Long before millennials were dubbed the “Me Generation,” journalist Tom Wolfe used the label to describe the young baby boomers coming of age in the mid-1970s, a time of heightened focus on the self and personal development.
“The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality — remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self ... and observing, studying, and doting on it,” Wolfe wrote in a 1976 New York magazine cover story.
To the extent that millennials really are self-absorbed and narcissistic, it may be because they learned from the masters: their parents. Baby boomers ― the unusually large generation born during a wave after World War II ― grew up in a time of historic prosperity. In many ways, the world they’ll leave for their children couldn’t be more different from the one they knew as children.
Boomers blew through resources, racked up debt, and brought an end to economic growth, using their enormous voting power to elect politicians who enacted policies that typically benefitted boomers’ interests, rather than future generations. Now, millennials face more debt, fewer resources and higher levels of unemployment than their parents, and are likely to see the fallout of runaway environmental destruction within their lifetimes.
In his new book, A Generation of Sociopaths, writer and venture capitalist Bruce Gibney puts forth the controversial hypothesis that baby boomers ― specifically the large subset of white, middle-class boomers ― are, both individually and as a group, unusually sociopathic. Gibney cites mental health data showing boomers have significantly higher levels of antisocial traits and behaviors ― including lack of empathy, disregard for others, egotism and impulsivity ― than other generations.
As a result, boomers have used their substantial voting power to create a society and government that don’t work very well. Or, as Gibney puts it, boomers’ “private behaviors congealed into a debased neoliberalism.”
The factual basis for Gibney’s case isn’t perfect. Data on generations prior to boomers is thin, because widespread psychological testing wasn’t as common, and younger generations haven’t been around long enough for long-term data. It’s possible that other generations have major issues as well, but we simply don’t have enough information to assess them properly. Gibney, however, insists that there’s something unique with boomers.
We sat down with Gibney, a Gen-Xer, to learn more about why he says boomers are a generation of sociopaths, and how the boomer agenda has gotten us into the precarious political and economic situation we’re in today.
I imagine that a lot of people have taken issue with the title of your book. Is it really possible to apply a psychological label to an entire generation?
Well, I think you can match the behaviors and the policies to certain diagnostic criteria. For the boomers ― the youngest are in their 50s and the oldest are in their 70s ― we have a coherent body of data, collected over decades, that map onto this diagnostic criteria of sociopathy.
So we can see sociopathy-associated traits like improvidence ― there is no greater improvidence than failing to save for your retirement. We can postulate the checklist that way. We have an enormous amount of data about the boomer mainstream, and it matches up surprisingly well with the description of antisocial personality disorder.
It’s a good diagnostic label, because what we’re really dealing with is an anti-social society. And that highlights the inherent paradox: Can you have an anti-social society? I don’t actually think you can.
You argue that boomers aren’t genetically predispositioned to be dysfunctional, but instead were conditioned to be that way. What do you mean by that?
I focus mainly on the white, middle-class boomers who constitute the substantial majority of the boom ― it’s a pretty homogenous group, and they were raised in a fairly homogenous way. They were the first generation in the U.S. to be raised permissively. And the evidence strongly suggests that highly permissive parenting leads to some problems later on in life. These people have higher self-esteem, but they tend to be more rebellious and messy, both in the literal sense and in their approach to their own affairs.
They were also the first generation to be raised with television, and there really weren’t parental reservations about screen time. The literature on TV and cognitive and behavioral development is almost universally negative.
“They came of age in a time of fairly effortless prosperity ... They really just assume that things are going to work out, no matter what. That’s unhelpful conditioning."”
And finally, there are certain assumptions that are built up throughout their early lives. For the first half of the boomers particularly, they came of age in a time of fairly effortless prosperity, and they were conditioned to think that everything gets better each year without any real effort. So they really just assume that things are going to work out, no matter what. That’s unhelpful conditioning. You have 25 years where everything just seems to be getting better, so you tend not to try as hard, and you have much greater expectations about what society can do for you, and what it owes you.
So what’s been the fallout of that, in terms of policy and economics?
There’s obviously been a substantial deceleration of economic growth. The Great Recession arguably began in 2001 and we’ve never entirely recovered ― so that’s 16 years of lost opportunity.
The second big thing on the economic front is the intergenerational passing of burdens, and the most salient one is the debt. Gross debt to GDP 40 years ago was 34 percent, and today it’s around 105 percent. It’s projected by [the Congressional Budget Office] to exceed the World War II highs by the early 2030s. When boomers start taking control and influencing policies, the policies get worse on the debt, so that now we haven’t seen these levels of debt in more than 70 years.
There are consequences to these levels of debt. ... But that’s not really relevant for the boomers. This is not their problem and they have not been serious about it. The debt wasn’t discussed as a serious issue during the 2016 presidential election, but Social Security was ― because we know that this program is going to be partially insolvent by 2034. And this is the only thing that Trump and Clinton could agree on: Social Security ― untouchable. Medicare ― untouchable. These things are sacred. They couldn’t even agree where to stand on the stage together, and they agreed on Social Security.
But the boomers must have done some good things, right?
Toward the end of the book, there’s a chapter called, “The Myth of Boomer Goodness.” Some of the pushback I’ve gotten on the book is people saying, well, didn’t boomers do all these wonderful things, like fighting for civil rights? But there’s no way that chronology works out. The Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act were 1964 and 1965, and only the very oldest boomers could have voted for the congressmen who pushed through that act. So they played no part in those foundational victories. What we have seen instead is the Voting Rights Act gutted.
Or you can take the environment, which is going to affect everybody. This has just not been a serious item for the boomers ... They can’t take credit for these enormous civil rights and environmental victories that we saw in the ‘60s and the early 1970s.
Are boomers responsible for the rise of Trump?
Well, he is a boomer, and the leading candidates in the primaries were all boomers. Who’s responsible for the rise of Donald Trump? We could slice and dice the exit polls, or we could blame the FBI, or Putin.
But what I think is really remarkable is that he was ever considered a viable candidate at all. Only after years of disappointment ― economically and otherwise ― could a Manhattan vulgarian with no prior experience emerge as a candidate for the highest office in the United States. So, older white groups were the most enthusiastic about Trump, but there had to first be the conditions that allowed him to even be plausible.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.