The Theft of a Decade

How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials' Economic Future


By Joseph C. Sternberg

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A Wall Street Journal columnist delivers a brilliant narrative of the mugging of the millennial generation– how the Baby Boomers have stolen the millennials’ future in order to ensure themselves a comfortable present

The Theft of a Decade is a contrarian, revelatory analysis of how one generation pulled the rug out from under another, and the myriad consequences that has set in store for all of us. The millennial generation was the unfortunate victim of several generations of economic theories that made life harder for them than it was for their grandparents.

Then came the crash of 2008, and the Boomer generation’s reaction to it was brutal: politicians and policy makers made deliberate decisions that favored the interests of the Boomer generation over their heirs, the most egregious being over the use of monetary policy, fiscal policy and regulation. For the first time in recent history, policy makers gave up on investing for the future and instead mortgaged that future to pay for the ugly economic sins of the present.

This book describes a new economic crisis, a sinister tectonic shift that is stealing a generation’s future.


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Taking a Bite Out of the Big Avocado of Life


A curious global debate erupted in 2017. Amid years’ worth of complaints that young adults couldn’t afford to climb onto the first rung of the property ladder, Australian businessman Tim Gurner told a television interviewer the solution was easy: eat a simpler breakfast. “When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each,” he said on Australia’s 60 Minutes.1 (In US dollars, around $15 per avocado and $3 per coffee.) Gurner—who was being featured on television in the first place because he’s a fabulously wealthy property magnate in his mid-thirties who built his business from scratch—bemoaned the lack of a work ethic in younger would-be homebuyers who wanted to buy first houses in nice neighborhoods without sacrificing much in the way of fancy breakfast foods to save for a down payment.*

The reaction was swift and furious. “Millennials have enough problems as it is. Must they give up avocado toast, too?” a New York Times article asked. That story went on to estimate that if young adults cut back their annual restaurant expenses to what their parents currently spend on eating out, it would still take 113 years for a young person to save up a 20 percent down payment on the median American home.2 Presumably young people in the United Kingdom are slightly better off, because in that country an angry columnist calculated she’d need to forego avocado toast for only 100 years to save her down payment. And because that was in the left-wing Guardian newspaper, the writer also needed to point out sternly that “brunch has become a convenient scapegoat for structural inequality.”3 The Los Angeles Times figured that a young person would need to pass up on daily $19 avocado toast—and not spend money on any other breakfast, either—for around 15 years to save up a down payment on the median house in Los Angeles County.4 Britain’s Independent newspaper captured some of the irate social media reaction from Millennials who had taken to Twitter—where else—to vent about Gurner’s suggestion: “‘Stop buying avocado toast’ is 2017’s ‘let them eat cake,’” said one. “I was gonna put a down payment on a house last year but then I spent $44,000 on avocado toast,” tweeted another.5

Then came the reaction to the reaction. “Avocado toast, expensive hobbies, car payments and the other splurges hurt our finances in huge ways,” personal-finance columnist Holly Johnson wrote in the Indianapolis Star. Johnson did some math of her own: “For example, ditch spending $20 on lunch and coffee on weekdays and you’ve got $100 per week and $400 per month to save. That’s $4,800 [per year] to save for a home or throw towards those nagging student loans.”6 That theme reappeared in Britain in November, when a real estate agency concluded that if young couples stopped spending on coffee, gym memberships, vacations, eating out, new cellphones, and lottery tickets (really?!) for five years, they could in fact save enough for a down payment.7 And maybe young people were putting a little too much emphasis on avocado after all. A survey released only a few months after Gurner’s firestorm found that one-third of British young adults rated the prospect of buying an unripe avocado by accident to be among their biggest worries.8 Within roughly a week of Gurner’s now-infamous interview, an Australian coffee shop invented the “avolatte”—a latte served in an avocado skin, combining in one bizarre product the two expensive vices that allegedly prevent the modern young adult from saving.9 Just one month before Gurner gave his interview, an all-avocado restaurant had opened in Brooklyn, New York’s bastion of the hip and the young.10

