Author dissects ‘sociopathic’ baby boom generation

WTOP's Veronica Robinson talks with author Bruce Cannon Gibney

WASHINGTON — It’s a cultural trope that’s lasted nearly a half-century: The baby boomers — the generation born between 1946 and around 1964 (different analysts have different ending dates) — marched to end the Vietnam War, let their hair down at Woodstock and generally revolutionized America, making it a fairer, more just, more equal society.

Bruce Cannon Gibney doesn’t see it that way. He points out what’s happened to the country since the baby boom generation came into real political power, and the picture he paints isn’t pretty.

In the book “A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America,” Gibney, a former venture capitalist, accuses the generation of pulling up the drawbridge behind them in lots of ways.

“The general consensus is that the past 17 years, at least, have not worked out particularly well for the United States, and I was curious as to why that was,” Gibney told WTOP recently.

“I don’t think that most Americans would disagree with that assessment. They might disagree as to who bears the blame.” The simple answer, he added, was another question: “Who was in charge?”

He wrote for The Boston Globe, “Henceforth, let us expect no more from people who achieved so little, who have such small interest in the future. Let us dispense with ideas that aging flower children have substantial claims on goodness, as boomers liberal and conservative alike engaged in warrantless wiretapping, extrajudicial assassinations, gratuitous assaults on the dignity of minorities, mass disenfranchisement, the erection of a vast and useless penal state, and policies of cavalier disregard.”

Talking with WTOP, Gibney allowed that by “boomers” he doesn’t mean everyone born in the generation, but “the core white, mainstream middle-class boomers,” adding that “it’s such a large generation that even a moderate tilt in political preferences can result in some really bad outcomes.”

His other caveat was that the more accurate term for what happened to the U.S. since the 1990s is best described not as a decline but a stagnation.

“It’s not that we’re not absolutely better than we were before. It’s that the pace of gains in everything from the economy and civil justice have slowed relative to the pace of gains in the 1950s and 1960s.”

He dates that stagnation to the early 1990s, and pointed out that Bill Clinton was the first boomer president and Newt Gingrich was the first boomer Speaker of the House. At the same time, boomers were becoming the majority in the House, peaking at 79 percent in 2009 and still holding at 69 percent today. And of course, he pointed out, a boomer is currently in the White House — a reflection, depending where on the political spectrum you fall, of the cause or the effect of American decline.


A different generation

The boomer generation was “raised very differently from any generation that had come before and any generation that came afterward,” Gibney pointed out: They were the first generation to be raised with a general permissiveness; they were raised with television and yet at a time when limits on screen time weren’t generally prescribed; they grew up with relatively high levels of lead in their environments; and they were generation to be mostly bottle-fed, which Gibney said impedes the development of personality and cognition.

He defined the overarching public policy of the boomer generation as “relentless divestment in the foundations of prosperity.”

“Boomer political culture emphasizes consumption above all else, without regard to investments whose returns cannot be expected within boomer lifetimes.”

Their economic backdrop was set in a postwar boom that created an expectation of “what seemed like effortless prosperity,” Gibney said; “as a result, they didn’t put as much emphasis on investing. … They allowed infrastructure to rot; they allowed public higher education to rot. Research and development has fallen off from its peak in the 1960s — it’s even fallen off from the Reagan years.”

“We’re having a conversation about infrastructure projects that were built in the ‘30s through the ‘60s precisely because those projects were built 50, 60 years ago and were not maintained during the period of boomer power.”

Gibney pointed out that the typical red-blue divide isn’t the most effective frame through which to view American politics since the 1980s, particularly where economic policy is involved. Under the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies, he argued, the accurate description is that the baby boomers got what they wanted.

Under President Ronald Reagan, taxes were lowered on income but raised on capital gains — at a time when boomers were still young enough that many didn’t have a lot of investments or capital gains to be taxed.

With Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, housing tax exemptions were expanded, banking regulations such as Glass-Steagal were slashed and capital-gains taxes were cut, all “at the time (that) the median boomer had … a home and a portfolio to protect.”

Republican George W. Bush, Gibney said, embraced tax cuts “with unseemly attention lavished on the estate tax, at roughly the same time at which boomers’ parents are reaching their forecast ends.” Meanwhile, he and a Republican Congress enacted the expensive entitlement policy Medicare Part D “just as the boomers are becoming seniors.”

“The critique has been that red and blue America can’t get anything done,” Gibney said, “… (but) I’d argue that actually, if you put on generational lenses, the system seems to be working fairly smoothly, but for one group — the boomers. And that’s only natural, because there are so many of them as voters, but they’re not particularly forward-thinking voters.”

Gibney said that people between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2013 earned 20 percent less, and had 50 percent less net worth, than those of the same age in 1989. “And I think we know who those two groups were.”

(As for President Barack Obama, Gibney wrote for The Boston Globe, “While birth makes Obama a late boomer, his upbringing left him distant — geographically and socially — from the boomer mainstream. Not coincidentally, No Drama Obama was the most sober thing about American politics in 25 years.”)


What about Woodstock?

What about the accomplishments of the baby boom generation? Gibney said they’re real, but they’ve been appropriated and “leveraged … in the same way that financial capital has been leveraged by the boomer financial system — into a win for all boomers.

“It’s not the case that all boomers were marching against Vietnam — in fact, younger people were the most pro-war cohort. It was certainly not the case that there was any boomer on the Supreme Court in 1954 when schools were desegregated.” The first form of the Clean Air Act was passed in 1963; the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. “That’s not a boomer victory,” Gibney said.

“I don’t argue that we haven’t made significant progress since then. But it hasn’t been as radical as Truman integrating the army, or schools being integrated. This is not the sale of papal indulgences. You can’t borrow a small cohort’s merit to salvage an entire generation’s actions.”

Indeed, as the boomers age, Gibney argued, they’ve begun to engage in what he called “regressive policies” — the Voting Rights Act was “gutted” by the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case, and the mostly boomer Congress “has done nothing to respond.”

So what can younger generations do? Vote.

“The fairly straightforward answer is for younger people to vote more aggressively,” Gibney said, and hopefully for a younger candidate — he described the choices in the 2016 presidential election as “Leftover Number 1 and Reheated Leftover Number 2.”

“As a matter of political hygiene, people who have been in charge for three decades probably ought to let another generation take over.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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