BROOKE GLADSTONE Senator Mike Lee tweeted that democracy impedes liberty, peace and prosperity. So is the United States a democracy, a republic? What should we be? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Joe Biden is a youngish one. Nancy Pelosi is one. The Senate is filled with them. The silent generation included all sorts.
ELWOOD CARLSON Great civil rights leaders, think Martin Luther King and John Lewis. So is Elvis Sandra Day O'Connor. One thing, they were not is silent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Biden says his candidacy is a bridge from his generation to the next ones. But the millennials have had it up to here with their elders.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON I don't think it's necessary to be mad at boomers. It's just to be mad at society configured the way that it is.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. What a splendid week for American democracy.
CASERTA And just remember that when you go vote, it ain't going to change a damn thing because all the laws that are already on the books, are already bad enough. And all we're going to do is make more laws and take more wealth and property and power from the people to themselves. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD On Thursday, 13 right wing alleged domestic terrorists were charged in a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. This is from a Tik Tok video made by one of the men charged.
CASERTA Because that's what it's all about, is taking your freedom and your money so that they can empower and enrich themselves. That's what criminals do and that's what the government is. Peace. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Also on Thursday, Donald Trump demanded that Attorney General Bill Barr indict Joe Biden and Barack Obama. This week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott was sued over his October 1st executive order limiting presidential ballot drop off locations to one per county. The largest Texas county, Brewster, is bigger than Connecticut. On Monday, the Supreme Court overturned an appellate court and permitted South Carolina to require that absentee ballots be validated in writing by a witness. And oh yeah during Wednesday's presidential debate, a United States senator tweeted in opposition to...democracy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're not a democracy. That was Utah Republican Mike Lee's first Twitter declaration. In the second he elaborated, quote, Democracy isn't the objective. Liberty, peace and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that. So the question is when? At least since the protracted, ferocious debates during our nation's infancy, did American democracy become a debatable proposition? When did our democratic system, not the implementation of it, but the very idea of it, come under blatant, explicit attack? We'll consider the current moment in a few minutes. But first, let's review another moment it came under furious fire not all that long ago.
BOB GARFIELD According to Nicole Hemmer, research scholar at Columbia University and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. Conservatives first toyed with a republic, not a democracy slogan in the late 1930s.
NICOLE HEMMER The conservatives who were involved with the America First Committee, which was this committee founded in order to prevent the U.S. from getting involved in World War Two, were somewhat affronted by Franklin Roosevelt saying that the U.S. needed to wage this war to defend democracy. And the way that they pushed back against that appeal was to say, well, wait a second, we're a republic, not a democracy. And so that's the first time you start to hear this as a kind of political slogan to fight back against rhetoric about American democracy.
BOB GARFIELD Then again, in the early 60s, not only in the heart of the Cold War, but at a time when the Supreme Court was codifying the Bill of Rights into court decisions toward a more liberal democracy. The John Birch Society's founder, Robert Welch, declared, This is a republic, not a democracy. Let's keep it that way. What was he up to?
NICOLE HEMMER Robert Welch was really opposed to the liberal Justice Earl Warren's Supreme Court. In large part because the Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that schools could not be segregated, and then in the 1960s, what happens is the Warren Court begins to press for this idea of one person, one vote. And this was part of the same push that was going on in U.S. society for black voting rights and an opposition to both the principle of one person, one vote and to the protection of black voting rights was really driving the John Birch Society to oppose the expansion of voting rights. Thus sort of leveling of voting rights. And that was all contained in this slogan of a republic, not a democracy.
BOB GARFIELD The John Birchers opposed some of the more famous decisions of the Warren Court. You mentioned Brown vs. Board of Education, but there was also Reynolds v. Sims about the very question of one person, one vote. What were the details of that decision and what effect did it have on the nature of American democracy?
NICOLE HEMMER So you had state legislatures where districts were determined by geography, by things like counties which led to a more Senate like form of representation, where very small population counties had the same political power is very large population counties. And the Supreme Court intervened and said, you know what? That's not fair. That's not representative. And ordered that state legislatures decide their district thing on the basis of population. It was a really important moment of putting some oomph behind this idea of one person, one vote.
