If millennials are jerks, blame the baby boomers

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Many problems with kids can be traced to their parents. So why have millennials been singled out as a uniquely depraved generation? Weren’t they raised by somebody?

For those who may have missed the latest skirmish in America’s generational warfare, a new survey by marketing firm DDB finds millennials — those between 19 and 34 years old, more or less — may be more venal and self-aggrandizing than older folks. They’re more likely to consider themselves workaholics — even with a work ethic their elders find lacking — and a scandalous 27% of millennials say they’d take credit for a colleague’s work if it helped them get ahead. Just 15% of Generation Xers and 5% of baby boomers say they’d do that.

The nation, apparently, is appalled. “That millennial you're working with may be a jerk,” CNBC declared. This comes on top of widespread complaints that America’s young adults are narcissistic, godless, precious, lazy and probably much worse. It's likely the millennials are, so far, the most studied generation in American history — and they may also be the most maligned.

Blame the boomers?

But maybe the maligners should examine their own complicity in the millennials’ debasement. Every one of us is a product of the environment we grow up in. The millennials came of age (or are still coming of age) during the longest bout of economic stress since the 1930s. And who caused that? By and large, the baby boomers who have run the country since Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992.

America coasted through the 1990s on the momentum generated by five decades of remarkable growth and a nascent technology revolution. But by the 2000s, baby boomers had run up too much debt and a reckoning was inevitable. Two boomer presidents — George W. Bush and Barack Obama — pushed the national debt from $5.6 trillion in 2000, or 55% of GDP, to $18 trillion today, or 103% of GDP. Personal debt skyrocketed, too, thanks to a boomer borrowing binge. Boomers running Wall Street firms such as Lehman Brothers, Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC) generated the 2008 Wall Street meltdown that nearly wrecked the global economy.

Boomers began to flood into the labor force around 1970, when the ratio of CEO pay to that of a typical worker was about 20-to-1. Now, as boomer careers begin to sunset, the CEO-to-worker pay gap has soared to about 230 to 1. There’s loads of other data showing the rich have gotten considerably richer during the past two decades, while much of the middle class has fallen behind. Hedonistic baby-boomer attitudes have produced a new gilded age complete with rock-star entertainment at birthday parties and crass mega-yacht one-upmanship. Megaboomer Larry Ellison buys entire islands with his inexhaustible billions.

Millennials may look at everything the boomers have accomplished wrought and think their parents’ generation are the real jerks. And if millennials don’t think that now, they might when boomers raid Social Secrurity and Medicare, perhaps leaving a few pennies for the next, unfortunate batch of seniors.

There are, of course, some well-known model citizens among the baby boomers, as there are among any generation. Bill Gates and his charity do admirable work in the developing world. Steve Jobs made technology fun and cool. Oprah Winfrey brought street cred to empathy. The list could go on.

But boomers as a whole will never be thought of as careful stewards of the institutions they inherited — institutions that are now more likely to be considered corrupt and self-serving than benevolent and humble. Why is anybody surprised millennials are turning out to be cynical, untrusting and mercenary? In the world they see, those traits are necessary to survive.

As for their attitudes, millennials may channel their parents more than any generation of the past century. The loathsome rich kids of Beverly Hills didn’t get rich on their own; they inherited wealth from baby-boomer parents trying to buy their kids happiness. The Kardashians didn’t create their own wealth, either. It came from a famous criminal lawyer born in 1944 and an opportunistic Olympic legend born in 1949. While emblematic of their selfie-absorbed generation, the Kardashians and their kind are funded by prior generations.

Some boomers with less cash at their disposal made up for it through helicopter parenting and undeserved flattery that exaggerated their kids’ abilities. A whole generation now bears the hollow self-esteem and inflated expectations that come from weak parenting. The millennials are going to have to solve a lot of problems left by their progenitors. We better hope they’re more capable than we give them credit for being.

Rick Newman belongs to Generation X, which came between the baby boomers and the millennials. His latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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