The whole avocado thing neatly encapsulates the way we think and talk about Millennials. Gurner didn’t literally mean that one could save for a down payment simply by giving the Starbucks or the vegan café a pass in the morning, even if we do all spend more than we realize on fancy coffee each year. But he was pretty direct in claiming today’s young people are lazy. The bigger point of his avocado riff was his account of his intense work ethic when he was just starting out, working what sounds like eighteen-hour days to build a property empire. He argued that today’s twenty-somethings have lost that element of get-up-and-go. They’re not trying as hard as their elders did to get ahead in the world, and shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t enjoy material payoffs as a result.

This impression of youth work ethic is unfair to Millennials. But it’s a pervasive attitude that seems intuitive to a lot of older adults and even many younger ones. And one reason so many older adults believe younger adults are spoiled is because in a way we are. The material well-being of people in their late teens, twenties, and thirties today is better than for any generation in history at this point in their life cycle. More of us, who were born starting around 1980, have survived to an age where we can contemplate spreading avocado on toast. In the developed world, we’ve licked the childhood diseases—polio, measles, whooping cough, smallpox—that used to terrify the parents of the Baby Boom generation as they sent their children out to the playground or the public swimming pool. Almost every aspect of daily life is easier now than it was even twenty years ago, from doing homework (Google), to communication (iPhone), to entertainment (Netflix), even to hailing a taxi (Uber) or finding a mate (Tinder). Millennials are the first American generation in at least three not to grow up against the backdrop of a major war threatening its young men with mass conscription just as they enter adulthood.

Much of this is the legacy of the Baby Boomers. The way we talk about the Boomers is just as skewed as the way we discuss their Millennial young adult children. Boomers get a bad rap, sometimes deservedly so, for their selfishness and frivolity, their spendthrift tendencies and their apparent fear of aging, their failure to think about the future. One author has even called them “a generation of sociopaths.”11 But the One Big Thing they’ve done right is to create a world for their children that is in many important ways more secure and more prosperous than the one they inherited, or than any previous generation could have imagined. The Boomers reduced or eliminated many of the threats that used to imperil young people—by curing diseases, installing airbags in cars, inventing new weapons to fight wars at lower risk to troops, and so much more. And other benefits are in store, too. The avocado uproar obscured what to an economist was one of Tim Gurner’s more interesting observations: Baby Boomers will eventually pass to their children an enormous inheritance windfall in the form of the Boomers’ own houses. Why aren’t their kids a little more grateful?

The paradox for Millennials is that while daily life is now safer and more comfortable than ever before, long-term security feels much more elusive than it was for our parents, even as those parents didn’t always have such an easy time either. We can have that avocado toast, or vegan granola, or a tall skinny chai latte, on our way to work. But that work is more likely to be a contract position with fewer benefits than our parents had. We can live among the bright lights, constant stimulation, and modern conveniences of the big city. But good luck affording our first house or apartment. We can stash away some spare change—perhaps from eating less avocado toast—in an online bank account whose balance we can check on our smartphones, but how much will we need for a comfortable retirement, and will we ever be able to save up that much spare change? We can inherit substantial property wealth from our parents’ estates, but considering our parents’ average life expectancies, we’re unlikely to get our hands on that money when we really need it to buy a house, invest for our retirement, or put our own kids through college one day.

So both sides were right in the Great Avocado Battle of 2017. Millennials are spoiled in ways that baffle both our elders and ourselves. But we also are suffering economically, in ways that will have profound consequences. That paradox can, and should, be framed in a more controversial way: How is it that the Baby Boomers who are bequeathing their children such a comfortable today have also managed to steal those children’s tomorrows out from under them? That’s the story of this book.

