Transcript for How the baby boom changed American politics | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
[MUSIC PLAYING] - Hello, and welcome to the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast. I'm Galen Duke. OK, Boomers, this episode is for you. In his new book, Washington Post national columnist Philip Bump argues that many of the fissures that the country is facing today, politically, economically, culturally, has to do with the Baby Boomers getting old.
Boomers have been a force in America since birth. In 1945, the population in the US was about 140 million. And over the next 19 years, 76 million babies were born, a tripling of the annual births on average for two decades.
Philip argues that today the country is in the midst of a new transition, from a world dominated by the needs and desires of Boomers to whatever comes next. The book is called Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.
Philip, welcome to the podcast.
- I'm very happy to be here. Thank you.
- Did I do a decent job of describing the sort of overarching thesis of your book?
- And what would you like to add in terms of the argument that you're trying to make?
- No, it's very fitting to do it sort of numerically, which is the way I think, and I think befits the podcast. But, you know, I think that one of the central points of the book is that we really-- it's hard for us to appreciate the scale of the Baby Boom.
I mean, it was just like this-- I mean, the point you made, about how basically more than half the population was born in the 20 years after 1945. It's staggering to think about. It means essentially that we would have 170 million people born over the next 20 years in the United States if it were-- you know, if the ratios were similar.
You know, so we-- so the focus of the book obviously is about the transition away from the boom. But it's really important to appreciate just that the boom broke everything. All these babies are born, and all of a sudden this entire economy springs up around babies.
Then they have to go to school. And all of a sudden you got to build all these schools. And then they get older, and you got to figure out where you're going to have them work. Like all these things-- the entire country reshaped to accommodate the Baby Boom, and that set expectations I think with the Baby Boom itself.
- So I have to ask, because here at FiveThirtyEight we focus on lots of different demographic forces in the American public. Why focus on sort of age or generational transition in this way? To describe the fissures culturally, politically, economically, as opposed to some of the other sort of differences that we have in our nation, like education level, race, religion, gender, immigration status, things like that?
- Right, so all of those things, obviously, are salient to the ways in which America is sort of at odds with itself. But all those things also overlap with the divide between old and young. And as I was researching the book that became very apparent to me.
I mean, look I'm sitting here, I'm talking about a book based on Baby Boomers. It's easy for me to oversell the role of Baby Boomers. But it really is the case that Baby Boomers, demographically in particular, institutionally, the ways they approach American culture, are fundamentally different in a lot of ways than younger Americans, than Millennials and Gen Z.
They're much more heavily white. They're much-- younger people are much more heavily educated. They're are-- younger people are much less likely to participate in institutions. They're much less religious. There are all these divides. A lot of the things you just described appear in this divide between Boomers and younger Americans. And I think, therefore, it helps as an organizing concept.
- So we usually use some of these other lenses to look at the American public, like education.
- Or like race, for example. What are the aspects of American life where age really is the deciding factor? Right, because like, yes, you can separate out by generation, but when you actually look at race maybe it's more of an important factor in terms of determining how people vote, or education--
- Sure, right.
- -might ultimately be-- like if you are a college educated young person, you're going to vote more like a college educated old person, than you might like another young non-college educated person, for example.
- But what are the things where age really makes the difference in American life?
- So it's a good point. And I think that there is a central thing that I would say, which is that the Baby Boom by virtue of being older has been able to accrue power in a way that you can't do when you're younger, both because the Baby Boom has accrued it and because you haven't had as long to do so. So the Baby Boom has accrued political power. It has accrued economic power.
And it has accrued cultural power, right? That's waned, I think, more than the other two. But it has accrued this power that then is being challenged. And so I think that the age plays a role in that regard. But you're absolutely right, that when we talk about things like race and age, and how those are confounded, it can be hard to extricate those things. It's absolutely true.
That, however-- to use the example you used-- that younger people tend to vote the same way if they're college educated as college educated older people, that we then talk about how older people are less likely to have that college education, then that also plays a role. The actual divide in the density of those factors between old and young, I think is important.
- You mentioned Boomers accruing wealth and power. And I think that's so much of like the pop culture focus on the boomers these days, which I absolutely want to get into.
- But let's take a step back and sort of start at the beginning for a second so we can really put this into context.
- What exactly are we talking about when we talk about the Baby Boom?
