Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change #064: Philip Bump on Baby Boomers and what comes next
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Theory of Change #064: Philip Bump on Baby Boomers and what comes next

America’s largest generation fundamentally changed the country, but how they head for the political exit is to be determined
A mother and daughter pose together. Photo: Brian Louie/CC by 2.0

Episode Summary

The religious, political, and racial divides in contemporary America are some of the biggest they’ve been in our history, but there’s another one that doesn’t get nearly as much attention—generational divides. But age-based differences in political attitudes are becoming increasingly important as the Baby Boom generation—the first named generation in America and still its largest in history—is in its latter years.

Boomers completely reshaped the United States: culturally, politically, economically, and in many other ways. By their sheer size, they have been catered to their whole lives. But now that society needs to cater to the needs and desires of younger generations, many Boomers are reluctant and even angry to let others have a chance.

At the same time, however, many people in the age cohort are feeling like they never really got the opportunities that so many of their peers received. Joining us to discuss all this is Philip Bump, he’s a national columnist at the Washington Post and the author of a new book “The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.”

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Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, Philip.

PHILIP BUMP: Well thank you, sir. Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: Before we get further into the details here, let's define what do people mean when they say Baby Boom? I think generations are very fungible as a concept, but Baby Boom is more uh, defined. uh, I think in terms of years, but let's, let's get into that briefly.

BUMP: Yeah. So generation, I mean, we have these debates over where generations start. And to your point, there is one generation that the Census Bureau actually recognizes as demographically distinct. That's the Baby Boom. And the reason why is because there was a surge in births, right?

So when we talk about the Baby Boom, we talk about 1946 to 1964. People always associate the Baby Boom with soldiers coming back from World War II in 1945 and having kids that were born '46. That's sort of true. There was definitely an element of that, but obviously the Baby Boom lasted 19 years. That wasn't responsible for all of it.

So there was this increase in births that began very sharply, and you can notice it if you look at charts that begin in '46 and last through the early 1960s, that's the Baby Boom.

That's the era that we're talking about. And that, the scale of this is hard to overstate. We're talking in 1945, there's 140 million people in America, and over the course of the next 19 years, nearly 76 million babies are born, right? So it's more than 50% of the population that existed in 1945 is born as babies. And so that, that is the thing that forced the changes. All of a sudden, you have this huge cluster of people who are all the same age, and they reshaped everything as they went.

SHEFFIELD: And one of those things that was invented was the idea of teenager that hadn't really existed at that point. The idea of being a teenager, was that even a thing?

BUMP: It was sort of a thing. So there's this great article in the New Yorker from around this time period, which explores this new idea of the teen. But it was before the Boomers actually became teens, the New Yorker was talking about this. But it was focused on this idea that all of a sudden there was this constituency, particularly for businesses, for marketers to whom they could appeal on try and sell their products. And so this was a new concept in general because of how American society's evolved.

Then of course, when the Boomers started hitting their teen years, there was a massive marketplace of people to whom they could try and sell things, right? This, again, this is the pattern I have to reinforce this. The pattern is that the Baby Boom, as they hit age milestones are reshaping what's happening to people in that age group, right?

So they hit five and then all of a sudden, you got to start building a bunch of kindergartens and having a bunch of teachers. You hit 13, you hit 15, and all of a sudden you have this huge marketplace that people who want to sell things to young people can do.

And of course, at the same time, you have television emerging. You start having television advertising. There're all these things that overlap that are focused on this giant population of people. And so, yeah. So being a teenager existed as a concept and in the way that we understand it prior to this, but it was really the Baby Boom that made it this really targeted thing by American businesses. Because there are so many young people that had so much money to spend.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. One of the other aspects that you discuss is that as a generation, it was really kind of the first generation to have a sense of itself as a generation. And that it didn't start, they didn't have it in the early years. But it became gradually more of a sensibility that developed it. Talk about that a little bit if you could, please.

BUMP: Yeah. Right. So one of the things that's important to remember about the Baby Boom and generally about American society, is that our own sense of self-evaluation is fairly young, right? I mean, there didn't exist great polling 120 years, or even a hundred years ago.

There didn't exist. A lot of great social science research, like these things are relatively new. And so it's somewhat similar when we talk about generations and cohort identity, I want to say cohort, I mean people who are generally the same age range. This idea that these people have common characteristics is really emergent as we start getting more sophisticated analysis systems.

And so, yeah, so the Baby Boom suddenly starts getting all this attention, because it is this novel thing. It is breaking past patterns of generational transition and is being measured by these new tools and these new ways we have looking at ourselves as Americans. And so eventually Baby Boomers come to understand it, right?

They, they become very aware that they are this exceptional thing. There's a great book that was published in the early 1980s by Landon Y. Jones, called Great Expectations. And I really used that book as sort of a framework for analyzing the Baby Boom, because he did some of the first work really assessing what the Baby Boom looked like and who they were.

And so to some extent, this book actually is checking in on some of his assumptions and assessments. But one of the things that Jones does in that book is he actually, he talks to a lot of Baby Boomers obviously, and quotes one of them who just like, well, I just thought every generation was as exceptional.

And it took us a while to recognize that we were unusual. And I think that's probably true of a lot of Baby Boomers.