Millennial Madness

First, though, a simple question with a surprisingly complex answer: What the heck is a “Millennial,” anyway? There are scads of books and articles debating how to market to us in stores and online, and how to manage us in the workplace; what we like to watch on TV and at the movies, and where we like to live; and what we think about the society around us, and how we vote. We’re variously described either as America’s next “greatest generation” in waiting or as a bunch of pathetic snowflakes who will never make anything of ourselves or our country. Millennials ourselves seem unsure about whether we face the prospect of a difficult life or whether we’re the luckiest generation in history. And we don’t know whether we’re victims of social and economic forces beyond our control or whether we’re victims of our own bad decisions.

The one thing all these assessments have in common is that they never manage to agree with each other over what a “Millennial” is.§ The contrast with the Baby Boom is instructive. That generation arose in a definable historical and social moment—between the end of World War II and the introduction of the birth control pill—and also was the product of an identifiable demographic phenomenon. For about twenty years after the war, for reasons that still aren’t fully understood, America’s fertility rate shot upward. At the height of the Baby Boom, the average American woman could expect to have three children over her lifetime—compared to an average of two in the generation before and the decades since.12 The demographic expansion ran from 1946 until 1964 before dropping off, and those years have become the most widely accepted parameters for what constitutes a Baby Boomer.

Millennials don’t have a clearly defined starting point of that sort. We’re more famous for a midpoint: the year 2000. The term “Millennial” traces back to pop historians William Strauss and Neil Howe, who coined it in the late 1980s to describe the preschoolers of that era—kids who would graduate high school in 2000. Millennials featured prominently in their 1991 book, Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584–2069, partly because at the time Millennials were the next big new thing and partly because Millennials would also make a good test case for Strauss and Howe’s controversial theory that generations display identifiable common social traits and that different types of generational characteristics repeat in predictable cycles.13

Not that they were exactly prophetic. They did expect that Millennials would experience an economic crisis at some point in our early adulthood, as part of the authors’ broader theory that such crises recur at predictable intervals.* Some of Strauss and Howe’s predictions for what the Millennials would be like when we reached adulthood seem quaint now. Millennial “youth culture,” they said, “will be more clean-cut and homogeneous” than anything since the 1930s, and teen sex would become more responsible both in the wealthy suburbs and in the inner cities.14 Their work and many similar theories over the years feed off of a general tendency to overstate the significance of “generations.” To think about a generation as a world-historical force implies that its members share common experiences and, as a result, a common worldview that’s different from the experiences and outlooks of their elders or their children. Strauss and Howe took things one step further by suggesting that generations were shaped not only by common experiences but by some innate natural cycle. But people and societies are much more complex than that, as the Boomers themselves demonstrate. Baby Boomers encompassed flower-power hippies, Vietnam War recruits and draftees, and even the yuppies of the early 1980s. Their young musical tastes ranged from Motown to disco to punk rock, depending on exactly when they were born, where they grew up, and their own individual preferences.

The alternative to talking about “generations” is the far more modest idea of a birth cohort, which emphasizes that often the only thing many members of a so-called generation share with each other is their age.15 That is certainly true of American Millennials, who show the same remarkable diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, religious views, economic status, and political views as every previous generation (or birth cohort) has—or more so.

Still, there is an identifiable Millennial cohort or generation simply as a matter of numbers. Approximately sixty-two million Millennials were born in the United States between 1981 and 1996, the cutoffs the Pew Research Center has adopted for our cohort. That’s more than the fifty-five million members of Generation X born between 1965 and 1980, but well off the seventy-six million births during the Baby Boom.16 The Millennial birth boom coincides with the period when the largest number of Boomers were in their late twenties through their early forties. But the Millennial cohort is at best an echo of the Baby Boom. Boomer women didn’t replicate their mothers’ higher fertility rates. There are a lot of Millennials primarily because there are a lot of Boomers, not because each Boomer had a larger-than-usual number of children.