- So we're talking about an actual demographically measurable surge in births in the United States. And one of the things I think people don't really understand about generations broadly, which I think is where your question was leading, which I appreciate, but one of the things I think we don't really appreciate about generations broadly is that most of them are just contrived. And they aren't really bounded by something in particular beyond our interest in having a way to refer to people who were born within certain year blocks.
- Creating Time Magazine covers, if you will.
- Exactly. Well, no-- yeah, and creating debates, and, you know, blog posts that-- you know, am I a millennial or am I an older one? Like, people love to talk about this stuff. Marketers love it because it makes their jobs easier. Pollsters love it as well. But it's not real. Those aren't real generations. They are, instead, ways that we have of referring to people that are born in a particular time.
The Baby Boom's different. Talk to the Census Bureau and they will say, the generation we recognize as the Baby Boom because we can see this demographic spike in births in 1946. We can see where it wanes. And that is something that is unique in-- you know, when we're talking about American generations.
- So the pop history version of the Baby Boom is that a bunch of horny soldiers--
- That's right.
- --returned from World War II, and voila, they had a bunch of kids.
- But, you know, as it often does, the data that you look at in your book portrays a more complicated picture. Which is that, one, the Baby Boom, in some ways, started before the war ever ended. And two, it lasted for 20 years, at which point can't really--
- Right, that's a lot of horny--
- --blame it on horny soldiers-- yeah-- 20 years later. Like the battlefield angst-- sexual angst had subsided for sure.
- Right, yeah the was only a couple of years.
- Five years.
- Right. Yeah. No, that's true. I mean, I think it's important to note, you raised the point that births did increase even before the Baby Boom. That's not technically part of the Baby Boom. It was-- however, when you get to like early 1946, 1945, people were noticing, oh, there's been a surge in births, even as World War II was ongoing, which is interesting, and I think something that's unrecognized.
But, yeah, you're right. The book, itself, there are really complicated factors as to why the Boom occurred as it did, when it did. There's a great book on it that I refer to a lot in there called Great Expectations by Landon Jones. It was written in the 1980s. It really looks at some of those factors there.
But, yeah, you're right, when we talk about the Baby Boom there were a number of factors that contributed to people having more kids at that time in that time period. It was sort of a combination of factors that led them to want to start having them, and then a combination of factors that led the boom to actually end in 1964.
The book doesn't spend a lot of time getting into that, but there really were things beyond just people getting back from World War II and missing their wives that contributed to it.
- Which was what, like public spending, culture?
- Yeah, there's lot of economic stuff. There was a lot of ways in which people approached how they wanted to start families. Yes-- I mean, quite frankly, it's more complicated than I can just rattle off off the top of my head here. But, yeah, I mean, there were things that demographers have looked at to say, like, oh, we understand why this happened in how.
- You've said already that as baby boomers aged from the moment they were born in hospitals, to going to preschool, to going to college, needing jobs, now we're in the moment where many of them are retired, retiring, or, you know, moving on altogether, how has American society changed to accommodate that?
- Yeah, I mean, in every way, is the short answer, right? I mean, when you have-- when you have this sudden massive surge in kids, for example, that are reaching kindergarten age, you've got to put them somewhere. Not only do you have to, you know, have more kindergartens. You have to build more schools. You have to have more teachers, right? You have to have more educators coming down the line.
You can see this whole thing coming. You know, the analogy that's often used as is a snake swallowing a pig. You can see as you're-- if you're further down along in the Python, so to speak, you can see the pig coming so you have to make these accommodations.
The stat that I like to cite is that Los Angeles County was building, on average, one new school-- elementary, middle, or high school-- over the course of the entire boom because they had to accommodate all of these kids. And so everything was affected by that. As the boom came through, everything had to sort of swell out. And then later, everything had to sort of re-contract behind it.
And so we see all these ways in which we now have these massive schools that were built in communities that had to accommodate all these young people, and now they don't really have anything to do with the schools. And this is a factor.
- The way the story gets told now is that Boomers sort of reshaped American society in a way that benefited them, in a way that made their needs more affordable, that made sure that they would have jobs, or pensions, or whatever you may need. Is this idea-- the stereotype of boomers reaping the benefits of an affluent society, an affluent middle class, and then pulling the ladder up behind them--
- --is that supported by evidence?
