policies that have very much shaped our current modern economic landscape. So, I mean, to me, that’s primarily where that disconnect comes in, which is why so much of lefty progress in the U.S. very much feels like an unfinished project.
So here then is my bold left-right compromise, Helen — tax-free opportunity zones for commune living. Will that fix it?
[LAUGHS] Interesting thought.
Unfortunately, people really overrate the extent to which sprawling, extended families were the norm in the United States. The truth is that for hundreds of years in Europe, there has been a Mediterranean family model, where women tend to get married very young and have lots of kids. And aunts and uncles and extended generations have a huge role in raising children then in people’s lives. And then there has been the model that prevailed in places like England, which has always been more nuclear family centric, even in the 18th century. But even if that were not the case, the problem with the David Brooks recommendation of making a shift to bigger extended families now is that we just don’t have the people to do it. People have fewer siblings nowadays than they used to. So there just aren’t enough spinster aunts to go around to do child-minding in big, sprawling extended families of the kind that he envisions. So I don’t think that’s the way forward. I think fixing the nuclear family is probably a much better way forward.
How do you fix the nuclear family, though?
By alleviating the two-income trap and making it easier to put together childcare and child minding within a nuclear family structure.
So I mean, I hear that, and I think the Bernie Sanders agenda. But but I suspect that’s not what you have in mind.
Well, I’m not sure what you mean when you say the Bernie Sanders agenda.
Universal pre-K, $15 minimum wage, large tax and transfers to those who need them, a pretty broad system of social supports for anybody who falls through the cracks, guaranteed universal healthcare so that people never lose that, and probably sectoral bargaining and expansion of labor rights.
Some of that is fine. I expect we will see some form of aid to families passed in the next four years. My one caution, as we consider what kind of aid to pursue, is that something like universal child care or paid parental leave puts a thumb on the scale in favor of the two-earner model. It says to women, if you want to go out into the workforce, we will subsidize. We will help you. And if you want to stay home, you get nothing. So any kind of aid that we want to pass has to be neutral on two-earners versus one-earner.
Jill, this reminds me, actually, that I had written a piece about the child allowance ideas going around, Mitt Romney’s and others. And you’d written in a tweet thread, worrying that some of those policies might actually lead to more women staying at home, instead of going out into the workforce. And that would lead to a reduction in female economic power. So I suspect you’re not neutral on which way this policy goes. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
Sure, I would say there’s already a thumb on the scale. And that thumb is very much putting pressure on women who are stuck in an impossible position. Now it is true that many women say, especially when their children are young, that they would like to work part-time, or they would like to be able to have more time with very, very young children. But most women don’t actually say that they want to be full-time stay-at-home parents for sort of the duration of their lives. There are a lot of benefits to women working. Those benefits accrue to their children as well. So women who work are obviously much more financially independent, able to leave an abusive partner in a way that women who don’t have paid work aren’t able to. The daughters of women who work are more likely to do better in school. Sons of working mothers are more egalitarian in their own homes. They pitch in more around the house. They help more with childcare. Women who stay at home full time tend to have higher rates of certain mental health challenges, including depression. That’s not to say that the current system that we have, which is push a model in which you need a two-income family to survive in the middle class and then give folks absolutely no support on the back end is the right one. But to me, we should be looking at why we’ve set up our workplaces the way we have, why we are one of the only countries in the entire world that doesn’t have leave for women who have just had children, and why we, frankly, aren’t looking at the fact that so many men also say that they feel out of balance when it comes to work and family, that men today, like women, have changed a tremendous amount, and that millennial men, in particular, do say they want more time with their kids. They do say — many of them say that they wish they could take parental leave. But because of a combination of either not having it or because of workplace and cultural stressors that really punish men who are seen as feminized, they don’t take it. I mean, to me, those are much more pressing issues and I would imagine sound a lot more salient to millennial women than telling millennials, who are the most educated generation in American history, ladies, what you really want is to stay at home full-time. I think that’s certainly true of some women. And that’s great. No individual should have to carry the weight of feminism on her shoulders alone. But generally, what most women want is the ability to do both. We just want the ability to have the time to do both well.
