A few years ago, two Italian economists published a study that provided a stark and incredibly revealing look at how wealth is transferred across generations. Guglielmo Barone and Sauro Mocetti took advantage of the thorough and then-recently digitised tax records of the city of Florence dating from 1427 and they used that to compare how the stratification of wealth in the city looked back then to how it looked in 2011. Using surnames as guidance, they found that to a remarkable degree the wealthiest Florentine families in 1427 were still the wealthiest families six centuries later. Barone and Mocetti concluded that contrary to a number of oft-quoted studies, the advantages bestowed by greater earnings do not vanish after a few generations, but in fact persist to a dramatic degree over a vastly longer timescale. Wealth, once gained, is woven deeply into a family’s tapestry and enjoyed down the centuries. Or, in their own colourful words:
These results are new and remarkable and suggest that socioeconomic persistence is significant over six centuries. These results are even more surprising if we consider the huge political, demographic, and economic upheavals that have occurred [in Florence] over a so long a time span, and that were not able to untie the Gordian knot of socioeconomic inheritance.
Indeed while the lament of Ozymandias, broken and forgotten king of kings, may well be true on a long enough, civilization-collapsing timeline, in the shorter term the opposite is the case: Power, and wealth, abides. The first ruthless bastards to climb the ladder did so by stepping on everyone else, after which they set fire to the ladder. Barone and Mocetti’s study is not the broadest nor the most in-depth, yet it nevertheless helps to shine a light on a truth as old as time: The elite stays the elite. Power begets power. The wealthy make sure they remain wealthy, oftentimes even—as the Florentine study shows—through turbulent societal upheavals. One of the key ways the elites maintain their position is by making sure the rest of the populace is kept busy with internecine struggles, squabbling over relatively minor differences, rather than turning its unified gaze upwards and questioning who is actually responsible for the organisation of society. Twas ever thus. As the late, great George Carlin once said:
That’s all you ever hear about in this country. It’s our differences. That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about—the things that separate us, things that make us different from one another. That’s the way the ruling class operates in any society. They try to divide the rest of the people. They keep the lower and the middle classes fighting with each other so that they, the rich, can run off with all the fucking money! Fairly simple thing. Happens to work.
In the rolling swells of overlapping narratives that wash over our shared cultural space, one particular line of demarcation between segments of the population has come to dominate conversation in recent years. A generational one. Baby Boomers versus Millennials. More specifically the material difference between Baby Boomers and Millennials, and the implicit idea that when it comes to wealth, the dynamic to focus on is the dichotomy between the Boomers on one side of the gulf, and the Millennials on the other. According to the popular conception of things, the Boomers bask in the sun in villas built into the high cliffs while the Millennials tremble on the gloomy precarious ledges in the shadow below, licking salt off bare rock, trying to avoid plunging into the depths. Both sides glare across the divide, addressing the other in a preponderance of broadsides in the media. Establishment Boomer journalists condescend to these entitled Millennials and their baffling preference for spending their money on organic avocado on sourdough toast instead of a nice house; while precarious, freelance Millennial journalists explain how they are sick of being blamed for finding it hard to thrive in a system that was ruined and made hostile by previous generations. Wherever you look online, Boomers versus Millennials has become a full-blown meme, the pieces at times even ignoring the material analysis to focus on ridiculous and shallow accounts of the contrasting beliefs and habits of the two generations.
If I had a dollar for every time a BabyBoomer complained about my generation, I'd have enough money to buy a house in the market they ruined— Talia F Enright (@talzir) March 15, 2015
These ongoing Boomer versus Millennial media skirmishes make up just one of the many battles on the fields of our contemporary culture wars, but as is the case with many others it feels sometimes as if crucial context is being left out. That too much attention is being paid to the specifics of the Boomer/Millennial dichotomy without enough being devoted to how everything ties into the bigger picture. It all feels a little bit…unhelpful. That’s not to say of course that there are not a myriad of differences between the material circumstances of those who grew up in the prosperous, productive decades after the Second World War, and those who came of age during the cataclysmic crashes of the new millennium. The discrepancies are, in fact, stark and indisputable. Where Boomers could enjoy free college education, Millennials graduate saddled with gargantuan, soul-enslaving debt; where Boomers could hope to find well-paid, secure, unionised jobs, Millennials suffer under an epidemic of precarious, underpaid, undervalued, overworked ‘gig economy’ roles; where Boomers could expect to afford to buy a house for themselves and their families while often still in their twenties, Millennials have en masse given up the dream of ever being able to afford owning a home; and whereas some Boomers might have aged well into their fifties or sixties before they ever even registered the words ‘climate change’, for Millennials this has become such a potent spectre of imminent civilisational doom that psychologists are struggling how to deal with an explosion of climate anxiety. The list is long and compelling.