- Yes and no, right? I mean, I think that-- this sounds like a cop out, but so many things happen at any given moment in the economy and politics that you can-- you can certainly pick things out. There are absolutely examples of ways in which Baby Boomers who, for example, are more likely to own homes, have actively opposed new house construction in some areas, right?
There's a fascinating study that I looked at in the book, which actually considers, you know, the-- the ways in which owning a home itself allows you more power in the homebuilding process by virtue of how small communities tend to put things out to bid and allow new houses to be built. So, yes, it is.
And there are other examples too. That Baby Boomers reach a certain point, and, you know, say, normally they would have to have retired by this point in time. And so, they're like, well, let's change the rules so we don't have to retire as quickly. You know, there are-- there are less explicit ways.
So you have, for example, Nancy Pelosi being the head of the Democratic Party until finally she cedes that power. I'm not casting aspersions on Nancy Pelosi, but it's a marker. You know, Americans are getting older. There are more Baby Boomers. And Nancy Pelosi was unusually old for that role.
A lot of members of Congress are unusually old. And so they have not yet ceded that power. I don't know if that's them actively saying, hey, let's collectively as a generation get together and hold this power close to our chests, but it's a manifestation of the way in which the size of the Baby Boom has an effect.
- Well, yeah, I want to make sure we sort of don't fall into the trap of pretending that this is the first time America has faced generational turnover.
- No, sure, right.
- How much of this is actually unique to Baby Boomers? Like, doesn't every generation sort of accumulate wealth as it ages?
- Yeah, sure.
- Sort of, like, hold on to power and further its own interests through the political system. Like are we able to-- and I know because I've read your book, but you do sort of tease out some ways in which this is totally normal. Like, actually the wealth accumulation of Boomers is proportional to what you would expect based on the size and age of the generation compared with past generations, right?
- That's right, yes. Yeah, you're exactly right. Because there are so many Boomers, yes, we get the sense that Boomers control all of these things. But there are just so many Boomers. Yeah, that's what happens.
Like in politics-- politics is about votes, right? When you have a ton of people who vote collectively-- and, you know, obviously Boomers are-- Boomers are a heterogeneous group in terms of how they vote politically.
But, you know, when you have a group of people that is-- that is that big-- and which is the entire point of the book to some extent-- the entire point of the book to some extent, which is a weird sort of qualifier. But a central point of the book is that the boomers are such a large group of people that they're able to amass this power, even unintentionally, and have it manifest in these ways.
- Is, though, the ratio of government spending, or like allocation of public resources to the elderly versus the young, different today than it was previously?
- That's a good question. And, you know, one of the-- one of the things that the book is hampered by is the fact that when we talk about social science and research, you know, we haven't been doing really detailed and rigorous research along these lines. You know-- you know, there's not a lot of-- we have Gallup polling that goes back to the 1940s, but it's sort of hard to do broad generational assessments over the course of the past century even, just because we don't have good research that goes back that far. So that's the qualifier.
I mean, the answer, though, is yes, that as we see-- let's use, for example, Medicare and Social Security, right? So one of the points that I make in the book is over the course of the past decade or so, the extent to which Republicans have focused on Medicare and Social Security has declined.
In part because they tend to get more support from older white American voters. And because as older white American voters reach retirement age, they see more value in supporting Medicare and Social Security.
So that's an example of the ways in which demography appears to actually affect what the political priorities of the Republican Party are. I think extending that outward, yes, we see areas in which there is a real contest over resources, as to whether they go young or whether they go old.
And we see, for example, lots of scenarios in which there are ballot measures for schools, for example, that are opposed more heavily in more-- in areas that have more older voters because they're contesting for resources, and they're choosing where they want to apply that.
- As you lay out in the book, in 2020 Millennials overtook Boomers as the largest generation by numbers, but they aren't the largest generation in terms of voters. As listeners to the podcast well know, young people don't vote at nearly the rate of older people. But you suggest that maybe 2024 might be the first year in which younger voters overtake Boomers in terms of their electoral power.
- Are there examples that you have seen already where younger generations have overpowered Boomers? Or what do you expect the changes to look like as the electoral power of younger generations supersedes that of Boomers?
- So those are two-- to answer-- two questions with very different answers. The first is that, yes, depending on how you define generations, which is the caveat that overhangs all of this, yes, we can expect that the Baby Boomers will be surpassed by Millennials.