Just two quick responses to that before we move on. The organization American Compass did a poll recently asking people what model of childcare they preferred for families with children under five. And the only group to favor two-earners in the workforce and full-time childcare for the kids was upper class respondents. The working class and the lower class favored the bread winner model at rates of 68 percent, 58 percent. So that’s one bias in a lot of these discussions, is that a lot of the people who are in the pundit class tend to be in the class that favors the two-earner model. And the people who prefer one-earner just don’t get heard, even though, as this poll shows, they are in the majority. And the second and broader point is that the false promise of boomer feminism was that it would eradicate women’s dependence. It tried to make women no longer dependent on their husbands. But in too many cases, they didn’t get rid of dependence. They just displaced it. And so instead of being dependent on your husband, you’re dependent on your employer, or in the case of single mother families, very frequently dependent on the government. And so I think any conversation about family has to start by admitting that children are helpless and dependent and will always be. And there’s no way to get rid of that. And the people who take care of these dependent babies are then necessarily, in some sense, dependent, too.
But it’s strange, though, to consider only women are dependent then on husbands, on workplaces, on the government. We don’t hear men talked about in that same language of dependence, even though, I mean, certainly, men are dependent on their workplaces for an income. Men also traditionally have been quite dependent on their wives to ensure that they can have the kind of rich family lives that they enjoy and that they can take the time that they need to focus on work and to financially thrive. It’s really only women I think that are party to these kind of really condescending lectures about what we can and can’t have or how we are or aren’t dependent that always presumes that women are caretakers first and kind of people second. And that assumes as well that men and the way that men have largely constructed this world in this country are these sort of immovable beings. And I’m not sure any of that’s true. [MUSIC PLAYING]
If the boomers are known for anything culturally, it is a much more sexually libertine generation. You have the pill. You have the pill, you have Gay Talese writing about swinger parties. You have free love and hippie communes and the whole of it. And then now, I remember being a kid reading about how the panic was rainbow parties and teen pregnancy. And now teen pregnancy has dropped precipitously, which is great. But there’s a lot of fear that millennials are not having enough sex, that young kids today seem to not be dating as much, that there’s an explosion of porn sometimes as a substitute, not just a complimentary product, I guess. And that it’s a strange thing to watch the boomer generation’s children end up in what a lot of people now talk about as a sexual recession. And I’m curious how you read that.
Millennials are the most porn saturated generation in human history, so not just in American history or in the last century, but for all time. And that has to do, again, with the rise of visual media. Technology made it so that any 11-year-old can pull up video of any sex act he wants to see anywhere that he has an internet connection. And millennials grew up in the midst of that. They were raised in a world where that was just taken as a given, streaming video pornography. And it has warped their sexualities in ways that as they get older, they find they don’t like, that they recognize as unhealthy. So the over sexualization that the boomers brought about is not contradictory to the sex recession that we see among millennials. It’s tied up with it. They are the two sides of the same phenomenon, the decline in healthy sexual relationships and the oversaturation with video pornography.
I honestly think a lot of this is kind of the same old, the kids are doing it wrong, fear factor that we’ve seen for millennia. There was, obviously, tremendous outrage, fear around the boomer era sexual revolution. Ezra, like you, when I was growing up and was a young teenager, there was also a tremendous amount of fear among people our age having rainbow parties and having sex too young. And I don’t know how many talk show segments there were about babies having babies. And now that we are adults and what I suppose people would consider kind of appropriate childbearing age, and we’re not having as many children as the generation before us, which is pretty normal — that’s part of a many centuries long decline in the average number of children that families have, which was shifted only in the era in which baby boomers were born. Now that we’re doing pretty much the same thing that many, many generations before us did, which is marry later and have fewer kids, that’s subject to a nationwide freak-out of, yet again, the young people are doing it wrong. I think some of the critiques of pornography culture are important, are well taken. I’m not sure we have the whole story yet on porn. I think it’s a really, really complicated social dynamic that, obviously, has many negative side effects for a lot of folks. But I do think part of the demonization of millennial porn usage is also tied up in ideas about sex and shame and religiosity and the proper role of sex in someone’s life. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that sex is no longer primarily relegated to the confines of marriage. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we are more sexually open minded, that millennials are much more likely, for example, to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender than baby boomers were. I think like much else we’ve talked about in this podcast, these shifts have brought some really significant, positive outcomes to millennials that all of us are living with. And they’ve also brought some serious downsides. And I’m not sure we even completely understand yet where each piece of that falls.