BOB GARFIELD I can remember when the John Birch Society was regarded as a kind of lunatic fringe of reactionary thought. Now its positions are more or less mainstream conservatism. What was its solution at the time for an activist court?
NICOLE HEMMER So their first solution was to impeach Chief Justice Earl Warren. That was the big rallying cry on the right in the early 1960s. But then it became part of a broader conservative project to get more conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Now, that was clearly a much longer term project. But that's kind of where you see the seeds of a new focus on the Supreme Court as something that could be a protector of conservative political power and ideas.
BOB GARFIELD Now, the debate you are talking about seems to happen at a time when conservatism finds itself on the wrong side of the political consensus in the country. So what happened in the early 80s amid Reaganism in which the conservatives very much represented the consensus of American wishes and thought.
NICOLE HEMMER Conservatives could look around during the 1980s and say, no, no, wait a second. It actually turns out that direct democracy and majoritarian elections. That's working out pretty well for us. So there is this moment during the 1980s at the height of the Cold War, when Reagan is talking about democracy and when conservatives seem to be winning these landslide elections with the majority of the population behind them, that democracy has a bit of a moment in conservative circles.
BOB GARFIELD The U.S. Senate and the presidency are representatives of a political minority, beneficiaries of the structurally disproportionate electoral representation as a percentage of the population. Is Lee agitating for nothing more than the perverse status quo?
NICOLE HEMMER I think that there is a real fear among conservatives that even the kind of minoritarian benefits that are already built into the system, through the Electoral College, through the Senate are at risk.
BOB GARFIELD Nicole, thank you very much.
NICOLE HEMMER Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Nicole Hamer is a research scholar at Columbia University and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Sitman, once a conservative Catholic, now is a liberal one, associate editor of the liberal Catholic journal Common Wheel. He also co-hosts a podcast. Know Your Enemy, tracking the intellectual drift of the Extreme Right, intently following the debates and the journals and elsewhere, which I suspect is why he named his podcast with some irony, because as he's observed over and over again, that religious conservatism, with the validation of its leading intellectuals, has migrated to Trumpism, where what was once the opposition is now the enemy, which must be vanquished now and forever. That enemy being political liberalism.
MATTHEW SITMAN Liberalism is not the partisan contemporary political meaning, but liberalism is a political philosophy grounded in individual rights, human equality, the rule of law, due process. Constitutional governments are what they're rejecting, especially the individualism and the equality of it.
When you take aim at human equality, that's also the basis not just of, say, a liberal judicial order, but the foundation of democracy. One person, one vote. That is what they're rejecting. They're saying that actually they know better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's from our conversation. Back in December, we were talking about a manifesto published in First Things called Against the Dead Consensus, The Dead Consensus, meaning the majority. Most of us who don't know better, which may be true, but couldn't the same be said of them?
MATTHEW SITMAN When they reject something like liberal proceduralism?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You used air quotes then.
MATTHEW SITMAN Right? What does that mean? If you're from the wrong group, you don't get your day in court. You don't have certain protections. You can be arrested and deported at the whims of a president. The ends justify the means. It's what you give yourself permission to abide by. It's what you're willing to overlook.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can it justify the creation of an authoritarian state?
MATTHEW SITMAN I would hope not. If you are a believing Christian who believes in a highest good, that should determine not just the ends, but the means. But I think in practical politics, that gets lost. When you look back to recent conservative history, even a magazine like First Things under its former editor, Richard John Newhouse, who was a conservative Catholic priest, they ran a symposium in the 1990s about the judiciary and Democratic political life. They were extremely concerned that the judiciary was imposing liberal values. What was interesting about it was not that conservatives disagreed with liberal judges. That's to be expected. But what they did was say these liberal judges are thwarting democracy. The majority really does believe what we do. There is a moral majority. They use the language of democracy against liberal elites. Today, they are no longer speaking the language of a democratic majority of the people being with them. They are saying we must crush our enemies because we are right. We know what the highest good is. That move from democracy to simply saying we're right is the essential thing. You can see a situation arising in which Republicans keep trying to hold onto power despite not being a majority. And my concern is that these conservative intellectuals are creating the conditions, are giving themselves permission to go along with what amounts to authoritarian rule by a political party that doesn't have anywhere close to the support of a majority of Americans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In your podcast, you quoted from Damon Linker, who's a former editor at First Things as well.
