I n her masterpiece novel, The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein begins with a heavily ironic and almost Talmudic allegory of a young man dragging his father through an orchard.
“Stop!” the father cries eventually, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
The quote has become lodged in the fore of my mind as of late, not because I think it provides insight into the particularities of our current situation, but rather because it provides a certain mitigating context.
With the current deluge of articles and think pieces documenting the ever-widening gap between Millennials and Baby Boomers, it is easy to believe that intergenerational conflict is something new and unique to our times.
But Stein reminds us that this tension has always been and shall always be.
After all, Boomers were subject to many of the same criticisms in their time that they now issue against us, most often decrying naive millennial idealism. It is difficult to reconcile the people our parents are today with our ideas of flower children and the counterculture, but reading Joan Didion’s account of the San Francisco State College revolt, one cannot help but cringe at the parallels to some aspects of today’s social justice crowd.
And yet, even confronted with this evidence that nothing ever changes, that we are all playing our roles in the cyclic drama as written for us, scroll for just a few minutes through your Facebook timeline and you cannot shake the sense that something is terribly wrong, that the social contract has been irrevocably violated.
Something feels different this time. The conflict’s premise, the parties involved remain the same, but now it feels that we, the youth, are the ones being dragged through the orchard.
I think it is high time we contemplated the very serious possibility that the Boomers want to kill us all.
I don’t mean that your crunchy, #Resister aunt wants to poison you at Thanksgiving. Rather, it seems now a distinct possibility that the Boomers are acting on some malevolent, Strangelovian impulse hidden in the dark recesses of their collective unconsciousness that even they cannot understand or name.
For years now we have blamed our educators for not creating a scientifically literate populace or our scientists for not effectively communicating their findings. But for the apocalyptic challenges facing the world, be it climate change, gun violence, or anti-vaccine sentiment, the science is out there in easily digestible forms.
To deny this requires a willful ignorance and a death wish, but this is the mindset we find in the most consistent voting block.
The Boomers have looked at the gulf between their values and those of their children and responded not with the usual hand wringing and agony aunt letters, but a concerted, if mindless, effort to bring their children into line.
They are punishing us for our perceived cultural excesses, our bottomless mimosas, and soy milk lattes, by attacking the seat of millennial pleasure: the body.
Looking at any of Goya’s Black Paintings is unsettling: what kind of man would paint these to decorate his home?
But Saturn Devouring His Son has had an especially enduring impact, its grip never seems to let go of those who see it.
The gore is not what haunts us, the crudely brushed blood gushing from the stump of the son’s torso is incidental.
If anything, the mutilated body is a little comical, resembling an oversized chicken drumstick.
What is truly terrifying is the look on Saturn’s face, a mixture of shock, confusion, and horror.
The titan looks as though he has awoken from a trance to find himself committing an atrocity beyond his comprehension.
Other depictions show Saturn’s face contorted in a snarl of violence, but Goya has instead painted his titan with dinner-plate eyes that look out at the viewer, pleading, helpless, disoriented, able neither to understand nor stop the violence he is carrying out. No witches sabbath or sea of quicksand can inspire dread like the notion of this Strangelovian dissociation.
Who among us hasn’t feared at some point the betrayal of our limbs, watching ourselves push the stranger onto the subway tracks, dropping the baby?
I am texting my father from the overgrown garden of the rundown student house I am living in for a period while smoking a spliff, once a minor act of adolescent defiance, now one of the few things we can agree on. Since I convinced my mother to get a medical marijuana card for her chronic pain disorder, her reliance on opioid painkillers has dropped markedly and her outlook has changed for the better.
Visits home have become significantly easier, all of us too mellowed out to engage in our usual spats.
The texts have taken on a hostile tone that I probably should have predicted. I have sent him Bernie Bleske’s effective, if flawed, polemic, What the Hell Are We Going to Do About the Boomers? Bleske outlines the ways in which the Boomers have systematically dismantled the structures their parents put in place that provided the Boomers with the wealth they accrued in their heyday, and which they are now hoarding.