Such a narrative of contrasts is useful in that it highlights the direction of travel of our economies, revealing the consequences of decades of increasing finance sector domination that started in the seventies and the concurrent rollback of the hard-won gains of the labour movement brought about by this cross-party consensus. As I said in my piece on the financial crisis of 2008 while describing the forcefully shifted zeitgeist of the late twentieth century:
Gradually the major parties of the West became scarcely distinguishable from each other. They could differentiate themselves on social issues, with some paying lip service to—and even acting on—progressive policies while others behaved like regressive tyrants, but when it came to economics a consensus prevailed. Underlying assumptions were never questioned: Wall Street was a force for good; industrial capitalism with limitless growth was the new Manifest Destiny.
So to focus on the disparities between Boomers and Millennials—when it comes to the job market, housing, etc.—is helpful. But it is also limiting, because it sets up a diversionary framing that pulls attention away from where it needs to be. The Boomer versus Millennial story flattens the narrative into a simple picture of old versus young. Of course there are written pieces that go into the causal effects a bit more, and I’ve no doubt that the majority of people understand the broader picture. But history is written by repetition, and there’s a real danger that over time—with every simplified article or quick-fix, ire-raising meme about those damn Boomers and their computer illiteracy or pathological need to speak to the manager—the real culprit responsible for the woes we now face will be conveniently forgotten. Because it already sometimes feels as if the two-dimensional adversarial image of a generational war is implying that the material discrepancies between the Boomers and the Millennials are just a function of age. Of different epochs. The latter is of course true, but what is often left out is that the conditions that define these epochs are not set in stone. Conditions are made, they do not arise naturally. They are the results of specific policies and individual and collective human decisions. Some of those individuals may well have been of the Boomer generation, but they were all members of the elite, and that is where attention needs to be.
When some of us talk bitterly of the Boomers and of how in their youth they took advantage of free education and plentiful, affordable housing and secure employment, we do so because we are denied those very same things. Things that should be rights, yet which these days seem very much like privileges. Yet what could we have expected the Boomers to do? Of course they are going to use these wonderful things when they are available. The argument then goes that we are mad at them for enjoying the fruits of such a society, only to then transform that society into one which denies the subsequent generations the same boons. But that is reductive too, as it paints Boomers as a monolith, which is obviously not the case. Some Boomers will be ignorant and entitled and will have voted for policies that made things worse. But others will be generous and sympathetic and will have voted and campaigned conscientiously. They are individuals within a set, and while some parts of that set may have benefited from oppression, the set itself does not have oppression as a defining characteristic. The elite, however, does. The elite’s modus operandi, its very reason for being, is wealth extraction and oppression. It comes down to this: Hating a generation is stupid; hating a class is a survival tactic. The society we find ourselves in now, in which the Millennial precariat struggles and gazes on in envy at the society that Boomers enjoyed, did not come about by accident. It was made deliberately by an infinitely avaricious elite. What’s more, the conditions the Boomers lived under were an aberration of the system, a historical blip of friendlier capitalism forged by the will of a working class scarred by war and a ruling class granting concessions out of fear of people turning to an alternative. Where we are now, that is where the captains of industry and the owners of society have always wanted us to be. As per my financial crisis piece again:
As wages stagnated and executive pay soared, as jobs became less and less secure while corporations were subject to less and less regulation and the wanton destruction of the environment continued apace, we were told this was all a part of the plan. Part of the divine order of globalised capitalist logic. And they managed to hold this edifice together quite well, despite setbacks and scandals along the way—the savings and loan affair, the East Asian crisis, Enron, to name just a few—occasionally threatening to tear off the mask and reveal the beast’s true nature. The truth being, of course, that this in fact was part of the plan. The system was working exactly as intended—amassing more power and wealth for the elites while leaving the rest of humanity scrabbling for what remained, and struggling to stay afloat in the stormy squalls of its regular crises.