MATTHEW SITMAN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And now a moderate.
MATTHEW SITMAN Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He wrote, when social conservatives thought that they were the Moral Majority. It made sense for them to dream of exercising real political power when they recognized that they were a minority. It made sense for them to resign themselves, to adopting a defensive posture and preparing to live out their days in a country as dissenters from the arraigning liberal consensus. What makes no sense is for social conservatives to think that they can be both weak and strong at the same time. A minority that wields the power of a majority, unless, of course, social conservatives no longer care about democracy.
MATTHEW SITMAN He put it very well, and that's a apt summary of my concerns that I'm expressing. But the key is to implement the highest good to implement the order they think is true. And just and good. And the ways you get there matter less.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Given what's transpired in the last 10 months and given that Utah Senator Mike Lee is in lofty company in dissing democracy, we called Matt Sitton back to discuss the escalating project of applying their ideas by leveraging our least democratic institutions, the Senate, the Electoral College and, of course, the Supreme Court. But first, I wanted his take on the most anti-democratic thing I'd read lately, published back in March in The Atlantic. It was written by Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule calling on his ideological allies to rise from their defensive crouch and embrace what he calls common good constitutionalism. That quote does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy because it sees that law is parental. A wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits, just authority in rulers can be exercised for the good of the subjects, if necessary, even against the subject's own perceptions of what is best for them. Perceptions that may change over time anyway, as the law teaches habituating and reforms them. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures possibly experienced at first as coercive. Encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common good. Now, Vermeule is a bit of a provocateur, but I wanted Matt Sitman's take on his formulation that says: common good constitutionalism is not tethered to particular written instruments of civil law or the will of the legislators who created them. Its main aim is certainly not to maximize individual autonomy or to minimize the abuse of power, but instead to ensure that the ruler has the power needed to rule well.
MATTHEW SITMAN I saw that as Vermeule saying that judges should not get in the way of rulers coercing their subjects to behave according to the dictates of morality that they perceived to be correct. And that certainly aren't views that the majority of Americans hold. So I think one thing it indicated to me was the lack of regard for the general views of the population. But I would say even more the note about not deferring to the will of legislatures is really important, because I think another aspect of this so-called common good constitutionalism is the deference that Vermeule wants courts to pay, judges to pay to the executive branch and the administrative state. Vermeule is someone very influenced by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. And the executive power plays a similar role in Schmitt's thinking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He was really a Nazi?
MATTHEW SITMAN Yes, served the Nazi regime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mike Lee said, we're not a democracy and democracy isn't the objective anyway. How, since we spoke in December, have the Trump administration and the Republican Party been trying to implement a set of intellectual ideas?
MATTHEW SITMAN Most of all, there's just a hostility towards voting, the very bedrock of democracy. That's why they're undermining the Postal Service. Why Trump has told his supporters to monitor polling places, which really, as we saw in Virginia in early voting, include a kind of jeering at people going into vote. Trump has told his supporters to vote twice. Trump himself said they had to install Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court because the Supreme Court could be counting the ballots. Now, that's not exactly how it works, but it's totally possible that litigation could come before the Supreme Court that does settle the outcome of the election. He said again and again that voting by mail is fraudulent to prepare his supporters to not accept the outcome of the election. And even more, taint the outcome of the election, which would justify the litigation that aimed at overturning the outcome. And of course, this is a man that a majority of the country has never supported, installing someone on the most anti-democratic branch of the United States government.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You didn't mention Trump declining to commit himself on the peaceful transfer of power.
MATTHEW SITMAN What Trump did when he told the proud boys to stand by, when he refused to condemn white supremacists, it was giving them permission to wreak havoc because he's casting doubt on the outcome of the election. It doesn't take a lot to connect the dots. That's a threat. I don't know what Trump consciously intends or not, but he said over and over that he doesn't really expect to win the election. Do you know anyone who thinks Donald Trump will win a majority of votes? It's the way it will happen will be through the Electoral College and possibly through this strategy of litigation, disruption, claims of fraudulence, and then a Supreme Court possibly deciding it. The kidnaping plot of the governor of Michigan, that's just proof that his rhetoric matters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said that within 20 to 30 years, it's possible that 70 percent of senators will be representing 30 percent of the country.
