Boomers and privilege

I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse; what can be a useful tool for analysis among like-minded persons does not always translate well to a wider context. For example, when white people of the professional and upper middle classes gain awareness of how they have personally benefited from structural racism, they may find it helpful when speaking with others who are challenging structural racism to use the phrase “white privilege”; in that context, “white privilege” becomes a useful shorthand way of referring to the specific benefits professional and upper middle class white people get from structural racism. However, when professional and upper middle class white people use the term “white privilege” in public discourse, working class whites can rightfully challenge them on at least two counts: first, the experience of white working class people in accessing the fruits of structural racism is different from that of white people of the professional and upper middle classes; second, white working class people have themselves been the targets of discrimination by white professional and upper middle class people (for one example, see Nancy Isenberg’s analysis of why upper middles class whites embraced eugenics, in her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America).

A big part of the problem here, I think, is that the nuances of intersectional analysis get lost in public discourse — “white privilege” is a short-hand phrase that sums up a good deal of thoughtful analysis, and short-hand phrases often do not translate well to the public arena. Obviously, the same applies to the phrase “male privilege,” another phrase that is sometimes used in public discourse. Nevertheless, just because I’m critical of using the language of privilege in public discourse, I do find that talking about privilege is helpful when I’m trying to analyze structural inequalities; with the caveat that when you’re dealing with individual people, one individual can experience more than one kind of structural inequality. So it’s important not to reify specific kinds of privilege, e.g., “white privilege” is an abstraction, not an actual thing.

With all that in mind, I’d like to explore the notion that here in the U.S. Baby Boomers have some kind of privilege. “Boomer privilege,” if it exists, arose for a couple of demographic reasons. First, there are large numbers of Boomers, and so it is easy for them to find many others who share a set of life-shaping experiences; because of this, it’s easy for Boomers to assume that their experiences are normative, and then to extend what they perceive as normative to other generations who may have a quite different set of experiences. This perception of what is normative is similar to one of the generating causes of white privilege, dating from when whites comprised the vast majority of the U.S. population: “whiteness” came to be seen by many white people as normative.

Second, because they have long made up a statistically significant portion of the U.S. population, the mechanisms of consumer capitalism have worked to supply their needs. Boomers can be fairly sure of finding a wide array of products and services tailored to their desires and needs. This is true of both the for-profit and non-profit sectors of society; so, for example, we should see the AARP increasingly tailoring its initiatives to what it perceives Boomers want and need. And this is true across a wide range of other identities; recently, I’ve been reading Elizabeth White’s 2016 book Fifty-five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal, aimed at all those Boomers who face poor job prospects, inadequate savings, and general downward mobility; while it may seem inaccurate to call Boomers caught in downward mobility “privileged,” those Boomers have this book written for them, and due to their large numbers they have a better chance of organizing some kind of political action to assist them, e.g., using AARP. (Full disclosure: as a downwardly-mobile Boomer, I’m part of the target market for White’s book.)

Beyond these pretty straightforward demographic reasons, there are, I believe, some other reasons why “Boomer privilege” may exist. These reasons get harder to define, but I think they may be useful as analytical tools when trying to understand Boomer identity. Most notably, on the political side, Boomers grew up in an era of protest politics, and I believe this shared experience of a certain era in the U.S. political scene has shaped Boomer political sensibilities. We Boomers are more likely to default to protest politics, instead of other approaches, e.g., building coalitions. By virtue of our large numbers, we have established protest politics as a norm, for both conservatives and liberals, with the interesting result that protests will attract counter-protesters. By contrast, protest politics can be differentiated from earlier forms of public assembly, such as labor union activity in the early twentieth century, or the “Communist” witch hunts of the 1950s. Boomer protest politics involves rallies and demonstrations in political centers and/or public places, more than in front of manufacturing facilities as with unions, or in behind-the-scenes blacklisting networks.

