I plant a small forest of sunflowers in front of my house in Washington, D.C., each year. It pulls me back to my childhood backyard in Michigan, and better yet, as spring folds into summer, it attracts all sorts of fauna: bees, butterflies, birds, and, in recent years, a growing crowd of babies.
I spend a lot of time talking with the parents of this last group—about gardening, about the local schools, about other touchstones of urban family life. But after twelve years in D.C., I’ve noticed a few things change. Lately, it seems as if almost all of these parents are from the Midwest. (Sometimes I joke that they might rebrand my neighborhood D.C.’s “Little Heartland.”) They also are wound much tighter. They’re more worried about more parts of their children’s lives.
So am I. As a young-ish father of three young children, I almost always wind up asking my neighbors: how are you piecing things together? Can you afford another kid? It can’t possibly stay this hard, can it?
It’s telling that these conversations happen even in D.C., where ambitious, anxious young workers flock to its dynamic labor market. The American Dream still (mostly) exists here: work hard and you’ll probably move up the ladder. But its bounty stands in stark relief against the trajectories of so many other communities. And even then, with all these Midwesterners chasing careers in the capital, the “cost of living”—the bleakest bit of jargon, if you reflect on it—relentlessly continues to escalate.
No wonder Millennials are cynical about the future and disaffected with American institutions. Social immobility and economic inequality are crushing young Americans. We’re buried in student-loan debt, struggling to buy homes, and flailing through the life cycle. We’re either struggling to find work in affordable heartland hometowns or chasing six-figure down payments for million-dollar mortgages in high-income cities. What happened to us? Why is it so much harder—so much more expensive—for young Americans to build a secure, sane life?
The progressive diagnosis—young families are suffering in the face of growing economic inequality in an unfair economy defined by regionalized access to economic opportunity—is both straightforward and well-established. By contrast, conservatives have struggled to find a message—let alone an agenda—that meaningfully addresses these frustrations. Years of protecting the rich from higher tax responsibilities make it fiscally difficult for them to propose ambitious and substantive solutions to Americans’ anxieties. But their problem isn’t just a question of revenue: the right has run against government’s ability to solve problems for so long that it can’t credibly propose using the government to meet the public’s needs. What is it to do?
Enter Joseph Sternberg’s The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic Future. The subtitle says it all. In Sternberg’s telling, if young families like mine have a narrower path to economic security than earlier generations did, well, it’s our parents’ fault. Specifically, when Boomers took political power (and hit their prime earning years) they engaged in a series of short-sighted reforms prioritizing the present over the future, “borrowing to fund just enough investment to deliver quick hits of economic growth.”
In other words, Theft of a Decade provides conservatives with a brilliant pivot. Above all, it helps them subtly shift blame for problems like student-loan debt and high housing costs from the rich to the old. As a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and a self-styled “free-market conservative,” Sternberg stresses that Theft of a Decade “is not an indictment of Wall Street or ‘the finance industry,’ or ‘short-termism’ among corporate managers, or excessive executive pay.” In other words, while he’s politically savvy about Millennial rage, he’s eager to redirect it away from Wall Street rapacity.
This pivot hinges on how well Sternberg’s generational-conflict framework explains past policy decisions and Millennials’ present predicament. Theft of a Decade follows Boomers (Americans born between 1946 and 1964) from their arrival in a labor market transitioning away from the stability of the mid-twentieth-century economy up to their impending retirements. For much of the past four decades, Sternberg argues, Boomers have been trying to goose the economy through various policy tricks. In the 1980s, they cut taxes on capital gains and pushed deregulation, which produced, in Sternberg’s telling, “a new boom in financial engineering: leveraged buy-outs, mergers and acquisitions, and other Gordon Gekko-like techniques.” In the 1990s, Boomers eased federal rules around subsidizing mortgages to make it easier for their generational cohort to buy homes and “raised the cost of employing human beings” via new regulations like the Family and Medical Leave Act. When the Great Recession hit, they intervened to protect their home values by inflating the collapsing housing market with public funds. All of this added to the burden their children will soon have to bear—higher deficit spending and more private and public debt.
It’s a compelling story, and to Sternberg’s credit, such an approach helps him go beyond the usual conservative talking points. Where many of his political fellow-travelers see a generation of frivolous, entitled whiners, he recognizes that Millennials have been dealt a pretty raw deal. He notes that, for Millennials, “the trend toward greater individual responsibility for saving makes it more obvious that we’re falling behind.” It’s equal parts astonishing and encouraging to read a conservative writer describe shifting risk onto individuals as anything other than “liberating.”