Even though baby boomers caused terrible anguish to their parents while going through adolescence and early adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s, they themselves enjoyed a remarkably peaceful relationship with their own kids. The subsequent generations — and there have already been several of them, from the Baby Bust to the Me Generation to Generation X and so on— didn’t bury themselves in counterculture, shunned youth protests and in general seemed to be if not old-school respectful, at least non-confrontational with their Mom and Dad. The inter-generational conflict, much discussed 45 years ago, seems to be off the agenda.
It may now be starting to change as economic opportunities for those who are freshly out of college and even professional schools are starting to narrow, whereas the bill for half-a-century of profligate living is suddenly coming due.
There were many reasons why the baby boomers proved so troublesome, but lack of opportunity for economic advancement was probably the main one. The prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s was based on an orderly consensus: Companies provided life-long employment as well as pensions and medical benefits, and unionized blue-collar and public sector jobs paid good salaries and offered advancement for longevity, not skill or ambition. Western economies prospered and millions of ordinary people had a nice place to live, owned a car and didn’t worry where their next paycheck came from.
For a generation that had lived through the Depression and World War II it was a godsend, but the orderly and predictable system lacked opportunities for a huge wave of young people who were rapidly coming of age. Unemployment started out low in the late 1960s but it was consistently high for recent graduates, and the situation kept getting worse as the 1970s progressed. As millions of baby boomers began to join the workforce, the system came under strain. By the mid-1970s, the Western economy was suffering from stagflation — the combination of high unemployment and inflation which economists had previously thought could never happen. Only after reforms in the mid-1980s, the Reagan-Thatcher years, did recent graduates — the Baby Bust generation — begin to see a much freer, more entrepreneurial environment, with better job prospects and greater economic opportunities.
The culmination of this process came in the 1990s with the information technology revolution and the dot-com boom. It had many aspects of a financial bubble, with fly-by-night Internet start-ups making their founders overnight millionaires, but it was also one of the most productive and inventive decades of the 20th century. Technologies introduced and commercialized at the time and the highly competitive, entrepreneurial environment endure to this day. The 1990s also confirmed the United States as the world’s topmost innovator — a position it had previously been thought to have lost to the Japanese.
That revolution was shaped by the energies, skills and imagination of people in their twenties. It was the best time to be young: Kids about to graduate from college were actively recruited by businesses routinely offering them six-figure salaries.
Back to the Unemployment Line
Such opportunities naturally closed when the Internet bubble burst, but they have not been recaptured since. Rather, it is the other way around. Since the collapse of the mortgage bubble in 2008 and the advent of the Great Recession, the huge unemployment problem that is now dogging the U.S. economy has fallen disproportionately heavily on the shoulders of younger generations. The unemployment rate among teenagers in the United States, after going all the way down to 13 percent at the end of the dot-com era, rocketed after 2008 and remains persistently above 25 percent.