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The case for a millennial president Biden's successor must bury the Boomer era

Millennials J.D. Vance and Josh Hawley (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Millennials J.D. Vance and Josh Hawley (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


July 11, 2024   5 mins

As Capitol Hill groans under the weight of panicking Democrats, there is one sign of hope for those caught in the disarray: once regarded as a political impossibility, Joe Biden’s decline has cleared the way for a replacement candidate — who could make good on the President’s 2020 promise to be merely a “transitional candidate” who would bridge the generations in the party.

Looking at the names being floated over the past week, there are two possible successor generations: Generation X and millennial. Yet of those being touted — Vice President Kamala Harris, Governors Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, J.B. Pritzker and Andy Beshear, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg — only one, Buttigieg, does not belong to Gen X (while Harris, born in 1964, straddles the line). This is a shame. For while there is little doubt that the United States is overdue for generational change, it is not at all clear that Gen X embodies the kind of change that America needs.

Both these generations have been known to chafe under the suffocating domination of their Boomer predecessors; and both have gone through phases of rebellion against the same. Yet there are also crucial differences: one generation came of age in the heyday of globalisation, before Y2K and the other reached adulthood at the tail end of it around the 2008 crash. This has resulted in two distinct forms of political consciousness. As a consequence, beneath the question of which geriatric party establishment shall hold the keys to power in the next four years, a more important one looms: which generational value set will prevail over the next 40? For the present era is a one of paradigmatic transition: the days of Reagan, Clinton, and Bush are at a close, but what will replace it is still far from certain.

To answer this, we must return to the Boomers. Born after the war, this cohort grew up amid the greatest expansion of middle-class wealth ever recorded — the product of the dynamic industrial economy left behind by the G.I. generation. By the Seventies, however, it began to stagnate, and their response was to build a new economy based largely on financialisation, real estate and tech. As a result, between 1983 and 2023, average house prices rose by 500% and the value of stocks as measured by the S&P 500 benchmark index grew by 2,800%. Cheap credit, free trade, and a tech-driven productivity boom in the Nineties combined with these trends to give the impression of an economy growing in leaps and bounds. And it paid dividends, mainly for the Boomers, who got to keep the lion’s share of the gains, amounting to half the nation’s assets ($78.3 trillion in 2023), even as later events, such as the Great Recession and the reckoning over “the China Shock” exposed the growth of this era as illusory and unsustainable.

By the 2020s, as Boomer retirements accelerate, Gen Xers and millennials are set to inherit this wealth, in what’s been dubbed “the Great Wealth Transfer“. To what end this wealth is deployed will be the defining question of the next paradigm. And it is here where the divide between the Gen X and millennial political value sets come into play.

The romantic self-image of the Gen Xers is grounded in traits such as independence and stoicism: they were the “latchkey kids”, or as Rich Cohen put it in Vanity Fair, “the last Americans schooled in the old manner [who] know how to fold a newspaper, take a joke, and listen to a dirty story without losing their minds”. In their youth, anti-political cynicism formed the basis of their own counter-counterculture against the passé idealism of the Boomers.

Yet in its maturity, around the turn of the millennium, this cohort failed to produce a properly political expression that was practically distinct from the post-Reagan status quo, which they could only assent to, notwithstanding the directionless anti-corporate currents of the Clinton years or the anti-war movement of the Bush years. After all, these were peak “End of History” decades and the free market appeared to be humming just fine. Though not as socially mobile as the Boomers and despite having had to deal with recession in the early Nineties, Gen Xers still benefited from the boom times that followed; they had an overall easier time starting careers, forming households, and joining the middle class than the later post-2008 millennial cohorts. The same individualist ethos extolled by the likes of Cohen or Bret Easton Ellis worked well within the parameters of the highly atomised post-industrial paradigm that existed before the big crash: Gen X could afford to retain the apathy and detachment of their youth because, structurally speaking, there were little to no stakes.

