Debate | Do baby boomers owe millennials an apology?

British sociologist Jennie Bristow debates U.S. author Bruce Cannon Gibney over the baby boom generation and its legacy for the world. Should boomers be held responsible for high house prices, the climate crisis, national debts and the woes of millennials?

Sociologist Jennie Bristow says we need to call off the ‘generation wars’ altogether

Bruce Cannon Gibney and Jennie Bristow are on opposite sides of the ‘Boomer-blaming' debate. They are both aware of each other's work, but had never spoken directly until IDEAS brought them together for this episode. (Submitted by Bruce Cannon Gibney and Jennie Bristow )

Jennie Bristow says the Boomer generation gets blamed for everything these days, and that the fingerpointing is unfair.

"I don't think they did have it easy," said Bristow, a sociologist in the U.K.

"I think it's become an off-the-peg narrative that's used to account for the failures of policy-making in the present day."

She says the characterization of boomers as greedy, selfish, and pulling up the economic ladder behind them is a distraction. Politicians can place blame on boomers as a way of justifying cuts to pensions and other social programs.

"What it does it lower people's expectations about what to expect when they're older," Bristow told IDEAS host, Nahlah Ayed.

That argument doesn't wash, according to venture capitalist and author, Bruce Cannon Gibney.

He argues that the boomer generation is unique in the way it has skewed policy towards its own interests at the expense of future generations. Gibney points to the forecast insolvency of many pension funds as evidence.

"There's just no way around it," said Gibney. "The money runs out when the boomers die."

Infant Baby Boomers play with toys at the Ottawa Day Nursery (now the Andrew Fleck Child Centre) in Ottawa, circa 1950. The postwar baby boom in Canada began in 1946 and continued until 1965. (Andrew Fleck Child Centre/Library and Archives Canada)

Gibney also blames the boomer generation for failing to act on the science of carbon emissions and climate change while there was still plenty of time.

"We have to talk about the people who have been blocking progress on these issues for the past 30 years," said Gibney. "And that has been the boomers."

Boomer facts:

Canada has only had two boomer Prime Ministers: Kim Campbell and Stephen Harper.

The 'baby boom' in Canada started in 1946 and continued until 1965

In Canada's largest city, the average young adult would need to save up for 21 years to afford the downpayment on the city's average home. In 1980, a person the same age only needed to save up for 5 years.

Gibney and Bristow have written books that take diametrically opposing views of 'boomer-blaming.' Gibney's is called A Generation of Sociopaths. Bristow's is Stop Mugging Grandma. 

The pair are well-acquainted with each other's work, but had never spoken directly until they met on-air to debate the blame game, as part of an episode of CBC's IDEAS.

"I just don't understand why economic and policy failures are targeted so narrowly at the door of the baby boomers," Bristow told Gibney.

"The idea that nobody is responsible — that creates the true helplessness that Jennie professes to be worried about," Gibney responded.

"If in fact we are in a terrible position, the climate's going to crap, highways are terrible, school's super expensive … if it's the case that no-one's at fault, then what does that say about the world?"

Guests in this episode: 

Jennie Bristow is the author of Stop Mugging Grandma: The 'Generation Wars' and Why Boomer-Blaming Won't Solve Anything. She's a senior lecturer in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University in the U.K.

Bruce Cannon Gibney is the author of A Generation of Sociopaths: How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America and The Nonsense Factory: The Making and Breaking of the American Legal System. He's a venture capitalist and former lawyer.


This episode was produced by Tom Howell.


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