The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America
“The changing of the guard from baby boomers to Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z deserves our attention because of the possible scale and nature of its impact.”
How will America’s cultural, political, and economic landscape change as the baby boomers are replaced inevitably by younger generations?
That is the important, challenging question tackled by Philip Bump, a reporter at the Washington Post, in his new book The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America. Bump promises The Aftermath is “a surprising and an essential guide to the new post-baby boom America?” He keeps his promise with a wide-ranging text of 351 pages and 127 originally designed charts.
Born between 1946 and 1964, the baby boomers added a whopping 76 million to the U.S. total population that was just 140 million in 1946. While baby boomers seemed to always take center stage because of their relative scale, three other comparably sized generations have blossomed in the postwar world: Generation X born 1965 to 1980; Millennials born 1981 to 1996; and Generation Z born 1997 to 2012.
Bump spends considerable time on his premise that what distinguishes baby boomers and millennials will drive change. He opines that “There are at least seven characteristics in which boomers (and older generations) are distinguishable from millennials (and younger ones). Some are obvious. Others less so. But, in the aggregate, these distinctions by themselves do a lot to illuminate common divisions in American culture.”
He writes that “Boomers are older . . . Fully 100 percent of boomers are at least in their fifties.” He also explains that “Boomers are whiter . . . More than 70 percent of boomers are non-Hispanic White, compared to 55 percent of millennials.”
Bump then emphasizes immigration asserting that “boomers are less likely to be immigrants or have immigrant parents.” He writes that “one post-1965 shift—more Hispanic immigrants—is a central reason for the racial divide between the boomers and those who came after. There are about 10 million more White boomers than White millennials and about 13 million more non-White millennials than boomers. Sixty percent of those non-White millennials are Hispanic.”
Continuing with his list of seven characteristics Bump concludes that “Boomers are less likely to have a college degree.” Closing out the list, Bump notes that “Boomers are more likely to be religious,” and “Boomers are likely to be members of traditional institutions” that include military service, churches, labor unions, and political parties. Finally, Bump adds that “Boomers are slightly more likely to live outside large cities.”
Bumps succinctly sums this up in Chart 41 that quantifies six of the seven differences in characteristics and concludes that “millennials are not just young boomers.”
The payoff to reading (or better yet, studying) this book are the fact-based insights about the issues that might be resolved in the coming years. For example, much has been made of the claim that whites, now a majority in the American population, will become a minority. But there is much more to this headline, and Bump attempts to draw it out.
He puts it this way: “In 2060, the Census Bureau projects that about 179 million of the country’s 404 million residents will be non-Hispanic Whites—about 44 percent. But, again, the Bureau looks at race (e.g., White) and ethnicity (Hispanic) as separate measures. If you include Hispanic Whites, then 275 million residents will be White, two thirds of the total. This distinction is not simply bookkeeping. It is, instead, one of the essential considerations for any discussion of how America’s demography will change.”
The author goes on to argue that Democrats face challenges that Republicans do not in elections. To Bump, Republicans are “largely homogeneous.” He writes that “The Democratic Party, by contrast, was already more racially diverse in 1996 than the Republican Party was in 2020.” Interestingly, Bump sees factors other than race and ethnicity per se driving the decisions of the separate groups. For example, he quotes an Obama advisor opining that “Many Latinos who are entrepreneurs and small business owners really aspire to” become wealthy in business and may find the Republican Party attractive in that regard.
Similarly, the attitudes on assimilation can drive choices. Bump writes that “Hispanics who live in less-heavily Hispanic counties are less likely to identify as Democrats. Hispanics who live in more-heavily Hispanic countries are more likely to identify as Democratics.” Bump quotes a report showing that “About forty percent of Hispanics live in census tracts where the Hispanic population is less than twenty-five percent of the residents. . . . So there are a lot of people living in low-density Hispanic areas. They’re much more assimilated.”
The Aftermath might help to go behind the headlines on other issues related to demographic changes, too. Bump implies immigration might be necessary in order to mitigate a shortage of workers. Replacing boomers in the workforce is critical because younger workers will pay into and, thereby, help stabilize Social Security and Medicare. Bump also comments on the plight of Millennials: historically low interest rates have cut into their returns, they have incurred too much college debt, and have been been faced with buying homes in tough housing markets.
The changing of the guard from baby boomers to Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z deserves our attention because of the possible scale and nature of its impact. Bump is at his most helpful when he draws out the full story behind the headlines and enables the reader to make up their own mind on where such change should lead our country.