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How the Baby Boomer generation has ruined the U.S. for future generations

By Lyman Stone

The Baby Boomers ruined America.

That sounds like a hyperbolic claim, but it’s one way to state what I found as I tried to solve a riddle. American society is going through a strange set of shifts: Even as cultural values are in rapid flux, political institutions seem frozen in time. The average U.S. state constitution is more than 100 years old. We are in the third-longest period without a constitutional amendment in American history: The longest such period ended in the Civil War. So what’s to blame for this institutional aging?

One possibility is simply that Americans got older. The average American was 32 years old in 2000, and 37 in 2018. The retiree share of the population is booming, while birth rates are plummeting. When a society gets older, its politics change. Older voters have different interests than younger voters: Cuts to retiree-focused benefits are scarier, while long-term problems such as excessive student debt, climate change, and low birth rates are more easily ignored.

But it’s not just aging. In a variety of different areas, the Baby Boom generation created, advanced, or preserved policies that made American institutions less dynamic. In a recent report for the American Enterprise Institute, I looked at issues including housing, work rules, higher education, law enforcement, and public budgeting, and found a consistent pattern: The political ascendancy of the Boomers brought with it tightening control and stricter regulation, making it harder to succeed in America. This lack of dynamism largely hasn’t hurt Boomers, but the mistakes of the past are fast becoming a crisis for younger Americans.

Zoning codes in America have their roots in the early 1900s. Some land-use rules arose out of efforts to manage growing density in cities due to industrialization and new construction technologies that allowed taller buildings. But most zoning was intended to protect property values for homeowners, or to exclude certain racial groups. For many decades, though, zoning codes were relatively limited in scope.

Stricter zoning rules began to be implemented in many places in the 1940s and 1950s as suburbanization began. But then things got worse in the 1960s to 1980s. This shift is reflected in the increasing frequency with which various land-use associated words were used in Google’s database of American English-language publications. These decades, when the political power of the Baby Boomer generation was rapidly rising, saw a sharp escalation in land-use rules.

There’s debate about why this is: Some researchers say the end of formal segregation may have pushed some voters to look for informal methods of enforcing segregation. Others suggest that a change in financial returns to different classes of investment caused homeowners to become more protective of their asset values.

Today, strict land-use rules—whether framed as rules about parking, green space, height limits, neighborhood aesthetics, or historic preservation—make new construction difficult. Even as the American population has doubled since the 1940s, it has gotten more and more legally challenging to build houses. The result is that younger Americans are locked out of suitable housing. And as I’ve argued previously, when young people have to rent or live in more crowded housing, they tend to postpone the major personal events marking transformation into settled adulthood, such as marriage and childbearing.

But, of course, Boomers didn’t only make rules that nudge young people out of home-ownership. They also made new rules restricting young people’s employment. Laws and rules requiring workers to have special licenses, degrees, or certificates to work have proliferated over the past few decades. And while much of this rise came before Boomers were politically active, instead of reversing the trend, they extended it.

Just as tight land-use rules make existing homeowners richer by reducing how many new houses are listed on the market, strict licensing rules make existing workers richer by reducing competition in their fields. And while some industries clearly need licensing rules for health and safety reasons, most of the growth in licensure has been in fields where health and safety justifications are less salient: Do you really need hours of course work and special exams to be a florist, an interior designer, or an auctioneer?

By privileging existing workers, licensure rules increase income inequality, and they do so specifically by shifting income toward older workers. When licensure standards exclude felons, they also disproportionately affect minorities. Young people, and especially minorities, are increasingly being legally prohibited from work.

Again, scholars differ on explanations for why licensure has proliferated. It could be that work has simply gotten more complex. Or it could be that the decline of unions led to a search for new ways to maintain occupational closure. Increased gender and racial integration in workplaces may also have led to a search for new forms of hierarchy.

But even for workers who don’t need a formal license, barriers to work have grown over time. Jobs that once required a high-school degree now require a college degree. This escalation of credential requirements has created a kind of educational arms race. The rise in collegiate attainment, again, did not begin with Boomers. Rather, the GI Bill, and the explosion in new university chartering that it underwrote, created a new norm of college education for many jobs. With the rising availability of higher education, employers, who tend to be older than their employees, often demand degrees as licenses.

Meanwhile, even as higher education gets more expensive, the actual economic returns to a university degree are about flat. People who are more educated make more money than people with less education, but overall, most educational groups are just treading water. The social norm requiring degrees for virtually any middle-class job is one largely invented by Boomers and their parents, and enforced by those generations.

As with formal licensing and land-use rules, there are explanations for the rise of degree requirements: greater public support for education, a complex economy, growing demand for knowledge-workers. All probably have some validity. But the actual enforcement mechanism for this norm is explicitly generational: older employers setting standards for younger job applicants.