The number of Millennials born in the United States tells only part of the story, however. There were around seventy-one million Millennials living here as of 2018, compared to seventy-four million Boomers, and within a year Millennials will outnumber Boomers.17§ Some studies, defining Millennials using slightly different birth years, estimate that we had overtaken Boomers even earlier.18 That’s because we’re a generation of immigrants. Some 15 percent of Millennials now residing in the United States were born somewhere else.* That’s not quite as high as the foreign-born proportion was for young adults in the middle of the large waves of immigration that crested in the 1910s, but it’s close.19 And in addition to those Millennials who are immigrants ourselves, many of us are the children of immigrants. Around 25 percent of Millennials speak a language other than English at home, compared to 10 percent of Boomers.20

Partly owing to that immigration trend and partly as a result of longer-running demographic transformations (including differences in birth rates among members of various ethnic groups who already were living in the United States), Millennials look very different from previous cohorts. As of 2015, around 56 percent of American Millennials were white, compared to 75 percent of Americans born before 1960. Hispanic representation among Millennials has exploded, such that Hispanics now account for 21 percent of the Millennial population compared to 7 percent of Boomers when they were the same age in 1980.§ The representation of Asians and African Americans among Millennials also has increased.21 And that’s only one factor that can make us tough to peg in a cultural sense. It’s probably fair to say that Boomers shared more common cultural experiences with each other than had been the case for earlier generations. Their youth, which coincided with the proliferation of television, seemed to produce a single national culture to a degree that hadn’t quite existed before. Millennials, in contrast, have come of age in an era of the internet, smartphones, video streaming, and a seemingly inexorable trend toward individualization in everything from music playlists on Spotify to targeted advertising on Google and Facebook.

The Crisis Generation

Yet there is something that binds Millennials together, even if it’s not a character trait or clear-cut cultural tastes: an economic catastrophe. The one experience Millennial Americans all share is that our early adult years have been dominated by an economy that has failed us over and over again. The 2007–2008 global financial panic and ensuing Great Recession hit us at a particularly vulnerable moment in our economic lives, and since then we’ve had a decade stolen out from under us.

That crisis didn’t match the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression for sheer scale of economic destruction, but the events of 2007 and after were by far the most dire since the 1930s. And it has become a cruel joke for Millennials because at first it looked as if we’d escape the worst of the carnage. Take the housing market, whose downturn set the calamity in motion. Changes in house prices are hard to measure, since the housing market is both large and diverse, but by one plausible estimate, homes lost 33 percent of their value nationwide from the 2006 peak to the 2011 trough.22 In the hardest-hit geographic areas, house prices fell far more. American households are estimated to have lost more than $7 trillion in housing equity during the crisis.23 Millennials were mostly too young to have bought into the market—the biggest losers from this downturn were members of Gen X, who were most likely to have bought at the peak of the market and to own the least equity—and in theory a downward correction in prices could have given us a boost as we prepared to buy in the following years.

It was the same with the stock market, which started to swing wildly as the housing meltdown gathered pace. Between the stock market’s peak in October 2007 and its trough in March 2009, the Dow Jones Industrial Average measuring the stock prices of America’s bluest of blue-chip stocks lost 54 percent of its value. The S&P 500, a larger index of big companies, lost 57 percent between its peak and trough. And shares had a bumpy ride on the way down, with massive up-and-down swings from day to day for more than a year through the financial panic. This shouldn’t have been a disaster for Millennials, since we were mostly too young to own shares at that point, and a down market might even have presented a buying opportunity.