“This cohort failed to produce a properly political expression that was practically distinct from the post-Reagan status quo.”

Of course, Gen Xers were, like everyone else, affected by the Great Recession. But by this point, their institutional conservatism had arguably been baked into their generational character; and it would, in any event, have been unlikely for them to develop revolutionary aspirations in middle age (something left to the millennials). In the contest for a Biden replacement, this conservatism is discernible, albeit very subtly concealed, in the stances and rhetoric of the Gen Xer candidates.

In a recent New York Times interview, for instance, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, born in 1971, made her case for generational change: “We recognise that our parents’ generation has had a lot of excess. So I’m hopeful that we can really move the needle, whether it’s bringing down our nation’s debt or ensuring that we are active when it comes to climate and solidifying and protecting individual rights.” Here, strikingly, Whitmer’s unit of analysis remains “individual”. She also lists the debt as her leading issue, reflecting a scale of priorities unchanged from Boomer liberalism’s high noon in the Nineties, when fiscal rectitude, environmentalism, and social progressivism were the orders of the day.

Listening to Newsom, Pritzker or Harris, one also struggles to find awareness of political horizons outside this paradigm. Indeed, it may very well be that the whole idea of thinking in terms of material economic structures is anathema to the Gen X as well as the Boomer mindset, having been conditioned against that possibility by the “post-materialist” abundance of their formative years.

Contrast this with Buttigieg’s words when he was last a presidential contender in 2019: “A lot of this is the consequence of what you might call the Reagan consensus… The empirical collapse of that supply side consensus, I think, is one of the defining moments of this period… It turns out a rising tide does not lift all boats. Not on its own.” Where Whitmer has “the individual”, the unit of analysis here is “the paradigm” — that is, the web of structures, norms and rules which set the range of possibilities for most Americans.

In recognising the passage of paradigms, Buttigieg is arguably closer to fellow millennials on the progressive, post-Occupy Left and the heterodox “New Right” than he is to his ostensible fellow centrist liberals from the Gen X cohort. While late Boomers like Barack Obama and Gen Xers like Jake Sullivan might have also acknowledged the need to transcend Reaganism-Clintonism, they have often had to come to their conclusions through reflection. But what is merely theoretical to them is all too real to most politically conscious millennials, who grew up in the wreckage of the old order. Unlike the Gen Xers, their youthful rebellions were explicitly political on both ends of the ideological spectrum.

In particular, there is a compelling parallel between Buttigieg and fellow millennial rising star (and prospective Trump VP candidate) J.D. Vance. Both hail from de-industrialised hinterlands, are veterans of Bush-era forever wars, and have expressed desires to break from their parties’ Boomer-era orthodoxies on political economy, even as they continue to hold opposing views on social issues. It recalls the dynamic between Clinton and Bush: they might have disagreed on abortion or gay rights, but the common denominator between them — support for financialisaton and globalisation — nonetheless underpinned the last consensus.

And today, so too might the common denominator between the millennial Right and Left give rise to a new consensus based on de-financialisation and national re-industrialisation, a worthy goal to which the flow of American capital and investment may be directed, as “the Great Wealth Transfer” begins to unfold. Unlike the Boomers, who sucked the world dry, or the Gen Xers, who failed to do anything about it, the millennials may yet leave a better and fairer country to those that follow in Generations Z, Alpha, and beyond. The elevation of a president from this generation, from either party, would likely hasten the realisation of this hopeful future.


Michael Cuenco is a writer on policy and politics. He is Associate Editor at American Affairs.
1TrueCuencoism

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Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
11 days ago

The way finance dominates our economy is indeed dispiriting. Asset prices in both housing and stocks have soared to heights that just don’t make sense. My two sons are caught in that bind, and their lives have been very different than mine was.
Though they have had a lot more money and things than my wife and I had growing up, they didn’t have the opportunities. By scholarships, part-time jobs, and taking a year off to work between college and law school, I was able to pay my own way through both college and law school. That wasn’t in the cards for my sons. They had to come begging to me.
I don’t know the solution. No one else seems to either. I wish we could come up with something better than just the Biden-type government handouts that solve the problem for some but make it worse for the rest of us.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
11 days ago

JD Vance is a young Biden. Saying the right things to the right audience at the right time (at least, per the pundits and handlers).

