BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We've just heard about the quirks and the consequences of overclassification when it comes to government information. But use the word in a different way and we can see a problem with the overclassification of people, too. Especially when it comes to generalizing about generations. We just can't help stuffing Americans into discrete boxes neatly labeled Silent Generation, Generation X, Millennials, Gen Z, and of course, the Boomers. As their cohort ages and their power fades, it's maybe not the greatest generation, but until lately it's been the biggest – and for a very long time. Around 76 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964. In the postwar economic expansion, with financial benefits galore — for white people anyway. And as we'll hear, this generation is whiter than those that followed. It was a time of “the generation gap,” a term coined by an editor at Look Magazine, describing the great and growing divide between the nascent boomers and anyone over 30. In culture, politics, and everything.
NEWS CLIP Civil rights, feminism, LGBTQ and disability rights.
NEWS CLIP Baby Boomers were one of the most influential generations in history. They changed American society and gave the next generations the cultural freedoms they enjoy. Without Baby Boomers. America wouldn't be as free or prosperous as it is today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But as the Boomers continued to age their aggregated wealth, not individual wealth, has become an aching spot for younger people. Philip Bump, national columnist at The Washington Post, set out to interrogate how this staggeringly enormous generation reshaped America as we know it. In his new book, The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America, he examines what will happen when the boom inevitably fizzles out.
PHILIP BUMP America was not prepared to handle the baby boom. So you saw this massive surge in, for example, the diaper industry. You had to build a whole bunch of new schools. The county of Los Angeles was averaging one new elementary, middle or high school every single month over the course of the baby boom. Then, of course, they all start to graduate from high school. And what are you going to do with them? Some of them — that's a reason so many went to college. You had to find space for them in the workforce or a lot of them got drafted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you able to ascribe closely characteristics to the baby boom? I read your book and I know you do, and I have a couple of bones to pick. But first, go ahead.
PHILIP BUMP Fair enough. Of course, the baby boom is a very, very heterogenous group of people. There are Democrats, there are Republicans. There are not white people. There are white people. But it is also the case that the baby boom, just by virtue of its size, really did reshape the United States in fundamental ways that now define what the United States is. And as such, there was a collective manner in which the baby boom was itself addressed by institutions of power in the United States and reacted to those institutions of power that I think have a sort of collective sensibility, even if they aren't necessarily universally shared politics or economics or things along those lines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess what rankled me is that as a member of the boom, I do see my cogenerationists, a lot of them, voting for Trump, which I can't understand. But I also see it as a time where there was a push for greater freedoms and more acceptance and racial equality, however thwarted it would be, which I feel you sort of elide over a little bit.
PHILIP BUMP I mean, honestly, I think that's fair. It is certainly the case that the book spent some time looking at the ways in which the cultural and racial and particular differences between older generations, specifically the baby boomer and younger generations, have contributed to the moment and tension that American politics is seeing. The book also obviously points out that when you look at, for example, the resistance movement to Donald Trump that was driven by members of the baby boom generation, that there is tension within the baby boom generation itself. That, however, doesn't mean that we can simply say, okay, well, the baby boom is a land of contrast and sort of leave it there, right? I mean, there really is this very particular approach to politics and power because America has been so long responding to the needs of the baby boomer, not meaning individual needs of individuals, but rather collective – the collective needs of the baby boom, that it really changed institutionally what America looked like. And there was this expectation that baby boomers were adapted to. This does not mean that you as a baby boomer felt like, Oh, well, America is going to provide for me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, now I'm getting really embarrassed.
PHILIP BUMP There was this sense that, okay, the needs of our generation will be attended to. And now for the first time, that's being challenged by a younger generation that is almost equivalent in size, if not as percentage of the population, that has its own needs for housing and child care — that being the millennial generation — and that is also contributing to the tension. One thing that's important to recognize, too, is that part of the political tension is rooted in the fact that the political priorities of younger Americans, specifically millennials and Gen Z, are things like LGBTQ rights and climate change, which were not as prominent as issues for liberal baby boomers. Liberal baby boomers did focus very heavily on diversity and race and often environment broadly, but it's a different set of issues that are motivating younger people now, in part because they don't have to do things like fight over race in the same way that race needed to be fought over in the 1960s and 1970s. Now that has taken on a different tenor. But there are other issues that define what it means to be liberal for young people that aren't necessarily reflecting the values of the baby boom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah, no, you're right. As you note in your book, so many fundamental ways in which we communicate are closed off to the large section of the baby boom who are not early adopters. So, I mean, they just can't handle that technology. When we were talking about political tension that the boomers ultimately must claim some responsibility for – or maybe the lion's share. There's also the tension between generations. And you spend a little time on the song that came out of TikTok. 'Okay, Boomer.'
PHILIP BUMP It's not a great song.
BROOKE GLADSTONE No, its a terrible song.
