The War of the Generations is indestructible and everlasting, and the battle between baby boomers and millennials is one of the fiercest encounters yet. But it doesn't have to be that way—or at least Jill Filipovic doesn't think so. The author's new book OK Boomer, Let's Talk, which will be published in August by One Signal, endeavors to entreaty peace between both parties, asking boomers to try to understand the millennial mindset before scoffing at their supposedly spendthrift generation-wide penchant for avocado toast. Filipovic spoke with PW about what she learned while researching the book, what boomers might actually learn from millennials if they gave them a shot, and more. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length).
There seems to be no end to clickbaity articles about Millennial failings and arguments about the boomer-millennial divide, and you've managed to synthesize a whole lot of those critiques, and answers to them, into this book. How did you go about your research process? And did you find it difficult to say something new on the subject?
The topic of generation divides between boomers and millennials is such an enormous and sprawling one, I actually found it more difficult to keep the book to a reasonable length than to find new information. There are indeed many myths and misstatements about millennial life, and so I wanted to address the big ones without turning the whole manuscript into a retort to every clickbait claim. I organized my research plan thematically (and had the help of an excellent research assistant), looking at the big topical buckets—things like debt, housing, work, family—and drilling down into discreet issues from there. In every topic, I looked at what the narrative was about millennial life, but found it more interesting to explain what’s actually happening and how we got here than refuting each sensationalized claim about all the ways in which millennials are lazy or overly-sensitive, or proving the continued existence of whatever millennials are accused of killing this week. I write about politics and I am a millennial, and I still found a lot that was new to me.
This book covers a wide-ranging topic requiring comprehensive coverage of a number of subjects, many of which—like the state of health and technology—seem to change by the day. How did you keep up with the changes? And how did you decide upon the book's structure?
I tried to write a book that felt current without being tied to the news cycle, but I had the bad (or at least complicated) luck of turning in a manuscript just as Covid-19 was hitting. Luckily, I had approached the book as an exploration of what underlies, and what led to, so many of the ills millennials face. Primary among them: Centuries of racism, a norm of always-on hyper-connected and often-surveilled over-work, a hollowing out of basic rights for workers, the unfinished promise of gender equality, and the tearing-up of the social safety net. All of those challenges, which have weighed particularly heavily on millennials’ lives, became so much more magnified and immediate because of Covid-19 and its ripple effects. The precarity of millennial life is increasingly being felt by people who aren’t millennials. The structure of the book divides each chapter thematically, but each chapter seeks to answer the questions, “How did we get here, what can we learn, and where should we go?” And so the lessons of the book feel even more acute now, given the changes brought about by Covid-19 and the related stay-at-home orders, the Black Lives Matter movement, and our unstable economy. Everything does feels like it’s rapidly changing, but really, we’re seeing the culmination and consequences of decades (and in some cases centuries) of political and economic choices.
What's one major understanding about millennials you'd like boomers to take away from this book that may be surprising—i.e., that is less talked about than, say, how we're not blowing all our cash on avocado toast? What's one understanding you'd like millennials to have about boomers?
I would love boomers to realize that scare-mongering media outlets are lying to them about millennials, and that millennials in fact react rationally to our circumstances. When boomers look at all of the ways in which our lives are worse than theirs (we are less likely to own our homes, we are more in debt, our employment is less stable), they should perhaps consider that our circumstances are not the result of individual bad choices, but of the political and economic environment boomers created and raised us in. And I would love millennials to understand that, while we are overwhelmingly liberal, boomers have spent decades incredibly divided along partisan lines in close to a 50-50 split. Conservative white boomers have managed to grab and wield the most power, and that has been absolutely devastating for America generally, and for our more-diverse generation specifically. But there are a whole lot of boomers who have spent their lives addressing the issues we care about most. And they’re still there. They may not be the founders of movements for racial justice or gender equality, but Boomers are some of the most active current participants in those movements. We have a lot to learn from them, and they have a lot of power they need to share with us.
One of the points made, on several occasions, is that a lot of the criticisms boomers have of millennials were once levied upon them. Do you think some of the tendency boomers have to criticize millennials is simply the age-old tale of an older generation misunderstanding the younger? Or do you think there's a self-critique buried in the boomer collective subconscious somewhere?
I don’t want to get too deep into analyzing boomers psychology, but yes, I think some of this is projection and disappointment with one’s self being laid on one’s children. Particularly on the left, it seems like some boomers feel threatened when they see younger folks take up the mantle of the movements they feel ownership over, and perhaps they feel angry when those same younger folks try to fold in new ideas that are outside of the original scope, or push the movement in different directions. That’s not a new tension between young folks and older ones, but within progressive spaces, I suspect it’s at least partly wrapped up in the disappointment of not having done more. I think for more conservative boomers, the resentment of millennials is very much tied to the sense that, while white conservative boomers largely triumphed in the political wars of their day—they elected Ronald Reagan, boosted the Evangelical right, and ushered in an era of conservative backlash to feminism and civil rights—it was the liberal boomers who won the hearts and minds of the kids. All the hippies, commies, and feminists who conservative boomers thought they left behind in the 70s are back. It’s a reminder not just that conservative boomers have lost the culture and the future, but also that their movement was a morally bankrupt one, that maybe they’re on the wrong side of history.
