You watch me singing this song. You see what my mouth can do, and you wish you were the one I was doing it to. And you watch me playin’ guitar. And you feel what my fingers can do, and you wish you were the one I was doing it to. Well, listen – You’ve got great expectations. You’ve got great expectations. So sang Gene Simmons on the song Great Expectations, written by Mr. Simmons and Bod Ezrin, from the 1976 breakout album, Destroyer, by the rock band Kiss.
I was in middle school when this album came out which puts me right at the end of the Baby Boom generation. It was the largest generation in history at the time, only now surpassed by the Millennial generation in terms of size. At the time, as a 13-year-old kid, I already had great expectations, expectations that I think were probably not a whole lot different than most Millennials had when they were teenagers. Thing is, I was able to achieve many if not most of my expectations, while the largest generation in history is now concerned that they will never reach their goals and die with a mountain of debt.
This, I believe, is one of the major reasons why populism has been on the rise in America, and why today, the Democrat Party, or at least its voters, are on the verge of nominating an avowed Communist at their Presidential Candidate, while at the same time, the Republicans are asking Americans to re-elect a Populist to the executive office.
It’s not all that different today than it was when my generation was coming into their own. As young baby boomers, we were faced with the Vietnam War, gas lines, and the collapse of heavy industry in the Midwest. We faced racial riots, civil rights marches, and rivers that caught on fire. We had to hide under our desks at school to somehow protect us from a nuclear attack from the USSR. We had a President who cried, quit, and flew away. Anyone who thinks that Donald Trump is, well different, did not experience Richard Nixon. The Baby Boom Generation was completely confusing to our parents. We listened to rock and roll, took drugs, grew our hair long, and read poems by Alan Ginsburg. We protested against the war, for the environment, and against discrimination. Were it not for the baby boomers, the Millennials populist standard bearer, Bernie Sanders, would not even exist.
Millennials are not all that much different. They face constant war, a government that does not seem to care about them, environmental issues, continued deindustrialization and continued racial inequalities. As a baby boomer I would argue that their issues pale in comparison to those in the 1960s and 1970s. While the country is at war, there is no draft. While there are real environmental issues (animal poaching, plastic in the ocean) rivers are not catching on fire, and both the clean water and clean air act have improved conditions greatly. Civil Rights is more about language than legislation, and while they may not like the President, it is highly unlikely that he will cry and quit. This may be why the elder generation constantly complains that Millennials don’t work hard or apply themselves. Its why we think that they all sit on the couch on their mothers’ basements playing video games.
But to the younger generation, these problems are real, and they have real problems that we oldsters could not even imagine. We left college with a degree, not a mountain of debt. We had resumes that we built from the time we were 15, and we also had different expectations. And expectations matter.
The Millennial Generation was born between 1981 and 1996 and came of age during a period of relative prosperity. Things were on the upswing. The country was in relative peace (at least up till the end of 2001), recessions were mild, and the Federal government was even able to balance the budget. The existential threat of communism and nuclear attack was gone. It was the period of the Pax Americana.
This period of relative prosperity and wealth meant that kids no longer had to work, and with interest rates falling, people felt richer. The baby boom generation was in their prime working years so governments were able to regulate more and provide more for the poor. Growth did lead to all boats rising. The effects of the environmental regulations of the 1970s were leading to less pollution, less litter and cleaner water. And parents, who had come of age during the summer of love really were more supportive than demanding (think participation trophies). Growing up in this period of prosperity, rather than a period of strife, had to lead to higher expectations of the future. Expectations that were shattered when reality began to hit.
For the world was not all wine and roses. There was still confrontation. The 9-11 attacks showed that even though the USSR was gone, there were still powerful enough ideologies and groups who wanted to attack and destroy the country. Although the land, water and air were much cleaner, simply living still led to pollution, and there were people and groups ready to exploit that to their advantage.
In addition, the prosperity of the 1980s and 1990s was built on a house of cards that collapsed just when the Millennials were entering the workforce. At the same time, government policies had encouraged these young people to put themselves in hock for what ended up being dubious college degrees. With little work experience, a difficult hiring environment, and impossibly high expectations of their own value, the Millennials faced a very difficult situation.
The Millennial generation came of age with high expectations, and a seemingly unfair and difficult world. As a result, they are turning more and more toward populist figures who offer easy fixes to difficult problems that – admittedly – their own parents created. This is not odd. It happens every time there is a major economic disconnect. The tyranny of communism (you can call it socialism) rose out of the breakdown of feudal states in Russia, China, Cuba and Angola. Similarly, militarism (call it fascism if you like) developed in Central Europe, South America and the Middle East. And the United States has toyed with populism many times throughout its history. Andrew Jackson, James Polk and Franklin Roosevelt were all populists to a great extent.
Today, both parties are flogging populism as the road to the future, and in all cases, populism is the same. Simple solutions to difficult problems, scapegoats to blame for problems and an us versus them mentality. While President Trump blames foreigners for the country’s problems, Elizabeth Warren blames Wall Street and business, and Bernie Sanders blames millionaires and billionaires (even though he is one). Its easy to blame someone else for our problems, and just as easy to try to solve the problems by taking things from the scapegoat. Unfortunately, eventually the scapegoats are either destroyed or bankrupted and the underlying problems are still there – or often even worse. It took a huge effort to dig Germany out from under the destruction caused by its populists, Russia is still trying to dig out, and the Middle East will probably be ablaze forever as its people follow populist regime after populist regime.
There are real solutions to the problems that America faces today, and some of them are even preached by the populist presidential candidates. But today, neither the Republican or Democrat party offer a real meaningful way to help guide the baby boomers (and Gen X) into retirement, while creating opportunities for Millennials. This month’s Monthly Manifesto will try to outline some of these solutions, and how they can fit in with the expectations of Americans, be they young or old. We all have great expectations, now we need to get our mouths and fingers doing what needs to be done to help meet them.