MATTHEW SITMAN By 2040, It's predicted that 70 percent of country will live in 15 states. That means that 70 percent will be represented by only 30 senators. That's a huge imbalance. And it is tricky because that number is actually not radically different than what has existed at other periods in our history. But what makes it so deeply troubling is that never before has our country been polarized the way it is. The difference between rural voters and urban and suburban voters is so great that the system's structural problems are running into the buzzsaw of polarization that it'll be balanced to kind of radically against the Democratic Party.
BROOKE GLADSTONE There's an irony here that in order to be utterly traditional and support what we always believed was majority rule, we would have to do things like add states and increase the size of the Supreme Court.
MATTHEW SITMAN Yes. And I think what you're seeing now, Brooke, is that the Republican Party knows that the situation is no longer tenable. It's been interesting that The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has commented on this recently, that we've seen these big fights over the court at moments when a kind of rising majority is on the cusp of gaining power at the expense of the old order. And that happened in eighteen hundred when Jefferson won the presidency and the Federalist Party was on the outs. They installed as many judges as possible to thwart Jefferson's incoming administration. It happened in the run up to the civil war. When you think of Dred Scott. I mean, that decision essentially outlawed the Republican Party's platform. Declared unconstitutional. And so what we're seeing now is this kind of inflection point where this minority party is trying to cling to power, even as it's very clear there's a rising majority that opposes it. And so this moment we're in, where Democrats could pack the court or disempower in various ways, change its jurisdiction, could add states like Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. That would be something that in the short term at least, would start to rebalance our system in a more democratic direction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew, thank you very much.
MATTHEW SITMAN Well, thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Sandeman is associate editor of Common Wheel magazine and co-host of the No Your Enemy podcast.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, size matters, at least when it comes to your generation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Republic or Democracy, let's at least agree on the gerontocratic nature of our government. Most of our leaders are old. Our fourth boomer president, Donald Trump, leads a succession that includes young Mike Pence, 61, Nancy Pelosi 80, and the 87 year old Chuck Grassley. Meanwhile, 77 year old Joe Biden is challenging the boomers protracted grip on the White House. If elected, he'd become the first president from the generation born between 1929 and 1945. That cohort, which includes so many members of the governing elite, was long ago dubbed the Silent One. It wasn't a compliment. And sociologist Elwood Carlson says it was also dead wrong.
ELWOOD CARLSON There's a lot of famous, noisy people in the so-called silent generation, great civil rights leaders, Martin Luther King and John Lewis. So is Elvis Presley. Sandra Day O'Connor. One thing, they were not is silent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You thought that silence referred to a belief of their elders that the generation was politically inert, something that has been applied to practically every generation in a particular time in their lives.
ELWOOD CARLSON Voting has always been lower among young people and rises with age. That's what we might call an age effect rather than a generational effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is a common confusion.
ELWOOD CARLSON Well, if you want to sort out what's truly generational and what's not trying to imagine a grid of rows and columns. Each row you could think of as a stage of life from childhood in the bottom row to old age in the top row. And looking across this grid, each column shows a separate historical period, like the Great Depression of the 1930s. If you put you or me down on the bottom line of this grid when we're born, we each follow a straight diagonal up through this grid. Glen Elder wrote a famous book about one such group, he called it Children of the Great Depression. There's something about that childhood had a lasting impression on those kids. That something would be generational.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And so there were things that all young people do, and then there were things that characterize a generation.
ELWOOD CARLSON Elder found lasting effects among what he called the children of the Great Depression. The people who were born during the 1930s, that whole generation has been lost and ignored. In between all of our attention to the greatest generation who fought World War two and the baby boom which came after World War Two. Partly it's been ignored because it was small. It was the first generation in American history ever that was smaller than the generation that came before it. They were not joined by very many immigrants either, because in the 1920s we slammed the door on immigration and shut it off and we kept it off for half a century.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just for clarity, the greatest generation was born from about 1910 to 1929, right? The silent generation from 29 to 45. So you gave Biden's generation, this tiny generation, its own nickname after having studied its lifelong characteristics.