SONG CLIP I'm not even a millennial, I'm Generation Z okay? OK, boomer. OK, boomer
PHILIP BUMP I mean, I mean, esthetically and certainly in message. But I mean, look, the song is representative of a way in which technology really enabled younger generations to confront older generations in a way that wasn't previously possible. Right. So, yes, it was absolutely the case that you had famous young people that existed, you know, in the 1960s and 1970s, but they were often curated, right? Selected by gatekeepers in the music industry or in the media and elevated as voices for a generation. Nowadays, older Americans, particularly baby boomers, are being presented with a new face of an America that doesn't necessarily share the same priorities as they do, and often doesn't even look — very literally — look the way they do. That's a challenge that the boomers have never faced before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You wrote that the demographics of Florida is one of the best predictors of what America will look like in 2060. And yet there's a lot of inconsistency there. Can you walk me through this?
PHILIP BUMP Sure. The Census Bureau does projections out to 2060. And when you look at their demographic projections, which are just projections and may not actually bear fruit, but if you look at their projections, the state that best matches the composition of race and age predicted by 2060 is Florida. And the reason for that is because America is getting older, in large part because of the baby boom. And Florida is already there. Florida already has a much more densely old population than do most states. It also has a much more heavily Hispanic population than in most states, which is also what the Census Bureau expects to happen. That said, the old population in Florida now and Hispanic population Florida now probably does not look like the old population in the Hispanic population of the United States in 2060. First of all, the Hispanic population in Florida is very heavily Cuban-American, which we saw had a very stark effect in the 2020 election in particular. But also the old population of Florida is very heavily white because older Americans now are very heavily white. But in 35 years, the older population in America will be much less densely and homogeneously white than it is today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The other states that fall closer to U.S. projections for 2060 were mostly ones that supported Joe Biden in 2020. Why is Florida more of a predictor than any of those other states?
PHILIP BUMP Well, it's a very good demographic predictor, but it's not necessarily a political predictor. And that's really the broad question. What happens to American politics as America gets more diverse? I spoke with people who do politics in Florida, and they noted that over the past decade, two decades, they expected Florida to be much more heavily Democratic because they were seeing these demographic trends unfold. But that didn't occur in part because of the nature of the diversity in Florida, in part because so many older, more conservative people moved to Florida and in part because, quite honestly, the Florida Democratic Party is kind of a mess when you talk to people. And that's an important consideration because we tend to talk about politics as though everything is going to stay as it is now in perpetuity. That's not going to happen. The Republican Party will at some point in time, if they want to have any success, have to figure out how to appeal to a more diverse American electorate. We don't know then what their policies will be. We don't know what it'll will look like by the time the 2060 rolls around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As the whiteness quotient diminishes and as the age of the nation or the age of the people in power go down, will we see less conservative politics? It seems obvious, but when people get older, they get more conservative frequently.
PHILIP BUMP Well, they may. That statement is obviously one of the things that came up a lot as I was doing the research for this book. And there are two things about that statement that are interesting. The first is that the history of social science in United States really isn't that old, right? You can only go back maybe 50 years, a little bit longer than that, and get a good assessment of who Americans are and what they believe in. And so when we talk about the trend over the long term of what happens as people get older, it's sort of hard to evaluate. And there's another aspect here, too, that the sociologist Richard Albert raised to me, which I think is fascinating. If you look at the patterns of citizenship, obviously only citizens can vote in federal elections. When you look at the patterns for citizenship, the Census Bureau anticipates that by 2045 or so, America will be about half Hispanic, black, Asian, everything besides non-Hispanic white. But if you look at citizenship, it won't be until at least 2060 when white American citizens make up half of the population of citizens. In other words, this could be another at least 15 years before whites lose that particular dominance, according to Census Bureau projections. If the patterns of naturalization hold.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why did you write this book? And did you find the answers to the questions you had about what the post boomer future held?
PHILIP BUMP And I was very curious what can we anticipate about politics as a result of this? And I did get a very clear answer, which is it’s hard to say. You know, you may not be entirely satisfied. It's not necessarily you put a pin in, you know, stick to your wall, but it is very useful to consider. Political parties changed the past patterns that we have that we use to anticipate what's going to happen are incomplete and often very short lived themselves. So, when we think about the future of the United States, it's really important for us to remember the ways in which things can go differently than what we expect. And I think that is as good a lesson as you can apply to anything when you're thinking about the future, as opposed to having a concrete answer to all of your questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE If there is a prevailing attitude in the boomer generation that will be replaced, what is the biggest thing that will change?
PHILIP BUMP I think part of the challenges that we have younger generations now who exhibit the characteristics that we expect from younger generations of being more open to difference and being more open to collective action.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I remember they said that about us when we were young.
PHILIP BUMP Exactly. My point is, it's not clear if, for example, the higher rates of college education among younger Americans will contribute to that lasting longer within generation than it did for the baby boomers. But I really do think that because America will look different, even potentially the very definition of what it means to be a white American will be shifted in the way that it's shifted to accommodate a broader variety of Europeans a century ago. Does that mean, then, that Americans will have a collective respect for diversity broadly that doesn't necessarily exist at this point in time? Again, the baby boom — absolutely instrumental in fighting for civil rights in many different ways. The nature of that fight, though, has changed, as has the nature of the people to whom it's being applied. And I think that may then have longer term repercussions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now I'm satisfied. Phillip, thank you very much.
PHILIP BUMP Well, thank you very much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Philip Bump is the author of Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.
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