28 Years of Boomer Presidents and the Biden Interregnum
Understanding the tempo of generations
“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
- Antonio Gramsci” — Kevin Munger
The American Dream is that children will have better lives than their parents. More broadly, the modern world is built on progress. The metaphor of governmental paternalism does not always work, but there are important parallels between the progress at the level of the generation-as-family unit and progress at the level of generation-as-contemporaneous-countrymen. Governments of all stripes justify their good governance by delivering economic growth and rising standards of living.
This progress has come with serious costs, from the exploitation of the resources and labor of other countries to worldwide environmental degradation. Regardless of whether any of that was “worth it,” a consensus view now seems to be that all of the nations in the world can achieve Western levels of prosperity if they adopt the correct institutions and take advantage of modern technology.
The central aim for one branch of modern social science (what we might broadly call liberal positivism) has been to understand what these institutions are. Adam Smith framed his magnum opus as “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” and he meant precisely that.
From the outset, however, the biological facts of humanity ensure a limit on the capacity of even a divinely inspired social scientist to impose the ideal institutions on a nation. German sociologist Karl Mannheim’s 1928 essay “The Problem of Generations,” which kickstarted the analysis of generations and which remains remarkably useful today, identifies Smith’s Scottish contemporary David Hume as drawing the connection between the governments and people:
“Only because mankind is how it is—generation following generation in a continuous stream, so that whenever one person dies off another is born to replace him—do we find it necessary to preserve the continuity of our forms of government. Hume thus translates the principle of political continuity into the biological continuity of generations.”
Over the past 250 years, the United States has experienced greater political continuity than any other major nation.
Over the past 75 years, the postwar United States has experienced a single center of demographic gravity, the world-historical Baby Boomer generation.
Our collective experience is thus one of unprecedented stability. Amidst the rise and fall of empires, bloody civil wars, explosive economic growth and accelerated technological progress, the United States has grown convinced of our own inevitability, of the specific norms and institutions we have inherited. The Boomers are living proof that this system works; when younger generations argue, they ask Boomers to reject decades of lived experience. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the world really has changed.
Mannheim’s essay anticipates what I argue is a central ontological conflict in the United States of the 2020s.
Mannheim describes two broad epistemological approaches to generational analysis: the positivist and the historical romanticist. The positivist is concerned with numbers and patterns, in developing a science of generational development and displacement. August Comte, the father of positivism, was partly motivated by a desire to model the tempo of human progress using the mathematics of generations. Mannheim argues that generational analysis is an ideal starting place for the positivist:
“There is life and death; a definite, measurable span of life; generation follows generation at regular intervals. Here, thinks the Positivist, is the framework of human destiny in comprehensible, even measurable form. All other data are conditioned within the process of life itself.”
Despite the neat structure of generational data, contemporary social science has paid comparatively little attention to generation. Part of the explanation may be the explosion of other kinds of data with the rise of computation; the discovery of some thorny statistical challenges in the 1970s may have discouraged positivist researchers. But my speculation is that the progressive humanism that predominates among social scientists has created a blind spot in its insistence of the fundamental equality of all humans. This moral premise has been a powerful remedy to the essentialist tendencies of social scientific positivism; the uncritical reification of what can be easily measured produced a shameful legacy of scientific racism.
But the simple fact is that there is no fundamental equality among humans at any given time, even if there is fundamental equality “in expectation,” or averaged across the life cycle. We fully acknowledge this fact when it comes to minors, but it is obviously true that people change throughout their lives, in ways that are relevant to social science. The age composition of a country has huge effects on its economy, politics and culture. It is also very difficult to change the age composition of a country quickly or with any speed, making this line of inquiry uninteresting for social scientists aiming for “policy impact.”
The contemporary appeal of generational analysis to the romantic-historical social scientist (such as they are) is more obvious: we share our experience of the world with people who share our experiences. Events crystallize this phenomenon (“Where were you on 9/11?”), but the accumulation of the everyday is more profound. There is a kind of unity that comes with generational identification, a capacity to reject what came before and a dream of what is possible.
Mannheim cites the philosopher Martin Heidegger:
“The inescapable fate of living in and with one’s generation completes the full drama of individual human existence.”
A beautiful turn of phrase, one to which history provides some context: Heidegger was born the same year as Hitler and did not oppose Nazism. Romantic-historical generational unity enables the construction of the Other in other generations. If we are the center of action, older generations are in our way and younger generations pitifully unable to function in the world we created.
I follow Mannheim’s goal of an analysis that synthesizes these two approaches: the positivism constrains the excesses of the romantic-historicism with data; the reverse affords the experiences of people-living-in-their-generation legitimacy when data are lacking.
