In 2017, Tim Gurner, a 35-year-old Australian multimillionaire, achieved a strange sort of fame when he laid into the financial irresponsibility of his peers, the Millennials. Gurner said on Australia’s version of 60 Minutes, “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each.” And so the meme of avocado toast as the foodstuff of the heedless never-grown-up came into being.
This purported Millennial delicacy—which, I will confess, I have never consumed—now serves as shorthand for a larger debate about the economic fortune of Millennials like me. Are we wanton dissolutes, frittering away our earnings chasing experiences and Instagram likes? Or are we hapless victims of unfavorable economic circumstances, many of them foisted on us by preceding generations, particularly Baby Boomers?
With Fear Your Future: How the Deck Is Stacked Against Millennials and Why Socialism Would Make It Worse, Philip Klein has entered the fray. Klein, executive editor of the Washington Examiner, is firmly on the side of Millennials. In this slim volume, which also contains rebuttals of a sort from National Review writers David Harsanyi and Ramesh Ponnuru, Klein makes a convincing case that Baby Boomers really have shafted Millennials. And, of larger concern for conservatives, this great injustice has made my generation more open to dramatic increases in the growth of government.
“Millennials,” Klein argues, “have legitimate reasons to be resentful, particularly toward baby boomers.” Boomers got to enjoy America’s immense postwar prosperity, yet they “selfishly refused to grapple with any of the nation’s serious problems and left a staggering level of debt and obligations for future generations.” The numbers are obvious to those willing to see. The national debt is at historic highs, exceeding 100 percent of GDP for seven consecutive years for the first time in history, and only increasing as time goes on. And it is doing so, Klein notes, “during a time of relative peace and prosperity.” Put perhaps more viscerally, from 1974 to 2018, young Americans’ share of the national debt increased by 28 times while their income increased only by 4.5 times, based on Klein’s analysis of various government figures.
This growth in the debt, he adds, is driven not by an unusual revenue shortfall but rather an excess of spending in two areas: Social Security and Medicare. In 1968, these programs accounted for 15.8 percent of the federal budget. In 2018, they constituted 40 percent, and they are set only to grow as Baby Boomers continue to retire and live long, fiscally inconvenient lives. This cavalcade of worrisome figures at times makes a reader feel like astronaut David Bowman going through the Stargate at the end of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with debt projections flying by in a blur instead of stars.
Klein argues that “America does not redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor as much as it redistributes wealth from the young to the old.” This is true not only of old-age entitlements but also of new, broader ones, such as Obamacare, which uniquely disadvantage the young. And it is true also for the broader economy, where Boomers have either actively enacted or passively allowed government policies that have made the job market more credential-mad, education more expensive (and student-loan debt worse), and non-rental housing less accessible for succeeding generations.
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, when the oldest of my peers entered the workforce, Millennials continue to feel as if they don’t have it as good as previous generations. And they perceive this, in Klein’s view, as “a consequence of the failures of capitalism.” Hence the frightening level of comfort that Millennials have with socialism (surpassing majority approval in some polls of young people) or even Communism—and the disproportionately youthful enthusiasm for politicians such as (the elderly) Bernie Sanders and (the youthful) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And because of this loose association of economic distress with capitalism, they are increasingly open to what they perceive as its opposite, even if government action helps explain at least some of their ills.
In Klein’s view, Millennials have adopted this stance because they have been victimized. But Harsanyi, the first of Klein’s chosen interlocutors, brazenly dispels the notion of Millennial blamelessness, proclaiming that “no generation has ever faced as few serious challenges as millennials.” He is right that Millennials enjoy certain advantages over other generations. And both he and Ponnuru are right that some of the indicators in which Millennials come out looking poorly are the result of choices Millennials make. The unanswerable question here is to what extent Millennials—and any of us, really—can make their own choices in the face of adverse material circumstances. Klein argues that it’s difficult; Harsanyi says that it’s doable and points out that “we are no longer talking about children, after all.”
Politically, Klein understands the Millennial view: “If one side is telling them to essentially stop whining, and the other side is speaking sympathetically about their problems and promising to alleviate them, it’s pretty clear which side they are going to choose.” And he does get to offering some positive prescriptions for relieving the Millennial plight. But they remain mostly of the green-eyeshade variety.
There is much to be said for green eyeshades and fiscal probity. But voters, young and old alike, have proven somewhat skeptical of budgetary restraint and traditional belt-tightening when offered as arguments in themselves. Whatever the flaws of the quasi-socialism of the left—and there are many—it does offer a vision of an easier future, even though history tells us the goodies on offer are a sham. As a result, some on the right are convinced that their side needs to offer a variation on statism, redirected toward conservative ends. But that is a dead end. In a sprawling and diverse country, one growing only more so every year, it should make increasingly less sense to centralize government activity in Washington, not more. And in a time of social anomie and impersonal government, the prospect of reattaching to smaller, more personal institutions should be more attractive, not less. Klein’s warnings about the danger of debt, well taken as they are, cannot address these concerns.
Klein still deserves considerable credit for taking Millennial’s concerns, debatable as they might be, seriously. And if my generation and those that come after don’t pay attention to the obvious fiscal realities he outlines, we really will be toast. And I doubt it’ll come with avocados.