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OPINION

Why Are We Still Governed by Baby Boomers and the Remarkably Old?

I’m curious about your opinion-LWH

Credit…Igor Bastidas
Yuval Levin

By Yuval Levin

Mr. Levin, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a contributing Opinion writer.

America’s top political leaders are remarkably old. Our president will turn 80 this year. His predecessor, who is contemplating running again, is about to turn 76. The speaker of the House is 82. The Republican leader in the Senate is 80, and his Democratic counterpart is a comparatively sprightly 71.

This is very unusual. And it’s not because this cohort has just gotten its turn at the wheel, but because it has held power for an exceptionally long time. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, whose presidencies spanned more than a quarter-century, were all born roughly within two months of one another in the summer of 1946. Nancy Pelosi has been the Democratic leader in the House for almost 20 years. Mitch McConnell has led Senate Republicans for about 15 years. Our politics has been largely in the hands of people born in the 1940s or early ’50s for a generation.

We should wish them all many more healthy years and be grateful for their long service. But we should also recognize the costs of their grip not only on American self-government but even on the country’s self-conception.

It’s often said that Americans now lack a unifying narrative. But maybe we actually have such a narrative, only it’s organized around the life arc of the older baby boomers, and it just isn’t serving us well anymore.

Consider what the country’s modern history looks like from the vantage point of an American born near the beginning of the postwar baby boom. Say you were born the same year as Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush and Mr. Trump, in 1946. Your earliest memories begin around 1950, and you recall the ’50s through the eyes of a child as a simple time of stability and wholesome values. You were a teenager in the early ’60s, and view that time through a lens of youthful idealism, rebellion and growing cultural self-confidence.

By the late 1960s and into the ’70s, as a 20-something entering the adult world, you found that confidence shaken. Idealism gave way to some cynicism about the potential for change, everything felt unsettled and the future seemed ominous and ambiguous. But by the 1980s, when you were in your 30s and early 40s, things had started settling down. Your work had some direction, you were building a family and concerns about mortgage payments largely replaced an ambition to transform the world.

By the 1990s, in your 40s and early 50s, you were comfortable and confident. It was finally your generation’s chance to take charge, and it looked to be working out.

As the 21st century dawned, you were still near the peak of your powers and earnings, but gradually peering over the hill toward old age. You soon found the 2000s filled with unexpected dangers and unfamiliar forces. The world was becoming less and less your own.

You reached retirement age in the 2010s amid growing uncertainty and instability. The culture was increasingly bewildering, and the economy seemed awfully insecure. The extraordinary blend of circumstances that defined the world of your youth seemed likely to be denied to your grandchildren. By now, it all feels that it’s spinning out of control. Is the chaotic, transformed country around you still the glittering land of your youth?

This portrait of changing attitudes is, of course, stylized for effect. But it offers the broad contours of how people often look at their world in different stages of life, yet also of how many Americans (and, crucially, not just the boomers) tend to understand our country’s postwar evolution. We see our history, and so ourselves, through the eyes of Americans now reaching their 80s.

As history, this narrative leaves a lot to be desired. But as a kind of pocket sociology of our time, it is utterly dominant. Almost every story we now tell ourselves about our country fits into some portion of the early-boomer life arc. And our politics is implicitly directed toward recapturing some part of the magic of the mid-20th-century America of boomer youth.

That moment — when many Americans trusted their leaders and went to church, when idealistic protests seemed to drive significant social change, when you didn’t need a college degree to get a union factory job that would let you support a family in the suburbs on one income — exerts an inexorable pull on our political imagination now. The parties blame each other for how far America has fallen from that standard, and politicians (old and young, left and right) implicitly promise a return to some facet of it.

That time was not imaginary. But it was not so simple either, particularly for people at the margins of the powerful mainstream consensus of the age. And it was a singular period made possible by an unrepeatable set of circumstances in the wake of the Second World War. We do ourselves no favors when we treat it as the American norm, when we ignore its costs and challenges, or when we cling to its glamour by keeping the people who lived that story in power as they age.

Our model of social change is still rooted in midcentury clichés. Younger Americans imagine that starting a family and owning a home was much easier for previous generations than it really was. They buy the broad outlines of the boomers’ nostalgia and take it to mean they are inheriting a desiccated society.

Confronting injustice, they almost unthinkingly re-enact the outward forms and symbols of college protests of the 1960s, generally to no effect. Our implicit definition of social cohesion takes for granted that midcentury moment, when America had not only been through a long stretch of intense mobilization in war and depression but was also less culturally diverse than at pretty much any time before or since.

Above all, though, our boomer sense of ourselves keeps us from orienting our society toward the future, and contributes to a broadly shared sense of despair about our country that is neither justified nor constructive. Our politics should prioritize planning for greater national strength in the medium term, but we can hardly expect quarreling octogenarians to have that future clearly in mind.

And yet, the solution is not youth politics either. In a new book on leadership, the former presidential adviser David Gergen is admirably frank in acknowledging that those born in the 1940s, like himself, should make room for new leaders. But he looks for them among the youngest Americans. “Millions of baby boomers and alumni of the Silent Generation are starting to leave the stage, to be replaced by millennials and Gen Zers,” he writes.

Maybe I take this personally, having just turned 45, but Mr. Gergen blithely skips over Americans born in the 1960s and ’70s. Maybe he can’t quite fathom middle-aged leadership. Yet middle-aged leadership may be exactly what we now require.

Many American institutions seem locked in battles between well-meaning but increasingly uncomprehending leaders in their 70s and a rising generation, in their 20s and early 30s, bent on culture war and politicization and seemingly unconcerned with institutional responsibilities. Our politics has the same problem — simultaneously overflowing with the vices of the young and the old, and so often falling into debates between people who behave as though the world will end tomorrow and those who think it started yesterday. The vacuum of middle-aged leadership is palpable.

There are some politicians of that middle generation — some members of Congress and governors, even our vice president. Yet they have not broken through as defining cultural figures and political forces. They have not made this moment their own, or found a way to loosen the grip of the postwar generation on the nation’s political imagination.

A middle-aged mentality traditionally has its own vices. It can lack urgency, and at its worst it can be maddeningly immune to both hope and fear, which are essential spurs to action. But if our lot is always to choose among vices, wouldn’t the temperate sins of midlife serve us well just now?

Generational analyses are unavoidably sweeping and crude, and no one is simply a product of a birth cohort. But in our frenzied era, it’s worth looking for potential sources of stability and considering not only what we have too much of in America and should want to demolish and be rid of but also what we do not have enough of and should want to build up.

We plainly lack grounded, levelheaded, future-oriented leaders. And like it or not, that means we need a more middle-aged politics and culture.

Yuval Levin, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of National Affairs and the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”

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