Barbara Kay: If this is war, the millennials don’t have a chance
Barbara Kay May 30, 2012 – 6:30 AM ET | Last Updated: May 30, 2012 10:34 AM ET
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
An Occupy protester pours lighter fluid on a garbage can fire during a May Day demonstration in Oakland, Calif. And these guys wonder why they can’t find jobs.
We were dining at a good bistro. The waiter — early 20s — accidentally knocked a glass of water onto my lap. Suppressing annoyance, I was summoning a gracious smile to acknowledge his forthcoming apology when instead he chirped, “It’s okay, stuff happens.” Stung, I responded, “You’re unclear on the concept. You’re supposed to say ‘I’m sorry,’ and I’m supposed to say ‘It’s okay, stuff happens.’ ”
Our narrowed eyes locked: the Senior and the Millennial (a.k.a Gen Y or Echo Boomers). I was thinking: Your teflon complacency comes from a lifetime of helicopter parents and teachers ensuring you were failure-proofed to protect your precious self-esteem. He was probably thinking: Why aren’t you dead yet so I can get a decent job and afford the meal I’m serving you.
He would have a point.
We’re witnessing an unprecedented generational social tussle. In 1950, people my age were doddering retirees. Today, we’re healthier longer, enjoying still-productive lives. By clinging to our jobs, or starting new ones, we’re blocking the natural economic pipeline. Yet we’re also hanging on to our untenably expensive government benefits, because politicians genuflect before our massive voting numbers, not to mention our tendency to vote in higher proportions than the already far less numerous 18-34s.
But I have a point too. Cossetted, self-satisfied millennials lack humility and competitive drive. They think real life will echo their easy ride through high school and the artificially inflated grades they got for their dumbed-down university courses. An October 2011 National Report Card on Youth Financial Literacy polled 3,000 recent high school grads on their expectations. More than 70% erroneously assumed they’d own their own home in 10 years. The average respondent over-estimated his future earnings by 300%.
In his new book, Beyond Age Rage: How the boomers and seniors are solving the war of the generations, marketing maven and ZoomerMedia vice-president David Cravit deconstructs our unique demographic moment, as the culturally dominant boomers continue to re-order the world millennials are inheriting.
If this were a real war, millennials wouldn’t have a prayer. Oldies’ greatest fear — realistically — is outliving their money, because many boomers didn’t save for their retirement as previous generations did. They won’t cede their entitlements willingly. Almost a third have no savings, almost a quarter are $50,000 in debt upon retirement. Some are supporting aged parents. Many have to work, many more who are financially secure just want to work, and most are surprisingly adaptive. The number of self-employed Canadian 55-plus “BoomerPreneurs” doubled between 1990-2008.
Millennials — unrealistic, under-adaptive, often debt-burdened and, unlike the Boomers in 1967 (when the median age was 27, not 42, as today), are coming of age in hard economic times. They’re mad as hell, venting on websites. “Why won’t the Baby Boomers step aside?” rants one. Response: “Because many of us are too busy supporting our college graduate kids who won’t shop at Walmart … and BTW, you are NOT getting my job, Crybaby.”
Cravit’s evenhanded analysis is evidence-based, but one occasionally senses his irritation with millennials’ immaturity. In one chapter, for example, he compares the goals-focused sobriety of the Tea Party movement (70% boomers and seniors) with the feelings-drenched, violence-prone Occupy movement (70% under 39).
To illustrate his point — and to hilarious effect — Cravit contrasts the Tea Party website, a model of on-message clarity detailing principles and practical strategies, with the inchoate, juvenile Toronto Occupy website: “[We are] fed up with the current political and economic systems in this nation and all over the world. … We have not yet put out a unified message but be sure it will come.”
Cravit attributes the Tea Party’s success to boomer perseverance and a strong work ethic. He attributes Occupy’s failure to their education, which “put[s] a premium on rewards detached from results.” He recognizes that because of boomer guilt amongst cultural elites, “the meme of boomer selfishness and greed will likely overcome the meme of millennial immaturity and dysfunction” in the media. Indeed, we’ve witnessed exactly this joust played out in these pages over Quebec’s endless street protests. But Cravit also predicts that boomers will win in the marketplace.
The book concludes optimistically. It’s an unusual war where the victors refuse to let the losers lose, offering generous shelter, sustenance and mentorship to the vanquished. But that’s what is happening. Cravit’s elaboration on the boomers’ “Marshall plan” for their vulnerable progeny shows that it isn’t the nanny state, but spontaneous kinship altruism — plus, hopefully, a practical revamp of a superannuated university system — that will ensure that Canada’s presently unlucky millennials land on their feet.