New office crisis: Boomers won't leave!

Dan Drezner


Kai Ryssdal: How you feel about the economy right now might well depend on where you are in the pecking order, generationally speaking. To use a personal finance term here for a second, financial horizons -- that is, the time any given person has left to work and save -- can vary widely. And in light of the great stock market crash of 2008, everybody's reassessing their economic future, including commentator Dan Drezner.

DAN DREZNER: The financial downturn has left all sorts of casualties in its wake: more unemployment, depressed wages, and greater economic uncertainty. But I'd like to direct my angst at a different target -- the baby boomers.

A hidden effect of this crisis is that, in the workplace, as in popular discourse, they simply refuse to get out of the way.

To understand my lament, you have to realize that the oldest of the baby boomers are on the cusp of retirement. For younger generations, this should be a cause for relief. For decades, Gen X-ers like myself have had to hear the standard declarations about the uniqueness of the baby boomers. Maybe they were not the Greatest Generation, but they were the ones who glorified the whole idea of generational identity. For decades, Gen X-ers have had to hear complaints about our political apathy, our popular culture, and our musical tastes.

We have suffered many of these critiques without complaint. Why? Because so many of us worked for so many of them. They were the bosses of the business world. And they were supposed to be retiring very soon, but the recession has changed all that.

In 2008, U.S. workers aged 55 to 64 who had 401(k)'s for at least 20 years saw their retirement balances drop an average of 20 percent. A recent YouGov poll showed two-thirds of this generation have not made the necessary adjustments in their financial planning. This is not a recipe for leaving the workforce anytime soon.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Younger workers who expected promotions when the boomers cleared out are going to have to stew in their own juices. With this job market, looking for a better opportunity elsewhere is not in the cards. Which means that Gen X-ers are going to have to listen to baby boomers doing what they do best -- talk about themselves.

Office politics across the country are going to get a lot nastier. Of course, it could be worse. Generation Y not only has to deal with the boomers, they have to cope with people like me complaining about them.

Ryssdal: Dan Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University.

Log in to post85 Comments


As one of those Baby Boomers who isn’t going away any time soon, I take issue with Dan Drezner’s whiny lament. Every generation feels it has a monopoly on righteous indignation. For decades, we Boomers have had to hear complaints about OUR political activism, OUR popular culture, and OUR musical tastes. If the good professor wants us activists to “get out of the way” of his apathetic generation, all I can say is that I’m glad we’re still in charge so stuff actually gets done!

As a 55-year old mother of four Gen Y/Millenials, daughter of products of the Twenties baby boom and the Thirties baby bust, I have at times reflected on this boom/bust cycle. First, it alternated during the 20th century, starting with a boom after World War I. Those children got to fight in World War II. Depression babies got to fight in Korea. The GI Bill raised the returning soldiers' economic level by creating a large middle class, by offering education and mortgage benefits. Those folks raised Baby Boomers before reliable birth control was available. The Pill became legal for married people in the mid-Sixties and in that context GenXers were born from then through the Seventies. GenXers can be thankful to have missed much of the tumult of the Sixties, to have grown up when nuclear disarmament was a growing possibility (you never had to have fallout drills in grade school, to duck-and-cover just in case of a nuclear attack), not to have had to fight in the long years of Viet Nam. (As a reference point, the Viet Nam war began when I was in first grade and ended when I was 21--I remember hearing casualty figures over the radio, while I ate my breakfast, much larger figures than we experience today) Fewer GenXers may have experienced middle child syndrome, coming from smaller families to begin with. GenXers impressed us all by being more collected and directed when it was time to go to college and begin careers. We Boomers struggled with the draft and the uncertainty that caused, and later with the 74 recession. Women and minorities who were Boomers often faced prejudice in the workplace, which was far less diverse than it is today. Our two generations, Boomers and GenXers, essentially were dealt different hands to play, and it has been up to each of us to do the best we can with the cards we have been dealt. Maybe it is tough to come up behind a large generation, but for a GenXer, there is a larger slice of pie at any comparable stage of life than for a Boomer. Economically, GenXers have and will continue to do well. Boomers have always known that they need to work as long as they can, and not count on retiring early. It is economic reality. It sounds like Mr. Drezner is articulating the feelings for his generation that one would normally associate with a mid-life crisis. I am happy to say, having just been through my own moment of truth a few years ago, that life can become more meaningful after 50 if one can give thanks to have made it to that point, and pause to reflect on the lives of those who didn't. So cheer up GenXers, and count your blessings! A world out there needs your talents--try volunteering in your spare time to help youth or any other cause that inspires. Office politics will seem less important when you put aside jealousy and give from the heart. You are not the first smallish generation and won't be the last. Time to stop whining and instead give a thought to how you would like your life on earth to be remembered--what can you do to make things better than you found them?

What the? In the first place: this guy claims that Generation Xers have listened to "standard declarations about the uniqueness of Baby Boomers", and have listened to critiques from Baby Boomers "without complaint"??