Bleske’s Boomers are pure id, reverting in their final years to a child-like state, demanding immediate gratification with little care for consequences.
As Bleske puts it:
“The Boomers are not leaving as adults, with dignity and wisdom and forbearance. They are not accepting the decrepitude of age with courage or honor. Their rage at the dying of the light is a childish, petulant howl. They are Benjamin Buttoning out this world. Clinging to their wealth and insisting on their independence as they grow ever more dependent on those around them, they keep building and buying and voting to meet their own selfish wants as the world withers around them.”
Though I mostly sent him the article as a joke, my father has met it with indignation, “What a serious bunch of bullshit. If you read and buy into most of that, I feel bad for you.” He takes up the well-trodden “avocado toast” line of argument: that his generation had it no easier than we do, that Boomers have what they have because they worked hard and didn’t feel entitled to luxuries like smartphones and lattes.
Poverty, particularly millennial poverty, to him is a moral failing, an inability to keep one’s priorities straight.
When I redirect him to the article’s thesis, that ignoring the fact that his generation benefited greatly from postwar investment in the very social programs they have subsequently done away with or greatly weakened requires a certain willful delusion, he changes tack, bringing out a line he has used before that becomes more disturbing to me each time.
“Well then,” he says, “I’m comfortably delusional. I will, however, support any effort to raise the inheritance tax up to 100% to do the right thing with my ill-gotten gains.”
In other words, he supports the socialist policies I’m in favor of only so far as they can be used as punitive measures for those advocating for them.
Of course, this is a particular exchange between a particular family. My father has always had a disciplinarian bent, much more comfortable doling out punishment than nurturing, and I don’t know why I should have thought this would change as I became an adult. But there is something sadder and more universal at play.
My father has a degree in political science, he should be able to have a discussion of intergenerational justice and policy with me without resorting to threats of doing away with my inheritance to make an example of me. He should be able to see that abolishing inheritance makes sense only in a society where there is an adequate safety net. But he cannot see his own fallacious thinking. Winning an argument with him does not feel as good as I imagined growing up.
I put the phone down and don’t engage any further after he calls me a hypocrite.
Millennials are by far the most educated generation to date. 27% of millennial women in the States have achieved at least a Bachelor’s degree, nearly double the rate of their Boomer equivalents. This is both out of necessity — the earnings gap between those with and without secondary education has steadily increased since the Boomers were young — and because our parents ensured us that education was our ticket to prosperity.
Not only has this prosperity never materialized — as anyone saddled with five or six figures of student loans can tell you — but there has been no resultant boost to millennial ethos.
Millennials believe that even as the world around them ceases to have meaning, it is still knowable; the facts are no less true because they defy interpretation.
Boomer logic operates on a certain truthiness: things are true because they feel true and fit a certain narrative and false because they do not fit that narrative. In a sense, Saddam had weapons of mass destruction because it feels like he should have. They prefer punditry to peer review, their opinions have the same weight as the doctoral researcher’s. Suggest to a Boomer that perhaps your two or three degrees in an area might give you a tad more insight and you will be met with a screech of rage: I’m entitled to my opinion.
The education they encouraged us to pursue is now a point of further resentment and mistrust. It is no surprise then, that during the 2016 election cycle, Boomers were more than four times as likely to share fake news stories than 18- to 29-year-olds.
There have been a number of pieces lately trying to understand millennial humor’s wholehearted embrace of the absurd. Most come to the same conclusion: the world millennials inhabit is dark, shifting, and bereft of meaning, and their humor has come to reflect this.
In a world where causality is often tenuous or altogether absent, the set-up/punchline format feels more alienating than humorous. And thus the shitpost: pee is stored in the balls.
In one corner of the internet, the joke is Boomers themselves as they struggle to navigate new technology and an increasingly surreal internet. “Please show to Jim ! ! HA ! ! HA !!” is a Facebook group with over 313,000 members. The group’s description simply reads, “The internet can be a confusing place.”
