America is a gerontocracy.
The president is 73. His opponent is 77. The Speaker of the House is 80. The Senate Majority Leader is 78. We currently have one of the oldest legislative bodies in the country’s history — an average age of 58 in the House and 63 in the Senate. Perhaps, then, it is no wonder why it seems change never comes — the legislative powers of this country, quite literally, have grown old and decrepit, paralyzed by their inability to provide the profound, radical change that our society so desperately needs.
We are currently seeing the manifestation of this pathology in our nation’s streets. Young people who have grown tired of this incapable government’s continued inaction — both Gen Z and Millennials — have flooded towns and cities all across the country to protest systemic racism and police brutality. The protests are attended by people of all different age groups, but it is Gen Z who have truly spearheaded the movement; according to two recent studies, 52% of all adults who have attended a protest have been between the ages of 18–29, and an unprecedented 90% of Gen Z-ers support the Black Lives Matter organization. Meanwhile, in what is a contrast that is so stark as to be almost satirical, according to a 2019 Pew Study, 62% of white Americans over the age of 65 believe that America does not need to do more to ensure equal rights for black Americans (a number which jumps to 70% for those aged 50–65!).
An inter-generational disconnect on the issues and the consequential animosity it produces is nothing new; in fact, it is par for the course, a societal tax that must be incurred on our path towards progress. But this time, within the context of an impending coronavirus-induced economic melt down which is sure to disproportionately ravage the economic prospects of youth, and a practically ancient ruling class wielding their willful ignorance of climate change as an existential bludgeon, the usual divide between generations has taken a more urgent tone in seeking resolution. We can no longer afford to waffle upon our societal ills, Gen Z seems to say in effect. Time is running out.
What’s more, for perhaps the first time in modern American history, young people’s economic circumstances are not getting better with each passing generation, they’re getting worse. Tellingly, according to a 2015 Census Bureau Report the median wage of young adults is $2,000 lower than it was for their Baby Boomer parents, and the ratio of median home price to median income — the years of salary it takes to buy a home — is a full point higher than it was in 1988. The problem compounds itself when one considers the rising student debt crisis facing Generation Z. The cost of college for Generation Z is more than double that which Boomers paid; our country’s student loan debt has ballooned to $1.5 trillion, which is a 1500% increase from the $90 billion it sat comfortably at in 1999. It would seem that the conventional ‘carrot’ to satiate the masses, that of promised economic improvement, has failed, failed entirely.
The result is a tale of two Americas, two views of it’s reality, that could not be more different from one another. Boomers came of age at a time when income inequality in the U.S. was at all-time lows, and occupational mobility was at all-time highs — to them “bootstrapping” was an actually somewhat feasible vector to economic success. Gen Z, on the other hand, is coming of age at the tail end of what are shaping up to be two of the worst economic recessions in American history, and the most unequal distribution of wealth in recorded history; the illusions of the neoliberal economic philosophy that individualist ideologues found to be so successful with the Baby Boomers have little sway now.
Further, Gen Z was raised in the age of modern climate science — Boomers, on the other hand, did not. It is for this reason that the image of the impending climate catastrophe is much more clear, much more vivid, to the former generation; for the Baby Boomers, it only exists to them in abstract, if at all. Gen Z, for instance, is much more aware of how little time we have to turn things around; for instance, according to the UN’s IPCC Climate Report, if humans continue to accelerate their carbon emissions at the same rate, then the Earth will see a 4.1°C rise in global temperature by 2100. For context, in 2003, a heat wave killed around 35,000 people in Europe, and around 2,000 people died per day; should the projections of 4 degrees of warming hold, those kinds of death-inducing temperatures will be a normal summer rather than a heat wave.
The youngest of Gen Z will be in their 80s by that time, and thus the possibility that they die of a heat-wave rather than of natural causes is very real. So when Gen Z activists scream bloody murder about climate change it is hardly an exaggeration — inaction upon climate change is generational warfare, one generation quite literally killing the next. It is this which is at stake when 87-year-old Diane Feinstein replies to children in her office asking her to support a Green New Deal with dismissal and smug condescension; it is the dismissal of a generation’s right to live.
Lastly, and at this particular juncture perhaps most importantly, Baby Boomers as a generation were nearly 80% white — meanwhile, Gen Z is only 52% white, being the most ethnically diverse generation in American history, and Gen Z+ (children born after 2007) are on track to be majority non-white. As we watch Gen Z continue to come of age, enter the workforce and the consumer pool, we are watching this racially diverse future of America begin to consolidate and calcify into reality, and it is becoming increasingly clear that America must shirk it’s white supremacist roots or risk a civil implosion. To put it bluntly, a society as racially diverse as ours simply cannot survive if it does not dismantle the endemically racist institutions which buttress its power structures.
And so a seismic shift is taking place, one between generations, between realities of America. Our nation is entering a new era — a Fourth Turning of sorts, if the Howe-Strauss Generational Theory is to be believed. The age we are entering will be defined by crisis, and how we respond to it: the Coronavirus crisis, the impending climate disaster, the urgent need to resolve racial inequalities.
But if there is one silver lining to this, it is that it is in times of crisis that a society is empowered to confront and overcome problems that conventionally seem too vast to solve in times of peace and equanimity. And to this end, it is becoming increasingly clear that the solutions of the old guard, those of ho-hum rugged individualism, simply will not cut it anymore; a changing of the guard is needed, one that will favor the collective, community-oriented solutions that these crises of the present call for. It is this that we are witnessing at this moment: the future is marching on the streets, knocking loudly on America’s door, demanding to be recognized as the present’s rightful heir. The question is not whether or not the future will prevail, for, after all, the future is inexorable; the question is whether it will prevail in time. For all of our sakes, we can only hope that it does.