Where has Dan Drezner been? I can assure you, I have heard and read far, far more whining from Generation Xers in the media about Baby Boomers than vice-versa, for a dozen years and counting. (In fact, among people I know, I have actually never heard a fellow Baby Boomer complain about Generation X, or even identify themselves as a Baby Boomer, or a younger person as a Generation Xer. Yep--that's right, never once have I known anyone to identify themselves or others that way, unless they were a part of the media. Not one person I have known personally has ever done so. To be fair, neither do the younger people I've known refer to themselves as Generation Xers.)

Second of all: he wants older people to "get out of the way"? As in, "everybody quit your jobs and give them to 'us'"? And then what should we do, exactly? Starve to death?

Of course, if young people want to support all us retirees once they take our jobs, then sure, I'll retire. I'll do it today! Of course, I have no children. But surely Mr. Drezner thought out his position well enough to realize that he'll be supporting me if I retire?

i only experienced intergenerational conflict when i encountered US companies trying to make profits on empty under 35 year olds. i was astounded at the lack of respect for experience and knowledge in this group. What they do understand is power and political correctness. That is what has been passed down to all current generations. Blaming one generation serves little purpose. We need to restore the value of honesty, merit and integrity instead.

Sheesh. What is this, Wild Kingdom? Or perhaps, for the younger ones, NatGeo? I almost expect to see 40ish men in business suits locking horns with 50ish men in business suits.

Where does all this "get out of the way" aggression come from? There's room for everyone in a balanced workplace and society. Some people can and should continue to work as long as they want. Isn't that one of the changes that we have actively sought? Wasn't forcing people out at a certain age once considered ageism? Stereotyping people by when they were born is passe, didn't you know? Expecting people to do certain things at a certain age--or to stop doing certain things at a certain age--limits their potential as human beings. (I'll bet when you were in your 20s you thought your parents weren't having sex anymore.)

Baby Boomers, Gen X, Y, Z, P, S--all the generational tags--they're all media creations. And most media creations are anomalies. The creations may be based on some realities, but they are not reality. They are handy short-cuts, shorthand for the truth. There's a term for it: synechdoche. Believing that all people between 55 and 65 are selfish, or that all people between 35 and 55 are whiners (or whatever the characterization is, I forget) is like believing all people between 65 and 85 are heroes. Some are. Some aren't.

We're all in this together, like it or not. You can't have one generation without another. Not yet, anyhow.

As I listened to Dan Drezner's commentary regarding how Generation X, my generation, has been held down by the Baby Boomers because of their positioning in the workforce, a big grin grew on my face. How delighted I was to hear a contemporary, comment on the stranglehold that that generation has had over our ability to move up in the workforce. For years I have felt that "THEY" have thought of themselves as "THE GENERATION"; and anyone who questioned that did not know what they were talking about and thus their opinions irrelevant (or even nonsensical). Dan Drezner finally speaking out, shows that although we may not have the numbers like they do nor the sense of entitlement through power and positioning like they do, we are not voiceless, our thoughts do matter, we exist, and we are....Generation X. Kudos

While I sympathize with your view of baby boomers, your commentary unfortunately identifies with their collective sense of entitlement, detracting from what I imagine may (or may not) have been your underlying message: The old need to innovate and maintain their edge, or get the heck out of our way. Instead, you've just bought into their same tired old lines, by introducing your own. The pleasantly cold reality is that while this depression (DOH!) has inflicted and will continue to inflict much pain, it also serves as a wonderful opportunity for the truly innovative to outwork, outthink, and outmaneuver the stagnant, the fragile, and the dense, regardless of age or generation.

I think every person that writes, no matter what medium, no matter what age group hates baby boomers. At 53 I'm a boomer myself (and, by the way, Wendy, you were born in 59? you're a boomer also), and I'd rather hear criticisms any day from Gen X's or Y's than those baby boomer writers who are in love with themselves because they aren't nostalgic.

This isn't just affecting the typical white-collar offices. My wife is a first year teacher, and she was fortunate to find a part-time job this year. Next year, we would be lucky to do so well. Most of the teachers in our town are boomers, and many could have retired, but haven't in the last few years. Now it is even less likely that they will, because they and their families can't afford to financially, especially if their spouse has been laid off. The effect, though, is huge. Long-term teachers not only are keeping new teachers, and, unfortunately, also new ideas and methods out of the classroom, they are also costing districts more money because their salaries are higher. And these are districts which are facing budget cuts in the next year. But, because they are tenured, the district can't hire younger (and cheaper teachers). The result will be fewer teachers overall and thus larger class sizes. I feel for these boomers who have lost so much (they are, after all, my parents), but let's not forget that others are also suffering from their portfolios' declines.

"...two-thirds of this generation have not made the necessary adjustments in their financial planning."
Apparently, the professor needs a dose of common sense. Of course, we boomers have adjusted our planning: we have to work longer!


With Generous Support From...