Most of my work to date has in the positivist mode; the primary methodology of my forthcoming book is to combine a wealth of historical data with a series of novel survey evidence. Much of this survey data attempts to understand the experiences of the surveyed in more qualitative terms, offering a stepping stone towards bridging my inquiry to include the romantic self-perceptions of people as members of generations.
But some of what I argue cannot be defended on these grounds. I am deeply invested in exploring the limits of positivism imposed by the explosion of complexity and dynamism that results from our temporal location, in the 2020s, at the center of one of the most important information-technological revolutions in human history. I take these epistemic limits to heart and sometimes make claims that are beyond the evidence that can be furnished by the past. The internet’s capacity to reshape human society is necessarily beyond our experience.
My thesis, in Mannheimian terms, is that technological progress has produced an inflection point in both the positivist/objective structure of generation and the romanticist/subjective spirit of generation. The two methods of inquiry can best be used to explain older and younger generations, respectively: the Boomers have been around long enough that we have plenty of statistical data with which to describe their trajectory, but the youngest generations are still becoming themselves, producing an energy signature that is not yet intelligible to the positivist but which can be fruitfully encountered as a Zeitgeist.
It is a bit of historical bad luck that these two crises are happening at the same time, in the 2020s, but the result is that generational conflict will define the politics and culture of the United States in this decade.
The evidence for the crisis in positivist generations comes from quantitative data. The Baby Boomers are the largest and most powerful generation in US history. Due to their prominence in the construction of the dominant postwar institutions that still govern our society, they maintain outsized formal power. Due to their sheer numbers, unprecedented economic success, and the timing of medical scientific advances, they maintain outsized electoral power.
Comte’s analysis suggests that “
to lengthen the life-span of the individual would mean slowing up the tempo of progress…because the restrictive, conservative, “go-slow” influence of the older generation would operate for a longer time.”
This is precisely what the objective facts of the generational actuarial table tell us: both Houses of Congress are the oldest in history; the Boomers held the presidency for 28 consecutive years before losing it to Joe Biden, who is technically one year too old to be a Boomer; and the number of living retirees in the United States will peak around 2026. Boomer ballast operates as a powerful brake on the tempo of progress.
The crisis in historical romanticist generations has begun to appear. The emergence of the idea of “Millennials” into the national consciousness started to pick up steam, per the decidedly positivist Google Trends, in around 2013. It has been a leading indicator of interest in our great albatross, the phrase “Avocado Toast,” by about a year ever since.
That Millennials feel resentment at labels and stereotypes thrust on us by our Boomer elders is no accident; the material conditions of Boomer power made that inevitable. Hell, our generation had been referred to as “Echo Boomers” until the name Millennial stuck. We have always been defined in opposition to the Boomers, our culture and politics restrained by their gravitational energy.
The oppositional spirit of younger generations has been defined in two loci: their increasing diversity along essentially every dimension contrasts with the unique racial homogeneity of the Baby Boomers; and the use of novel information communication technology to create spaces for cultural creation and political discussion that are free from Boomer influence. Gen Z is the least white, least straight, and most online generation in American history, the first to be raised on an unlimited diet of potent non-textual media created by their peers rather than by their elders.
Gen Z thus possesses the possibility of a radical break with the rest of society while that society still exists. The art historian Wilhelm Pinder understood the progression of art in terms of generation, where the key element was a shared spirit among a cohort of artists. Different generations live at the same time, but do not share the same spirit; this “non-contemporaneity of the contemporaneous” reflects the qualitative understanding of time that can only be shared among young people in similar portions of their life cycle. The internet-native Gen Z stands outside the Boomer-dominated culture and politics of the long 20th century, horrified at the dysfunctional institutions and degraded environment that is their inheritance.
The Millennial exceptions prove the rule. The exceptional Millennial politician is undisputedly Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a woman of color who can inhabit online spaces with a fluency that cannot be faked---“Digital Home Style”. As the identities that have long been central to the construction of the white American subject---geography, extended family, religion, bowling club member---fade away, subtly demarcated internet habits become the relevant symbol of group identification.
Internet culture both enhances and names the phenomenon of generational identification. The labels imposed by demographers and embraced by marketers have been increasingly internalized by the people they describe. These shared labels make possible a generational politics powered by what Eric Plutzer and I call “cohort consciousness” in our new working paper.
Thanks for reading — I’m doing “no-tweet November” to recalibrate. If you enjoyed this piece, I’d love for you to share it directly with one or two people who you think would enjoy it too.