SHEFFIELD: And it does raise the question-- it's a perennial source of debate among journalists, among sociologists about how accurate is it to speak of generations really even and all and, and certainly about the demarcating. So while there's a definite beginning of the Baby Boom generation, what is a real cutoff for them and start of Gen X?

And all the names , I mean, they don't really necessarily mean anything except for maybe Millennial and Baby Boom. I mean Gen Z, I guess they're the last human generation ever. And one comparison that you make is that designations of generation, you compare it to astrology in some sense, but I get the feeling you think it's a little bit more accurate than astrology?

BUMP: No, I don't.

The generations that we use, they really are contrived. I mean, we make up when they start and when they end and what they're called, and we have debates over it. And it's fun to debate them, and that really is sort of the analogy to astrology.

Astrology is firmly defined, it's the 21st or 22nd, right? But then you also have these people who are born sort of near the 21st, 22nd, like myself, who are on the cusp. And does that have different implications for your astrological sign? And, we attribute all these personalities to them.

Generations are the same way. That we have these sort of vague-- Gen X starts in 1965 because it ends after the Baby Boom. And Baby Boom is the one that actually is delineated. But when does Gen X end and when does Millennial start and when does Millennial end? And what is a Millennial?

What does it mean to be a Millennial? What does this cohort have in common? Yeah. We like to debate these things and so we do, but there really isn't a reason necessarily to say, oh, this, January 1st, 1990, this is a new generation that starts. There's nothing demographically to it that necessitates our doing that.

I do hasten to say it is of course the case that people who lived at similar periods of time have shared experiences and shared approaches to things. People who lived through the Great Depression, for example, have a more-- universally have a shared sense of how to approach home economics than does potentially, someone who's born in the 1970s.

There are things that cohorts can go through, which can help shape who they are collectively as a group, which I think is certainly the case with the Baby Boom. But generally speaking, all these generational identifiers that we like to use to talk about and have fun with, they're contrived and made up and, that's honestly half the fun.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I guess it's an attempt to just create some approximation of these people of different ages, have some different attitudes. Generally speaking, we could say that.

BUMP: Well, I mean, but you are right. It's useful to people, right? It is useful to people to understand-- look, in the same way that marketers or politicians will identify particular groups of people as having tendencies, right? Even if they recognize those things aren't universal, it's still useful.

There's a utility to it, and it's very useful, obviously, to be able to say Generation X to refer to people who were born in the late 1960s and 1970s, instead of having to say people who were born in the late 1960s and 70s, right? It's useful to have these shorthands for these periods of time as well. So it's not all just fun games. There is some utility to it as well.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and there's a difference with astrology there.

BUMP: That's right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. So besides the evolution of teenager, one of the other things that really did set the Baby Boom generation, apart from earlier ones also is their love of television. They grew up with the television. And what's kind of fascinating is that they've retained that love of television. They love it more than any of the younger generations that have followed them. Let's talk about that a little bit.

BUMP: Yeah, no, you're right. mean, they were born into a world in which radio is really the primary form of mass media communication. Television emerged, television became a very important tool for the people who were trying to appeal to them, be they politicians or marketers.

And you're right that over time, this is a generation that grew up on television, that when you look at who's watching cable news, for example, these days, it tends to be older Americans who grew up with television, less so younger Americans who may have grown up with the internet more heavily.

So yes, you're right, that television has played a very important role. I'm not sure that it is necessarily just that sort of familiarity with television that prompts them to continue to watch television. And maybe, my guess is it's to some extent sort of a reaction to not wanting to have to deal with new internet tools, which I think plays some role in steering them toward television as a primary news source in particular.

But yes, I mean, television is absolutely instrumental in defining, shaping the Baby Boom, at least for the first several decades, if not an ongoing fashion.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and I think another thing that's interesting about their particular love of television-- again, speaking generally-- is that they tended to be much, if you look at compared to let's say Gen X or Millennials, Gen Z, the boomers tended to follow toward more centralized figures. So in other words, like big enormous pop stars and rock stars. Whereas nowadays, there are hundreds of people out there that have millions of followers and somebody in that age group might not have even heard of them. And obviously, there's a function of narrowcasting through the internet and that sort of thing, but it's, I think it's might be a little bit more than that. What do you think?

BUMP: Yeah, no, I mean, I think you're absolutely right. And obviously, the fragmentation that has accompanied both cable news and then the internet obviously plays a huge role. I mean, even if you set aside the internet, there's all sorts of television shows that are on cable that I've never seen, I have no idea about it. And that may have a lot of viewers. This is just the nature of media today.

But one of the things that I think is fascinating about this is that what the internet allows younger people to do was something that couldn't be done. You're right that back in the 1960s/70s that there were these people who had millions and millions of fans and these were the big stars.

And even before that, movie stars held that position. But there are always gatekeepers, right? There's always some process that you had to go through in order to become this person that millions of people are watching. That's no longer the case.

And so what it means is not only can you become a micro celebrity with tons of followers and have half the country have never heard of you or any awareness of what you do at all. But it is also the case that young people now have a way to be present in front of older people in a way that didn't used to be possible, right?