I’ll pass, thank you.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
11 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I don’t care about what he says to audiences at rallies. What matters to me is he can do things like speak about industrial capacity in America’s defense industries at length while being concise and coherent. There is also the quiet work in the Senate he never gets any credit for like sponsoring legislation to change the tax code so American taxpayers are no longer subsidizing corporate mergers.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
10 days ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

A leader who is homo sapiens erectus and coherent? Someone pick me up off the floor.

Henry Brookman
Henry Brookman
11 days ago

The article fails at the first step. Define what you mean by “Generation X”.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
11 days ago
Reply to  Henry Brookman

Google it, like anybody else.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
11 days ago
Reply to  Henry Brookman

Born between the mid 60’s and early 80’s. Wasn’t that difficult to find really

Geoff W
Geoff W
11 days ago

Yes, folks: Feeble drivel based on sweeping and unsupported generalisations about generations is why I spend good money subscribing to UnHerd.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
11 days ago
Reply to  Geoff W

What do you disagree with? Do you not agree that Millennials would have a different political economic outlook having started their working lives during and after the credit crunch, as opposed to Boomers and Gen X who had got themselves financially stable before it hit? Do you not think the record low home ownership rates amongst the two youngest cohorts will lead to them possibly seeing things differently to their forebears?

Geoff W
Geoff W
11 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

While the generational thing has some validity, it’s an invitation to lazy thinking (the author’s, not yours). This is demonstrated by the fatuity of the remark about how “Harris, born in 1964, straddles the line” between two generations – If you think about that in narrow categories, what does it actually mean? That she has some characteristics of each generation? If so, which characteristics of which generation, and why? Or does she have no characteristics of either generation? If so, why? Or is she (together with all those born between 1 January and 31 December 1964) a generation unto herself? I’m exaggerating a bit, but these lazy categories (“OK, Boomer”) are the enemy of proper thought and useful analysis.
It makes much more sense to think in terms of reactions to major events such as the credit crunch, as you do. But there I’d argue that age is only one factor: economics, class, culture and so on are also important. To take your example, Millennials of a particular social or economic background could be financially stable despite the credit crunch.
Incidentally, I once read somewhere that the Baby Boom finished in 1961, and Generation Something-or-Other began in 1963. As I was born in 1962, I felt confused, and neglected!

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  Geoff W

I feel for you! Not being lumped up into whatever group and, worse even, not being labelled as a member of a group is an existential tragedy, indeed…
Hope someone will come to the rescue. Maybe the author of the article?

Point of Information
Point of Information
11 days ago

If we’re going to select via generational stereotypes, can I suggest a Generation Alpha* candidate? Those I’ve encountered are rarely the sensitive and anxious millenials and gen Zers embodied by this article.

*2010-2024

kate Dunlop
kate Dunlop
11 days ago

Unlike the Boomers, who sucked the world dry” Gosh- the last permissible prejudice? Such a weary and facile attack on people who got on with the hand they were dealt…

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  kate Dunlop

Indeed. And shouldn’t all these accusations levelled against the Boomers be qualified as hate speech?
Seriously, it’s really concerning how easily some people find a “class enemy” based on whatever characteristics: age, gender, political leanings, etc. And somehow it is never considered discriminatory when the target is “the oppressor” and the accuser belongs to the group of the “good guys”.
All this atomisation of society and pitting people against one another is a very dangerous trend that, unfortunately is becoming more and more pronounced and entrenched.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
10 days ago

Can’t get rid of tribalism. When it’s not channeled into something reasonably constructive and conducive to peace and civil order in a given community or area, something like nationalism, cultural loyalty, race, or religion, it simply manifests in people drawing lines almost at random, and what could be more random than the arbitrary year of birth cutoffs that delineate the generations, delineations and definitions that were decided by who the hell knows using nobody’s quite sure what criteria for fill in your own purpose here.

