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The Generational Divide in American Politics

Baby Boomers have had it easy in many ways. One of the advantages of being born during a baby boom is that your generation is always going to be large and politically influential. And of course the baby boom that followed WWII occurred largely because the U.S. was embarking on a period of unprecedented growth and prosperity.

Birth rates declined in the 1960s as the post-WWII economic boom ended and the Vietnam War began. The 1970s in many ways represented a watershed moment for U.S. power and prosperity. Economic problems forced Nixon to take the dollar off the gold standard, essentially bringing to an end the original Bretton Woods system. And the 1973 oil crisis showed how vulnerable the U.S. economy was.

As Mark Schmitt argues, things were different for Americans that came of age in the 1970s. Median income growth began to slow and at times even decline. Real wages stagnated. The rich got richer, but for the most part ordinary Americans did not. As a result, the gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. widened dramatically. The shift was social as well as economic. The sexual revolution and experimentation with drugs of the 1960s gave way to AIDS and crack in the 1980s. 

If you came of age before the 1970s, your formative experiences were of prosperity, while if you came of age later—with the notable exception of the period in the late 1990s when the Internet began to take off—your experiences were more likely to be of economic stagnation. The effects of these formative experiences can be profound. The most recent economic crisis wiped out the assets of many young homeowners, and permanently lowered the lifetime earning prospects of recent college graduates. As Schmitt says, if there were ever going to be a generational war in this country, the “high school class of ‘74 would be its Maxon-Dixon line.”

The Baby Boomers are likely to continue to have it easier. One of the central features of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal is his plan to privatize Medicare and in the process drastically reduce Medicare benefits. But this part of Ryan’s plan wouldn’t take effect for 10 years and thus wouldn't affect anyone older than 55. Ryan appears to be hoping that Americans older than 55—who mostly came of age before the 1970s—won’t oppose something that won’t affect them, while Americans younger than 55 won’t be worried about something that won’t impact them for 10 years. And the truth is that whatever our budget problems may be the Baby Boomers are just too politically powerful for Congress to cut their benefits.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

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