So when you have something like "Okay Boomer," which is this goofy TikTok phenomenon, the reason that is so frustrating to boomers is, in the past it certainly was the case that there were young people that were making fun of old people, but they would do so, and it's not like millions of people were seeing it. It's not like the old people would be confronted with it unless they happened to be walking down the street and see a sign in the window or someone gave the kid a TV show or interviewed them on Walter Cronkite's news broadcast, right?

There just wasn't a way for this person-- outside of having this gatekeeper who lets them do so-- be in the face of the older generation.

Now you can do it very easily. If someone is on, if an older person is on social media at all, you can confront them, right? And you can present your argument in front of them, however, however naturally you want to or however generously you want to, you can engage them in conversation.

And I think that too helps amplify some of the generational tension that we see simply because that didn't used to be possible at all.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And there are a number of differences about Boomers vis-a-vis subsequent generations as well that you talk about. So, one of those being home ownership like that for particularly Millennials and younger Gen X and forward, it's just much, much less common than it was for the Boomers.

I make it a point of regularly reading political discussions on obscure message boards and whatnot to see what people are debating with each other. And I do see it as a regular affect: 'Oh, young people, they don't want to work and buy their own home. They just want to mooch off their parents.'

But the reality is that, home ownership is not attainable for-- basically the Boomers were the last generation where widespread home ownership in your youth was even possible. And it's a source of real division now and resentment. Let's talk about that a little bit if you could.

BUMP: Yeah, no, I mean that's true, but again, we have to think about why this is occurring, right? So there are two different ways you can look at that. One is that there is some sort of collective selfishness that the Boomers are exhibiting where they bought up all the houses and 'the hell with you,' you don't get any, right?

Or you can look at it more practically, which is that there are a lot of Baby Boomers and so you have x number of houses and you have y number of Baby Boomers.

And if Baby Boomers go and they buy those in the 1960s and they live longer than Americans used to and they still are in their houses, then they're more likely to still be owning houses, and there's fewer houses on the market, particularly if you're not building new houses, which of course is the other side of the coin.

And where the frustration legitimately comes in, you have Baby Boomers who now own homes, not all of them obviously, and there's a huge range of wealth within the Baby Boom itself. But you have a lot of Baby Boomers who own homes and who see those homes as a storehouse of value and who are now at retirement or approaching retirement thinking, okay, I am going to use the wealth that's in my home as part of what's going to fund my retirement, which a lot of people do.

People at all age groups who own homes tend to see that as something they're going to use for retirement. So then what happens is, suddenly the town says, 'hey, we're going to build an apartment building,' or 'we're going to build more housing on your block.'

And what does the Baby Boomer do? The Baby Boomer slash homeowner says: 'Well, no, that's going to reduce the value of my home. That's what I'm worried about. And this is my storehouse of value for my future, for my retirement. So I'm going to oppose that. I'm going to come out and speak at this public hearing and say, I don't want this new apartment building going in.'

So that is a individual decision being made by one Baby Boomer who is concerned about his or her financial security in the future.

But the effect of it is because so many Baby Boomers own homes and so many of these processes go before public debate, and so many people who come out and speak at those public debates about housing don't support building more housing, you end up tamping down on the number of houses that are built.

That then increases home values, which is good for the Baby Boomers, but it makes it much harder for everyone else to buy home. Because there aren't enough homes because homes become more expensive. And so this is a way in which the Boomers scale, there's so many of them. They buy up a lot of houses. There's so many of them that can make decisions that actually influence the extent to which new housing is built to keep prices high.

It's not that they are making a collective political decision. They're not all going out and voting and saying, we the Boomers say no more housing.

They are instead a very large group of people who are making similar decisions. And because there are so many of them that has this national effect that then is attributed throughout the generation.

SHEFFIELD: And yeah the decline in the number of new units built in housing, there's multiple reasons for it, it's not just related to Boomers wanting to hold onto their houses and zoning regulations. I mean, there's a multiplicity of reasons for it, but yeah.

And so anyway, another thing that is kind of unique about Boomers as a generation that you discussed is that it's the first generation that had a large influx of Hispanic immigrants into the country and actually grew in size after it had basically ended by birth year.

And so it's it was the first sort of, rapidly Hispanicized generation, if you will. And it's a trend obviously that we've seen in subsequent generations. But that, that influx of Hispanic immigrants to the United States, it's created some tensions within the—

[Dog barks]

BUMP: It has. Sorry, my dog is mad at something right now.

Yeah, so, so yes, you're absolutely right. So we have the Baby Boom emerge in 1946, which is really at a low point in American immigration. And the reason why is very clear that about a century ago, there was a big backlash against Eastern European, Southern European, immigrants from Asia, and so there are federal laws that are put in place to limit the amount of immigrants who come into the United States.

What happens then is after the Baby Boom ends in the mid 1960s, suddenly these immigration laws are loosened. So we start seeing this influx of people, not only Hispanics, but also from Asia, from Central America, from Mexico.

We see from all these places coming in, and you're right that the Baby Boom sort of amazingly continues to grow in size until the year 2000. It's losing members because people are dying, but it's gaining a lot of members because people who are immigrated in the United States, who are born in the Baby Boom years and therefore Baby Boomers, although of course that's sort of, we're getting this sort of gauzy territory there.

The point you're making though is extremely important, which is that the Baby Boom generation, even with this immigration is much, much more densely White than younger generations. I mean, much more densely White. It is probably the Whitest age population that we have in the United States.