Vesselina Zaitzeva
Vesselina Zaitzeva
10 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

So true!

Dr Illbit
Dr Illbit
10 days ago
Reply to  kate Dunlop

Sounds like there is more than a touch of self-pity in this comment.

How unlike a Boomer to be in denial over the plight of the world their generation have created and make it all about themselves as an individual.

Oh well, you’re not done yet, I’m sure you will avert WW3, re-introduce a sound international monetary order, and revive Western democracies at the 11th hour. Right about now…

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
11 days ago

There may be something more tedious than generational stereotyping, but at the moment, I’m not sure what it is. Who is this great non-Boomer savior who’ll save the US?
Vice President Kamala Harris, Governors Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, Josh Shapiro, J.B. Pritzker and Andy Beshear, and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg —–> Who in this motley crew inspires anyone in any meaningful way? No one. And it doesn’t matter who is technically Gen-X or Millennial. Each of these people has a track record, none of them particularly good. At some point, competence has to matter.
This is lazy thinking, conveniently lumping people who created a world that the author takes for granted into his basket of deplorables. Where have we heard that before? But, please; tell me again how great a step forward the Millennials represent.

Dr Illbit
Dr Illbit
10 days ago

“ The romantic self-image of the Gen Xers is grounded in traits such as independence and stoicism”

More like self-indulgance and dissafection.

You can’t blame them though, being the children of the ‘68 generation. Steeped in a therapeutic, moral-relativist, MTV culture and with the style-over-substance, narcissistic Boomer generation as parents, they never stood a chance of any deep kind of self-reflection. It was all about mummy and daddy, and they have spent thier lives studying the messed up psycho-drama that they must navigate to make any socially accepted ‘success’ of their lives.

Ayn Rand, Nietszche, and Freud were the intellectual gas-lights that mis-guided their entire generation on the rocks of nihilism.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
10 days ago

The problem with the millenials is their anger, largely directed at the Boomers. With the co-ordinated move around the developed world to tax assets rather than income (incomr being arguably maxed out dependent on country and economic model) one can see Boomer/gen Xer leaders eyeing up the Boomer triliions and wanting a share given no growth economies. This will be as nothing compared with the Millenial cohort who will bring an excoriating sense of personal injustice to the debate. Torsten Bell and the Resolution Foundation was always my canary in the coalmine. Part of our decision to leave the UK was based on working out the new Labour intake and rrcognising that they would be remarkably young, and remarkably bent on revenge (i mean social justice). Whilst many take a “wait and see” approach, I decided “your first loss is your least loss” (mostly SDLT/exit costs) particularly at time where capital preservation is more important than capital growth and financial repression is stalking.

Fafa Fafa
Fafa Fafa
10 days ago

The elevation of a president from generations Z,and alpha would likely hasten the realisation of a hopeful future. Writes Michael Cuenco, a member of those generations. A bit self-serving, no? Yes.

On a related matter, I find this sharp delineation between generations strange. First of all, the same amount of people were born between the mid-1960s and mid 1980s then between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s so why is one a “generation” and another is not. But whatever, people like to categorize themselves. It’s like astrological signs.

But the fact that is actually occurs is even more interesting. I don’t think there were defined “generations” the before the middle of the last century, there were just older and younger people, and the younger ones were slowly moving into the “older” category. It is started in an age where the intergenerational transfer of information has diminished. It began with the Boomers defining themselves as separate (the “don’t trust anyone ver 30” idiocy) then kicked to a higher gear with people self-grouping on social media.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 days ago

There isn’t one!