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A Generation of Sociopaths
How the Baby Boomers Betrayed America
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In A Generation of Sociopaths, Gibney examines the disastrous policies of the most powerful generation in modern history, showing how the Boomers ruthlessly enriched themselves at the expense of future generations.
Acting without empathy, prudence, or respect for facts–acting, in other words, as sociopaths–the Boomers turned American dynamism into stagnation, inequality, and bipartisan fiasco. The Boomers have set a time bomb for the 2030s, when damage to Social Security, public finances, and the environment will become catastrophic and possibly irreversible–and when, not coincidentally, Boomers will be dying off.
Gibney argues that younger generations have a fleeting window to hold the Boomers accountable and begin restoring America.
What happens if society is run by people who are, to a large degree, antisocial? I don't mean people who are "antisocial" in the general sense, the sort who avoid parties and hide from the neighbors. I mean people who are antisocial in the clinical sense: sociopaths. Could a sociopathic society function? Unfortunately, this is not a thought experiment or an investigation into some ramshackle dictatorship in a distant land; it is America's lived experience. For the past several decades, the nation has been run by people who present, personally and politically, the full sociopathic pathology: deceit, selfishness, imprudence, remorselessness, hostility, the works. Those people are the Baby Boomers, that vast and strange generation born between 1940 and 1964, and the society they created does not work very well.
Some of the sociopathic society's malfunctions appear in the daily headlines: collapsing bridges, fresh deficits, poisoned water, collapsing ice sheets, financial catastrophes, and an economy lurching from one disaster to another, with only the most anemic recoveries in between. Other disturbances lurk out of the spotlight, in the back pages of the business section, dense academic literature, and complicated government spreadsheets: pension systems now trillions of dollars underfunded, a Social Security system destined (by the government's own admission) to falter, a corrections system that presides over nearly seven million people, and a political culture so warped that the Supreme Court recently found itself unable to distinguish between gross corruption and business as usual. Individually, these items are tragic vignettes. Stitched together, they produce a cohesive and unsettling narrative of a generation that—in the many decades it has dominated political and corporate America—squandered its enormous inheritance, abused its power, and subsidized its binges with loans collateralized by its children.
The premise of a stagnating and dysfunctional America is not particularly controversial. Blaming the Boomers might be more provocative, but after decades of dysfunction under Boomer leaders and the grotesque spectacle of recent elections, which force us to endure more of the same, provocation may be necessary. For those readers who are Boomers, or have parents or grandparents who are Boomers, it may be of small comfort that this book does not argue that all Baby Boomers are sociopaths. Rather, the argument is that an unusually large number of Boomers have behaved antisocially, skewing outcomes in ways deeply unfavorable to the nation, especially its younger citizens. The challenge is to prove it, not merely by pointing out the (by now fairly clear) correlation between American underperformance and Boomer tenure, but by establishing causal links between Boomer misbehavior and national stagnation. There is, as it happens, a diverse and large body of evidence to support the case.
It didn't have to be this way, and for a long time, nothing like America's present dilemma seemed remotely probable. In 1946, the United States was unquestionably the richest, most dynamic country the world had seen, a nation that overcame the tragedies of the Great Depression and two World Wars to achieve remarkable gains in prosperity and freedom. Success built on success, and while there had been occasional setbacks like the Korean War, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Vietnam debacle, and the stagflation of the 1970s, America just kept leaping ahead until, one day, it didn't. This is odd, because by historical standards, every challenge after 1946 was minor compared to what had come before; all should have been easily surmounted, and, for a time, most were. But the fact is that American dynamism did peter out, no later than the 1990s. The question that originally perplexed me wasn't the semi-academic paradox of the antisocial society; it was something more direct: why isn't twenty-first-century America doing vastly better? Readers under forty might pose the question a little differently, not as "Have we been screwed?"—they already sense the answer to that—but "How badly?" and "By whom?"