And so when we talk about the tension between older and the younger, and when we talk about the strain of that tension, which runs particularly through right wing politics and centers on the changing face of America, we're often meaning that very literally. That a lot of Americans are reacting negatively to the way in which they see demographically America changing and becoming browner and having more people from Asia who are representing our population and being a backlash to them.

And this overlaps with generations. So when we talk about some of that, when we talk about things like "great placement theory" and the way in which people like Tucker Carlson leverage that for their own benefit. What they're appealing to is in part a generational divide between a very heavily White older population and a much less heavily White younger population.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the question of Whiteness also how that was defined.

BUMP: Sure.

SHEFFIELD: That also changed during the lifetime of the Baby Boom generation. So, in the forties, and fifties, and sixties, people who were Italian were not considered white in a lot of contexts.

And I guess maybe this was before, but I mean, Irish were not considered to be White as well. And you talk about that, who calls themselves White, that also has been a thing that has shifted even among Boomers themselves. Maybe talk about that a little more detail, if you could.

BUMP: Yeah. I mean, so Whiteness is a concept, and this is not really a complicated theory, but people like to pretend like this is some hugely controversial thing to talk about. Like, people feel as though they have a sense of Whiteness, but they have that feeling because they have been born into a society in which there are certain standards.

But those standards have changed over time, to your point, yeah. I mean a century ago, people who came from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, people, the Italians were seen as this gross scum that came to the United States.

The Washington Post has this really horrible editorial that we published about a century ago in which we're like worrying about anarchists from Italy and saying all sorts of horrible things about people from Italy.

But yeah, over time what happened is people from Italy and Greece and Eastern Europe, married into the broader population, particularly after World War II. And then they just sort of became seen as just generally White. I mean, it's not as though they were seen as Black a century ago, but they were seen as sort of White adjacent.

There's some great research that I touch on in the book, I don't get into great detail, but about how that evolved over time in American history. And one of the questions is when we talk about America's changing geography and we talk about the increase in Hispanics living in the United States, a lot of focus has been placed on the Census Bureau's estimates that by the year 2045, the majority that is White in America is going to become a minority, subsumed to this.

It's still plurality, but you know that all these other racial identities will have surpassed it. But that's really based on an understanding of race that is sort of fixed in our current understanding of race. And so it may be the case that we have a lot of people with Hispanic ancestry who come not to see themselves as Hispanic, but to see themselves as White, which is a pattern that we see actually in polling and in Census identification.

And of course the census is, it's all self-identification. It is the collective self-identification of 330 million Americans. That's what the census is. And so if people start to see themselves as White and identify themselves as White, then the Census Bureau's projections of the composition of the country is going to be inaccurate because it's going to be understating the number of White people.

But at the same time, the Census Bureau actually changed how it records people's racial identities from 2010 to 2020. So there was a big surge of people who identify as 'White and something else,' because people were given more space to say, I'm white, but I also have a family that's Portuguese, and my grandfather actually came from Jamaica.

So you put all these things down, and because people could record more information about their own backgrounds, all of a sudden, the number of people who identified as White and something else, which you can view as mixed race skyrocketed. So we already have this oversimplified assessment of who we are in the moment that doesn't capture our diversity.

So there are all these ways in which we have these understandings of race and these fears that are amplified by the Tucker Carlsons of the world centered on, 'oh my gosh, what's happening to White America,' that themselves are rooted in both unstable future predictions and a misunderstanding of who we are in the moment.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I guess, well I, since we were talking about Tucker Carlson and Fox here, that is something that, another kind of debate among demographers about politics is do people's political viewpoints shift as they age? And some people believe that is the case and other people believe that's not the case. Where do you stand on that with regard to the Boomers here?

BUMP: I cop out and I say, eh, it's hard to say, right? And this is going back to the point that I made earlier about the lack of long-term social science research and polling. We have this understanding, generally speaking, that as you get older, you get more conservative.

That's the aphorism that we tend to cite. And there's just not a lot of great research around that. There certainly are some patterns that we've seen in the past where Baby Boomers, for example, used to be much more liberal than they are today. Collectively, they're still about Democratic as they're Republican in terms of vote registration.

But we have this sense that this is what happens. This is the pattern that happens. There's not a lot of great research to show that's what happens. And I think that one of the things that we should qualify our understanding of what's going to happen in the future on, is that we've never had a population that is as diverse as the young population is today.

So is it the case that this diverse young population that has a lot of Hispanic people and Black people, and Asian people, who tend to vote much more heavily Democratic even at older ages, are they all going to vote more heavily Republican in the future just because they've gotten older?

I don't think that's fair to assume that just because this pattern, even if this pattern did exist, and it was measurable or identifiable within White America, I'm not sure that holds for a less densely White America moving forward. So I think we have lots of evidence to show that demography isn't destined in the way that we expect anyway.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and if you look at exit polls by race and age, what they show is that there are differences inside of generation. So, like, if you're Hispanic, the Hispanic population most likely to vote Republican is like, 30 to 45.

That's the peak, at least in the past two election cycles, that was the peak Republican voting demographic. And that age range of roughly similar like maybe for Black Americans, there's a high percentage of Republican votes there. And so for people to say that there are just voting patterns across generations and races, it's more complicated than that.

