the big chill

or, The Etymology of Generational Warfare

Generational conflict is a trope as old as feudalism.

It’s Socrates opining in 470 B.C. that the young Greeks “have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise….[T]hey contradict their parents and tyrannize their teachers.” It’s parents in the 1920s threatening to “interfere in the young people’s affairs and help to restore them to wholesome standards.” It’s Baby Boomers being attacked as beatniks and hippies by a Greatest Generation uncomfortable with changing social and cultural mores.

But declines in infant mortality, lengthening lifespans, and population increases over the last century have put a lot of additional stress on generational relationships. More than ever, generational cohorts are forced to vie with one another for political, cultural, and economic power and that can turn contentious. But generational conflict is not the same thing as generational warfare—the latter being a combination of Baby Boomer anxieties and lazy American rhetoric that glorifies aggressive language.

But before we travel down this road, here are some obvious statements that I’m nonetheless going to type because if I don’t people will get mad at me:

  1. Generations are delineated using Pew Research Center definitions.

  2. No generation is entirely one thing or another and any attempt to argue from that position is inherently faulty because it ignores human complexity.

  3. Personal experience is important, but it is not a valid form of evidence against demographic or scientific data—it complements, but it does not override.

  4. Pointing out that a thing exists is not a value judgement about the thing.

  5. If a shoe doesn’t fit—don’t wear it.

It is hard to talk about generational politics.

Part of that is due to the generational trauma that this country inflicts on its citizens.

The Lost Generation was shaped by World War I; the Great Depression and World War II molded the Greatest Generation; the Baby Boomers were shaped by mass cultural and social revolutions; Gen Xers were a latchkey generation more likely to be raised inside and by television; Millennials watched thousands of Americans die on live television; Gen Z has been miming active shooter drills since kindergarten.

We all grew up under attack and that has put some of us on the defensive. And while that posture is understandable, it cannot be an excuse for avoiding conversation.

Especially if generational war is looming.

Generational warfare is a fairly recent creation.

To declare war on a problem or issue, in American politics, is to signal that the full weight of the government is being brought to bear. It’s President Johnson declaring a War on Poverty or President Reagan declaring a War on Drugs. It’s President Bush, less than two weeks after 9/11, declaring a new War on Terror. But like most wars, there is a tendency towards mission creep—the War on Poverty eventually became a war on the poor and the War on Terror would terrorize millions. Or, to paraphrase Tupac Shakur, America invented a war on drugs so the police can bother me.

And the same has happened with generational warfare.

It was first popularized in the 1990s by Baby Boomers—reaching the apex of their political and cultural power in society—looking for ways to verbalize their anxieties around growing old and dependent on others. Authors like Harry Dent, Ken Dychtwald, and Craig Karpel gained popularity by catastrophizing about what the world would look like when Baby Boomers began to age out of the economy. There was a real fear and uncertainty over whether or not younger generations would continue to support programs like Social Security in the coming decades or “rail against greedy geezers and raise the specter of generational warfare.

A lot of authors at the time assumed generational conflict was inevitable and structured their arguments in two phases: how Baby Boomers could thrive during the last few good years and how they could plan for the inevitable collapse that would occur when they began to retire en masse—a collapse preceding an inevitable war.

Financiers William Sterling and Stephen Waite’s Boomernomics: The Future of Your Money in the Upcoming Generational Warfare (1998) foresaw a ten year period of low inflation and relatively high stock prices followed by a drop “as Boomers cash out their retirement accounts and real estate prices…follow suit as a rash of Baby Boomers all decide to sell their houses at the same time.” It’s a short-term future filled with massive potential rewards and a long-term outlook of hoarding and scarcity. Sterling and Waite refer to these periods as “America's Prime Time" and "The Big Chill.”

Because of course they do.

Baby Boomers imagined generational warfare as an inevitable consequence of their hard work, success, and good fortune—it was a defensive posture that assumed future generations would try to take what Baby Boomers believe they’d earned. But soon the economic prosperity of the 1990s gave way to the economic turmoil of the 2000s and anxieties about the coming generational war became less economic and more dystopic.

