Remove the Boomer Virus and What Virus Remains?

Photograph Source: Alan Levine – CC BY 2.0

In a recent eruption of internet chatter the Gen Z’s and millennials called Covid-19 the “Boomer Remover” virus (“Gen Z, Millennials Wallow in Self-Pity as They Mock Potential Deadly Hit on Elderly,” Vivek Saxena, BizPac Review, 3/13/20). This species of youth surely doesn’t want the geriatric set to pass, but this is symptomatic of a pervasive anxiety about the endless wars and economic dips and pathological violence they’ve inherited. Threats of extinction from climate change and disease compound the dread. The boomers of course know what this means. For a good chunk of their existence they were the “bomb culture,” victims of a Cold War pathology that brought civilization to the brink of nuclear annihilation. This didn’t endear them to their elders who orchestrated this madness.

What’s truly tragic is that the virus is now apparently mutating and will soon perhaps spare no group. A significant number of young people are now being infected in Europe and Asia, and the trend is for patients to be younger and younger. According to Fiona Lowenstein, nearly 40% of hospitalized Covid-19 patients in the US are under 54 years of age (“I’m 26. Coronavirus Sent Me to the Hospital,” New York Times, 3/23/20). A recent CDC report shows that up to 20% of people hospitalized in the US are young adults between the ages of 20 and 44 (Pam Belluck, “Younger Adults Make Up Big Portion of Coronavirus Hospitalizations,” New York Times, 3/18/20). And many health workers are young too.

It’s dangerous to generalize about categories like generations whether it’s the boomers or the more recent Gen Z’s and millennials. They represent a diversity of trends and styles and strains of thinking, and much of what they include is at risk of being distorted or repressed without some perspectives on the contexts which orchestrated them.

When the Democratic presidential race was still a dynamic contest, before it folded into establishment irrationality, the hope for many was that youth would deliver the progressive option, and us, from the evil of the same ole consequence. We expected this because Sanders’ campaign was ascending and the lessons from 2016 were still fresh in our minds. The deliverance was unexpected; the numbers weren’t there. Too many from the youth contingent were perhaps put off by stale images of Sanders pointing and doting, or merely anxious that “socialism” might not lead to the riches they were after, or zapped by a me-first virus that sent them to the beach for enlightenment. Escaping to the beach is hardly a bad thing. The proximity to fluids and warmth can temper your disposition and give you a fresh insight on what’s happening, and heat has the potential to neutralize viruses. Too much of it, however, might stroke you into dropping out and supporting a more odious geriatric result by default.

It’s ironic that the two oldest white candidates are the last men standing and they’re barely outside the boomer age range (more fuel for the Gen Z’s and millennials). But since the energy, in the Sanders campaign at least, is youth-infused for the most part, we must wonder if ideas can be assigned an age pedigree. And the youth candidate, Mayor Pete, who offered to turn the page to new ideas, left a blank one as he exited the race and endorsed the other oldster who represents the system that has victimized the Gen Z’s and millennials and a pretty good swatch of boomers as well.

The boomers, the early tranche at any rate, were accidents of history spermed to prominence by a perfect storm. Their parents for the most part grew up through an era that included years of instability, from the 1929 crash through the Great Depression and the sacrifices of WWII. Normal family life was suspended during this stretch, giving the soldiers returning from the war in 1945 a capacious desire to satisfy their pent-up demands. The drive to procreate and marry was epic, and there was a high concentration of babies born within a very brief stretch of time. Great news for the childcare industry forward but this birthing blip—followed soon by smaller blips—swelled with consequences into the future in bloated schools and inflated pre-signups for Social Security.

While the boomers were admittedly associated with the generation born in a time of great opportunity, when the economy was quite productive and more inclusive, leaping many of them over their parents, they found themselves facing a glutted job market soon after in the 1970’s, a decade of economic downturn and shrinking opportunity, the start of a process that witnessed the weakening of unions, stagnating wages and an overall decrease in mobility, all of which finally registered in a shrinking middle class and the increase in inequality.

