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On Brexit, Boomers, and Millennials

Britain’s vote to exit the European Union has prompted much analysis, not to mention more than a little panic.  Among the observations is the generational divide suggested by the vote.  A whopping 73% of Brits between the ages of 18 and 24 favored remaining in the Union; among those 25 to 35, it was nearly two thirds.  On the other hand, of those between 55 and 64, 57% favored leaving; the percentage rises to 60% for those over 65.  Anger and frustration is palpable.  As one university student put it, “I’m annoyed that baby boomers have messed things up for us again.  They’ve voted for something that’s not going to really affect them.  They’re not going to have to deal with the consequences.”

Brexit has its origins in a toxic mix of very real economic dislocation and suffering among the declining industrial class, rage at the embrace of a severe form of neo-liberal capitalism that was inaugurated by Thatcher and embraced by a subsequent technocratic, political, and financial elite creating vast chasms between “winners” and “losers,” xenophobic nationalism simmering for years amid the growing racial and cultural diversity of Britain and stoked most recently by the refugee crisis, disillusionment with the dream of transnational unity and a romantic nostalgia for “Merry old England.”  The former colonies on this side of the Atlantic will find all of this familiar in this era of Trump where, according to one commentator, we are facing “a cultural backlash of older whiter people lashing out against demographic forces that they see as threatening to their historically privileged position.”

Anthony Annett, a Catholic writer in Commonweal Magazine continues the analysis in a withering critique of the Boomer generation: 

“Brexit is just the latest move by a generation that inherited a remarkable postwar achievement in social/Christian democracy – on both sides of the Atlantic – and then trashed it.  A generation that sought maximum freedom with minimum responsibility.  The generation of Reagan and Thatcher, habituated in putting personal gain over the common good – choosing tax cuts for themselves over investment in the future. .  . and refusing to do anything about climate change because of the sheer inconvenience.  To misquote Auden, it’s been a low, dishonest few decades.”

As an aging Boomer, on the edge of retirement, and with a one year old granddaughter to think and worry about, personal and generational soul searching is inevitable, hopefully of the responsible rather than the self-indulgent kind.

While retirement, in whatever form it takes, ought to free us from the corrosive grasping after privilege, status, and control that marks so much of our working years, it ought not release us from responsibility for the world our grandchildren are inheriting and beginning to lead.  We should neither continue to subordinate the young by refusing to cede leadership to them, nor should we abandon them simply to their own devices while we play the proverbial shuffleboard game in the sun.  The problems Boomers have created, or failed to solve, cannot simply be dumped on Millennials.  Those problems remain our collective responsibility.  As Arnett reminds us, “Catholic social teaching emphasizes solidarity within generations and between generations.”  Surely reclaiming responsibility for our public schools and reversing the acceleration of the student debt burden is one place to begin.  But options for starting points for each of us are legion.

It is understandable, though I think revealing, that Brexit prompted many in my generation to anxiously look first – and perhaps solely – to the impact on our retirement portfolios.  We do well to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in a time of even more dire disintegration:  “The ultimately responsible question is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but how a coming generation is to go on living. . . .  To think and act with an eye on the coming generation and to be ready to move on without fear and worry – that is the course that has, in practice, been forced upon us.  To hold it courageously is not easy but necessary.”

Brexit and Trumpism may be the last gasp of a disaffected and disingenuous Boomer generation.  We can only hope.  That damage has been and is being done, however, is undeniable.  No one will be served by a deepening generational divide.  Millennials should not be expected to save the Boomer generation, and certainly not at their own expense.  But Boomers, increasingly, should be expected to be servant partners to the Millennial generation in the mending and healing of this, fractured, ill-tended world.  If I sense a calling in retirement, this must be it.

                John H. Thomas

                June 30, 2016



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