It’s official: Millennials really are worse off than their Baby Boomer parents. Adjusted for inflation, today’s 25- to 34-year old set is earning about 20 percent less than its equivalent cohort in 1989, according to the group Young Invincibles. This despite all that education that’s supposed to pay off.
Left unsaid: The Boomer generation is a terrible unit of measurement.
A recurring fallacy in American culture and politics is the idea that somehow conditions in the 1950s and early 1960s – coincidentally, when many Baby Boomers were growing up – is the natural norm. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not that I was there, as I’m one of those poor Millennials. But a little knowledge of history can get you a long way.
Let’s put it this way: If we ever have it that good again, we’re screwed.
The parents of the Boomer generation handed them two enormous gifts: a world where every industrial state outside North America was pulverized by war, and a giant section of that very same world walled off behind the Iron Curtain.
Anyone who wanted any high-end product after World War II had to buy it from an American (or possibly an enterprising Canadian). As a result, the U.S. could afford enormous wages and social programs because money was coming its way; all the competitors were still rebuilding. Accentuating this, offshoring production wasn’t possible when possible sites were either still bombed out or under Communist control. Domestically, the Cold War also induced enormous defense spending that, irrespective of deficits, provided great wages and benefits in the moment.
Over the years, Western Europe and Japan rebuilt and became powerhouses in their own right by the 1980s, but the groundwork had been laid in previous decades for continued U.S. economic expansion just as the Boomers hit the workforce en masse.
Timing is everything, and they hit it.
Boomer prosperity will not be recreated. Everything aligned for Americans of that generation politically, sociologically and technologically, and an amazing moment of growth was the result. It is only the collective self-absorption of the Baby Boomer generation that gives us the historical illusion that this was somehow right and proper. Lightning cannot be expected to strike twice.
Ultimately, Boomer prosperity was based on the outcome of World War II. That’s the sort of recipe that only works once – nor should we wish for a repeat.