A slightly longer historical narrative gives us insight into important influences on the above events. This extends from a few years before the Depression, the aftermath of WWI and the process of cleaning up its effects, particularly that which made Germany pay its debts. An unfortunate victim in a useless war that collapsed the Habsburg empire, an umbrella of stability despite its regressive strains, Germany was forced to pay too severely, to the point of having its industrial wealth removed from the country. This inflamed the already-ascendant, antisemitic right which marshalled together the momentum and resources that led to WWII (AJP Taylor, The Origins of World War II). A satisfactory resolution of the ideological rifts that consumed this historical moment was surely not in the cards anyway, but a world without WWII would’ve given us a saner and more evenly-generated birthing scenario.

Excessive austerity had consequences in war, and the war itself produced debts that went beyond immediate financial transfers. The boomers were assets—wealth-potential units—and liabilities, balance-sheet babies whose numbers over time revealed an indebtedness that exceeded the capacity of the system to retire it. Another facet of that declining economy in the 1970’s was the start of the phasing out of private pensions, nominally due to the capital and profits crunch, but the idea caught on and this has forced more and more to rely on Social Security as they reach retirement, unable to get their 401K’s up to snuff with the flattening of wages that began early in this decade. The 2008 financial crisis wiped out many of the private pensions that were left, but unfortunately the Federal government’s back-up fund in place to cover these pensions had nearly dried up.

The claims on Social Security have forced neoliberal Republicans and Democrats to call for cutbacks to avoid insolvency. And many of the young agree, fearing their futures are being mortgaged by this looming debt crisis, coupling their concerns with critical slants against entitlements, read “welfare.” But this crisis is a phony one. The boomers and others have paid into this system through payroll taxes their whole lives. It’s an insurance system but many don’t seem to realize it. The swelling numbers of claimants are merely unpaid debts from WWII. This is an unfortunate link between war and Social Security.

Another link between war and Social Security is the raiding of its coffers to fund the Iraq debacle in 2003, a story the media did its best to repress then and after. We already had budget problems from the economic hit in the aftermath of 9/11, wiping out the surplus from the Clinton years, and George Bush’s administration pushed through two tax cut packages to “stimulate the economy,” further bloating the deficit (that interestingly survived his administration in time for another financial snafu, to be dealt with through Obama’s austerity regime). Giving back treasury wealth to the 1% (those who overwhelmingly received the checks in the mail) made it difficult to finance another war, but the solution existed in tapping into the boomers’ insurance stash, the subsequent shortages then redefined and used as the rationale for austerity.

Tragically, many victims of our changed economy didn’t make it to cash-out time due to the decline in life expectancy for a considerable chunk of citizens from the lower classes.

Support for privatizing pensions, strong among the younger generation, is bred from the absorption of the neoliberal script that government is inefficient and prevents personal control and customization of their own tax revenue that will enable them to invest it with greater potential wealth outcomes, mitigating the perceived theft from tax transfers. A tantalizing notion. But the Wall Street firms who manage the investments will take their sizable commissions, and if the system we have now continues unabated the meager number of private pensions remaining will be periodically wiped out from the ever-recurrent recessions that cement the neoliberal economic order. The dearth of private pensions in the lead-up to the Great Depression in 1929 is what led the Rockefellers and other members of the upper class to advocate for a system like Social Security. When the younger generation reaches retirement age, forty or so years from now, how many of them will pine for a public pension system?

The Gen Z’s and millennials are understandably concerned as well with the existential threat from the endless wars, yet there’s more than a repressed link between Social Security and war to consider. The colossal outlays for the military, now in a seemingly upward spiral, are draining resources away from education and infrastructural investment and mortgaging their future. Who’s the culprit here?