ELWOOD CARLSON I called them the lucky few. Now, that may seem a little improbable if you look at them at first, because when they were children, they were living through the Depression and the Second World War. They saw some hardships, they learned some caution. But as soon as they started coming out of high school, they were on the gravy train and they have been on the gravy train ever since.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Would you describe the gravy train?
ELWOOD CARLSON Well, the economy was booming in the postwar years. The companies looked around for people to hire and they saw the smallest generation of the century. What happens when you have a shortage of people and a demand for them that's growing very rapidly. The price you pay for them goes up. The employment rate for them was above 90 percent. For the boomers, a generation later, it was in the low 80s. People got raises, people got promotions, so they got married right out of high school and they started having babies and they produced the baby boom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So this is the longest continuous economic boom in American history. I'm just wondering, though, how about black Americans? Could black Americans coming of age during the mid 20th century have been among the lucky few?
ELWOOD CARLSON There is a lucky few generation among black Americans, but they were not as lucky as white Americans, obviously. During those years, the opportunities that began to open up made black Americans luckier than in previous generations. And in some ways luckier than black Americans in some subsequent generations. But they had to fight for it. It's no accident that most of the leaders of the civil rights movement were lucky few. It's also no accident that the heart of the Great Migration, the people who left the South and moved to the northern industrial cities and went to work in the factories of General Motors and United States Steel. It's no accident that they were in the lucky few either.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said that the lucky few carry within them, despite so much of the bounty that they were able to enjoy an ethic of scarcity and of precariousness.
ELWOOD CARLSON When Glen Elder studied the children of the Great Depression, he noticed that they were deeply affected when so many of their fathers lost their jobs. And when some of these families were actually kicked out of their homes and found themselves living in their cars and living on the streets. These were children who were marked by that experience. But these children saw their parents lose their jobs and then get them back again. And so they took away from that the message of precariousness. But if you are resilient, you can come out of it all right. Years later, they were optimistic about their own lives. They didn't get depressed by what happened to their parents. They learned from it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So Biden is a relatively young member of his fellow lucky few. Donald Trump is an old boomer. What do you take from them straddling those lines? And how seriously should we take those divisions?
ELWOOD CARLSON Probably they're closer to each other in many ways than they are to the average person in their generation. They don't share backgrounds of coming from the same kind of position in society, but they do share some historical experiences. They share the postwar economic climate. They followed very different career paths. But the context that they experienced would be familiar. Each of them would recognize some things about the other person's life. Now, there'd be a lot of other things they didn't recognize.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But isn't the idea that elements that characterize a generation are manifested in the choices they make and the way they view the world? But I don't see any resemblance between the way these two candidates view the world.
ELWOOD CARLSON They don't see the world the same way, but they have some similarities. They both grew up at a time when almost all the other children around them were native born Americans. Neither one of them has that much experience with lots of immigrants in their personal lives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And what they do with that lack of experience. Well, therein hangs a tale.
ELWOOD CARLSON That comes from other things about their backgrounds, that's not generational. There's more to life than generations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE We're talking about the lucky few, and I would love to have your thoughts on the concept of luck. Whole libraries of data show that the color you are, obviously, the last name you have, the zip code you live in, the people your parents know, or a random encounter in your life can change absolutely everything about its outcome. That no matter how smart you are, how hard you work, you might not be able to surmount an avalanche of bad luck. And no matter how dim witted or feckless you are, the good luck of, say, the circumstances of your birth can still see you through.
ELWOOD CARLSON Well, when I attach the label of lucky few to these people, I wasn't thinking about roulette wheels spinning. I was thinking about the good fortune that accrued to these people systematically because they were so few, because they had less competition to rise during a period when a lot of the wealth and inequality in American society had been destroyed by decades of war and depression. We had a golden age in the middle of the 20th century of low inequality, rapid economic expansion, and into that golden age walked the first generation smaller than the one before it. Now, that's not a roulette wheel that systematically good fortune. But Glen Elder was right that those kids who experienced the depression and the war when they were little and then all of a sudden saw all the flowers coming out, took hold of that. And they created corporate America. They really did. From little or nothing, the number of corporations in the United States follows an exponentially increasing curve. If it keeps on going, there'll be more corporations than people sometime in this century. That curbs started up with them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A towering achievement, but it's left us with gob smacking inequality.
