“There are burglaries and heists and capers and robberies, but few thefts in history can match what Baby Boomers have done to Millennials since 2008: they stole their children’s economic futures right out from under them.” So says Joseph Sternberg, editorialist and columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of the new book The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future.
One generation looking down on another is all to common these days. Yet, in spite of the book’s provocative title, Joseph’s arguments are surprisingly nuanced and even sympathetic to Boomers. Both Millennials and Boomers came of age and entered the workforce at a time when the economy was suffering. However, Boomers learned all the wrong economic lessons of their childhood by mistaking economic outputs (rising wages, an explosion in home ownership, pensions, healthcare, etc.) with economic inputs (investing in the equipment, labor, and knowledge that drove the economy).
As a result, Boomers have largely been pursuing economic policies designed to re-create the robust economy of their youth. But because they’ve been focused on the wrong end of the spectrum (outputs instead of inputs) much of their efforts have led to distortions in the market that have had a profoundly negative impact on their children—the Millennial generation.
Joseph contends that one of the more surprising aspects of the political battles over the past few decades is not how much had changed but how much stayed the same. Our past four presidents have been Boomers and three of them (Clinton, Bush, and Trump) were even all born in the same year of 1946. Boomers held enormous power—both as the largest voting block and as our leaders—and regardless of what party or president was in charge, much of the economic policies of “investing” in things like education and cutting taxes to spur the economy remained relatively the same.
Millennials are anxious to break outside of the narrow lane created by the Boomer generation as we perceive we aren’t doing that well economically. And Joseph would definitely agree Millennials have a real beef. Lurching to the Left—as we’ve seen with the rise of socialism and candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—is one way to break outside of that lane. But Joseph is hopeful Millennials will find more market-friendly and pro-capitalist means of breaking outside of the narrow lane created by our parents’ generation. And he invites us to engage in the generation-wide conversation of what economic policies make sense for us today. And that conversation begins with a better understanding of what our parents got wrong in the first place.