The boomers were hardly complicit with the first plank in constructing the contemporary war machine, the Vietnam War. A significant number rebelled against their parents over it, forming a mass movement—SDS, whose activists were mostly Sanders’ age—on a scale not even remotely matched by any generation since. The retrenchment of the military during the Carter years after the loss in Vietnam was short-lived, as Reagan—another white geriatric default candidate from the pre-boomer generation—entrenched it for posterity to pursue the final Cold War battles against the Soviets. This entire budget-busting push in the 1980’s was eons away from SDS’s central belief in anti-anti-communism, to temper the obsession with destroying this artificial enemy in favor of finding a third way. George Bush Sr., from Reagan’s generation, migrated the machine to the Mideast to confront another enemy in Iraq War 1. Bill Clinton drifted with the new political imperative, engaging covertly with the embryonic Al-Qaeda, killing innocent civilians in the bargain with mistaken rockets attacks.

Newt Gingrich was constantly ragging on Clinton for being a member of the counterculture, a coming-of-age identity tag for many boomers, but this labeling was a slur to discredit what Clinton tried to do early in his administration of a liberal nature (like pass single payer health care), and such initiatives were lacking after the Republicans took Congress in 1994. Clinton’s lifestyle in the 1960’s suggested little affiliation with the counterculture anyway, and counter-culturalism is an apolitical impulse. It’s interesting that when cornered about allegations he used marijuana, he responded in the affirmative but apologetically qualified his actions by saying he didn’t inhale.

There was a blurb on the net a while back to the effect that the hippies had their chance to change society and they blew it. Well, Clinton was the only power figure even remotely associated with the era when hippies existed, the counterculture moment very broadly construed, and when given the timely opportunity to dismantle the military machine he inherited from the previous generation and oversee the moment of finally freeing the country from the shackles of Cold War deficit madness, he opted to keep its numbers and strength mostly in tact to safeguard the areas around the globe where our corporations did business!

George Bush Jr., a shirt-tail boomer who definitely inhaled, teething his future in politics only a few years before running for president, was dedicated to redeeming his pop’s Iraq bloopers in Iraq War 2, even packing his administration with his cronies.

Barack Obama, seven years George’s junior, erupted on the national stage with claims of new ideas to break the logjam of the sclerotic ones he inherited but did some packing of his own with the same ole parents and sold his perpetuation of the war machine in the cultural wrappings of “hope and change.”

Then there’s the war against the planet, the machine that requires ever more energy, whether dirty or clean, to feed and deliver consumer goods to the booming numbers of bodies all over the globe. This is understandably of great concern to the young who will have to live with these effects. And the boomers are an easy target here since the heated-up consumer society is synonymous with their coming of age. Though it’s interesting to note that the introduction to The Port Huron Statement, SDS’s manifesto for change published in 1961, begins with a critique of consumerism, saying its excesses are a virtual drug that’s blinding people to the real social problems around them.

The entrenched alliance of corporate and governmental interests that continues the climate wars is mostly the same one that perpetuates the permanent war economy, and the fact that neither one appears solvable or even manageable speaks to forces at play that are larger than generations or marketing niches. These forces need to be rooted out with a counter-alliance made up of a cross-section of players and generations.

Neoliberalism is the master virus that induces us to go along and defer to private market initiatives, a mostly invisible disease that for some reason can’t be currently medicated or removed. It creates victims, sick subjects. The Gen Z’s and millennials are its most recent casualties, the last economic reversal from a decade ago having destroyed many of their employment prospects, the system leaping over them in a sense. They’ve learned that the system cares little about them (Kary Love, “Boomer Remover,” CounterPunch, 3/23/20).

Succumbing to the irrational effects from this master virus’s application to social and everyday life confuses perspectives, but there must be a way to medicate as the deaths mount up from this invisible force. Perhaps we can all come to see the truth through the effects of this master virus by toking alternative information streams or experimenting with new substances that can reconfigure the coordinates of space and time to absorb more stretches of history. Pumped by Aldous Huxley’s research, the boomers resorted to synthetics, like LSD, to remove the clutter and noise from the experience of their convoluted time to grasp the essential truth. A refinement of these substances might equip us with the upgrades to pilot ourselves through the viral swamps of the Trump era.

John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His recent book is Toward Election 2020: Cancel Culture, Censorship and Class