Dear Young Lefties, Not All Boomers Suck
The Democratic Party, in its hour of direst need, hosts the tournament through which it will choose its champion. The challenger against the Orange Knight must be possessed of strength, wisdom, and vast resources, and all of these things must be weighed carefully. As the melee combat of this election-year summer draws to a close, one will rise who possesses the virtues most promising for the health of our nation.
Yet, there is a cloud hanging over this noble contest: namely, the question of age. Will the wisdom of the wizened win out over the stamina of less seasoned suitors? Or, to put it plainly: what comes first, experience or novelty?
All of these are, naturally, entirely unfair ways of framing the debate. The question is whether the three frontrunners in the Democratic Presidential primary race (Biden, 76; Sanders, 77; and Warren, 70) are too old for the job. One’s first instinct might be to consider this a valid objection. After all, Trump, aged 70 at the time of his inauguration, is currently the oldest-ever elected President, supplanting Reagan, who also…wasn’t great. Then you have the youngest-ever Presidents: Teddy Roosevelt, who took office at 42 after McKinley was assassinated, and JFK, who was 43 when inaugurated. That’s a 50% success rate for the youngest elects* and a 100% failure rate for the eldest.** So, if statistics worked on sample sizes of two, we’d have our answers right there.
But that is not how statistics work, nor does a debate like this rest on statistical evidence, or even anecdotal. It rests instead on cultural analysis. Why would I, a cultural analyst, argue this? I am glad you asked.
When it comes to questions of age and progressive qualifications, we live in a unique cultural moment. The twentieth century has seen an increasing obsession with the naming, and consequent division, of generations: “Greatest,” “Silent,” “Baby Boomer,” “X,” “Millennial,” “Z.” These generations are seen as groups, and expected to have specific traits. Most relevantly, perhaps, for this discussion, baby boomers and millennials are framed as having an oppositional relationship.
Memes in which millennials clap back at baby boomers for expecting us to mirror their apparent successes when we have grown up in a world that lacks the resources some of them had access to, are common, and as a millennial I can attest that they are a great way to relieve the existential stress of facing an imminently bleak future that makes Soylent Green look naive. That said, there is a fundamentally unfair assumption backing up this discourse, and it is founded in classism.
See, the supposed divide between the generations — namely, that Americans of Gen X and older are living pretty on the backs of the younger generations — presupposes a kind of equality that simply doesn’t exist. Just as not all millennials are poor, not all baby boomers live economically secure lives. Not only that, but baby boomers are subject to the same kinds of oppression as every other generation: sex-based, race-based, homophobic, and ableist, to name a few. And because that is the case, it stands to reason that not all millennials are progressive, and not all baby boomers are regressive. To claim we as generational groups are inherently at odds with each other is to value an imposed hierarchy (that of age) over a real struggle (that is, the struggle between socio-economic classes).
What is progressivism opposed to? Not the elderly, not a certain cultural group, not even necessarily to technophobes or to preaching moralists. Progressivism is opposed to conservatism. It is opposed to maintaining the way things are at the expense of the way things could be. Boomers who fought for labor rights and civil rights are not conservative. Gen-X-ers who fought for gay rights and women’s rights are not conservative. And, let’s face it, there’s an alarmingly large group of millennial Nazis, so let’s think about glass houses before we get too carried away with the admittedly contentious issue of PDF rotation.
I’m not saying this as a unilateral defense of our elders; I am under thirty and carry a heavy burden of bitterness toward the people who created the failing world I was born into. But the point remains that, for all the people who were complicit in the spoiling of our environment, in the shrinking of our rights and the increase in the power of capital over the lives of human beings, there were still those who resisted. While someone like Biden might be guilty of acquiescing to centrist rhetoric, Warren and Sanders are less so, and that warrants consideration. I won’t blame you if you choose to vote for one of the younger candidates. I just might do so myself. But don’t make that choice because Warren is a “baby boomer” while Buttigieg is a “millennial.” In an epic of this magnitude, that detail is utterly inconsequential.
*Yes, I’m saying Teddy Roosevelt was a terrible President. Two words: Panama Canal.
**Though I doubt any reader of mine is likely to believe that Reagan was remotely competent, I would just like to clarify that I’m saying Reagan was incompetent.