After World War II, babies boomed. Toward the turn of the century, they echoed. Like the Baby Boomers, the Millennial generation came up during a time of unprecedented national prosperity. The leading edge of the post-war generation grew up in a world in which the United States was responsible for as much as 60 percent of the world’s manufacturing output – and 61 percent of the total economic output of the developed world. The oldest Millennials were born in the early 1980s, at the beginning of the long boom, with the S&P 500 returning 400 percent in inflation-adjusted terms between the time Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president and the 20th birthdays of the children born that year.
In those decades, Microsoft went from being a scrappy little IBM contractor to a company that made its founder the world’s richest man, and Apple enjoyed the biggest IPO since Ford, while Southwest Airlines saw annual returns averaging more than 25 percent for the 30 years leading to the turn of the century. Like the Boomers, the Millennials enjoyed prosperity; unlike the Boomers, they also enjoyed peace: The post-war generation saw more than 80,000 Americans die in combat in Korea and Vietnam, while only 548 American troops died during the Millennial generation’s first 20 years, almost half of those in the 1983 bombing of the Marines’ barracks in Beirut. In 1990, Tipper Gore was terrified that the Geto Boys’ self-titled album was going to inspire a wave of violent crime; in the real world, homicide rates fell by nearly half in the next decade, overall violent crime by a third, and property crimes by 29 percent.
The economy thrived, peace prevailed at home and abroad, the biggest political controversy of the day involved poorly considered fellatio, and their Generation X big brothers were founding billion-dollar companies in their college dorm rooms: If the Millennials feel like they were dupes, set up for one of the cruelest socioeconomic switcheroos in modern history, it is difficult to blame them. And if their political enthusiasms are subsequently confused, incoherent, ignorant, half-baked, backward, and occasionally self-pitying, that is not entirely surprising – nor is it the whole story. Profoundly abnormal times incubate profoundly abnormal expectations.
The difference is that the Baby Boomers’ expectations were in the main satisfied. They became the richest generation in the history of the human race. In terms of the ratio of taxes paid to government benefits received, no generation will have done as well. The Boomers are enjoying the largest intergenerational transfer of wealth in history, fueled in no small part by entitlement programs that skew heavily in their favor: At the end of World War II, there were 42 workers for each Social Security beneficiary, but when the Millennials are in their prime earning years, the ratio of workers to beneficiaries will be only two to one. One of three things is going to happen: (1) Millennials are going to end up paying radically higher taxes to support the major federal entitlements; (2) Millennials will see radical benefit cuts; or (3) some nasty combination of No. 1 and No. 2.
The Millennials are not the only ones having a rough go of it. Generation X lost half its scant savings in the 2009 recession. But for Generation X, it’s always 1991, the year whose popular culture provided that generation with its role model — Slacker — and its unspoken motto: Nevermind. Generation X was the last cohort of young Americans allowed to ride bicycles without helmets and to spend their unsupervised divorce-culture childhood summer days setting stuff on fire. They never developed the wounded-kitten style of political discourse that their younger siblings have embraced. Generation X may never have figured out what to do with all the opportunity it inherited, and its members missed a great many opportunities, but they probably will simply keep working and talking about how great Hüsker Dü was until they’re in their 80s because they never left the ’80s behind.