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New book 'The Aftermath' examines the political influence and legacy of the baby boomers
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Geoff Bennett: The impact of the Baby Boom generation is impossible to ignore. The roughly 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964 have reshaped American society at each stage of their lives, crowding American classrooms in the '50s and '60s, filling the labor and housing markets decades later, ultimately leaving their imprint on our politics and institutions.
Philip Bump is a national columnist for The Washington Post. And he takes a closer look at the generation's impact. His book is "The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America."
Phil Bump joins us now.
It's great to have you here.
And when we talk about the Baby Boom generation, we're talking about the 76 million people that were born during that 19-year span. Their influence is really stitched into the fabric of modern-day America.
And you borrow an analogy in the book. You say: "When the Boomers entered the world, it was like a python swallowing a pig."
In what way? Why is that a fitting analogy?
Philip Bump, Author, "The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America": Well, I mean, it's certainly not a charming one.
But it is fitting, in the sense that you can imagine very easily this fairly narrow python that all of a sudden has this huge bulge in it. Not only does it have a huge bulge in it, but the bulge has to sort of work its way through the system.
And so your point about the 76 million people being born, the population of the United States in 1945 was only 140 million. So it is this massive increase, particularly in young people right at the outset of the Baby Boom, that forces the United States, the python in this analogy, to try and deal with the pig that has just swallowed.
And the important factor here is that the pig is still passing through the python. And we have now reached the point where Baby Boomers are older and retiring. And it's creating a new set of urgencies that the government has to deal with and that our society has to deal with.
Geoff Bennett: What characteristics do Baby Boomers share? How is their generation different from the one that preceded it and the ones that followed?
Philip Bump: So one of the fascinating things about the Baby Boomers, it began at a low in American immigration.
There were — about a century ago, there were new restrictions placed on immigration, a backlash to immigrants from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe in particular. And that was still in place when the Baby Boom began. At the time of the Baby Boom, one demographer told me, the average immigrant was somebody's grandparents.
And right after the Boom ended, there was — the immigration laws were loosened. So you started seeing more immigrants from Central America and Mexico and Asia. And so what happened when the Baby Boom began is, it began at a time when America was very, very heavily white in a way that it no longer is.
And so the Baby Boom has — obviously, it's a very heterogeneous generation. It has to be. There's tens of millions of people in it. But it tends to be much more heavily white than the generation, particularly the one that followed it. It tends to be less heavily made up of immigrants. It tends to have other characteristics as well. It has — it's less likely — Boomers are less likely to have gone to college than millennials or Gen Z, for example.
They're more likely to participate in institution, marriage among them, the military, things along those lines. And those really shape both the culture and politics of the Baby Boomer in a way that makes them distinct, particularly from younger generations.
Geoff Bennett: Well, understanding that generational analyses are in many ways unavoidably sort of crude and imprecise, when we talk about the Baby Boom, we're talking about the Woodstock generation, in many ways, who, in 2016, these were the same folks who put Donald Trump in office.
Help us understand how that happened.
Philip Bump: Yes. No, it's a great question.
And, fundamentally, it comes down to the fact that the Baby Boom really is two separate political groups. There is a Republican group and a Democratic group, which obviously isn't unique to the Baby Boom. But it's also the case of Boomers are less likely to be registered independents than younger generations.
And so you had this tension between left and right in the Boom itself. But because the Republican Party itself is so much older than the Democratic Party, Baby Boomers make up a larger percentage of the Republican Party than they do the Democratic Party.
So, yes, the politics certainly shifted to some extent for individual Boomers over that time. But it's also the case that, fundamentally, the Baby Boomers who voted for Donald Trump were sharing a similar sort of concerns, particularly around race oftentimes, to some extent, economics as well, that made them vote more homogeneously than the Democrats on the — in the Baby Boom.
And so we had this effect where, yes, this was the generation that fought against things like the Vietnam War draft, but then, ultimately, over time, had gotten to a point where they saw Donald Trump as the preferable candidate in 2016 and helped propel him to the White House.
Geoff Bennett: Let's talk about the impact on the economy, because reading your book, I was struck by this line.
You say: "The Baby Boom has accumulated an enormous amount of wealth during its three-quarters of a century of existence." Baby Boomers, many of them are supporting their millennial children. In some cases, they're supporting their grandchildren.
What happens to the distribution of wealth in this country as Baby Boomers age?
Philip Bump: Yes, I mean, it's — an enormous amount of wealth is being transferred already from Baby Boomers primarily to younger family members, but not exclusively, $2 million — or $2 trillion, according to some experts I spoke with, in 2022 alone, upwards of $50 trillion over the course of the next several decades.
That's an enormous amount of wealth. But there are a lot of questions about what happens with that, right? What happens, for example, as Boomers age and they need more medical attention? How much of that is siphoned away in terms of the cost of medical care or senior housing, senior living?
How much — what happens with the housing market as seniors age, right? A lot of senior citizens in particular view their houses as a storehouse of value for their retirement. How does that affect house prices? What does that mean for millennials looking to buy houses?
There are all these ways in which this massive amount of wealth that is held by the Baby Boomers, it's not really clear how much of that will end up trickling down, particularly to their families.
But it's also important to note, because the Baby Boomer generation is so large, it's not the case that Baby Boomers themselves are particularly wealthy on an individual basis. It's just that they have a lot of wealth because there are a lot of them, even if most of them aren't particularly wealthy themselves.
Geoff Bennett: And, Phil, as we wrap up our conversation, I want to ask you about one of the unanswered questions in your book.
You write this: "A generation used to accruing and defending its power through sheer scale is watching that power crumble. We have seen generational tensions before, as when the Boom emerged, but we're now living through something exceptional, a decline not of the Spartan civilization, but of the Roman one.We are living through an historic disruption of the American empire."
So, what's this all mean for the future of our politics, for the future of our democracy?
Philip Bump: Yes. No, absolutely.
And, unfortunately, I'm not so brash as to be able to have a hard answer on that. But, yes, I mean, the Boom really shaped what America looks like today, both in terms of just the Boomers themselves making decisions, but also in the way that America had to respond to the emergence of the Baby Boomers.
And we're seeing that change. We're seeing the Boom now having to deal with this younger generation, millennials and Gen Z, who are contesting for power, contesting for it: I don't want to spend on senior housing. I want to spend on schools and things along those lines.
And that is contributing some of the political reaction that we're seeing, some of the backlash against — some of the increased tension that we see in our politics. Does this mean that young people, for example, if they are more diverse, which they are, does that mean they're going to vote Democratic forever?
No, probably not. There are a lot of factors to take into consideration here. But this moment of tension is particularly acute because the Baby Boom has for so long been so powerful, and now for the first time is having to compete for that power in a real way.
Geoff Bennett: Philip Bump, his book is "The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America."
Thanks for your time.
Philip Bump: Thank you, sir.