How Bigotry Has Befallen Baby Boomers

Whenever I see a headline with the word “seniors” in it, I know that whatever follows that headline is going to be another scam aimed at older people, a quack cure for yet another made-up disease, a warning about how the government is going to take away your Social Security or your Medicare coverage, an investment scheme that will almost certainly bankrupt the people who buy into it.

Whenever I see a headline with the words “Baby Boomers” in it, I know that whatever follows that headline is going to denigrate people who were born between 1946 and 1964 by making fun of their attitudes about certain subjects, or their inability to understand new technologies or simply their failure to head off climate change before it ever became a thing.

Except for getting the senior citizen discounts at movie theaters, I never refer to myself as a senior citizen, nor do I ever call myself a “baby boomer,” and heaven help the asshole who calls me either a senior citizen or a baby boomer because I will put him on his ass so fast he won’t know what hit him…or her. (You see, I’m not gender-biased when it comes to people who are insulting me.)

Calling anyone who is 56 years of age or more either a senior citizen or a baby boomer is really a case of hate speech, for several reasons.

A 56-year-old who was born in 1964 is not part of the same cohort group as a 74-year-old who was born in 1946. The 56-year-old is probably still working, still paying off a mortgage, and has very different concerns from the 74-year-old who is on Social Security and Medicare.

The term senior citizen has traditionally referred to people who were 65 or older, dating back to when that was the age you became eligible for Social Security benefits. By referring to the members of that same sub-division of the population as “baby boomers” groups people under 65 together with people who grew up under different circumstances, had different expectations and different life experiences.

Here is one example. People who were born between 1946 and 1950 were far more likely to have been supporters of the war in Vietnam, while people who were born after 1950 were far more likely to have opposed the war in Vietnam. The difference is that the people who were born in 1946 to 1950 had, for the most part already graduated from college in 1969, the year that the Nixon Administration did away with college deferments and held the nation’s first draft lottery since 1942.

This was a watershed event because the people who had already graduated from undergraduate school in 1969 and, therefore, were no longer protected by student deferments they were expecting that to happen because that was what happened when you graduated from college. You became eligible for the draft again. The students who were still in college and whose education was being interrupted by the draft were, with certain (mostly media created) exceptions, the ones who planned and participated in the anti-war movement.

This is not a class-bound argument because the period from 1966 to 1970 marked the beginning of the explosion in the numbers of high school students who were going directly to college from high school. Before 1966, it was much less likely that the children from working-class families would go on to college immediately after high school because they had to go to work to support themselves and help out their families.

However, the salient point here is that referring to people of a certain age as either seniors or baby boomers puts them together with people who are in very different situations.

Whenever you group people together by a single identifying characteristic, whether that characteristic is race, religion, gender, sexual preferences, education, occupation…or age….you are committing an act of prejudice, not discrimination.

Discrimination is a much-misused word, largely because the politicians who labeled prejudice as discrimination didn’t understand the meanings of the words.

Discrimination is the process of evaluating a circumstance or an individual on the basis of the characteristics of the circumstance or the behavior of the person. We all discriminate in favor and against people, places, and things on the basis of our previous experiences with those people, places or things.

If you have a lousy meal at a Chinese restaurant, you don’t stop eating Chinese cuisine, or whatever passes for Chinese cuisine where you live. No, you simply don’t go back to that restaurant. If you have a disagreeable experience in a doctor’s office, you stop going to that particular doctor (unless you are really stupid, in which case you deserve what happens to you.) You don’t stop going to doctors. If you buy a car, and you have a good experience with that car, you are more likely to purchase the same brand of automobile the next time you have to buy a car.

These are all examples of discrimination.

Prejudice is a very different thing. Prejudice is the practice of assuming that all of the members of a particular group will have the same characteristics as the ones you happened to have met. If you have been assaulted by someone of another race, you might decide to never have anything to do with anyone who belongs to that race ever again, in which case you are judging the group on the basis of the behavior of a specific individual. If you had a good experience with someone from a different ethnic group, you are more likely to look favorably upon other members of that group, but you are still behaving under the influence of a prejudice.

