Boomers Had It Harder Than You Think
Hating on boomers is a cottage industry online. Some of it is the usual generational foofaraw; some of it is conveniently viral clowning. But it’s all ultimately grounded in a perception that their generation got cheap college and houses, locked down the balance in pensions and stocks, and pulled up the ladder behind them by pivoting from the idealism of their youth to reactionary austerity.
There’s some truth to this: college, health care, and other core costs of living were a lot more affordable several decades back. But boomers were pretty young when the postwar promise they were born into started to fray. Most were barely out of school and some were still kids. Their young adulthood looks a lot more like the crap sandwich their kids inherited than is typically leveled at them — and it explains a lot about contemporary undercurrents of reactionary politics, too.
A brief history of poor wage growth
Turn the pages to 1973. The oldest Boomers are 27; the youngest are nine. A Boomer born in 1950, supposing they went to college, is just entering the job market. And everything is about to go to hell.
Here’s how historian Jefferson Cowie puts it in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class: “The [labor] unrest of the early decade was based on the most successful economy in American history — simply put, in terms of class power, most workers never had it so good. Once the rug of economic success was pulled out from underneath workers during the bitter recessions that began with the first oil shock in 1973, they lost their footing in their fights for solutions to their discontents.”
“The wage rate more than doubled from 1940 to 1970, then declined for a decade.”
Even the oldest boomers were not very old at that point — those who went straight to work at a factory at 18 would have nine years on the job in 1973. Purchasing power had risen pretty consistently since they started working. It then declined pretty consistently for the next 20 years, taking another 20 years to get back to where it was at the beginning of the 1970s. The wage rate more than doubled from 1940 to 1970, then declined for a decade.
As this 2020 paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review shows, the decline was concentrated among white, male, and married workers. They had higher wages overall, as you might guess, but the trend is important. College-educated workers actually declined the most, with their hourly wage dropping $5 during the decade, but they would be the only group to eventually return to their early 1970s wages. College-educated workers surpassed their 1970s wages by the 1990s, fell after the Great Recession, and are now back to about where they were around 2008. No other educational category is up over their 1970s wages. If your Boomer parents pressed upon you the need for a college education, this is probably a big part of it, and if you got one, you probably noticed that its relationship to wages got priced in real quick.
1960s wage growth was driven in part by low unemployment, which fell below 5% in August 1964 and continued to 3.5%in December 1969. It wouldn’t be that low again for another 50 years (the last couple months before the pandemic). Unemployment hit 6.1% in December 1970, 9% in May 1975, and 10.8% in December 1982. For a Boomer born in 1950, that’s three recessions with increasing unemployment spikes with stagnating or declining wages before the age of 35.
Anti-working class policy, violence, and socioeconomic turmoil
Richard Nixon campaigned on aiding the forgotten man, but the actual response from Washington was that the working class had it too good during the 1950s and 1960s. The mystery of stagflation — high inflation despite rising unemployment and a stagnating economy — was laid at the feet of workers, who were considered too likely to have a job and making too much money. Rhetorically they were the “silent majority”; from a policy perspective, Cowie writes, they were the “scapegoat.” Higher unemployment and stagnant wages were framed as a cure, a perception that arguably dampened the government’s intervention in the 2008 crisis and which may only be starting to break under the Biden administration.
In this context, everything was generally awful. The 1960s are infamous for their political violence, but the 1970s were more violent. Peter Bergen calls it “the Golden Age of terror”: 184 deaths during the decade from terrorism and 112 domestic-plane hijackings. The FBI counted 2,500 bombings in an 18-month period between 1971 and 1972; there were 40 hijackings in 1972, as “the epidemic began to crest as the last vestiges of 1960s idealism were being extinguished,” writes Brendan I. Koerner in The Skies Belong to Us. Between 1974 and 1981 there were five serious attempts on the life of a U.S. president, including two in less than three weeks on Gerald Ford, the same year there were 83 terrorist bombings in the U.S.
“It was like grabbing the contents of a piñata instead of accepting an inheritance.”
In 1973, Pauline Kael, the country’s most influential movie critic, wrote that Watergate had not only overshadowed the summer’s movie season, but that it was the culmination of the past decade of moviemaking: “movies say the system is corrupt, that the whole thing stinks.” But the point wasn’t to overthrow the system. “If we have always been rotten, the effect is not to make us feel we have the power to change, but, rather, to rub our noses in it and make us accept it,” Kael wrote. “The acceptance of corruption and the sentimentalization of defeat — that’s the prevailing atmosphere in American movies.” The next year, in an appreciation of sorts for Clint Eastwood in the Magnum Force/Dirty Harry era, she described sitting in the theater as “being drawn into a spreading nervous breakdown.”
As if to prove Kael’s point, an audience in the Bronx refused to leave a theater after a small bomb went off, then tore the theater up when cops forced the point.
And why not? It was a violent time. The homicide rate doubled from the early 1960s to the early 1970s and basically stayed there for two decades. In the Bronx, entire census tracts were completely burned out by fires — seven tracts, which by design house around 4,000 people, were 97% burned during the decade, and another 44, or one-seventh of the borough, lost half their housing to fire. Not from riots like the prior decade, but the nihilism of arson and budget cuts to the fire department. In 1975, Gerald Ford was the target of the somewhat overblown “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” headline in the New York Post, which outlined his refusal to bail out the nation’s biggest city from a fiscal death spiral. The city came within hours of bankruptcy, eventually bailed out by unions and banks.
New York was in a uniquely perilous fiscal position, but the trends that put it there were shared by other big industrial cities. The big decline in Chicago’s manufacturing base really took off in the 1970s, from around 30% in both Black- and white-majority neighborhoods to around 15%in the 1990s, to around 6% today. The difference is that unemployment in Black neighborhoods rose from under 10% in 1970 to 20% in 1990. In white neighborhoods, it stayed under 10%. Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit each lost about 45% of their population from 1970 to 2006; each city saw a decline in its median household income of at least 10%.
When I asked historian Rick Perlstein what it might have felt like if, say, there had been two assassination attempts on Barack Obama in a month as there were on Gerald Ford, in the era of a 24/7, Extremely Online news cycle, he said “it would have felt like the ground had swallowed up everything that was sure and safe.” When Greil Marcus described the 1970s in an essay on Sly Stone, he wrote that “too much war and too much public crime had poisoned the country to be easily put to rest by any kind of reform or vengeance…. What, in the sixties, looked like a chance to find new forms of political life, has been replaced by a flight to privacy and cynicism.” In The White Album, Joan Didion wrote that “the toleration of small irritations is no longer a trait much admired in America, the extent to which a nonexistent frustration threshold is seen not as psychopathic but as a ‘right,’” and the new generation as “children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made.” Or as my friend puts it, “the secret theme of every ’70s movie is the material shittiness of the ‘70s.”
If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance this was your parents’ world: the simultaneous unwinding of the New Deal coalition, the postwar economic boom, the various movements of the 1960s, and the Great Society, all as they were establishing themselves in the world. They got some benefits from all that, but it was like grabbing the contents of a piñata instead of accepting an inheritance. It’s probably worth thinking about that when their politics come up. It’s possible that part of Donald Trump’s appeal was that, in the 1980s, he was an avatar of New York’s recovery from the dumps of the 1970s: the passing of the torch, across the abyss of the decade, from postwar middle-class affluence as represented by his developer father to the brash wealth of the 1980s.
Your parents can probably tell you more about this; thank God, I missed it by six months, although without the history of it having really been written yet, we might be doomed to repeat it.