But you can tell me if I’m wrong on the data here, Jill. But isn’t the weird thing that while we’re dealing with a more sexually open generation, while there is, of course, more sex happening outside the confines of marriage, that you would expect that would lead to an explosion in sex, but instead, it’s gone down. That’s the part that I find a lot of sociologists are a bit more confused by, that there’s been a decline in relationships and also in sex at the same time that the culture has become more sexually open. What’s your theory of that?
So that’s right. Millennials have less sex than boomers, both in terms of average number of sex partners and average numbers of sexual interactions. I forget if it’s documented per month or per year. But as much as that millennial sex recession has been the topic of pretty significant hand-wringing, when you actually break it down and you look at, OK, how many fewer sexual acts per month are we talking about, it’s pretty negligible. Millennials are having about 2.5 fewer sexual acts per year, as compared to boomers. So 2.5 sex acts over the course of a year, I’m not sure is quite grounds to declare a millennial sex recession.
One of the numbers that sociologists collect on sexual activity is the proportion of men under the age of 30 who report having had zero sexual partners since they turned 18. For the last 30 years, I think, that number has hovered around the 10 percent mark. In the most recent numbers, it had gone up above 25 percent, I think to 27 percent. So that’s a huge explosion, more than doubling in young male virginity.
27 percent of men between age 16 and 30 have not had any sexual partners ever.
I think it’s 18 and 30. And they might have had sexual partners before they turned 18. It’s about activity since they’ve turned 18, I believe. But basically, yes. And that’s exactly what Michel Houellebecq, the grumpy French novelist, predicted. He said the boomers made sex into more of a marketplace. They made it look more like capitalism. So very naturally, we got what you always get in a capitalist market. You got lots of winners and losers. You have sexual millionaires who have lots and lots of partners. And you have sexual peasants who have none. And frankly speaking as a woman, neither kind of man, either the sexual millionaire or the sexual peasant, makes a very good life partner. So with men, you have winners and losers. And with women, mostly just losers.
I think this stat you’re pointing to is the percentage of men under 30 who haven’t had sex in the past year. I’m not sure it’s ever.
All right, before we wrap this up, we’ve been talking about a lot of trends that people are worried about. What’s one trend, starting with you, Jill, that you’re actually optimistic about?
I’m actually optimistic about a lot when it comes to millennials. I think one trend that I feel really, really heartened by — and I think this is, obviously, what conservatives malign as identity politics, but is this millennial insistence on decency, on kindness, on recognizing that many of us have very different things to bring to the table, that an old model of hierarchy, whether that’s racial hierarchy or gender hierarchy, is not just bad for people at the bottom of it, but fairly uninteresting for people at the top of it as well, and that our country, our culture is better, richer, and more interesting when it’s a loud cacophony of voices and ideas and experiences. And when we are people who are open — and this is something that I’ll actually give boomers a bit of credit for — is that as much as the cranky folks on Fox News complain that millennials are all snowflakes who want participation trophies, it was boomers who raised us to believe that we have something to offer, who gave us those participation trophies, and who told us that, yeah, we belong here and maybe we have something to say and to share. And I think millennial life is all the richer for that.
Helen, what’s a trend you’re optimistic about?