BUMP: Yeah, no, that's absolutely true. And I think that there are-- it is not only more complicated like that in the moment, but it's also hard to say what's going to happen. Because there's so many compounding factors that we often don't think about, right? Education is a big one. The Republican party is very invested in the idea that maybe they can peel away more Black and Hispanic voters because they're going to appeal to people who don't have college educations, and really making education a dividing line.

Of course, younger Americans are much more, have better heavily educated than older Americans because of how the trajectory of seeking out colleges has worked, and the necessity of getting a college education has worked.

But it's also the case that young people are much less partisan. They don't belong to parties as much. And so, there is this idea that perhaps they're more malleable politically as a result of that. You have things like the social structures, right? One of the people with whom I spoke pointed out that young Black people are less likely to go to church. And the Black church is a very strong tool for organizing Democratic voters and maintaining that partisan identity.

If they're less likely to go to church, will they be less likely to vote Democratic in the future because they don't have those same social bonds? These are questions, right? And, the book addresses a lot of these questions. It doesn't answer all these questions because it's very hard to do so.

But yeah, these are all the sorts of things which complicate our understanding of what's going to happen in the future as these generations get older.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And there is distinct difference between Boomers and those younger in terms of religious attitudes. So beginning with Gen X, there's just been this kind of continual increase for the most part, depending on the survey, if you were just lumping them all together, we're seeing increased identification as non-affiliated religion, and then also decrease of interest in fundamentalist religions, Christian in particular.

So maybe a little different with Judaism, but that's more of a function of birth rates perhaps. But you know, at least in terms of Christians, the younger you are, the less likely you are to be, to say, you're a fundamentalist Christian. And, and, And that has created a lot of anxiety among Boomers. And you talk about that. Maybe expand on that a little bit here if you could.

BUMP: Yeah, the pattern actually really started with the Baby Boom. That there's this famous book that came out 20 years ago, Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, which looked at the ways in which social bonds had broken down in the United States, including religious bonds and how the Baby Boom really started to move away from these sort of organized social institutions that their parents had enjoyed, including church.

The 1960s, 1970s were all about young Americans who are coming out, like the hard Christians, had a moment, right? There was just like all this sort of exploration of religion in the United States, and even at the time, and it's continuing today, Baby Boomers were and are still less likely to attend church or identify as a religious tradition than their parents were.

What's happened though is, as with other institutional abandonment that has accelerated for younger Americans, young Americans are now much more likely to say that they're unaffiliated with the church. They're less likely to say they believe in God. They're less likely to say that they attend church regularly.

So there are all these ways in which that social structure as well, the social structure of religion is, it has eroded significantly for younger people. And you're right that this also then reinforces when we talk about fears, when we talk about the fears of older Americans, about where America is going. And younger Americans, this idea that they're getting away from God is something that motivates a lot of them to be a little freaked out and to respond negatively to younger Americans as well.

SHEFFIELD: And there also is, what's kind of interesting also, is that besides just attendance and church, there's also the idea of the political identity as a Christian. And that's, and that also is something that is pretty new. I mean, if you look at the early 20th century, up until the, let's say the 1970s, there were right wing, far right Christians, but they generally tended to view the world as fallen and a waste of their time to take part in.

And some of that was a reaction to the Scopes trial, where the state of Tennessee and the South generally, fundamentalist Christians were just laughed at in the national press, across parties, across regions. And so they kind of just said, well, we don't care about this stuff. This is the fallen world. We're not going to try to get involved in it.

And that began to change in the seventies. And people talked about the emergence of the hippie generation and left wing politics, but there was also a revolution of boomers that really created the reactionary politics that we see today.

BUMP: Yeah. I mean, look, the Baby Boom is a massive generation, and so I want to--while I agree that there are generalizations that are useful to draw about them, it's important to remember the Baby Boom itself comprises literally tens of millions of people that, for example, when we talk about politics in the moment, yes, we talk about how the Baby Boomers make up a disproportionate part of the Republican Party in right wing politics, but they're also, it was Baby Boomers that led the resistance movement to Donald Trump in the early 2017. It was an older college educated, White women who were at the heart of that.

So yes, I mean, when we talk about how American politics has evolved, again, the thesis of the book is that basically what America is today is primarily a reaction to the emergence of the Baby Boom and a response to the emergence of the Baby Boom.

So I'm certainly not going to say that the Baby Boom was not a factor in this shift that you're describing. But it is important to recognize, of course, that shift is not a function of all the Baby Boomers collectively taking an action. So that said, yes, we saw this. There was an inflection point in the 1990s, and you can see it reflected in a lot of things when you look at abortion polling, for example, this point at which the religion became a central part of particularly right wing politics.

And when we talk about who is ascendant in that moment, this is the Baby Boom really starting to take over in American politics. And so yes, you're right that the Baby Boomers at that point in time were the ones that were driving political change, and this was the political change that resulted.

SHEFFIELD: And speaking of political change, I mean there was also the rise of neoliberalism and kind of overthrowing what had been the Democratic Party's consensus before that. And certainly Boomers played a huge role in that, not just in terms of their voting, but also in terms of the leadership.