Futurist Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future: The Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002) imagined a future where older Americans, due to better health care and technological improvements, extend their lifespans indefinitely:

“Generational warfare will join class and ethnic conflict as a major dividing line in society. Getting older people out of the way of younger ones will become a significant struggle, and societies may have to resort to impersonal, institutionalized forms of ageism.” 

Fukuyama saw a world where higher life expectancies and decreased birth rates slow the rate of political, social, and intellectual change—creating a situation in which an elderly, conservative majority stifles the ambitions of a young, radicalized minority.

Suffice to say the more dystopian view of generational conflict proved popular in the public imagination especially during the Great Recession. When philosopher Rebecca Roache suggested last year that longer, healthier lives will spark a new generational conflict, she was pulling from a well-established vein in both fiction and nonfiction:

If the most important decisions are made by the old, then the interests of the old might edge out those of other age groups….Having each generation hang onto power for longer could make successive generations not only even poorer, but increasingly powerless. We’ll need to change the way political decisions are made to ensure that the interests of all ages are fairly represented.

Fukuyama—table for two.

But the specter of institutionalized ageism or legalized discrimination is as much a fantasy now as earlier fears about the social safety net. It’s been more than twenty years since the publication of Sterling and Waite’s book and we are ten years into what they termed The Big Chill—and their worst dreams are still just dreams. Gen Xers and Millennials did not storm the political gates to erode Social Security or Medicare and our government has so far avoided legalized ageism against elderly Americans.

Generational warfare—as it was first imagined nearly thirty years ago—is now nothing more than linguistic shorthand; an example of the type of nebulous, ill-defined militarism that we use to convey strength. It is not used to describe our current reality; it has instead normalized a besieged and beleaguered mentality in some.

OK Boomer was a meme and song popularized on TikTok that paints Baby Boomers as jingoistic religious fanatics who judge younger generations while supporting fascism:

Staring at her piercings, staring at tattoos
Staring at her bra like the evening news
You bible thump your kids, wonder why we're pissed
Say America again, I'm gonna take a piss
Cremated to ashes, disappear like magic
When you wear that MAGA hat, lookin' like a fascist

And while research shows that older Americans are more likely to describe themselves as patriotic, are more likely to consider themselves religious, are more likely to describe themselves as evangelical, and are more likely to be conservative—the online discussion prompted by the OK Boomer meme didn’t really focus on the factual basis of the charges, or really any serious discussion of the accusations at all.

It was hyperbolized as the opening shot in a new generational war. It was called out for being both ageist and inflammatory. It was profiled in the New York Times and the Washington Post as if it were the start of an actual war. Gen Xers ran forward—not to act as mediators, but to insist that they were the first generation to ever attack Baby Boomers and we’d forgotten about them again. Eventually even the AARP stepped in.

None of this is the ageist dystopia Fukuyama anticipated.

Generational warfare is a lazy phrase.

Not just because it’s predicated on a future that has never come true, or because it relies on militaristic language that aggressively over-generalizes; it’s a lazy phrase because for the last thirty years it’s been situated first-and-foremost in the fantasy that Baby Boomers were destined to be the victims in any future generational war.

It will be their Social Security defunded.

It will be their rights politically undermined.

It will be their demographic mercilessly mocked.

Generational politics are complex and the insecurity that Baby Boomers feel about aging is real, and we should approach that with respect and empathy. But we also cannot use complexity to cloak simple truths. And the simple truth is that despite decades of doom and gloom predictions about their future oppression, their worst fears didn’t come true. Baby Boomers were not the victims of a generational war.

But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a war.

There was—and Millennials lost.

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Feeling a little called out by the above piece? No worries. Go back to the top and re-read the list of statements and clarifications.

Also, I saw those same spelling mistakes. You don’t have to point them out to me on Twitter. You can sit quiet in the comfort of knowing that that mistake you saw is eating me alive from the inside out.

Lastly, watch The Big Chill—it’s good.