The various and dispiriting candidates of recent years have offered their own explanations for the mystery of American underperformance, though being mainly Boomers themselves and dependent on Boomer votes, they have relocated blame to other suspects: unfair trade, rapacious immigrants, vicious superPACs, greedy corporations, hyperpartisanship, foreign terrorism, a predatory 1 percent or a lazy 99 percent, too much federal government or too little, not enough Trumpism and altogether too much. Yet, the most compelling answers are not found in candidates' position papers, but in the facts of the elections themselves. Not only have we heard these explanations before, in many cases we have heard them from these very same candidates, forever peddling the same magic beans of fantasy and excuse. Even the presidential election of 2016, despite its superficial weirdness—a contest between two desperately unpopular nominees winnowed out of an inventory of even less appealing also-rans—was really notable only for the sheer staleness of the leftovers.
This political recycling, right down to the surnames, should have been a sufficient reminder that the candidates had themselves been the authors and practitioners of the nation's despoliation. Many candidates were incumbents or had served in other offices, and essentially all of them were members of the political and business establishment that created the mess in the first place. The only real development was that the excuses were getting more baroque as the facts got worse; the practitioners and their dogma remained the same, as they have for decades. More middle-class tax cuts, more perorations on the sacral nature of Social Security, more promises of change without any real plans for achieving it, more blame located everywhere except the obvious places. Boomer politics are like Ptolemy's astronomy, where new and inconvenient evidence is explained by increasingly complicated epicycles and exceptions; the system itself is never fundamentally questioned. At some point, implausible systems have to be jettisoned in the face of overwhelming evidence, in favor of simpler and better explanations.
This book's explanation is straightforward: America suffers from its present predicament because a large group of small-minded people chose the leaders and actions that led to our present degraded state. Combing over the data, a picture emerges, one of bad behaviors and unchecked self-interest, occurring at the individual level and recapitulated, via the voting booth, by the state. No Ptolemaic epicycles, Rube Goldberg political machinery, or Koch/Voldemorts need be invoked. The only requirement was the exercise of the vote by a huge group, united by short-sightedness and self-interest: the Boomers.
Can the case be made: Can an entire generation be described as sociopathic? Long after I started this book, people took to diagnosing presidential candidates (one in particular) and a debate ensued about psychological labeling—not so much about whether the labels were accurate as much as whether they could be properly justified. It may seem even trickier to describe a generation than an individual—but if anything, it's easier. There is a huge amount of proxy data—a truly depressing and varied amount—collected over long periods, all of which serve as evidence. The Boomers' disinclination to save maps to a key sociopathic characteristic, improvidence. Data on sexual behavior, drug use, and divorce correspond to sociopathic characteristics like risk seeking and an inability to form lasting relationships. We can populate the entire clinical checklist this way, a vast tasting menu of dysfunction, no substitutions allowed. Our results correspond to one of the few major studies of mental health issues in the United States, the ECAS, which found significantly higher levels of sociopathy in Boomer-age populations in the 1980s relative to other groups.1 There is something wrong with the Boomers and there has been for a long time.
If the Boomers' status as sociopaths is of great, if abstract, interest, the effects of their sociopathy are matters of undeniable and tangible consequence. The more power Boomers accumulated, the more self-serving and destructive their policies became. For purely selfish reasons, the Boomers unraveled the social fabric woven by previous generations. We can match the sociopathic checklist to Boomer behaviors, Boomer behaviors to social policies, and social policies to the nation's present difficulties, tracing causation. Because this is a book and not an address to Congress, it enjoys privileges denied even to presidents: it can argue that the state of the union is not good, that Congress is at fault, and that a plurality of the people who voted for Congress and its warped policies are to blame.
For some time, no president has dared to defy the Boomers, a generation whose enormous size always meant they would be powerful and who started making that power felt from the 1970s on. Eventually, Boomers displaced other generations almost entirely, and Boomerism reached its peak (or nadir) under generational representatives like Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and Dennis Hastert—a stew of philanderers, draft dodgers, tax avoiders, incompetents, hypocrites, holders of high office censured for ethical violations, a sociopathic sundae whose squalid cherry was provided in 2016 by Hastert's admission of child molestation, itself a grotesque metaphor for Boomer policies. Someone had to elect these tornadoes of vice and it was, of course, Boomers who were content, often enthusiastic, to vote for people who looked like them and showered them with improvident goodies, whose failures were often overlooked and forgiven because they seemed so familiar.