I mean, as you discussed in the book, I mean, up until Joe Biden, there had never been a member of his generation that had been the president. Boomers had held the office for four decades. Oh yeah. Right? Sure. And so, and so. I guess what, let's maybe talk about neoliberalism, vis-a-vis the boomers and the subsequent generations.

BUMP: Yeah. I mean, look, one of the things that's fascinating when you look at the Baby Boomer, the progression of the Baby Boom in American politics, is there are three presidents, and this is sort of getting tangentially to your point.

There are three presidents who are born within two months of each other in the year 1946, the first year of the Baby Boom. There's Donald Trump. He's born in that June. There is George W. Bush born that July, and Bill Clinton born that August. Right? So, first of all, this gets back to my point about how the Baby Boom is not this unified political entity. You had these three very different types of president who came from the boom.

But you also look at when they emerged, the leaders, right? So the 1990s when the Baby Boomers are in their forties and fifties, they elect Bill Clinton to be president, right? Bill Clinton is this, he is a what now would be termed, and that's the centrist Democrat, to, to your point. And represents a very different politics then say George W. Bush who followed him, who was born shortly before he was, but by that point in time, what is America looking for? What do the Baby Boomers make up most of the vote point in time and what are they looking for?

And then of course, you have 16 years later, you have Donald Trump emerge in the politics that he manifests, and what does that say about how the Baby Boomers are representing their power as well?

So yes, you're absolutely right that there there are broad political movements that the Baby Boomers are part of and helping to drive, but I really think it's useful to sort of step back and think about those presidents, the ways in which they reflect how America is bifurcated politically now, and the point at which they emerged as being the choice of predominantly Boomer electorates I think is significant.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And maybe there is, I mean, do you see a connection between the Boomer vote and the Boomer politicians who they voted for, because in each case, the Boomers voted for all of these Boomers!

BUMP: Right. Yeah. I mean, but you know, Bill Clinton sort of prided himself on being, I mean he absolutely prided himself on being the first Boomer president, but he also prided himself on being sort of not who his generation wanted to see.

In his memoir, he makes reference to the idea that he did worse among his own members of his own generation, which is sort of true, he still won them. But he sort of understood that the politics of this generation, even at that point in time, were shifting away from him, and that he was doing better with younger voters and the way that Barack Obama was certainly doing in 2008.

And of course then, eight years later, instead of voting for Al Gore, they voted for George W. Bush. It was not the case that the majority of voters that were casting ballots in these I don't think I was even true in 2000 . election. Uh, Were Baby Boomers. But it was absolutely the case that they made up a disproportionate portion of the electorate and therefore I think can claim some credit blame or blame for who won.

SHEFFIELD: And I guess, in regards to Trump I mean, I think that he does kind of exemplify for a lot of these white, aging Boomers that, and you do talk about his rhetoric as a sort of purveyor of a sense of loss that the America we knew is being destroyed.

It's not just a matter of race. It's not just a matter of economics. It's also a matter of age. And especially if you look in a lot of places like TikTok in particular and Twitter, where they do tend to have younger, a lot younger people participating in the discussion, I mean there really is a lot of concern and anger that they feel like the Boomers are not wanting to share the stage.

BUMP: That's right.

SHEFFIELD: With anyone else.

BUMP: Yeah. No, that's true. Right. And I think one of the challenges we have when we talk about the Baby Boom generation is that tendency to sort of a attribute collectivism to the things that are associated with them.

The idea that they are uniformly making decisions and things that disadvantage other groups, which, I think the housing example that I gave earlier is a good example of how that can manifest simply by virtue of scale. Even if it's not intentional.

But a lot of it's just misunderstandings, right? I mean, yes, the Baby Boomers hold more wealth than other generations by a wide margin. A that's in part because housing. So that goes back to housing because houses are a significant contributor to wealth, but also there's just a lot of Baby Boomers.

And when you look at wealth per person, per actual member of the generation, they're not wealthier than Gen X, they're not wealthier than Millennials where Millennials were at the same age.

It's just that there are a lot of them. And so collectively, they hold a lot of wealth. It's also the case that the Baby Boomers, like every other generation, experiences wealth inequality. And so there are a lot of really rich Baby Boomers who own a lot of the wealth that the Baby Boomers collectively own. And so that can actually lead to frustration because there are a lot of Baby Boomers who aren't wealthy at all and are struggling to get by, and they hear these chastisements from younger generations, like, 'oh, you rich Boomers,' 'Who are you talking about, rich Boomers? I'm trying to make ends meet here. Who are you talking about?'

So that also builds resentment in part because there is this understanding among younger generations that older Americans are wealthier and have houses and the boomers have all the wealth and all these various things, right?

So there are these stereotypes that come into play both about the decisions that the Boomers are making and who the Boomers are collectively, that simply are a function of them having a massive scale and a huge number of people that then exacerbate some of their resentment between those generational groups.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and what's kind of paradoxical though is that when you look at the political parties, while the Republican Party is much more reliant on elderly voters , their leaders, with the exception of Trump, tend to be much younger.

BUMP: Right.

SHEFFIELD: Whereas if you look at the Democratic Party, they tend to do better with younger voters, but their politicians are overwhelmingly older, with the exception just recently of Hakeem Jeffries. It's something that I think a lot of young people probably also do feel frustration with the Democratic Party, and that while they might have more left wing viewpoints, they're less likely to be identifying as Democrats because they just see them as a bunch of 70 and 80 year olds who have no idea what's going on. 'So why would I join them?'