Prejudice is a very powerful function in the human psyche. It is very easy to adopt the behavior of a bigot on the basis of a single experience with a member of a specific race or ethnic group. It is, as a matter of fact, difficult not to do that.

There is a term for the process: dissociation. In its milder form, it is basic human behavior. We all do it all the time. In its pathological form, dissociated individuals are incapable of functioning in the real world because they are living in an alternative universe in which their prejudices have become their realities.

What is going on in America right now, and in many other places around the world, is a process of progressive dissociation in which the cognitive dissonance caused by mismatches between our expectations and our experiences make it impossible for us to communicate with anyone who we believe belongs to a group that does not subscribe to the same philosophies that we live by.

The result of this progressive dissociation is that we are breaking down larger cohorts of people into smaller and smaller cohorts, and creating more and more distance between ourselves and the people we have decided to dislike distrust, or just plain hate on the basis of a prejudice. (Break it down: prejudice literally means to “pre-judge.”)

You can see this process in the astounding breakdown of civility within the Democratic party during the 2016 campaign and again in the 2020 Democratic primaries, and in the increasing divergence between the imaginary wings of the Democratic party. (There are now so many factions competing for the Democratic party that is no longer possible to speak about a left-wing and a right-wing. We are down to divergences at the level of the feather.)

The first step in creating a prejudice is to create a label for the group that you want to exclude.

In Nazi Germany, in 1934, German Jews did not think of themselves as a single community because there were many different cohorts among German Jews, ranging from ultra-orthodox traditionalists to socialists and Zionists.

When Jews looked at each other in 1934, they saw the differences between them, not their common characteristics. Conversely, a great many non-Jewish Germans began to see the common characteristics that identified Jews as Jews. Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler were very adept at developing and projecting a negative image of the Jewish peopled that they ascribed to ALL Jews while at the same time emphasizing the differences between “those” Jews and the German people.

They dehumanized and demonized German Jews in the same manner that white European settlers demonized and dehumanized the native people who were living on the land they wanted for themselves. This happened again in the American South after the Civil War, as white Southerners systematically excluded black people from participation in the mechanisms of government beginning almost immediately after the war, and exploding after the end of Reconstruction in 1876, when President Ulysses Grant retired from the presidency.

Now, what has all this to do with calling people of a certain age, senior citizens or baby boomers? Well, actually, it’s the same process of progressive dissociation and increasing cognitive dissonance:

The first step in creating a prejudice is to create a label for the group that you want to exclude.

This is what is going on right now across the news media and social media, the demonization and dehumanization of a whole generation of Americans.

Everyone loves to honor the members of the Greatest Generation, as Tom Brokaw labeled them, but the facts of the matter are that only 16 million Americans – around 11 percent of the population – served in the military during World War II, but only 10 percent of those 16 million (mostly) men saw actual combat…and yet we still love to talk about anyone who lived through the war as a members of the Greatest Generation. (Yes, EVERYONE contributed to the war effort in one way or another, but that’s not the same thing as putting your boots in the sand on Omaha Beach.)

So having perhaps excessively extolled the virtues of the Greatest Generation, a wide array of pundits, commentators, social media mavens, and other critics have decided that the Baby Boomers deserve derision rather than acclaim.

Well, here’s something for you to think about. The Greatest Generation didn’t build all the modern marvels that now absorb our every waking moment. The Baby Boomers did that. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos did that. Others followed. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Larry Page were certainly not Baby Boomers, but we would never have heard of Musk, Zuckerberg, Brin, and Page if Gates, Jobs, and Bezos hadn’t started the ball rolling.

So, the next time you want to take some cheap shots at senior citizens and baby boomers, just stop for a moment and realize that you’re being a bigot.