You know, and I mean, one of the things that people don't recognize about Millennials is Millennials are-- basically when both groups reach generally around the age of 40 there are nearly as many Millennials as there were Boomers at the 40-year-old age. It's just that population is so much bigger now that Millennials don't make up as high a percentage.
And so that to some extent-- and again, because America then starts skewing more heavily older, that has meant that younger people have less of a voice in politics, and because they vote less often as well. So, yes, we can anticipate that that's going to happen.
And we have seen ways in which younger voters have had a demonstrable effect on politics. You know, the-- the big divide in age in presidential voting really emerged in 2008. And that was the year in which Barack Obama-- yes, he had a broad coalition.
Yes, it has been overstated the extent to which is his win can be credited to young people, but there really was-- at that point in time, that's when we really first started to see this gulf between older and younger voters in terms of who they supported. And that actually helped contribute to things like the Tea Party backlash.
- I'll say, I looked this up because I knew it would come up, in the exit polls, which caveats for exit polls, in that election, the 45 to 60 age range was split evenly between McCain and Obama. It was like the Silent Generation, actually, that was like so into McCain.
- Yeah, right.
- But younger voters were really into Obama.
- Yeah, that's right. And, you know, we've seen that pattern to some extent since. And the question then is how much people tend to turn out. I think there's been a lot of credit given to young voters for 2022 that I'm not sure is entirely deserved. Again, because we're mostly looking at exit polls, which I think all of us realize we ought not to make a lot of big determinations based on.
But coming back to-- the second part of your question is, what happens next? And that's really a key part of the second half of the book, is what happens-- as America's demography shifts, as these younger voters get older, what happens to American politics? And it's really hard to say.
I hate to be the guy who's like, oh, I wrote a big book on it, and my answer is I'm not entirely sure, but I am not entirely sure. And there's a few reasons for that.
First of all, the parties are malleable, right? The Republican Party does not have to be the same Republican Party in 10 years time that it is now.
- Of course.
- Yeah, right, but, I mean, we sort of understate that. You know, I mean, the Republican Party isn't what it was 10 years ago, right? And so to assume that younger voters will continue to vote Democratic, and that the Republican Party will just be like, nope, we're sticking by our-- with the exact policies we had in 2020-- it sort of complicates our ability to say who's going to end up winning elections because the parties themselves won't be the same.
But as-- as we have seen, you know, in the 2008 election in which this age gap first emerged, in part because age and race are confounded, you know, that was 14 years ago, right? And so the people who were 25 when they were voting for Barack Obama in 2008 are 39 now, right? And they're in this older age group.
And so we're tracking, you know, are these younger voters, who were young back then and now less young-- no offense to those who might be in that age group and are listening-- you know, have they-- have they consistently been as Democratic as they were at that point in time? We do see that the Millennial generation is much more Democratic-- significantly, I mean, just like remarkably much more Democratic than other generational groups. That would suggest that as we move forward that will continue to be the case.
- What are the theories for why it's so sticky, right? We have seen-- like, the Boomers were in their sort of cultural heyday a very liberal group themselves and are responsible for, like, you know, basically cultural revolutions in America that have permanently changed the ways that we talk about gender, race, all kinds-- and the way that people live out their lives based on those things. But things change. People get more conservative as they age.
So far, people are like, ah, Millennials, they're a pretty sticky generation in terms of their political behavior. Like what are the theories for why Millennials haven't become more conservative yet?
- So I do want to push back on the-- this is based on talking to political scientists, not my just being rude, but I do want to push back on that people get more conservative as they age. That has tended to be the case. But, again, we don't have a huge history of social science research, right? And so, yes, the Boomers-- that did happen with the Boomers, and-- please, go ahead.
- Yeah, I should also say, it's actually complicated. They get more conservative and then they get more liberal. Because as you get older you rely more on public funding, basically, to live your life. And so when you do reach retirement age, oftentimes you will become a bit more liberal or progressive. I don't know how you want to describe it, but supportive of government intervention in order to make your life easier.
But at the same time, less supportive of taxes on things for things like education, property taxes. So it does get complicated. And conservative, liberal, progressive, whatever, it's not all like a straight through line.
- But we have seen past generations get more Republican, at least, in how they vote.