BUMP: Yeah. I don't know if I'm entirely convinced by that. I mean, I think there's been this trend toward independent identification that I think is independent of assessments of how old leaders are.

But you're right that there is this, and I'm not sure if it's anomalous in the moment that, Kevin McCarthy, I mean, John Boehner wasn't a spring chicken, right? . But I don't know to the extent--

SHEFFIELD: Well he was younger than Pelosi, though, even at that time.

BUMP: Yeah, no. Right, right, right, right.

It is absolutely the case though when we talk about Diane Feinstein, when we talk about Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer stepping down, that the Democratic Party understood that they needed to send a message to their younger base, right? The Republican Party doesn't have that pressure.

The Republican party is more than half of them are age 50 or over. A third of them are age 65 and over. The Democratic Party is much more densely young than the Republican Party. And so you're right, it was absolutely important for Democratic leaders to show that they understood some of these concerns about generation.

I don't know if that was actually tamping down on party registration. I'm not sure that if the leader of the party, for example, in 2008 there were a lot of young people who were voting for Barack Obama, but I don't recall, and I may be misremembering this, but I don't recall there was a huge surge in Democratic registration under Barack Obama by younger people.

I think there was still the same pattern of general antipathy towards parties. But yeah, I mean, you're right that is anomalous and it is something that I've sort of been wondering about. And I'm not sure I have an immediate answer to it, but I think it's absolutely the case of the Democratic Party understands that it needs to be responsive to this generational issue.

And I think it's why when we see Nikki Haley, who announced her candidacy for the presidency and really focused on this generational issue, I don't think that resonates with the Republican base. Because I don't think they really care, in part because they tend to be more older.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. It is kind of interesting though that when you look at the way that both Republicans and Democrats try to engage with younger voters, there are many organizations on the right, such as Turning Point USA, such as Young Americans for Freedom, Young Americans for Liberty, Leadership Institute that they really are, I mean, they're lavishly funded. Each one of these organizations has at least a $20 million a year annual budget. Whereas I can't think of any left-leaning organization that's not explicitly College Dems or Young Dems. Unless I'm missing something. I mean--

BUMP: It's like Sunrise Movement. There are some, yeah. But they don't, the left doesn't need to organize young people. I mean, they tend to be issue based, right? Know, So Sunrise Movement based on climate change, March for Our Lives focused on gun rights.

There are a lot of organizations started in particular by Gen Z, and Young Gen Z women, that are aimed at making political change. But they don't need to do, they don't need to do ideological recruitment, because there's so much ideological homogeneity among these younger generations.

You have a Turning point and turning Point's different than like the Leadership Institute. I think because Turning Point really is, look, if we're being honest, Charlie Kirk's payday to get a bunch of donors who think he's going to appeal to young people, I'm not sure of the extent of which he's been terribly successful with that.

I don't know the extent to which he actually thinks, I mean, the guy does ads for like medicine for old people, right? Like, I don't know, I don't know how legitimate his--

SHEFFIELD: Well, okay, now I'll agree with you on that, but I guess it's more what is the significance of these groups maybe isn't their success at attracting young people to vote Republican, it's how they are able to elevate young Republicans into positions of leadership. So like you do see a lot of prominent Republican media personalities have come out of these groups.

BUMP: Oh, sure. Media personalities, yeah. No.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BUMP: Right, right. No, I agree with that. But not elected officials, right? And I think part of that's just that--

SHEFFIELD: No, some of it is elected officials actually have come out of some of these groups, actually, believe it or not.

BUMP: I mean Okay. I can't think of anything off the top of my head.

I'll cede that to you. I mean, in part I think it's because, I'm sorry, I'm running the risk here of sort of getting out over my skis in terms of what I have data for and what I've sort of, my hunch. That's it.

My hunch is that part of this is that there is a generation of young conservatives who is good at doing the sort of lib baiting on social media that appeals to older conservatives on social media and makes them effective and helps them build audiences.

That's different than-- it's not different from Turning Point in a sense that Turning Point does a lot of that sort of lib debating stuff-- but it's different than creating ideological compadres among younger Americans, which again, I've just seen no evidence for. I've seen no evidence that Turning Point, presuming its central mission is to try and get more young people involved in conservative slash Republic politics, I see no evidence of that.

I see no evidence that they're successful at it. They get some, sure.

But there's lots of young people and I don't see any like data to suggest that they're being effective at that. Yes. Ben Shapiro has a lot of people who watch his podcasts and whatever, right? And he does a very good job of getting people agitated on social media. But like, what's the benefit? What's the win from that? I don't know that they've had much success in that regard. And again, I may be missing something and you're right, you know, there are certainly young people who have gone on to be elected, like, Dan Crenshaw in Texas is relatively young and actively involved in Leadership Institute and student things along those lines.

But, you know, I, I, I just, I don't mm-hmm. , I don't see it.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Well, so, maybe let's have

BUMP: That's fair. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: No, that's all right. Well, so let's maybe wrap up here with so you talk about a lot of these tensions that are creeping up among Boomers and younger generations that there are concerns that people feel that as they've sort of been gravitating, generally speaking, toward Republican reactionary politics. And as Republican politics has become more explicitly anti-democratic and explicitly minoritarian and saying, well, we don't care about the popular vote. We don't care about the public not supporting our views, we're going to do what we want.

