For as long as there have been generations, there have been clashes between them. After all, Aristophanes was complaining about spoiled, disrespectful children four centuries before Christ. Despite this long history of generational conflict, the current moment seems particularly rich in animosity between the old and the young -- at least if the accusations flying around the media recently are anything to go on.
Far from the rantings in the more extreme corners of the blogosphere, the latest round of articles stoking inter-generational conflict come from some of the country’s most respected media outlets.
The New York Times’ columnist, best-selling author Thomas Friedman, for example, gave the Baby Boomers a stern rap on the knuckles this summer, writing that his generation “will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids.”
The Atlantic got into the act too with a recent round up of enraged comments they received from young people under the telling title of the “mad as hell millennial generation.”
The Boomers Strike Back
Of course the Boomers struck back, calling kids these days entitled and lazy and summing up their complaints with sarcasm: “Waah! Those horrible Boomers! I really want to live an entitled life like they had, and I deserve, but they messed everything up. Instead, I actually have to start at the bottom like every other generation. How unfair!"
Other commentators noted that in times of crisis there’s always a need for scapegoats and the impulse to attack Boomers, like rising fear of immigrants, is often driven more by a need to blame someone than reasoned analysis.
Meanwhile, in Washington, the debate over the practical applications of these conflicts continues, as politicians decide whether to spend money on entitlement programs largely serving the elderly or forward-looking investments in education, infrastructure and the economy that will mostly benefit the young.
The Return of Reason
What’s the reality behind this heated rhetoric – have Boomers greedily consumed far more than their fair share, living the good life while they leave younger generations with a debt hangover and reduced employment options? At least in the area of jobs the numbers suggest there may be less cause for anger than simple gloom.
A chart from Walls Fargo published recently on Business Insider laying out labor force participation by age cohort shows that, “Since 2002, the participation rate for older workers has grown rapidly, as people hold onto their jobs longer, pushing retirement off further into the future. Conversely, younger generations have dropped out of the work force en masse.”
The obvious conclusion is that older workers are finding themselves without the means to stop working, forcing them to keep their jobs and making matters worse for new job hunters just leaving school. Add to that increased global competition for good jobs and the employment picture is pretty gloomy for young workers.
But it’s not very nice for older workers forced to labor on despite passing their planned retirement date either. With the pain spread among young and old alike, perhaps unity is a better bet to tackle international competition and the challenges of technological change than accusations and recriminations.
What do you think: Are young people justified in their anger towards the Baby Boomers? And even if the anger is justified, is it useful?
London-based blogger Jessica Stillman covers generational issues and trends in the workforce for BNET.com.