ELWOOD CARLSON In every way we can think of, And it's separating people from each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's the legacy of the very creative, very enterprising and clever lucky few.
ELWOOD CARLSON That's our karma.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you very much.
ELWOOD CARLSON You're very welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Elwood Carlson is the Charles Nam professor in sociology of population at Florida State University and the author of The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the much maligned millennials may be the nation's best hope.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield. Joe Biden humbly presents himself as a walkway, a span from here to there.
JOE BIDEN I view myself as a transitional president that want to transition to your generation. You're the best educated. You're the most open. [END CLIP]
JOE BIDEN I think of myself as a bridge. There's an entire generation of leaders. They are the future of this country. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD At one end, his so-called silent generation or lucky few. At the other, what is now the biggest population cohort, the millennials, whom you might call the unlucky many?
ANN HELEN PETERSON The stats show that we are the first generation to take a step back from our parents generation. And that's a pretty remarkable feeling.
BOB GARFIELD Anne Helen Petersen writes Culture Study on Substack. She's the author of Can't Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Now, with all the caveats associated with generalizing a cohort of 70 million individuals when and where you were born can obviously make a huge difference. If you go out in the rain, you're apt to get wet. And millennials have been hit with storm after storm.
NEWS REPORT Many millennials graduated into the recession, which is a really tough job market Back in 2008. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Compared to Gen X, twice as many millennials took on student debt to go to college or grad school. [END CLIP]
NEWS REPORT Over 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment as a result of the shutdown. Millennials have been affected the most with layoffs and pay cuts, according to a Pew Research study. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD And the result being the flip flopping of the American dream. Downward mobility?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON I mean, most people in my generation feel like they have not arrived at the milestones of adulthood that were set forth for them. They feel like homeownership is out of reach, any sort of stability or savings - same with that. Some are waiting to find some sort of stability before they have children and feel like it's never going to arrive. Or they've had children and are really desperate for any sort of stability. And the average student loan debt among millennials is in the upper 30 thousands.
Some percentage of our listeners will hear that and they'll go: "whiny." Your generation is often caricatured as spoiled and lazy. This is a clip from Saturday Night Live, a sketch they called Millennial Millions.
HOST Now Kerry, this boomer is going to complain for 30 seconds, make it that whole time without interrupting. And the Social Security is yours.
CONTESTANT OK, that sounds easy.
HOST It sounds easy, but I know how you millennials love anything that challenges your world view. 30 seconds on the clock andm - GO!
BOOMER You young people have it so easy. You know, you sit around eating avocado toast, watching movies on the phone. I never had that. OK. I had to work. I mean, 8 million dollars is not what it used to be. So of course, I'm taking the Social Security.
CONTESTANT Sorry, I can't. You're taking this Social Security? You are rich!
HOST Oooo, Sorry Kennedy. You didn't keep your cool.
CONTESTANT It just feels so unfair.
HOST Well, maybe you can tweet about it, that'll solve everything. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD In January 2018, in an interview with the L.A. Times, even Joe the Bridge builder said that he's headed about up to here with the younger generation.
JOE BIDEN The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. [END CLIP]
JOE BIDEN I have no empathy works because here's the deal, guys. We decided we were going to change the world and we did. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD But you say that the stereotype, generally speaking, is the opposite of reality. What you see is burnout and not something that can be addressed with a vacation or lighting a candle and having a little me time. What does burnout look like and what are its causes?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Burnout. Looks like the sort of exhaustion that comes when you feel like you have been running the marathon. You're about to finish it and someone puts forward a sign that's like, nope, you still got to keep going for seven more marathons. It becomes the backdrop of your life. The compulsion to work all the time to try to find some sort of stability, but also all of the other pressures to live like a balanced, socially presentable life, to provide your children with some modicum of the same sort of childhood that you had, but also do more parenting all the time, to pay off those student loans. All of those things are pressing down on millennials, and your entire life kind of flattens into this endless to-do list. There's no highs and no lows.