Also notable is the fact that because there are so many Boomers, they find it relatively easy to dominate other age groups, just by virtue of their numbers. So, for example, Boomers can influence local politics through, e.g., less avid support of funding public schools now that their children are no longer in school (or, won’t be in school much longer). Boomers can also influence non-profit institutions and other institutions in a similar way: because there are so many of them, their generational biases are more likely to be heard. As an example of this, I have heard it reported that Boomers tend to be skeptical of cloud computing, so when they dominate the leadership of a non-profit they can hinder the migration of the non-profit’s email to a cloud server, instead opting to use locally-hosted email products such as Office 365.

I think there’s a pretty good case to be made that Boomers can take some things for granted simply because of their large numbers, compared to the succeeding generations; using the analytical tool of privilege can help us see that fact and understand what’s going on. In addition, Boomers tend to be unaware that they can take some things for granted simply because there are so many of them; here again using privilege as an analytical tool helps us understand why they are unaware, and what we can do to make them more aware. In short, I think there’s a case to be made for speaking of “Boomer privilege” — if and only if we do not attempt to reify “Boomer privilege” into a thing; and if and only if we further acknowledge the “Boomer privilege” is far less insidious and damaging than, e.g., white privilege and male privilege. Also, it should be obvious from my opening paragraph that I do not think it is right to use the term “Boomer privilege” in public discourse; that is, it would be intellectually bankrupt to use the phrase in a letter to your representative in Congress, or in a discussion in a business meeting at the General assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

To be even more specific, I believe “Boomer privilege” can be a useful tool for analyzing institutional dynamics within Unitarian Universalist congregations, and within Unitarian Universalism as a whole. Those of us who are Boomers — and I am one — can challenge our fellow Boomers and point out ways in which we are making unconscious assumptions that are in our own self-interests. This must take a lower priority to using the analytical tools of “white privilege” and “male privilege” and “class privilege”; yet since all oppressions are linked, we cannot avoid looking at even minor forms of oppression, and see how those minor forms of oppression help perpetuate major forms of oppression.

Comments policy: Before commenting, please review my comments policy. In addition, comments where it’s obvious you did not read the post carefully will be deleted and replace by the phrase “Comment deleted, commenter obviously did not read post.” Unfortunately, these warnings are necessary due to past experiences with defensive Boomer commenters.

2 thoughts on “Boomers and privilege”

  1. Boomer privilege exists for richer Boomers, but not for poorer ones. How is the idea then useful? The concerns of Boomers include the cost of health care and the difficulty of finding work. Does that separate them from the poorer members of any other group? What is the major form of oppression, if not capitalism itself?

  2. Will, I agree that the major form of oppression is capitalism itself. I would say Boomer privilege, to the extent to which it exists, comes from the fact that consumer capitalism created the class of Baby Boomers as a major market for consumer goods. We might even say that Boomers become a commodity to be exploited. Now that Boomers are no longer a desirable market for consumer goods, the emphasis has switched to getting Boomer money through health care; health care in the U.S. is fully integrated into consumer capitalism. And Boomers are out of work for the very simple reason that they are too expensive — consumer capitalism prefers younger workers who do not expect a W2 job, who will work long hours as contractors so that the employer can subvert labor law and does not have to provide benefits, etc.

    As to whether Boomer privilege exists for poorer Boomers, I would argue that in one very specific sense it does — if you use intersectional analysis, looking at the the total complex of forces impinging on the individual. So if you look at a specific economic stratum, I would argue that Boomers have a small advantage within that economic stratum simply by virtue of their numbers; if there is an attempt at collective action within that age group, Boomers by virtue of their numbers may prioritize their own generation’s concerns. Similarly for Boomers within other oppressed groups.

    I believe this is an important point to keep in mind because one way consumer capitalism has worked to keep people in line is to separate them in various ways, e.g., capitalism notoriously worked to separate the concerns of poor whites from poor blacks using race (Isenberg’s book is pretty god on this point, but it has been documented elsewhere, too). So as a Boomer myself, I try to keep in mind that I am not immune to the separation that capitalism tries to induce — and therefore work to build alliances across generations, racial groups, genders, etc.

    It is in this narrow sense that I believe the phrase “Boomer privilege” is a useful analytical tool — as long as we don’t reify “Boomer privilege” into an actual thing, something that happens too often in public discourse about identity politics.

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