|Published:||New York: Columbia University Press, 2022|
|Reviewed by:||Randall G. Holcombe, Florida State University|
The underlying premise of this book, in Munger’s words (p. 35) is that “Historically, other generations have faded from relevance as they reach retirement age.... But the Boomers are unique ... Their numbers have declined less, their economic power has only grown, and their cultural relevanceor their insistence on itpersists.” Partly, this is due to the size of the Boomer generation, larger than the generations that preceded or followed it. It is also due to the economic conditions they experienced. As Boomers matured during the 1950s and 1960s, the economy grew more rapidly than it did for the following generations at similar times in their lives, offering the Boomers better opportunities than the generations that followed them.
The baby boom generation has had a disproportionate hold on political power for decades. Bill Clinton was the first Boomer president, and boomers have continued to occupy the White House since, with the exception of Joe Biden, who is slightly too old to be a Boomer. Munger also notes that the average age of members of Congress has been increasing, adding to the political influence of the Boomers. The Boomer generation continues to hold a solid grip on political power, but that is sure to end in the upcoming decade. Nobody lives forever.
The transition from one generation to the next is often gradual, but Munger anticipates that several factors will lead to generational conflict and a major transition in the upcoming decade. Younger generations have different priorities and interests than the Boomers. The leaders of the nation’s two main parties are overwhelmingly old white males, while younger generations look favorably on “descriptive representation,” in which political leaders have the same race and gender profiles as the general population. Munger says (p. 51) “that the logic of descriptive representation applies to the elderly.” The young want a younger political leadership.
Younger generations tend to be more technologically sophisticated, they tend to be more concerned about the environment, and tend to focus more on social issues than economic issues when compared to the Boomer generation. They want different things from government. As the Boomer generation ages out, major changes in public policy are likely. Munger says (p. 19) “We must be willing to acknowledge that institutions designed for past times and generations cannot possibly take advantage of contemporary technology and the human social structures it makes possible.”
Munger explains that the dominance of Boomers in politics is in part due to American political institutions. Our electoral system will support only two partiesMunger explains why in detailleaving the old guard in charge as the senior members of their parties. A proportional voting system, used in many nations, enables more parties because parties are represented in proportion to the votes they receive. The U.S. system prevents new youth-oriented parties from emerging.
Munger documents the same domination of the Boomer generation in culture. The most popular movies, movie stars, music, and television shows are responsive to Boomers, and as they have aged, the media has responded. The average age of movie stars is rising, and because retirees spend a disproportionately large amount of time watching television, programming is aimed at them. The same is true of news media. Munger notes the domination of Fox News and MSNBC but says (p. 78) “When the Boomers are gone, however, things will change all at once. The legacy media are poorly positioned to attract younger viewers, and the once-central battle between Fox and MSNBC will dwindle into irrelevance, supplanted by a fully armed and operational replacement media.” Younger generations are more likely to get their news and entertainment from social media, in contrast to the less tech-savvy Boomers.
People form their social identities based on shared social locations, and generational consciousness comes partly from the shared life experiences of people in the same generation. Boomers grew up in a prosperous and growing economy, whereas millennials faced greater economic challenges. The Vietnam War was a major event and shared experience for Boomers, and television came of age as they grew up, providing that generation with a shared lens with which to view national and world events. The multiplicity of cultural and news outlets on the internet does not give generations following the Boomers that same unified vision. Munger says (p. 86) “This combination of access to information technology and the time to use it has been nothing short of a revolution in the media consumption of young people.”
People have many sources of personal identity. Age is one, along with race, occupation, hobbies, organizational memberships, and more. Munger notes that Boomers tend to have more shared sources of personal identity than younger generations, and this homogeneity among Boomers is another factor that increases the influence of their generation. But (p. 96) “Boomers and Millennials ... have very different ideas about how government spending should be allocated” and simply because of their age, the influence of boomers is sure to wane. Referring to the Boomers and Gen-Z, Munger says (p. 122) “the coming decade is likely to draw these two largest generations into conflict more explicitly, as their divergent economic issues will make demands of the U.S. government that are in direct opposition.... The Republicans and Democrats are both still run by Boomers, and the most salient intra-Boomer conflicts still define the political arena.” Munger says this will change in the coming decade.
Munger (p. 124) states that “the conflicts of the 2020s will explicitly be about the functioning of capitalism.” He notes the importance of environmental issues, and particularly climate change, to younger voters, observing that the Boomers will not be around to experience the long-term effects. As Munger notes (p. 128), “younger Americans see the wealth accumulated by the older generations as the spoils of environmental exploitation.” Younger voters want more government involvement in the economy. Social Security reform, and housing policies that enable them to have the same opportunities Boomers had when they were younger. Munger (p. 126) continues, “Wealth taxes are an antidote to the intergenerational inequality in economic opportunity and wealth accumulation.” As the Boomers age out of political power, there are many issues that divide the Boomers from the generations that follow them. Munger (p. 127) concludes, “The 2020s will be a decade of zero-sum economic conflict about how to assign a fixed amount of federal money across these generations.”
Munger emphasizes the impact of technology on the generational divide. Boomers are less technologically savvy, are more likely to be duped by “fake news” they see on the internet, and are wedded to the old way of doing things. He remarks (p. 146) that “much of the knowledge that Boomers gained throughout their lives is now knowledge of how the world used to work.” The book does not paint a favorable picture of Boomers. Munger (p. 44) observes that “aging tends to produce more cognitive inflexibility, close-mindedness, and resistance to changewhat we might call ‘small-c conservatism.” Munger (p. 175) says, “Boomers are, inevitably, stuck in the past.”
Munger’s conjecture that the decade of the 2020s will see a major political transition is plausible, and he backs up his conjecture with compelling facts and detailed analysis. The book is an excellent piece of scholarship. Still, I am not convinced by his argument. Munger tells his readers that the generations following the Boomers are more interested in issues such as climate change, student loan debt, housing affordability, race and gender issues, and inequality in the income distribution. The current Democratic party emphasizes these same issues, so with regard to the policy issues Munger discusses, the issues important to younger voters are already in play. The policy divide Munger emphasizes seems more like Democrats versus Republicans rather than young versus old.
It is the case that on average, Republicans are older than Democrats, so if younger voters retain their current party affiliations and public policy preferences, the Democratic party will represent a larger fraction of voters. On this point, Munger (p. 44, italics in original) notes, “Republicans stay Republicans and Democrats stay Democrats. However, ideological self-placement does seem to move.... And for people who changed their self-description, they were more than twice as likely to move from liberal to conservative than the other way around.” That suggests that as younger generations age, their policy preferences will move closer to those of the Boomers they displace.
One compelling aspect of Munger’s book is that he has made bold predictions about major political changes that he anticipates will occur before the end of the decade, so we will not have to wait long to see if his forecast is correct. On a closing note, it is somewhat ironic that Munger, who emphasizes the importance of new media, has delivered his message in a book.
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