- We have, you're right, over the course of the period in which we've been measuring this, which isn't very long, and with an older generation that doesn't look like what the incoming older generation is going to look like. You know, here we get into-- you know, and there's a point in the book where I'm talking about-- yes, we're talking about what happens with age and younger voters, but then we have to step back and say, but this is going to be a group of people who is much less heavily white.
| race the central factor? If race is the central factor and why these groups are voting more heavily Democratic, then they're going to continue to do so. I'm not saying that's necessarily the case. But if we assume, for example, that Black Americans will continue to be overwhelmingly Democratic and Hispanic Americans, you know, more heavily Democratic than Republican, as they get older, if that pattern continues, then that could break the way in which that happens.
There were a lot of other factors as well, right? I mean, people with whom I spoke pointed to the salience of issues that basically didn't exist when the Boomers were my age, right, in there mid to late 40s. You know, they didn't-- climate change was not something they worried about. You know, LGBTQ issues were very much on the fringe.
These are things are very central to younger voters. These are things that are very much associated with the political left, you know, which-- for obvious reasons. And those may be reasons as well, because they make those prominent in how they're making their political decisions. And that may be a reason that they're sticking around.
- You suggest that the state that is most demographically similar to what the United States will look like in 2016--
- Is projected to look like.
- Projected to look like is Florida.
- So while perhaps this, sort of, like Democratic stickiness of Millennial voters could be-- could seem like good news for a Democratic party, if, again, as you said, coalitions remain stagnant, which they won't, however that projection looks like pretty good news for Republicans.
- Can you fill out the context a little bit for like why Florida--
- --might be the state we look to for-- to understand what America's future could look like?
- And why politically we should look to Florida or not look to Florida as what our political future looks like?
- Sure, so Florida is fascinating. So Florida-- let's just take a step back and think about Florida as a state. Florida is a state that has very conservative rural areas. It has large cities that have historically voted very Democratic. It is almost, to some extent, a microcosm of the United States itself in that regard, particularly when we think about things like the urban and rural divide.
But demographically, you're right, that the demographics of Florida-- think about where the United States is projected to head. It's going to have-- it's going to be much more densely old. There's going to be a lot more older Americans, thanks in large part to we've extended the life expectancy and the Baby Boom itself.
And it's going to be more diverse. There are going to be more people who are Hispanic, more people who are Asian-American, thanks in large part to immigration. And that's where Florida is now.
Florida is already heavily old. It is already heavily diverse in those same regards. And yet, when you talk to people who pay attention to Florida politics, what they see is that the anticipation that the state would then become more Democratic obviously has not come to fruition.
There are a lot of reasons for that, right? The first is that the Florida Democratic Party is a mess and has been a mess for quite some time, right? You know, you talk to people in Florida, even Democrats, they'll cop to that. But I think that's less of a factor than the fact that the people who are old in Florida now tend to be old, often more conservative, and white, in a way that, again, won't necessarily be the case as America gets older.
Obviously, we saw in the 2020 election, as well, that there was a distinct approach that Hispanics in Florida, particularly Cuban-American Hispanics in Florida took to politics that was echoed in other parts of the country, like South Texas, for different reasons. So it may not be the case that the way in which Hispanics in Florida approach politics is consistent with how Hispanics in the United States broadly would by 2060.
So there are all these ways in which it may not be representative specifically of what it looks like. And then, of course, there's are the projections going to be right? Which is a whole different question.
- What are other ways in which you see, sort of, politics changing as we experience this generational turnover?
- Yeah I mean, I think it's likely that we will see-- ah, man, I mean, I hate to make-- the guy who writes a book that's a prediction of what's going to happen and says he hates to make predictions. But I do hate to make predictions over the short term just because, you know, we're so often wrong.
But I do think it's likely that the Republican Party that is very much now-- you know, so one of the things we focus on in the book right is that in the wake of the 2012 election-- everyone knows this-- the Republican Party did some self-reflection and said, you know what, we need to do a better job of reaching out to groups that don't currently support us.
Then Donald Trump comes along and is like-- or we could know quadruple down on this core base of you white conservative voters and try and get them to turn out. And that's where the party has been ever since, right?
- And through that process become an actually more diverse party than it was in 2008 or 2012.
- Yeah, I mean, again, I'm not entirely convinced that what we saw in 2020 and even some of the after effects, I'm not convinced that marks necessarily sea change. I do think there are economic-- or there are educational factors at play.
