Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Boomer-bashing in the USA

For the most part, I like my boomer-bashing local. But keeping such a strategy sometimes feels mighty lonely, a feeling made worse by GenY queue-jumpers like Ryan Heath (who is an expat, to boot) seizing the Boomer-bashing ™ Australian rights from their natural, local owners.

Apart from this, there is a particular type of Australian blog/opinion that gives me maximum peeve: one that cites something hot-off-the-wires and American, and then invariably suggests how that American fandangle could be agreeably adopted/adapted-for in Australia. Yawn. (If you don’t know the phenomenon I’m referring to, look up just about anything law academic James McConvill, a former colleague of mine, has written.)

These qualms aside, I’m going to “rate” the New York-based Demos group a US (not UK) outfit founded in 1999 (Hat tip: “dole bludger” meika). Here, I’m being careful to give several identifiers along with the “Demos” name because, if your mind is anything like mine was until very recently, the mere mention of Demos would induce apoplectic rage. So to be clear about it: there is also an older, UK-based (but “international”, notably excluding the US) Demos, but the two Demoses have nothing to do with each other. This is no idle technicality: the UK Demos is a hot-bed of Tony Blair-ite boomer tossers and chinless unpaid interns, while the US one is a boomer-bashing powerhouse.

So yay, US Demos. (But whoever picked your name should be sent to Gitmo Bay.) Tamara Draut is from the US Demos, as well as being author of Strapped: Why America’s 20- and 30-Somethings Can’t Get Ahead. A good overview of her anti-boomer case is here.

But just for you lazy/slacker Xers out there, I’ll give an executive summary, with some interposed comments:

The media loved us . . . The ones who couldn’t graduate from college within four years, if we were able to graduate at all. We couldn’t hold onto a decent-paying job (with benefits) for long. Later, we got caught up in the high-tech boom and we got hit the hardest when it went bust.

This is a point not nearly often enough made: Xers were disproportionately victims of the dotcom bubble, as opposed to boomers, who were mainly either: (a) fraudsters at the top of the food chain, or (b) greedy investors, who are now most welcome to jump off the nearest office-window ledge (if they haven’t done so already), for all I care. (Just don’t land on me, scum.)

“[Materialism] has been the sort of dominant dialogue about this generation for too long. I think it’s kept us from zeroing in on the real structural issues that are leading to downward mobility, [viz] elevated tuition and student loan costs; a tough job market, especially for those without a college degree; skyrocketing credit card debt, fueled by enticing and abusive lending practices; pricey housing markets; and family un-friendly job pressures”.

Err, not too sure about the “family un-friendly job pressures”. They’re real enough, of course, but family (= kids) unfriendly workplaces is just a small part of the overall reasons behind the most highly-educated of my generation reproducing in miniscule proportions. Plus, I disagree with Draut’s emphasis on unemployment “especially for those without a college degree” – all the other co-factors are ameliorated by NOT going to university (e.g. having got into the housing market sooner rather than later).

50% of education majors from public universities would have unmanageable debt if they took teaching jobs in Wisconsin. [National rate is 23% of new teachers]

That is, large numbers of bread’n’butter-job uni graduate US Xers are going financially backwards every day they go to work. This is disgusting: any Xer in this position should call the boomers’ bluff by going bankrupt, and demanding their students loans be erased/“forgiven”.

Draut argued that younger workers’ incomes are flat-lining in today’s hourglass-shaped economy, which has a lot of lower-wage jobs and high- paying jobs, but fewer in between.

“Because we lost the middle jobs, young people today end up in entry- level positions for much longer than they would have a generation ago,” Draut said. “There’s not as much opportunity to move up in any given occupation.”

Draut says that young adults are doing their best to go it alone and aren’t demanding policy changes that will make the system more equitable. She said that Gen Xers aren’t asking enough from their government, even though some commonsense legislation would help ease the burden on young families and workers.

“Our generation grew up on a steady diet of anti-government rants,” Draut said of the Reagan years. “We were told over and over that government is the problem, not the solution, but if you’re not doing well it’s your own fault. So it’s not surprising that we don’t tend to think of our individual economic issues as connected to the political and economic-policy arena.”

Um, some “commonsense legislation”? I’d love to believe it, but I think that the Xer/Reagan-years relationship rift is going to need a bit more to fix it than Xers trusting more, and demanding more from “their” government. The anti-Enlightenment virus of economic fundamentalism (a thing that started with the Reagan years) is much more deeply rooted, IMO.

Another Xer-relevant recent tract from the US is Barbara Ehrenreich's white-collar sequel (to her 2001 Nickel and Dimed): Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Here, I emphasize “Xer-relevant”: Ehrenreich (i) was born in August 1941 (i.e. is basically of retirement age), and (ii) doesn’t appear to (I’ve only skim-read the book) use any generational typology within her overall look at white-collar unemployment in the US.

That Ehrenreich couldn’t use a generational argument (certainly not an Xercentric one) arguably follows from her book’s undercover, coalface-research premise. Reviewer Jon Wiener is oblivious to this limitation: “[Ehrenreich] also had one serious disadvantage: she was a middle-aged woman who, her story went, had been out of the work force for a while”. That is, even though Ehrenreich is not a boomer (nor is she “middle-aged”), she is deemed to be a sort of honorary boomer (i.e. “middle-aged”), so as to implicitly valorise white-collar boomer unemployed as victims from central casting. Yeah right. I’d love to know the age-cohort stats here (overall, 20 percent of the US’s unemployed are white-collar professionals—1.6 million people) but if they’re anything like Australia’s, not only is female boomer (45-60 y.o.) unemployment relatively low, this cohort’s workforce participation rate is almost as high as that of Xer (“prime of life”) men.

Like Ryan Heath’s book then, Bait and Switch is a worthy book in its general theme and content; it’s just that the book’s “choice” of author sucks, because in both cases, the author’s age precludes them from bringing Xers (aka the Ground Zero of boomer destruction) into their analysis.

A better review of Bait and Switch is here. While Michael Kazin again misses the Xer “wood” for the boomer “trees”, he does perceptively note:

Still, there's something disturbing about how she regards the poor souls she met along the networking trail of tears. Like Mills in his classic study, White Collar, Ehrenreich has a hard time empathizing with such people. In Nickel and Dimed, she wrote with respect, even affection, about the women with whom she cleaned toilets and peddled blouses . . .

In contrast, Ehrenreich despises the kind of corporate shill she was pretending to want to be. And her loathing tends to rub off on the men and women who desired similar positions for themselves, who equated a secure one with achieving the good life . . . Bait and Switch rarely quotes or describes other job seekers. The few who do emerge from the shadows are bewildered by their plight, unable to perceive that they are wasting their time and money . . . Ehrenreich would "rather be waitressing."

Before Xers can even hope for the ear of government, then, we need to stake our claim in the public intellectual arena – and especially to speak up against those who, like Ehrenreich, come onto “our” turf as tourists, and leave us no richer or wiser. Here, at least the tough- (but could be tougher-) talking US Demos is a start.

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