In Silicon Valley, where I spent most of my career, it's standard to ask what constitutes a given project's "value proposition," B-school jargon that reduces in this case to: What are you getting for the cover price? Above all, this book's goal is to collect in one place and under one narrative the diverse and distressing stories glancingly treated in the media churn, and to trace their origin. Younger readers wishing to induce apoplexy at the next family reunion will find additional utility in these pages—Uncle Jim may think kids these days are terrible (Snapchat! Tattoos! Jeans in the office!), but when confronted with the evidence of what actually happened in the Sixties, he might fall refreshingly silent, especially when you explain exactly how many of your tax dollars subsidize his health care. The nonsociopathic wing of the Boomer generation may also find value in seeing the acts of their contemporaries in a different light and be persuaded to stand against a sociopathic agenda that serves them at the expense of their children.
The subject may be grave, but this book has its optimistic moments. America is not on a death march from which the only escape is a razor and a warm bath, or the often-promised-never-practiced emigration to Canada. Although the Boomers will not relinquish their grip on power for some time—2016 proved that—demographic changes will eventually end Boomer dominance. While it is too soon to know how subsequent generations will perform when they finally take control, we have early indications that they will be better stewards than the Boomers, who appear to be a sociopathic anomaly. And America, whatever Donald Trump or any of his avatars say, is still great, still rich and powerful; it's just operating well below potential. Even a plague of generational locusts like the Boomers can do only so much damage in a lifetime, however unduly prolonged that lifetime may be courtesy of benefits funded by the young. These facts are what permit optimism and also a little gallows humor; the noose may be on, but it's not inescapably tight. It helps that the Boomers are often ridiculous, and this book supplies ridicule accordingly, not for spite (or at least, not for spite alone). All tin-pot expropriators have fragile egos, and if sarcasm helps ease the Boomers out of office, let there be sarcasm.
For now, the Boomers are in power; as 2017 began, they again controlled every branch of government. And this is despite the Boomers disgorging the most revolting example of electoral politics since the Gilded Age, a spectacle whose angry, populist results were (perversely) guaranteed by the social and economic dilemmas bequeathed by earlier Boomer policies. That Boomers would sweep government in the 2016 elections was never in doubt, even if the identity of the new president surprised many. The choices, as often noted, were less than ideal. Hillary Clinton, the longtime fixture of the Boomer establishment, viewed her nomination in the same way that seniors view Social Security, as an entitlement to be realized whatever the risk. Donald Trump, the Section 8 scion, a bully whose quantum of thought is no greater than a tweet, decided to prove that the lowest common denominator could be found further down than anyone in the commentariat thought possible. That Clinton and Trump were the two most unpopular presidential candidates in decades, if not since the Civil War, deterred the Boomer machine not a whit, because they all agreed on what mattered.
Thus, while there were very real differences between Clinton and Trump, many pundits did not fully appreciate what the candidates had in common, starting with an unshakeable commitment to senior benefits—which should have been sufficient notice of which group would decide the election and what other generations would pay the inevitable bill. It would be ridiculous to argue that the candidates (or many of their Mini-Mes down ballot) were equivalent, but neither were they different enough. The choices in November 2016 were only about how bad the following years would be. Would the already sizeable debt balloon by another $3–5 trillion or by $5–15 trillion, the proceeds expended on projects either somewhat dubious or mostly self-defeating; would the disabling legal scandal emerge as civil litigation over prior frauds or as a ginned-up impeachment by a Boomer Congress; would the cronyism be only significant or completely outrageous; would the earth simmer or would it roast; and in what ways would the rule of law be undermined by presidential arrogance? In the week this book went to press, the electorate decided and Boomers provided the critical votes. But essentially nothing already written here had to change—the sheer inertia of Boomerism guaranteed some sort of fiasco would unfold at every level, whether it was Madam or Mister President on January 20th. It's true that voting participation by youth could have been more vigorous, but we should not blame the victims too much. In an election between Boomers, mostly moderated by Boomers, and heavily covered by Boomers, a process in which the issues of greatest moment to the young—climate change, education policy, the debt—took a backseat or were simply not mentioned at all during debates, it's understandable that many young people declined to participate in the Hobson's Choice offered to them; they had no good option. However infeasible his policies were, Bernie Sanders was the only candidate to give the needs of the young real priority, and he was dispatched by a Democratic Boomer machine busily giving Mrs. Clinton her "due." If young people were cynical and disengaged, they were not without partial justification.