BOB GARFIELD It sounds like Sisyphus.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Yes.
BOB GARFIELD Or what they used to call it the beginning of the baby boom generation, the rat race. How was it different from that?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON You know, I think the differences with the rat race, there would be some sort of stability. Even if you felt like there are still things that you were competing with your neighbors about in terms of lawn maintenance or something like that, like if you were considered by your income to be in the middle class, you weren't always worried about how much credit card debt that you had or how much student debt that you had. That's a huge thing that I think is hard to understand, that there are tens of thousands of millennials who pull down Middle-Class Salaries but still are really struggling to make ends meet. And it's not because they're spending all of their money on like televisions or whatever. It's because of the cost of housing and the cost of childcare.
BOB GARFIELD And you had a company pension fund that was solvent and the Social Security trust fund. So I guess there wasn't all this existential dread about where you would be in a decade.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Yeah. You know, the greatest generation and boomers, their. Was a bit more a lot more in some cases, stability in terms of you would find a job and oftentimes work there for your entire life. You know, my granddad is part of the greatest generation, worked his entire life at 3M and then retired with a pension at age 55. And for a very long time, I found myself incredibly resentful of that. I was like, how is that possible? That's so lazy. That was my attitude until I rethought that and was like, oh, but actually that would have been amazing to have that sort of stability. Maybe you wouldn't have the liberty to seek out a new job every two to three years, which is something that a lot of millennials are familiar with. And the liberty they have to cash out your four one K in order to cover a medical emergency.
BOB GARFIELD With liberty like that, who needs tyranny?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON I know. So I think that a lot of times these things that are actually just characteristics of precarity are positioned for millennials as benefits. But I don't think it's actually a benefit.
BOB GARFIELD The baseline complaint, economic precariousness, job insecurity, impossible child care obstacles, the aforementioned existential dread they have riven parts of American society for ever. It's called poverty. Is it fair to say that it took a sinking middle class to awaken us to precarity?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Absolutely. People in poverty have been burnt out for a very, very long time. And you're absolutely right that it has taken this shift to the middle class and specifically to the white middle class for this to feel like a national crisis or something that is a generational crisis.
BOB GARFIELD Your book, Its Genesis, was something you wrote for BuzzFeed two years ago, an article. And there was a response to that piece by a writer called Tianna Clark, who wrote about the specifics of black burnout.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON She said, burnout is something that I feel every day, but it's also not new to me. You know, black women choose speaking specifically about black women in this country who were born burnt out. And a lot of that has to do with generational poverty and struggle and discrimination, you know, that carries down. And it also just if you think that, you know, as a middle class white person that you are currently struggling to negotiate working from home or your work schedule. If you add on all of that, the burden in this particular moment of also watching people of your race get brutalized by police and also having to deal with micro aggressions in your workplace and also having to deal with all of the other overt and covert ways that racism manifests in our country. You know, that is it adding to the load in ways that is maybe very difficult for someone who is not experiencing it to understand.
BOB GARFIELD I wouldn't go back to the bridging of generations idea because you wrote briefly about the economic travails not of millennials, but of baby boomers, that with the election of Ronald Reagan, middle-class mainly white boomers burned that generational bridge or as you put it, pulled up the ladder behind us. Tell me how we did that.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Boomers were also burnt out in facing precarity and they had decisions set out in front of them of how can we maintain some sort of stability that our parents enjoyed. That the greatest generation began to enjoy over the course of the postwar period. And largely the decision was to vote in ways that would disintegrate that social safety net that had protected them. To that point, instead of voting to grant more funding to state institutions so that the cost of tuition would stay steady instead of voting for politicians who would protect unions and the labor movement just generally so that workers wouldn't be exploited. They voted to weaken those protections and they voted for Ronald Reagan.