- Well, of course, right? I mean the whole bit is that if you can divide people based on education you can win, because two thirds of Americans don't have a college degree and many of those people are working class people of color.
- That's right. Yeah, exactly. Right, yes, we're in agreement on that. Well, what I was going to say is that I don't know that the Republican Party is going to then continued to do things like elevate LGBTQ people as a target or, you know, be as dug in against climate change-- you know, to use the two examples I used earlier.
You know, I think the party may soften its position on those sorts of things if they see the net benefit or they may just simply be forced to. So I do think that the malleability of the party itself will be-- will be a factor.
- It struck me-- you know, we're talking about the Republican Party today and how an aging Boomer generation will shape it. Of course, in all of the polling that you can look at, immigration is one of the most salient issue for Republican voters. And it really struck me that a lot of your book is actually about immigration.
- In the sense that what makes this generational turnover different from past generational turnovers is that towards the end of the Baby Boom, America's immigration laws were liberalized, which led to a really big increase in immigration, mostly from non-European countries, ergo non-white countries that-- to a historic level, right? The number of immigrants we have in America today rivals any number we've ever had in history, even at the height of you the sort of past--
- Ellis Island era.
- --immigration waves at the turn of the century-- exactly. So how much of this story about the tensions culturally, politically, economically is about actual, sort of like, age and the turning of a generation versus immigration?
Like for example, there are other Western countries that didn't liberalize their immigration laws in the '60s. Are they still experiencing these cultural, political, economic fissures even though the generation coming after them looks, you know, in some countries very similar to their own generation?
- Yeah-- no, it's a totally fair point, which is that not everything that we're talking about here is rooted in the Baby Boom generational turnover-- absolutely true. You know, the Baby Boom is a very useful lens for thinking about power. Because in the United States-- the United States wasn't even the only country that saw a baby boom, right? There were other countries that saw baby booms as well in the post World War II era.
It is, however, a useful lens because of the concentration of power that we've seen in the Baby Boom and because the Baby Boom, to the point you just raised, is more sharply white, in part because of the way in which immigration was treated at the time. You know, I mean, the average immigrant when the Baby Boom started was someone's grandparent. They'd come over from, you know, Italy, or Germany, or wherever it happened to be decades prior, that was what immigration looked like, and then that's changed.
And, of course, immigration-- you're right, is wound into the book in so many different ways, including when we think about economics. As America gets older, who's going to care for all of the older Americans? Who's going to pay for the services that they use? And, you know, you talk to people who pay attention to this stuff, and they say, well, we need to make sure we have immigration, we support immigration, because obviously we're not making up for it with new births.
So immigration is absolutely a part of this story, both in terms of why the Baby Boom looks the way it does and what we need to do moving forward. But you're right too that immigration is central to the backlash that we saw when we-- you know, the backlash goes back at least to the 2008 era.
Immigration is a central part of that. Immigration is a central part of the Tea Party. And it's a central part of how Donald Trump rose to power.
- A lot of this sort of like vibe that you get from reading this book, and also just paying attention to politics, is that, you know, what we're talking about here is the last generation of a certain type of American, which is--
- Yeah, right.
- --white, Christian, traditionally family oriented, et cetera. Is that perception even like true to begin with? Is this the-- is this the last of that type of generation when you look at the information, at the data about Boomers and the rest of society?
- The short answer is no. And before I say why, I want to say that one of the issues that arises in the book is that the way we talk about this is important, right? And the way in which we recognize the changes that America is undergoing is important in terms of how people react to it.
And there's been research that's been done. You know, Republicans in particular, if you talk to them and are like, oh, whites are going to be a minority soon, you know, they react to that with fear, right? But that's not necessarily the most appropriate way to talk about it.
So one of the questions there is when we talk about the decline of whites and Christians in America, yes, it's true that Christians make up a much lower density of Americans than they used to and that whites do as well. But really the issue here is that race is so much more complicated than we, ourselves, recognize, and certainly than the government does.
You know, I mean, the government-- the point at which most people are asked to figure out what their racial identity is is when they're presented with some form from the government, right? And so for people who have more complicated racial backgrounds, it can be tricky. You know, what do I check on this? Do I check that I have Hispanic ethnicity?