That's, that presents some serious difficulties for the future of the republic. And you talk about that there's kind of two different paths forward, if you will. Maybe tell it talk what those are from in your viewpoint.

BUMP: Yeah, no, I mean, and this goes back to the discussion we were just having, and as you're asking this question, I was like, oh, you know what I should have said was, and now you've provided me the opportunity to say it, one of the things to consider is both after the 2012 and 2022 elections, the Republican Party found itself in a similar spot. And that spot was, can we win by focusing on White grievance issues or do we need to expand our base?

And after 2012, there was this famous autopsy in which the Republican Party sat down and had a bunch of people get together and put their heads together about how to help move the party forward. They just lost the election they expected to win. And Romney got beaten by Barack Obama and one of the things they said was, we need to do a better job. We need to reach out to Black and Asian and Hispanic, and so on and so forth voters.

That was one of the determinations that was made. But then what happened is Donald Trump emerged and piggybacking on backlash against BLM and piggybacking on the surge in immigrants that came to the border that year, particularly young people on accompanied minors. He quadrupled down on White grievance politics. And then that led to 2022 where the party again underperformed, did worse than expectations.

And it ended up with Ronna McDaniel saying, 'Hey, let's figure out how we're going to do this and how do we expand our base.'

And so we see this pattern that's emerged twice, 10 years ago and then last year. But the question is, it seems obvious that the Republican Party's politics are going to have to shift to accommodate the political will of younger Americans.

And we've seen this before. The parties are malleable, they're fungible. Like the Republican Party's position today on gay marriage is not what it was in 2004. Its position on climate change isn't what it was in 2010. Right? Like, these things have changed and evolved and gotten softer in a way that favors younger Americans and partners with the efforts who are trying to appeal to younger Americans.

They recognize they can't be the hard, you know, we're just going to sell oil and coal and hell, climate change isn't real anyway.

Younger Republicans understand that is not a path towards long-term success. And so I think that when we talk about what the politics of the United States looks like in 20, 30 years time, it's important to remember that we're going to be measuring Democrat and Republican, liberal or conservative not on the standard that we have today, but on whatever those things mean in that moment.

And therefore, I think we're still going to continue to have two viable political parties. It's not going to be just like everyone's voting Democratic because Republicans still say climate change isn't real and that gay people shouldn't get married. It's just not going to be the case. And so that's another reason that, it's sort of hard.

It's a reason it's hard to sort of forecast the future. But it's also worth remembering that 10 years ago, they were saying, hey, we got to do a better job with this, and then they ended up not really doing a better job with that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. To that point, it is notable that when you look at a lot of far right rhetoric that today, it is going after transgender people.

BUMP: Right.

SHEFFIELD: But not even perhaps 15 years ago this was the exact same rhetoric that was being used against lesbians and gays. So this is an example of what you're talking about that the Republican Party now. I mean, obviously, a huge percentage of their core voters to whom they're increasingly indebted does want to criminalize homosexuality and doesn't want to have same sex marriage, but the party itself understands that, well, these are only 30% of the public and they're dying off over time.

BUMP: Yeah. Although they also recognize from 2016, and to a lesser extent in 2020, that appealing to that 30% and getting those 30% out to vote, actually can get them across the finish line in places where they need to get across the finish line.

And I think, again, going back to this moment of tension, I think this is one of those tensions that, that is going to have to be resolved.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Any quick predictions in that regard other than what you've already made here or you not want to do that?

BUMP: I got out of the prediction game on November 8th, 2016.

I mean, look, one of the things that I tried to do in the book, and there are a couple chapters devoted to the 'we don't know what's going to happen' is I tried to be forthright. Look, here's, here are the questions that exist. Here, I think are good answers to them. But let's recognize. I went back and looked at in 1950 Birmingham, Alabama, they, everyone got together and was like let's make predictions about what's going to happen by 2050.

And you can look at them and you're just like, oh, okay. Yeah. Like the prediction game over the long term. That's a fool's errand.

So, yeah, no. I think the one thing we can anticipate is that it's going to be hard to anticipate what happens.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Well, I think we'll leave it there. Let's put the book up on the screen.

So, we've been talking with Philip Bump, he's the author of The Aftermath, the Last Days of the Baby Boom and The Future of Power in America. And then you are on Twitter at pbump, that's B-U-M-P for listeners and I encourage everybody to check that out. Thanks for being here.

BUMP: Matthew, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, so that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody being here to watch or listen or read. And if you want to get more episodes, just go to theoryofchange.show and you can subscribe on either Patreon or Substack to get full access to every single episode.

And then you can go to flux.community for more articles and podcasts about religion, politics, media, and society. And I do encourage you to check that out. And I am especially grateful to everybody who supports the show. You are making it very possible to do this and to continue to expand the conversation. These are serious topics. We're in a really critical time in American history right now, and I really do appreciate your help to have these in-depth conversations about the world around us and how can we can change it and understand it better.

I hope to see you all next time. Thanks a lot.

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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive. In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with guests to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.