The final exit polls were sliced and diced into the rich, the poor, the educated, the not, the rural and the urban, white and non-white, but in important ways, it was always going to be Boomer versus not-Boomer. (I generally define the Boomers as the eroding middle-class white cohort born 1940 to 1964 for reasons we will shortly take up, and in the states where such people predominate, the pivots of the election could be found.) In the end, the country broke Boomerish and Boomers broke the country, yet again. It would be a mistake to view the events of 2016, however startling, as a total outlier or to ascribe overmuch to the personal infirmities of the candidates; the candidates did not, after all, emerge from nowhere. They and their many companions in business and politics were merely vessels for the Boomer id.
Still, the country remixes the legislature every two years and resets the presidency every four. The opportunities of the coming years should be seized; for issues like climate and debt, the elections of the coming years may be the last stops before irreversible catastrophe. Unless younger generations remove the Boomers from power soon, the next quarter century will be even worse than the last one—a parade of missed opportunities and bad choices. The poor choices the Boomers have already made and the results they engendered are reflected in this book's charts, snapshots of the decades of Boomer power. In the charts, lines that should have been going steadily up (like median income) have flattened and sometimes plunged, while lines that should be going down (like debt and obesity rates) have been going up, trends that will continue absent dramatic change. There aren't many excuses for these failures, only explanations, and they all point the same way, as they have for years.
What qualifies me to write this book? I hope the evidence ultimately speaks for itself, rendering biographical details of only passing interest. Since we're at the beginning, here's my backstory: I spent most of my career in finance, first at a hedge fund and then at a venture capital firm.* Both jobs required me to think about where the markets would go, what companies might succeed, and by necessity, about the American future and the forces shaping it. About half my career was spent during some kind of recession, crisis, or pseudorecovery, which is odd enough when you think about it, a reason in itself to explore American stagnation. If half of all American history had been as mediocre as the past few decades, there would be a lot fewer stars on the flag, and no American flags on the moon.
Still, years of economic mediocrity notwithstanding, there always seemed to be a few good things to invest in, if you were in the right place at the right time. For me, in 1998, that thing was PayPal (my college roommate cofounded the company, and I bought some early shares); in 2004, it was Facebook (my then boss made the first outside investment in the social network, and I worked as a junior associate on part of that deal). Later, I made personal investments in SpaceX, Lyft, Palantir, and DeepMind, which are not all household names, though they have succeeded well enough. But these companies were exceptions, very rare ones. I mention them less to establish my credibility as a prognosticator than to show the value of socially funded innovation (every company I mentioned was built on technologies pioneered by government grants or research) and, most important, to show the overwhelming importance of luck in a stagnating economy. Sharing a dorm with the next Mark Zuckerberg is a boon not to be denied, but in the luck department, it really should be enough to be born American. And so it was, before the Boomers took over. Most Americans with moderate talent and ambition could find a good job, buy a home, and invest their savings in the Standard & Poor's 500, and in doing so, accumulate enough for a comfortable retirement. But proper jobs are increasingly hard to find, and buying and holding the S&P 500 today (which is to say, making a long-term bet on America) doesn't seem like a sure path to Happily Ever After. Thanks to perpetual financial crisis, you can't even expect a real, positive return on cash in the bank. Again, why?
My first attempt to answer these sorts of questions came in a 2011 essay, "What Happened to the Future?" which worried about deceleration in technological progress. (That essay's tagline—"We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters"—is recycled by the media whenever it wants to passingly indict technological failure.) While I think that essay was correct on its own, narrow terms, the dynamics of national stagnation transcend Silicon Valley specifically and technology generally. This book is my attempt to present a comprehensive explanation, and research led to the Boomers. What happened to the future? The Boomers did; they sold it off piece by piece.