For people for whom that's not a question, it's like, well, that's easy. I just check white and then I'm done, right? Or I check Black and then I'm done. But there are a lot of Americans, an increasing number of Americans where it isn't that simple. The Census Bureau actually changed the way it records that between 2010 and 2020 to account for more of the complexity that people have in their own racial backgrounds.
But what it does then is it makes it so that the United States, broadly, governmentally, and then us individually, sort of trickling down, are aware that we're already such a mixed group of people-- you know, Americans-- even white Americans often have a background which is more complicated than simply, you know, that they had ancestors who were Anglo-Saxons, Protestants, that came over from southeastern England, right? Like that is just not what Americans look like.
And so we've already reached this point at which America's racial complexity is beyond what we generally recognize. And so, therefore, when we talk about like is it the end of the era of white Americans? Yeah, we sort of passed that stage a while ago. It just sort of depends on how you consider race and the extent to which you consider that complexity.
- It also strikes me that this sort of like end of an era nostalgia thing, the end isn't actually sort of the end of the Boomer generation. We might be putting that marker in the wrong place. It might be the end of the Silent Generation. I want to read a quote from your book that really struck me, in which you're quoting other sources as well.
You write, "The Boomers themselves, though, were the leading edge of a downward trend in joining, trusting, voting, newspaper reading, church attending, volunteering, and being interested in politics. A decline that at the time of the book's release had been continuing for nearly 40 years"-- we're talking about another book here, written in 2000-- "meaning since the 1960s.
When Time Magazine marveled over the Boomers in the middle of that decade, it noted the group's disengagement. Few organized movements of any description, from the John Birch Society, to the AFL-CIO, to the Christian church, have the power to turn them on."
It kind of sounds like, from that description, Boomers themselves ended traditional America.
- Yeah, well, I mean, if you look at traditional America as participation in traditional institutions, yes. Again, we're talking about that there's a gradient, rather than a black and a white, right? And so the point that you raise there, which is a valid one.
So Robert Putnam writes this book, Bowling Alone, about 20 years ago. He's measuring the extent to which people are-- you know, it's called Bowling Alone because people aren't participating in bowling leagues anymore, but it extends outward, to church and things along those lines.
And yes, relative to the Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation, Boomers are less likely to participate in those things. Relative to the Boomers, Millennials and Gen Z are less likely to participate in those things as well. And so there is a generational aspect of that, which is sort of complaining, like, oh, these kids today don't have the same values that I do, right?
But, yeah, I mean-- but, again, how does the Silent Generation compare to the generation before that? To some extent, we don't know. Because, again, we don't have good research on it, right? But also, we didn't have the same liberalization of media, and attitudes, and approaches that emerged with the Baby Boom, that provided people like, oh, well, you can actually live your life in a different way, which I think was also important.
- How has-- and look, like this isn't-- I put Boomers in the sort of driving seat here, but like, you could frame it another way, which is that, like, you know, institutions also failed Boomers. You know, there are all kinds of examples of like the 2008 financial crisis--
- --of-- yeah, you know, millennials were mad about it, but I'm sure people who thought that they were about to retire were also mad about it.
- And there actually is research showing that people's confidence in when they could retire collapsed after that as well.
- So, I mean, how did this failure of institutions and increase in social isolation shape the Boomers' perceptions of the country, politics, things like that?
- I hesitate to answer that sort of collectively for the Boom, because the Boom constitutes so many different sorts of people, right? Like even today, the Baby Boom, you know, we think about-- you know, when you say to someone, hey, what's your perception of Boomer politics? They're going to be like, oh, MAGA, right? Well, that's not-- just not right. Like the backlash to Donald Trump was led by the resistance movement--
- 60 year olds.
- --which was-- yeah, older college educated white women in particular, right? So that's-- that's simply not the case. I would say that the driving issue here, in terms of the way in which I consider the Boom having gotten to the point that it is, is that the Boom was the focus of America for so long. And so that didn't manifest positively for everyone at all times, obviously, right?
But that there was this attention, that teens were the big thing that everyone paid attention to and listened to, when Boomers were teens. And that they then came into the positions of power very early, that the age of Congress basically traveled with the Boom up until essentially the past couple of years.
Like that they were at the center of that-- this generation-- even if you and I are of this-- you know, even if we are diametrically opposed in our politics, we still have this commonality of generation. And like, we still both love Bruce Springsteen, or you know, whoever it happens to be, right?