Members post screenshots of texts and Facebook comments from middle-aged and elderly family members, acquaintances, and “wild Jims” who are hopelessly failing to adapt to the technological age. There are a few hallmarks of Jimmery, such as a creative usage of punctuation, a complete lack of understanding of internet conversational tone, and a penchant for the non sequitur.
A grandmother posts a heartwarming message to her grandchildren on a fast-food chain advert; a prospective Marketplace seller attaches a series of zoomed-in selfies in lieu of a photo of his chest of drawers; an oversharing aunt complains in the comments of a honeymoon photo that her gout is flaring up again.
In one of my personal favorites, a woman has clicked one of Facebook’s automated responses to a Marketplace item that informs the seller she is interested in the item. When he asks her if she’d like to arrange a time to view it, she tells him to get off of her Facebook or she will get her husband’s lawyers involved.
There may be a touch of schadenfreude, watching our elders so completely out of their depths (as the joke goes, “Baby boomers be making 170k a year and can’t rotate a PDF”), but on the whole, the group is good-natured. There is a tacit understanding that someday technology will surpass us and we will become the Jims and Jimettes. Some of the most popular content comes in the form of “wholesome Jims.” Like a mother who prints out and frames a Snapchat of her daughter, complete with the caption.
So popular has this particular type of people-watching become, that there are now entire forums devoted to millennials pretending to be Boomers on the internet. This has led to posts being scrutinized for their authenticity, some being deemed too perfectly contrived to be a real wild Jim.
It is difficult to get at what is central to the humor of Jim-posting. A lot of its appeal comes from the dadaist quality of many of the posts, the complete breakdown of sense and grammar as the Boomers descend into accidental button-mashing and speech-to-text lunacy.
The non-sequiturs and free-associative turns of their comments, the morbid preoccupation with their failing bodies (“you look beautiful sweetie ! ,, great auntie barb has cancer,,,”) — all of this fits in quite well with millennial humor. But no small part of the laughter seems to be coming from a place of laughing in order not to cry. After all, these are the people who, quite literally, control the world.
What could be more unsettling, more absurd than watching them sundowning in such a public manner? Out there they are our managers and statespeople, they raise our rent and determine interest rates; on here they are lost children, scared and alone and screaming gibberish into the void of the comments section.
The memes Boomers produce are, at best, profoundly unfunny. At their worst, they are dark semiotics of a generation’s decaying psyche.
Many memes they make are only technically memes. There are the emotionally manipulative appeals to share content because, ‘I bet 90% of my friends don’t care enough about our troops/cancer/animals to share this picture of a veteran/cancer patient/abused dog.’ It is unclear what insight makes them so sure most people do not care about these subjects, but the memes create a certain confirmation bias: See? Nobody wants to adorn their timelines with this photo of a random dementia patient, nobody cares.
There are the poorly screen-shotted one-panel comics, The Far Side rip-offs, purposefully hideous characters with big noses and recessive chins making such important cultural observations as books good, phone bad. This despite multiple studies showing millennials read far more than all generations other than the oldest boomers, and even more than Gen X did at the same age. Frequently these comics depict young children not knowing about ancient technologies like analog clocks or landlines.
There are the innumerable Minion memes, like mutant emojis, there is seemingly a Minion for every banal sentiment your friend’s wine cooler-loving mother could wish to share.
Perhaps the most common theme across the political spectrum of Boomer memes is a nostalgic longing mixed with resentment of the supposed softness of the youth today.
“I survived,” their memes proudly declare, “drinking from the hose, lead paint, wooden playgrounds, being spanked, second-hand smoke, riding without a seatbelt, and playing outside all day without supervision.”
The message, so far as there is one to glean, seems to be that a high child mortality rate is character building and leads to a life more authentically lived.
Ignoring the fact that this is coming from the generation that gave us helicopter parenting, the sentiment seems at odds with one of the core tenets of the social contract, that each generation will ensure the next have a better life.
Surely that’s the point? Surely your children should have an easier time of it than you.
Boomers are likely not the first generation to resent the perceived laziness and entitlement of their children. They are, however, the first to hold these views whilst having left their children worse off by many metrics. This is the inherent contradiction of Boomer logic: They resent us for the participation trophies they handed us, for the safety measures they implemented.