BOB GARFIELD Twice. By a large margins.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Yes. So you bought the idea of Reaganism, of trickle down economics. In hindsight, what we actually needed to do was provide even more robust protections in every corner of our life. What would happen in our society if in the early 1980s there had been a move to make maternity leave mandatory and even paternity leave? How would that actually significantly shift the way that we grew up as millennials, the way that boomers experienced parenthood? And now what we're doing today? I mean, it feels almost utopian, but there are other examples of countries that have done this.
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask you about another lane in that bridge, and that's the boomer ethic that passed on what turned out to be a highly problematic template for how their children were to succeed in life. I speak of college as the gateway to everyone's future.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON Over the course of the 1980s and 90s, this idea that college could somehow put you on the path to stability became this accepted truth. And I think that for a lot of people, yes, going to college does set you up potentially for higher earnings. It does not necessarily set you up for stability. And I think that a lot of people who maybe didn't need to go to college, those people also accumulated significant amounts of student debt. And that has functioned as an albatross on the rest of their lives.
BOB GARFIELD And it's not just going to college. It's the college prep industrial complex that precedes it. And what you describe is kids not just in the middle class learning to burn out even before they graduate high school.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON What it was, is they were fashioning themselves into college resume from before middle school, even sometimes, and thinking of all of their activities as very instrumental. Right. As something that could be a line on that resume. Not something that you're doing just because, you know, you're a kid and you want to do things that interest you.
BOB GARFIELD Can't Even, is not a self-help book. You know, how to overcome burnout - five strategies for a happier you. But you do hint that this book intends to mobilize readers. How?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON So I think a lot of millennials have felt burnt out for a very long time, and that is the reason why my article resonated the way that it did. They did not have a word or language to describe what they were feeling. And they also felt very alone, that it was a personal problem, that they were somehow failing to not find relief from that exhaustion. And so what this book attempts to do is give us a framework for understanding that exhaustion and also to allow us to feel really mad. I don't think it's necessarily to be mad at boomers. It's just to be mad at society configured the way that it is. And for us to take that anger, and as a generation, you know, this is the value of the generational designation, is it allows us to feel like we have a group of people, we have solidarity with each other, even if the the types of burnout shift from person to person. And say it doesn't have to be this way. We want to change the way that it is now, not only for ourselves, not only for Gen Z, but for our own children.
BOB GARFIELD And so back to where we started. Joe Biden promises to build that bridge from his generation to the younger ones. If you were his civil engineer, what would you tell him to do with that bridge? Wait - I don't mean - what would you do with that bridge? I'll tell you what you can do with you're bridge.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON I would, I would have him focus on two things. One is finding immediate relief for parents right now that can be in the form of mandatory maternity leave and also paternity leave, because that's one of the few things that has actually shown to have lasting ramifications on the division of labor in the home in heterosexual homes. And then the second big thing, and this is, you know, doesn't it matter if you're a parent or not, is really thinking seriously about relieving or reducing student loan. And I think that that is sometimes the things that is hardest for other generations to understand, because either they didn't have it or they were able to pay theirs off. But that is the weight that is pulling down millennials in this moment.
And to offer relief would be a gift, but it would also be giving millennials permission to feel secure for maybe the first time in their lives, because it's not just the foundational economic insecurity that was occasioned by graduating into the Great Recession. It's also that we are hitting it again during what are supposed to be some of our prime earning years in our thirties. Right. And I think that, you know, if you look at our generation in 10 years, how are people going to think of our generation besides just screwed?
BOB GARFIELD Anne, thank you so much.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON It's been such a pleasure to be here.
BOB GARFIELD Anne Helen Petersen writes Culture Study on Substack and is the author of Can't Even Millennials became the burnout generation.
AIDY BRYANT SINGING: Now, who are the boomers? We-ell, their parents came home from World War Two when they had a lot of sex and they had a lot of kids. Then the kids grew up in a prosperous time where America was the only superpower left. Then they played all the music and they did all the drugs and they had all the sex and they all went to college and they got all the jobs and they made all the money and they bought the houses and they won't ever die. [END]
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show, on the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess. Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder. Jon Hanrahan and Eloise Blondiau with help from Ava Sasani. And our show was edited... by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munsen, our engineer this week was Adriene Lilly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, I'm Brooke Gladstone and I love Aidy Bryant.
BOB GARFIELD And I'm Bob Garfield.