I see a very promising rise in self-education. One of the worst things the boomers did was destroy education in this country. It’s possible now to go to school and graduate from the best universities in America without having even a basic knowledge of the past and the sweep of human history. And so among young conservatives especially, I see young people reacting against the dismal state of education by teaching themselves. They are reading old books. And there’s really nothing better to do with your time than to read old books, so that makes me very, very optimistic.
What a beautiful segue to our final section, which is book recommendations. Thank you, Helen. So what is a book you would recommend every millennial should read to better understand boomers? And Jill, I’ll start with you.
So I would love every millennial to read “The Culture of Narcissism, American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations,” which was a 1979 book Christopher Lasch wrote. He’s a cultural historian. And part of the reason I find this book so fascinating is, it’s about boomers, but reading it, you can almost read it as being the same kinds of things you hear from boomers about millennials. Boomers were quite maligns when they were young as well. And so, I imagine that millennials reading this may read it as, OK, boomers have been narcissistic forever, or may read it as, wow, they were saying the same things about them that they now say about us.
My choice is Paul Berman’s “A Tale of Two Utopias.” It’s a book about the new left. And Berman himself was a fully paid up member. He was at Columbia University in 1968 for the student rebellion there. But as he got older, he soured on some of the student rebellions’ idealism and gives a very acute diagnosis of the ways that it went wrong, but also, for anti-boomer millennials, a good sense of what they thought they were doing when they first set out.
So then how about a book every boomer should read to better understand millennials? And obviously, they should read your book, Jill, which is all about this. But after they’ve read that book, what should they read?
They should read Anne Helen Petersen’s book, which is called “Can’t Even, How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” I think my book is very sort of data-driven and stat-heavy and policy focused. And Anne Helen’s book is really, really brilliant at getting to the more amorphous cultural stuff that millennials live in and experience, but that is a bit harder to quantify. And she does a really genius job of distilling it down in a way that I think, hopefully, will make boomers and anyone else a bit more sympathetic to what millennials struggle with.
My recommendation is “Coming of Age on Zoloft,” by the millennial journalist Katherine Sharpe. I think one of the worst things the boomers ever did was to stuff their children full of mind-altering drugs, whether that was Ritalin or antidepressants. And Sharpe’s book gives, on the one hand, a good, objective assessment of the problem of overdiagnosis within the discipline of psychiatry, but also a firsthand memoir of what it was like for her to be put on mind-altering drugs when she was a teenager and going through emotional problems, and then just stay on them for years and then wake up in middle age and realize she had no firsthand experience of her own personality unmediated by drugs.
And then what is always my last question here, which is favorite children’s book. And let’s mix it up. Helen, why don’t you go first?
Stephen Vincent Benet was an American poet of the early 20th century, and he wrote “A Book of Americans,” which is lots of short, light verse about famous characters from American history, from Pocahontas all the way through Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It’s wonderful poetry and also a good refutation of the claim that everybody before the boomers believed in this uncomplicated, triumphalist America rah, rah, rah, rah sort of patriotism. Because this is a very patriotic book, but it’s also not simple-minded. And they’re fun to memorize, too.
So I’m a typical millennial without children. So it’s been a very long time since I’ve read children’s books. And I wasn’t sure if this was asking me a children’s book I would recommend or what my favorite was as a child. So I went with the latter, which is “Goodnight Moon.” Absolute classic. I have absolutely no political reason for recommending it, other than I thought about recommending “The Giving Tree.” But looking back, the boy chopping down the female tree and sitting on her at the end is not very nice. So that seemed a bit anti-feminist, and I couldn’t, in good political conscience, say it’s my favorite children’s book anymore.
I read Goodnight Moon now basically every day. And the page where it’s like, good night, nobody, is basically my favorite thing in children’s literature. Helen Andrews and Jill Filipovic, this has been wonderful. Thank you both so much.
Thanks, Ezra. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“The Ezra Klein Show” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It is produced by Roge Karma and Jeff Geld, fact-checked by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones, and mixing by Jeff Geld.