And so let us begin with one more question. If the nation had been unblighted by Boomer sociopathy, how well could we have been doing? Shockingly well, as it turns out.
The difference between an American and any other kind of person is that an American lives in anticipation of the future because he knows it will be a great place.
—Ronald Reagan (1979)1
The Gipper believed many silly things—in voodoo economics and, in the case of his White House astrologer, just plain voodoo—but one thing Reagan truly knew was that the Americans he would lead were optimistic people, and that their optimism made an otherwise disparate and divided land a functional and thriving nation. In 1979, Reagan was right; he was still right when he left office in 1989. By 2002, Reagan would have been wrong: A majority of Americans no longer believed their children would live better lives than their parents—and that was before the crash of 2008 and eight years of lackluster recovery.2 By 2016, American optimism had shrunk into the form of a tacky hat ("Make America Great Again!") peddled by a serial corporate bankrupt who could not manage to make his shambolic empire great even once, let alone "again."3 That was not how it was supposed to be.
The goal of American politics has been, until the advent of the Boomers, the creation of a "more perfect Union" and the promotion of the "general Welfare" to "secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."4 The Constitution promises as much, and over time America generally made good on that promise, first to a few, then to many. By the twentieth century, constitutional abstractions had taken concrete form, and "Blessings" in the modern vernacular were understood to mean the creation of an ever larger and more affluent middle class. If the middle was not doing well, neither was America. James Carville, the operative who brought Bill Clinton to power as the first Boomer president, understood that modern politics boiled down to "It's the economy, stupid." And the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) has made clear how to evaluate that economy: the "well-being of the middle class and those working to get into the middle class… is the ultimate test of an economy's performance."5 Measured against the Constitution's noble imperatives or the more prosaic words of Carville and the CEA, America generally made a great success of things for two centuries. Since the Boomers' ascension to power, America has accomplished far too little, and in many important ways, has slid backward.
A "more perfect Union" is hard to measure, but the economy and the well-being of the middle class are not. These latter items can be reduced to numbers, and what the numbers show is not reassuring. A family with a statistically middling income can no longer afford the trappings of an actual middle-class life: the nice house, college tuition, decent cars, the annual vacation, appropriate health care, some prudent savings, and perhaps a little left over to pass as a legacy. That life would require something like $100,000–150,000 in annual family income, depending on geography and taste, but actual family income was just $70,697 in 2015.6 As for the "Posterity" that obsessed the Founders, it may do considerably worse.
The difference between what is and what could have been is substantially the product of Boomer mismanagement and selfishness. Had America pursued more reasonable policies, it might have continued the pattern of growth of the golden years after World War II and before the arrival of Boomer power. Family income in 2015 could have been around $106,000 to $122,000 (or $113,425 to be misleadingly precise). In other words, the actual middle class could afford genuinely middle-class lives. Editorialists would never have had to switch adjectives from "comfortable" to "struggling" when discussing the midriff of the income distribution.
What's going on here? This is a "counterfactual"—the path American family incomes would have taken if they had kept growing at pre-Boomer rates. Under all projections incomes would have been substantially higher than they are today. The "mid" estimate projects incomes as if they had grown in exactly the same way, year by year, with all the ups and downs, as they had in the pre-Boomer period through the 1981–1982 recession. The "low" and "high" estimates construct smooth averages, respectively including and excluding the early Eighties recession. In every scenario, there have been substantial lost opportunities, with gaps really widening as Boomer power and policies took hold. None of this is to say that America hasn't grown, it just hasn't grown as fast or equally as it could have or once did.7
The numerical gap is compelling in an abstract way, but the loss can be felt most viscerally in, of all places, Flushing Meadows, Queens. People passing from JFK to Manhattan, or watching aerial shots of the US Open, may have noticed saucer-topped towers and a strange steel globe, artifacts left by aliens with a Mad Men aesthetic, right in the Meadows. These oddities are the neglected remnants of the 1964 World's Fair, which promised a world of flying cars, undersea colonies, clean energy, mass prosperity, cities on the moon, and more. That was what the early twenty-first century was supposed to be like. The Fair's promotional video promised, in full mid-century sincerity, a time when the "science of plenty" delivered a "city of tomorrow," with humanity charting "a course… that frees the mind and spirit and improves the well-being of mankind."8 The Fair has vanished and so, eventually, did the dream. The Fair's neighbor, Shea Stadium, opened along with the Fair; Shea, too, is gone, replaced by Citi Field, which was completed around the time its giant corporate namesake nearly went under. Today, against the rust, cobwebs, and a stadium named after the paradox of a nearly bankrupt bank, the whole rah-rah optimism of the '64 Fair seems faintly ridiculous.
