The “Boomerangst” Generation
How are world realities changing for boomers’ children?
- The baby-boomers accumulated wealth and economic privilege on an unprecedented scale — a process their children may not be able to replicate.
- Baby boomers' children face a far more financially challenging environment than their parents did.
- Large debt can act to defer marriage, family formation and parenthood — and it can negate the impact of education.
- Concerns about debts acquired by young people abound in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Boomerangst” is often applied with tongue-in-cheek to the angst and insecurity felt by middle-age baby-boomers as they march in legions towards retirement — but the term can also apply to their descendants.
In the immediate future, there are at least three issues that the boomerangst generation will have to confront. First is rising personal debt — incurred as a result of longer periods in, or higher costs of, education — ease of access to credit, and, possibly, the cost of buying a home.
This is not to say that younger people cannot or will not reboot their ideas about personal debt and financial behavior. Some sources of personal financial pressure, such as running up mobile phone bills and the use of credit and store cards, may be excessive.
But these would be the easier ones to adjust to compared, say, with buying an apartment or a house, financing higher education and providing for adequate retirement savings.
Although it is widely believed that younger people regard as necessities things that their parents see as luxuries or options, it is undoubtedly true that they face a far more financially challenging environment than their parents did.
The kiss of debt
In the United States, it is estimated that about two thirds of people in their 20s have some kind of debt, and those who do have been accumulating it more rapidly in the last five years.
The average amount of debt for 22- to 29-year-olds was $16,120 in August 2006, and the fastest growing volume of debt was for those carrying more than $20,000.
The demographic significance of large debt is that it can act to defer marriage, family formation and parenthood, and it can negate the impact of education (for example, if a trained doctor or engineer opts to go for fast money in different trades or occupations or simply packs up to work abroad or open a bar somewhere).
As a result, to young people in the United States, the word “iPod” may actually come to mean that they are “Insecure, Pressured, Overtaxed and Debt-Ridden.”
Similar concerns about overall debt levels and especially debts acquired by young people abound in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Even France speaks of its Génération Précaire (precarious generation) which saves little and borrows much.
The second major issue facing some, but by no means all, of the boomerangst generation is that of gender inequality. In many instances — for example, in the eastern parts of Germany — it is women who are better educated and more marketable. When they leave their towns and villages, they leave behind disproportionately large male populations.
Leaving to look for a new and better life is certainly no novel migration phenomenon, but it is much more important when the youth population is stagnant or declining. Against this background, gender imbalance becomes more acute.
And lastly, the changing structure of the global economy is underscoring the angst in boomerangst. This is not itself a generational issue in a single society — in that it does not involve the young and the old competing for resources and lifestyles. But it is a generational issue in the sense of younger, more powerful emerging economies and political powers clashing with older or fading ones.
The baby-boomers in the West grew up in the aftermath of the Second World War and under the shadow of the Cold War but in a world they could confidently believe belonged to them. It was theirs to influence and change.
As they did so, they accumulated wealth and economic privilege on an unprecedented scale, a process their children and grandchildren may not be able to replicate.
Coming to terms
Even if this was not the Western world’s boomerangst generation’s chief aspiration, they will not be able to feel, as their parents did, that the world is theirs alone — or even at all.
Britons, for example, have had a long time to get used to the idea of not being citizens of an imperial power. The country may still be able to influence global issues — but its capacity to pursue goals and implement solutions alone faded a long time ago.
Continental Europeans have lived for a long time on the fringes of global power politics — and have sought to influence only their immediate geography through the organizing force of the European Union.
The United States, for its part, has long been the sole democratic country with both the will and the ability to continue to shape the world through its economics, politics, military, culture and philosophy.
To be sure, young people the world over have identified with U.S. trends in music, the media and entertainment, business methods and general attitudes. But for how long will this continue?
This is not to suggest that, on a global level, attention to youth culture or the cult of young celebrities will not survive. We still prize the energy, innovation and fresh ideas that younger people bring to political and corporate leadership.
Nevertheless, the old, familiar domination of Western culture seems to be in slow decline — or at best, less potent now — courtesy of changes in the global order and the balance of financial and political power. Instead, the future belongs increasingly to Asia, specifically China and India — and to other young, dynamic emerging markets.