- Just to pick on Bruce.
- Not that we're stereotyping anyone.
- Right, no-- well, you know. So there is still that commonality and that focus that the Boomers enjoyed, even if they weren't reaping the rewards of it.
- There are other nations that are aging much more quickly than the United States. Can we look at other nations' experiences to understand what's in store for us?
- That's a good question. It's not something I actually consider in the book. The United States is unique in that it is not only the oldest surviving democracy, which we like to talk about, with, obviously, asterisks as need to apply with the Civil Rights, and so on and so forth. But it is a diverse country in a way that most countries aren't.
And so, you know, when we talk about how Japan is handling the fact that it's aging, Japan just simply isn't-- it's not the same sort of country, right? And so I don't know that the lessons of Japan apply to the United States.
In the same way that I don't know that-- you know, the point that was made earlier, that are younger, more liberal people are going to get more conservative as they get older? Well, they just-- younger people don't look the way that American younger people used to. And so I just-- I'd be hesitant, particularly off the cuff, to sort of draw those analogies.
- I mean, one of the ways that, of course, other nations have dealt with this is by like trying to encourage people to have kids.
- Sure, right. Yes.
- Is there any-- any world in which you could ever see another Baby Boom happening in America? Like what almost would have to happen?
- That's a great question. Yeah, I don't know, man. I mean, it's like-- there were a number of factors that came into play in the mid-1940s. You know, esoteric things, like America's self-confidence. Very concrete things like huge job opportunities. And inculcation of the sense that workers need to be provided for, thanks to the New Deal era. You know, the unionization levels that are nowhere near where they are now.
There are all these ways in which Americans at that point were privileged to be able to have kids and not have to worry about it very much, and have a lot of kids, right? That's a lot of factors which are gone. Beyond just that Americans now are so used to spending a lot of their youths doing things beyond settling down and having a family.
And one thing we haven't talked about here is the ways in which culturally young Americans are very different than where Boomers were when they were the same age. But, you know, I mean, I, myself, didn't have my kids till I was in my 30s, right? And, you know, my wife and I had wonderful lives before our kids. They're better now with the kids, in case my kids will listen to this.
- Are you sure?
- Absolutely. But, you know, unwinding all of that, I mean, there are limitations. You can't have four kids if you start having kids when you're 35, right? Like, it's just-- you know, they're just-- unless you're Mick Jagger-- you can't do these things. And so, I don't know, it seems unlikely, particularly at the scale that we're talking about that emerged with the Boom itself.
- You write, "To a large degree the things we think we understand about the baby boom, how it is bounded, what it looks like, the role it plays, and has played in shaping the United States are arbitrary, misguided, or incomplete." Before I let you go, is there anything else you want to clarify about the Boom and its aftermath.
- Yeah, I mean, I think that the extent to which we recognize the Boom as itself being a diverse group of people is important. I think that it shares these collective properties, which then manifest in how it exercises power. I also think-- and this is a point that I like to raise. There's two points I want to raise here, just because I think they're very interesting and salient to the conversation.
The first is that younger people are able to get in the face of Boomers in a way that Boomers weren't able to get in the face of their elders, right? Younger people have social media. They have camera phones. They have all these ways that they can be present in the lives of Boomers that I think exacerbates the tension between those generational groups, in a way that the Boomers themselves simply couldn't.
They couldn't get in front of this-- you know, they couldn't-- the example I use in the book is Claudia Conway, Kellyanne Conway's daughter. And who became a national political story from her TikToks, right? You couldn't do that in the Boomer era. And I think that sort of shifts it as well.
I forgot what the second thing was. But, you know, I mean, just generally speaking, I think that the extent to which we recognize the scale of the Baby Boom as exceptional, which we know about it, we know it was big, we know it was historical, we need to recognize how exceptional it was because I think that helps us better understand why we have this moment of tension that we're in.
- All right. Well, and I certainly got a better understanding from reading your book.
- Oh, I'm glad.
- Thank you so much for joining me today and talking about it.
- Of course, I appreciate it.
- Philip Bump is a national columnist at The Washington Post. And his new book is called Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.
My name is Galen Druke. Tony Chow is in the control room. Chadwick Matlin is our editorial director. You can get in touch by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also, of course, tweet at us with any questions or comments.
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