No one in 1964, however, would have seen the Fair's Technicolor fantasias as naïve. Twenty-five years before, the Fair of 1939, also in Flushing Meadows, had made equally ambitious claims. The '39 Fair foresaw an America of convenient suburbs, linked by interstate highways, ending at plush homes from which want had been banished, predictions offered at the distinctly unpromising juncture between the Great Depression and World War II. Yet, by 1964, it had all come true. With the promises of the '39 Fair (centerpiece: Futurama) already fulfilled, Americans of 1964 saw no reason why they would not soon enjoy the dreams of their own Fair (featuring: Futurama II). By the 2010s, Americans were supposed to be living richly, attended by a robotic staff, with the occasional vacation to the Lunar Hilton. Obviously, none of that came to be: There is no Pan Am flight to the moon; there isn't even a Pan Am anymore. What actually happened was that in 1969 Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon and in 1972 Gene Cernan stepped off, and that was it. The future slipped away and the timing was not coincidental. By the late 1960s, the earnest and industrious old regime was fading. The future would soon be reposed in the hands of a group altogether less competent and well-meaning.
- "Sure to be controversial."—Fortune
- "Informative, provocative, and entertaining reading for those interested in political economy and U.S. social and economic history."—Booklist
- "Gibney lays into the 'Me' generation for cashing out their children's future and leaving the planet looking like a rock star's hotel room.... Timely."—Esquire
- "A Generation of Sociopaths is a polemic, but what a polemic: filled with data, rich in anecdote, deadly serious yet wickedly funny."—Alexandra Wolfe, author of Valley of the Gods
- "The core of Gibney's argument, that the boomers are guilty of 'generational plunder,' is spot-on. He accuses them of 'the mass, democratically-sanctioned transfer of wealth away from the young and toward the Boomers,' and he's right."—Dana Milbank, Washington Post
- "Remarkable .... Impressively weighted with hard numbers and specifics, the volume serves as both an indictment of and rebuttal to a Woodstock Generation that has gleefully celebrated themselves for decades while gradually running the country into the ground ... Gibney paints a persuasive and frequently hilarious portrait of the Me Generation."—Men's Journal
- "Like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Bruce Cannon Gibney's A Generation of Sociopaths proceeds from a deceptively simple premise: that the gains made by the American middle class in the period after the world wars of the previous century were a fluke.... A damning, searingly relevant indictment."—The Globe and Mail
- "[Gibney] has a wry, amusing style and plenty of well parsed statistics to back him up ... Read A Generation of Sociopaths and hope for the best. Gibney is more optimistic than those who predict an imminent third world war, than the scientists who warn of sudden climate shifts and the end of antibiotics, and even - in one sense - than the evangelicals who believe in the Rapture. He also has a better sense of humor."—Jane Smiley, The Guardian
- "[Gibney] maintains that the Boomer Generation, privilege incarnate, exhibit all the traits associated with that clinical pathology: 'deceit, selfishness, imprudence, remorselessness, hostility, the works.' He argues the case well."—Toronto Star
- "Uproariously funny but rigorously argued and researched.... Intellectually invaluable..... Re-fram[es] the dysfunction in our politics as less a consequence of partisan factionalism and more as a grand agreement between privileged Boomers across the political divide to enrich their present rather than vouchsafing the future."—Lawyers, Guns, and Money
- On Sale
- Mar 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Hachette Books