They hold up our inability to get on the housing ladder they destroyed as evidence of our laziness, and the mental health problems that stem from our increasingly precarious living situations as evidence of our weakness.
That perceived weakness only incenses them further, goads them into acting on some dark impulse to inflict harm on us, our bodies, our planet.
In his book Nervous States, William Davies posits that the force holding together the two biggest factions of supporters for the far-right nationalism, the elderly and the working poor, is physical pain. The poor, with their physically taxing jobs and limited access to healthcare experience far more pain than the bourgeois liberal class.
Pain strips away rationality, judgment; people in pain simply want the pain to end. And when there is no end to the pain in sight, what more human a response is there than to share that pain with the healthy and young?
There comes a point where we have to stop giving them the benefit of the doubt and take Boomers for the generation they show us they are every day. Science and facts are anathemas to them. They have spent their lifetimes creating 24-hour news bubbles, dubious news sources seem perfectly reliable to them if the headlines reinforce their world view.
Even the well-intentioned Boomers, when confronted with the consequences of their generation’s deleterious era in power, respond by burying their heads in the sand. The liberal political action groups in my home state of Maine are full of Boomers lamenting the constant onslaught of bad news. But their response is laughably Panglossian: they create “good news roundups,” and have pointless threads on how to defuse the polarization of our current political climate.
And all the while, the worst among them are enacting a malicious agenda ensuring a bleak future for their progeny.
They have actively created a permanent climate of precariousness for millennials and now want to punish us for speaking out about our condition.
Their blood boils at the communitarian spirit their policies have engendered in millennials (ironically, it’s a short hop from being forced to rideshare to abolishing private property).
If you need any more evidence of the vitriol they feel for millennials and their punitive fantasies, look at the way arch-millennial Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a lightning rod for their animus.
For months following her induction into the House of Representatives, Republican congressmen and Fox News anchors attacked everything from the clothes she wore in photoshoots to a video that surfaced of her dancing in college. (How dare she clothe herself in more than rags? How dare she have a body that moves?)
They want to punish her because she is a socialist, because she is an “uppity” woman, but also because she was a bartender who graduated cum laude, an emblem of the failure of Boomers to provide opportunity for their children.
And they’re succeeding. At the tail end of April, Blue Cross Blue Shield published a worrying report predicting that millennials are heading for a “health shock.” Their projections show that millennials are seeing their health decline faster than their predecessors: our morbidity could easily be 40% higher than Gen X at the same age.
The report also shows that millennials will have to spend significantly more than Gen X for healthcare, with fewer means to do so.
If the climate crisis doesn’t kill us, the stress of the world Boomers have created will.
The health conditions outlined in the report range from mental and behavioral health problems like depression, suicide, and hyperactivity to physical symptoms like hypertension and high cholesterol.
The stress of being systematically ground down is beginning to literally kill us.
In the myth, Saturn devours his children whole out of fear of a prophecy that asserts one will usurp him. Of course, this act of grotesque self-preservation becomes the catalyst for his downfall, as Saturn’s wife and sister, Ops, and his mother, Terra, hide the child Jupiter so that eventually he is able to liberate his siblings from his father’s bowels and overthrow him.
Goya’s Saturn does not swallow his children whole, but has taken chunks out of the body, chewing off the head and the limbs.
The cannibalism Boomers are inflicting on us appears to be closer to Goya’s vision: deranged, irreversible, and violent. Unwilling to accept a world that goes on without them, they are gluttonously consuming resources.
Incensed by millennial pleasure, permissive attitudes towards sex, a penchant for brunch, they are destroying the millennial body.
Their own lives have been extended, but without any appreciable gains in quality of life, and so in their rage, their confusion, they poison the air and water, they raise our cortisol levels.
What do we do with the knowledge that our parents are actively trying to harm us but are incapable of accepting the suffering they’re inflicting?
Our response is going to have to be better than depression memes and the odd glib, ‘OK Boomer,’ if we’re going to survive.