And whatever specific factors contributed to the rise of licensure, land-use rules, and demands for more degrees, these developments are part of a wider social trend toward increasing control and regulation across all walks of life. Regardless of changes in formal segregation, unionization, demand for knowledge workers, returns to various asset classes, or other explanations for the rise of work and housing regulation, what is striking is that these trends occurred simultaneously. A graph tracking the rise in paperwork needed to start a new business, or the length of census questionnaires, or the length of the federal code, or virtually any measure of administrative or regulatory complexity would show the same basic trend. Sector-specific explanations seem a bit suspect when the trend itself is so general.

The most glaring example of this growth in regulation and control is also the easiest one to pin on Baby Boomers: the incredible rise in incarceration rates. Even though murder rates are today at the same levels they were in the 1950s, the imprisoned share of the population is higher in America than in any country other than North Korea. We imprison a larger share of the population than authoritarian countries such as Turkmenistan and China.

That huge spike has a very clear origin in the crime wave of the 1960s and 1970s. Academic research has shown that incarcerating more criminals does reduce crime somewhat, so, as with all the other examples I’ve given, this response was understandable.

But many countries experienced a similar crime wave. Most of them experienced similar crime declines in the 1990s, even without so much imprisonment. Furthermore, research has also shown that imprisonment patterns in America were heavily biased by race, with incarceration rates not always reflecting actual rates of criminality.

Today, while incarceration rates are edging lower, they remain astonishingly high. Even as younger Americans are locked out of jobs and housing by strict rules set by previous generations, a startlingly large share of them, especially in minority communities, are literally behind bars. Those who remain free are nonetheless bereft of family, friends, and potential co-workers—and whole communities are, as a matter of law, stripped of potential workers.

It’s understandable that, faced with a wave of crime, Baby Boomers might want to respond with a law-enforcement crackdown. But the scale of the response was disproportionate. The rush to respond to a social ill with control, with extra rules and procedures, with the commanding power of the state, has been typical of American policy making in the postwar period, and especially since the 1970s. And whatever specific arguments may have justified a command-and-control response to crime, this kind of response reared its head for every major political problem encountered by Baby Boomers: housing, jobs, education, crime, and, of course, debt.

Even young Americans today who are free from prison are nonetheless in bondage to debt—sometimes their own debt, in the form of rapidly growing student loans or personal and credit-card loans. But on a larger scale, the problems of entitlements, pensions, Social Security, Medicare, and federal, state, and local debt are becoming more severe all the time. Already, in places such as Detroit, Illinois, and Puerto Rico, where political rules make flexible solutions hard and the population is aging very quickly, massive debt restructurings loom large. But around the country, the pressures of long-term obligations will grow.

Below, I show a reasonable projection of the share of national income that will have to be spent paying for these obligations in the future if there is no substantial restructuring of liabilities. It’s based on consensus forecasts from groups such as the Congressional Budget Office and the Office of Management and Budget for economic growth and for programs such as Social Security and Medicare where such forecasts are available—but in some cases, such as state debts and pensions, no such forecast was available, and so I developed a simple one.

Making these payments will require fiscal austerity, through either higher taxes or lower alternative spending. Younger Americans will bear the burdens of the Baby Boomer generation, whether in smaller take-home pay or more potholes and worse schools.

Furthermore, the basic demographic balance sheet is getting worse all the time, increasing the relative burden on young people. Working-age Americans are dying off in alarming numbers.

The odds of a 32-year-old dying have risen by 24 percent in the past five years, even as death rates among older Americans are about stable. Baby Boomers are living longer even as the workers who pay for their pensions are dying from an epidemic of drug overdose, suicide, car accidents, and violence. But, of course, while this sudden increase in working-age death rates is a new concern, the long-run fiscal crunch has been obvious for decades. For virtually the entire period of Boomer political dominance, it has been obvious that long-term obligations needed to be fixed. And yet, the problem has not been fixed. Younger Americans will suffer the consequences.

As dire as this all sounds, there is cause for hope. If the problem is too many senseless rules, then the solution is obvious. Strict licensure standards can be repealed. Minimum lot sizes can be reduced. Building-height ceilings can be raised. Nonviolent prisoners can have their sentences commuted. Even thorny problems such as cost control in universities can be addressed through caps on non-instructional spending, while solutions for government debt and obligations are widely known, even if they are politically unpalatable.

Not all of these problems were first caused by the Boomers, but they each worsened on their watch. If leaders in business, education, and politics want to solve these problems, they can. Whether the gerontocracy in charge today wants solutions may be another question altogether.

Lyman Stone is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.

Credit: The Atlantic,

16 thoughts on “How the Baby Boomer generation has ruined the U.S. for future generations

  1. The chart showing Average Household Income per person is heavily misleading, as always. These charts began showing up in the early 80s as a way to sell university education over trades. They managed to pull kids away from trades and push them toward higher education – conveniently at the same time as the explosion in the costs to attend universities. I do not think that is a coincidence.