While the total collapse of the globalised capitalist order in 2007 and 2008 was just about prevented by a massive injection of public money, its image suffered a significant blow. When credit was cheap and the illusion of prosperity and limitless growth kept everyone happy, we were all capitalists. Then the cracks appeared, the scale of the corruption became apparent, and suddenly socialism started making sense to a lot of people. Despite an endless saturation propaganda war against it, socialism—or at least its more ‘moderate’ strain—has now gone mainstream. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, the quite remarkable Overton window-shifting presidential run by Bernie Sanders in America in 2016, and the new generation of Democrats challenging the party’s corporate-friendly structures are all a testament to that. It would be a shame then, in a landscape so promising of hope and systemic change, to descend into generational in-fighting. It would be a mistake, if instead of focusing on the billionaires—and indeed on the system that allowed such a proliferation of billionaires—we devoted all of our energies to attacking each other.
26 Billionaires in the world have more money than 3.8 billion people combined. yeah so I am standing with @AOC when she correctly said that it is immoral that less than 30 people have more wealth than half the world’s population.— Rosa A. Clemente (@rosaclemente) January 22, 2019
This is SO good pic.twitter.com/NJRNtneNSo— Ellie Mae O'Hagan 🏴 (@MissEllieMae) January 29, 2019
We can’t let the narrative be hijacked. It’s not about Boomers versus Millennials. That is small fry compared to the real issue: The elites versus everyone else. The captains of industry and the billionaire and millionaire classes who enjoy a revolving door relationship with government and who will live out their lives in a consequence-free bubble while the rest of us struggle and suffer the consequences of a torched planet. Because, again: Some Boomers will be good, caring folk who made use of a healthy system and now feel bad for the plight of the new generations; others will be grifters who took what they could and then did what they could to made sure there was none left for anyone else. Some Millennials will be trust fund kids who never have to work a day in their life; many others will be eternal victims of a precarious gig economy. And more often than not the Boomers who did well will—like their Florentine counterparts—make sure that their Millennial offspring do well too. And of course there is value in pointing out the inequality between what a lot of Boomers enjoyed and what we have to deal with now.
But all billionaires are bad. Their very existence is an affront to economic and human decency, and it’s their fault we stand on the precipice of oblivion. The distribution of wealth and power in the world today is so madly skewed that to ignore the gargantuan reservoir of it at the tippy-top and its effects is to risk the complete decaying of society as we know it. Indeed the decay has already long set in and it needs urgent addressing if we are to avoid imminent collapse. Socialism has gone mainstream, but even now there is one word that the elites desperately do not wish to enter the conversation: Class. Class, and its intersection with race, gender, and other markers of identity, needs to be at the forefront of this. Don’t let the truth be buried. Don’t let yourself be distracted. Class cuts across generations. It wasn’t ‘the Boomers’ who created a hostile economy; it was the rich. Some of the rich are Boomers, sure, but that’s missing the woods for the trees. The real struggle is between the workers who labour to create surplus wealth but who do not get to enjoy its spoils, and the owners who exploit labour and who demand ever more wealth for themselves even as their extant wealth multiplies itself. We must focus our energies on them.
As we toil in the gloomy twilight of the slow motion mushroom cloud of capitalism-created climate change remember the dynasties of Florence. They were the elites then and they are the elites now. There should be no elites, period.
Americans are living shorter and shorter lives on average compared to those in other wealthy nations, at the same time that wealth inequality grows in the US.— RoseAnn DeMoro (@RoseAnnDeMoro) December 28, 2017
Meanwhile, @JeffBezos could be the world's 1st trillionaire: https://t.co/NU1Tc10KlM #ClassWar pic.twitter.com/sfLFmSWduX
World's witnessing a new Gilded Age as billionaires’ wealth swells to $6tn https://t.co/h2un2latef— The Guardian (@guardian) October 27, 2017
The world's billionaires are growing $2.5 billion richer every day, and the 26 richest are as wealthy as the 3.8 billion poorest people combined, according to a new Oxfam International report https://t.co/egtA5udKzX— CNN (@CNN) January 28, 2019
Image sources (in order of posting): CBS, The Cooper Review, Forbes, The Observer, Boredpanda