That said, I’m not sure there has ever been a generation of American young people that was not derided as trying to change too much too soon, and that wasn’t criticized by their elders for doing life all wrong. I think what’s different here is that there is a direct line from boomers’ youthful idealism to the right-wing backlash that shaped American life just as millennials began to enter the world—in other words, boomers criticize us for how we try to survive in the conditions they created.
How do you think millennial women and people of color specifically suffer from boomer misconceptions of their plights?
Boomers (and honestly, most people) have not fully grappled with the ways in which America’s racist, sexist origins carry through to the modern day, and have in many ways been magnified. If we don’t understand who millennials are and how we got here, we’re going to be hearing about avocado toast into perpetuity and never solving our real problems. For example, you’ve probably heard that millennials are less likely than their parents to own homes. That’s true. You can blame that on our consumer choices, or you can look at the fact that housing prices are higher now than they were for baby boomers; so is the cost of rent. millennials are more likely to be of color than baby boomers, and people of color wind up paying more than white people to rent apartments of comparable quality in comparable neighborhoods. So millennials generally, and millennials of color in particular, are paying more in rent, making it harder for them to save to buy a more-expensive house. We’re also more likely to have gone to college and to have educational debt even before we consider homeownership; thanks to boomer political choices, we paid more for those college educations. Because of systemic racism that predates millennials entering the world, Black families had less to spend on their millennial kids’ college educations, making Black college students more likely than white ones to take out student loans. And again because of race-driven economic inequalities, Black millennial college students were more likely to work for pay while in school, and work more hours, than white millennial college students—and students who work a significant number of hours are more likely to drop out, which is exactly what happened to Black millennials, who were less likely than white ones to complete their college educations, but still on the hook for their student loans—which they took out more of. Then you enter the workforce and there’s just flat-out racial and gender discrimination in hiring and pay.
Now, as the wealthiest generation in world history—boomers—dies, America is about to see the largest wealth transfer in our history. boomers, though, are a whiter generation than millennials, and American wealth is concentrated in white hands. That means it’s mostly white millennials who will benefit from their parents’ largesse, while Black millennials mostly will not. So if you’re a Black millennial, you have more debt, you pay more for housing, you have less of an opportunity to save because your cash outlays are higher, you have fewer family resources, and you get paid less. And that’s before we even get into the added layers of mass incarceration, the racism in healthcare that kills and injures lots of Black people (including a lot of millennial moms), and racial and gender segregation in employment.
If you miss who millennials are—that we are not nearly as racially homogenous as boomers, that we are nearly half people of color, that we are generation with a larger proportion of immigrants than any other—and if you think all of us are college-educated suburban white kids who are now living in Brooklyn, you miss how to solve our most pressing problems.
You're both a lawyer and a journalist. Did you find yourself relying on your training in law as well as your experience in journalism while writing this book? If so, how did it help you in presenting the book's framework?
I truly hated law school, but it was incredibly useful in teaching the skill of making a coherent, logical, and persuasive argument. That’s what I’m trying to do here. The title of the book is OK Boomer, Let's Talk, and it really is intended to engage people who might not be naturally receptive to its message. My hope is to persuade people, not just to yell at them, and so it was important for me to make arguments grounded in research, history, and fact. But I’m also a journalist, and I understand that narrative and stories are how human beings make sense of the world—stories are how, across place and time and culture, we have always communicated our most important moral lessons. I can rattle off a list of shocking statistics and by tomorrow, or maybe even five minutes from now, you’re not going to remember any of them. But if I put a face and a story to a dynamic I am trying to explain, it’s more likely to land. So reporting this book out—actually talking to millennials and boomers—was important for telling an effective story, and getting the arguments to stick.
Were there any findings that surprised you while researching?
So many! The one that initially comes to mind is how lonely and isolated millennials are. Much has been written about the crisis of loneliness among the elderly, and how isolation can impair cognitive function, harm one’s health, and even lead to early death. Since boomers are now either retired or close to the retirement age, and since they are so much more likely than millennials to be divorced and/or empty-nesters, I assumed they’d be lonelier. Also, millennials have a reputation as always-connected and active. We show up to protests, we live in big and dynamic cities, we spend our money on “experiences” like travel and meals out that one imagines involve other people, and we’re obsessed with social media, all of which is, in theory, social. But it’s not true that millennials feel more connected to others—boomers report having many more friends and acquaintances than millennials. And one in five millennials, at least according to one study, reported having zero friends and zero acquaintances outside of their immediate family. I found that pretty startling, and wonder how much millennial loneliness has been amplified with Covid-19 shutdowns.
What's a work of fiction—be it in print or in any other medium—you would recommend to boomers to help them understand, and empathize with, the millennial experience?
Sally Rooney’s novels are the obvious pick here, right? I do love her and there’s a reason she’s so often cited as the Great Millennial Novelist; boomers should absolutely read her. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation will certainly feel familiar to anyone who has experienced extreme burn-out, something that seems to characterize millennial life and is poorly-understood by boomers. In that vein, I am very excited for Anne Helen Petersen’s nonfiction book on millennial burnout which, judging by her body of work, I imagine will be excellent. And Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror is also not fiction, but it’s essential.
This story has been updated for clarity.