    Lumping skilled tradesmen in with the infirm, incarcerated, or otherwise shiftless members of society paints a rather deceitful and biased picture that taints all of you arguments. A more accurate chart would show skilled tradespeople and small business owners as their own line items – which may surprise to show they average a higher income than those with a 4-year degree, generally without the associated student debt. It would also be a wise move to give military members their own line, as their salaries are generally much lower due to provisions such as food, housing, and medical not being factored into their pay.

  2. Takes of the Curse of the Baby Boomers as become a popular nonsense these days. In fact, the only western countries that can point to any steep decline are the US and the USA..and they have a special reason in common. If the USA can be said to have had any “great” age, it would be between WW2 and Reagan Presidency when the economic controls of the Depression and the War were still in force. The Middle Class bloomed and its wealth skyrockets, pulling millions under the poverty line above it. Boomers brought us Civil Rights and higher education become common. Music, Art, inexpensive computers..the list is endless, Other countries continued on the upward trajectory, but the UK and the US did not. But to blame boomers in two nations is wrong.

    The reason these two nations failed is because they adopted the current pathetic form of capitalism they use, brought by Thatcher who led Reagan by the nose to the same trough. Income disparity, a disease that eats at the heart of any society, returned putting those countries back to the days of David Copperfield. The Middle Class has become poorer and less important since. Yet Arthur Laffer, Tax-Cut Guru and mystic, who has been panned by EVERY credible observer since, has been given the Medal of Freedom this year.

    I am not suggesting that America has not had problems it has been unable to shake since the break from Britain in the 18th century. But the era noted was a time when there was a real hope they could be sorted. But all that is left 40 years after Reagan/Thatcher is rock music retrospectives.

  3. You have to love the Koch brothers. They have the best arguments to steer you away from all the grifting done in the name of ‘free enterprise’ ‘gov’t over regulation, etc. etc. This is one of their think tanks. All hail to our corporate overlords, but please, don’t look too closely at who is making billions while diverting the short attention span of the populus…

  4. rule #1 of science: correlation does not equal causation. To equate the baby boomer generation for all societal changes in the last 40 years is disingenuous and it also assumes the same are responsible for all its gains in medical science, equality, technology and political reform.

  5. The premise is wrong to the future. Growth, jobs, capital. The future is jobless, automated and run by Ai . Nature is highly regulated in unconcern for one insignificant animal species. Nature functions in whole systems of organization – it is highly regulated to a whole system. Capitalism acts opposite this to disruption to the idea of individual initiative failed. In a few hundred short years capitalism has been responsible to an irrecoverable disruption to its sustaining environment in a wrong failed prospect to the future . While the wiser social more highly civilized native indigenous practiced sustainability protecting the America’s for 10,000 years as -one- today only wants a short term wealth that society promotes to its detriment – regulate and govern more by science and factual evidence – less by the illusion of being a free individual – nonsense

  6. Then baby boomers would have been responsible for convincing the Federal government to stop funding Social Security and Medicare. I wonder why they would do that?

    1. That’s easy enough to understand..assuming its true. Boomers are the wealthiest generation that has ever existed..anywhere, anytime. So many either inherited or made a comfortable pile during the incredible years for the middle class. Maybe they don’t want to share that through the taxes necessary to fund such level-the-playing-field programs.

      1. Baby Boomer Retirement Research
        In March 2016, GoBankingRates published research
        conducted with 1,504 adults over the age of 55 (4.3% margin of error).
        About 30% of the respondents age 55 and over claimed to have no
        retirement savings. An additional 26% reported less than $50,000 saved
        for retirement. When considering typical benchmarks needed for a
        successful retirement, 54% of the older Americans in this survey lacked
        sufficient retirement funds.

  7. simply put, the USA is a culture in decline, and needs to perish in order to make room for the next evolutionary step in our success as a species

    1. Societies certainly come and go. Sadly, our species has not come up with anything that has lasted yet. Compared to the time of the Pharaohs, our current societies rose and fell in a blink.

      Considering how the profit motive is directing our development, perhaps the next evolutionary iteration of humanity is cheap computers.

      Hawkins’ biggest fear was the rapidly approaching day when computers become self-aware and smarter than humans. He speculated that will happen in a decade or two. At that point, computers, finally smarter than us, can design themselves and their subsequent intellectual progress will become almost instantaneous. The wiser course for the long term would be for us to prioritise human development and the human condition, but so far, no luck. Maybe that is what we will be remembered for in galactic history. A species that passed their baton onto computers while cr*pping on themselves, their cousins and their world.

      Don’t misunderstand. I find technological advances fascinating. I merely find that the way they are being used inane.

  8. I found the article misleading and incorrect in many areas. Fixes for such things as student debt load and the belief that EVERYONE needs to go go college created many of the problems. Other countries have trade schools for jobs that go unfilled.

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