I am a father of five, six with my stepson, and a baby boomer happily retired from full-time work. Plenty of time to reflect on the opportunities I have had, those that passed me by, and compare them with what is on offer for my children in this twenty-first century. I can start with one certainty: my own parents opened a world for me that was both free of suffering and full of opportunities.
I was not raised in the economic anxieties of the Great Depression and the horrors of WWII: rather, I grew up in what the French adeptly called “Les Trente Glorieuses,” or the thirty glorious (years). During this period from 1945 to the mid-seventies, the western world grew steadily, secure under the Pax Americana even amidst the Cold War.
The fall of the Berlin wall, the end of the Soviet Union and the rise of China only made us boomers more assured in the global world we helped create. By the advent of the new century, over a billion people had graduated from poverty to the middle-classes in the developing world. Extraordinary opportunities beckoned for all those blessed with a university degree, and the boomers thrived as pillars of the professional and investing classes.
Yes, our generation was raised in the romantic student struggles of the sixties, May 1968 in France; the Prague Spring; the Berkeley riots; and the definitely less romantic Vietnam War and Civil Rights battles. But look at what we actually did after the seventies: we thrived with globalization, buoyed by the confidence our parents gave us, and are retiring into moneyed comfort.
What about the world we are leaving to our millennial children? The planet? Not too good: despite much heightened environmental consciousness, not enough is done to mitigate the impact of climate change. Melting of polar ice; desertification; flooding; ensuing famines and population upheavals, with more frequent wars, are all clear possibilities for the next 25-50 years. Wars?
Well, there are quite a few of these already: Afghanistan is our longest war; the Middle East has never been as conflict-prone, and new conflagrations could very well occur all over Asia. Democracy? In retreat. Autocrats from Russia; Turkey; and the Middle East have captured a share of global ideas and influence far disproportionate to their actual economic weight.
According to a recent cover of The Economist, Xi Jinping is the most powerful person on earth. To boot, there is the new scourge in the western world, galloping inequality. It has never been so profitable to be a passive investor, as opposed to a working person, in the U.S., the U.K., and many other developed countries.
The result for millennials? Fewer economic opportunities and lower upward mobility; tribalism and demagoguery instead of thoughtful political debate; war on the free press, as well as real wars; and the Damocles sword that we may be killing our only planet. Wow! This is not a great report card…There are a few things we did right, though. We gave decent values to our offspring. We felt it was better to pass our advantages to the next generation through higher education rather than trust funds; We forgot the political engagement we learned in the sixties and seventies to pursue economic advancement, but talked enough about it to ensure millennials are more civic-minded than we ever were; we raised them in material comfort, and as a result they appear less eager to win the rat race and more inclined to help those around them.
They are more involved in their communities, more interested in working for NGOs or their city than us. Politically, their heart in is the right place, and their actions more directed at improving things locally, with actual results as opposed to fruitless high-level rhetoric. Yes, plenty of young people have voted for the far-right National Front in France, as have young Italians for the more moderate but anti-Europe Five-Star Movement.
But what could one expect in countries where the job market is systematically skewed against those aged thirty or younger? In both the U.K. and the U.S., young voters clearly rejected walking the plank of Brexit, and the authoritarian plutocracy so-called populists have fostered upon us. America is actually being governed following traditional country club Republicans’ recipes, inequality is increasing as fast as regulations and taxes are being cut, and millennials are at the forefront of the opposition.
We should definitely revisit all our current assumptions of what we mean by a fair society, and give millennials a good hand while we still can. We should get less agitated about ugly rhetoric, and propose instead the new ideas that will make America just again. We need to applaud the civic-mindedness of our children, how incredibly articulate they are thanks to their social media fluency, while also reminding them – daily – that democracy’s best protection is active voter participation. In a country where 55% actual voting is considered good in presidential elections, with the bar much lower for mid-terms, getting a whole generation of young people to vote at least as much as the average population is the best insurance policy for our democracy.
We can also remind our children that we face real forks on the road, and not just about identity politics. For example, the U.S. is a large enough country with a small enough dependence on external trade that it can perfectly retrench fully behind its borders, wrecking international trade in the process. This would be most unfortunate, but it is an actual possibility.
Instead, we should harness the social media power millennials are so fluent with – for example, to show the corporate world that its long-term interests may be better aligned with sustainability and the future of renewables, as opposed to the dismantling of environmental protections. Ah, about social media, and the risk it could be hoisted on its own petard: E.U. regulators are now stating that users own their personal data, and should be able to control it, with social media companies being mandated to give their users the tools needed for this control. Perhaps in the U.S. this can be solved too?
Our parents taught us the nasty perils of populists and their seductive but empty promises. We need to work together with the younger generations to showcase the abyss between the populists’ campaign slogans and the reality of their actions when in power. In particular, to address the economic ills that afflict large swaths of our country, it is time to lower down, not raise, the ladder to the tree house: the economic order created in the 1980s has to work for everyone, including those seduced by the sirens of populist rhetoric.
We need to help the millennial generation restore fairness to our economic environment. Otherwise, we the boomers stand the risk of leaving the promising world we inherited in much worse shape for our own descendants.Tags: economy, Generational, millennial