But of course we didn’t escape, because the crisis didn’t stop there. Instead, these market gyrations triggered an economic disaster that has echoed for years. Wall Street couldn’t cope. Banks had accumulated more and more securities whose value was tied to the mortgage market, as we’ll see in greater detail in Chapter 4. When the housing market seized up, so did the banks. Three hundred twenty-two banks with assets totaling $641 billion failed between 2008 and 2010, compared to only a handful per year before the crisis period; bank bankruptcies would continue at a higher than usual rate until at least 2014.24 And that was just the deposit-taking banks covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Investment banks, mortgage lenders, and insurers would suffer their own traumas. Some of Wall Street’s most storied names—Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch—would disappear entirely or be absorbed by stronger rivals. So would newer upstarts that had nevertheless become household names in areas such as mortgage financing, Countrywide Financial being the largest. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—which, as we’ll see, had played such an important role in the housing market before the crisis—were effectively nationalized.

This financial-and-housing pandemonium inevitably fed into the Main Street economy, as some businesses struggled to judge how quickly the economy might recover and others struggled to borrow from banks that were teetering on the edge. Gross domestic product (GDP), adjusted for inflation, shrank by around 4 percent from its 2007 peak to its 2009 trough.25 Around 4.3 million individuals and 165,000 businesses filed for bankruptcy between 2009 and 2011, as the effects of the recession sank in, and personal bankruptcies in particular would remain elevated for several years after.26 The overall unemployment rate shot up to 10.6 percent (not seasonally adjusted) at its peak in January 2010, a level not seen since early 1983.27

And when the economy did return to growth, it did so only very slowly. Annual GDP adjusted for inflation wouldn’t recover to its precrisis level until mid-2011. That was years after the Great Recession officially ended in 2009, and a longer lag than the American economy had experienced after any previous recession during Millennials’ lifetimes.28 Even after recovering the ground lost in the recession, the economy hardly roared back to life. GDP growth averaged around 2 percent per year in the first five years of the recovery. This was unprecedented compared to previous recessions, when the economy had rebounded much more quickly, with growth rates topping 3 percent in the early years after the downturn.29 One percentage point might sound undramatic, but it makes an enormous difference in an economy America’s size—hundreds of billions of dollars in output that never happened. And because GDP growth compounds, the slow recovery put America on a permanently lower trajectory. Unemployment glided down only very slowly and was still around 6 percent five years after its peak. It wouldn’t approach its prerecession low until late 2016.

This is definitely not what Millennials grew up expecting the economy to be like for us. Americans of all ages have been living with the aftermath of the Great Recession for so long that it can be easy to lose sight of the particular experiences of Millennials. So it’s worth looking at the group of people born in 1982, the most millennial of Millennials who graduated from high school in spring 2000. This is a birth-year cohort I know well, since I’m part of it.

When we were in high school in the late 1990s, we could tell times were good. I grew up in Vermont, one of the poorer states in America on average, so it certainly didn’t feel like a go-go era. But there was a sense that for people who worked hard enough, there would be opportunities. Those of us who were paying close attention might have noticed that America’s transition away from a manufacturing-focused economy was accelerating (I will not claim to have understood this at the time myself), but we were young enough that we had time to prepare for other careers instead. The internet was coming into its own as an economic phenomenon. And in plenty of other ways that mattered, the economy was terrific. Such as the price of gas. When we Millennials started to get our driver’s licenses in 1998, I could put more than half a tank of gas in my mom’s emerald-green Plymouth Voyager minivan for $10 or less if I went to the right gas station. That didn’t quite make up for having to drive an emerald-green Plymouth Voyager minivan all over town, but it helped.

Those of us who decided to skip college and go straight to work entered the labor force in spring 2000, when the late-’90s economy still was booming along. At that point, the unemployment rate was below 4 percent, a level not seen since the late 1960s.30 These Millennials were more exposed to the labor market during the recession of the early 2000s, but in retrospect that downturn seems mild—a GDP contraction of 0.6 percent in inflation-adjusted terms and an unemployment high of around 6.5 percent that quickly started to fall again.31 The rest of us went to college, graduating in 2004. By then the tech bubble had long since burst, and America had suffered the worst terror attack in its history on September 11, 2001. But while we may have felt some economic anxiety about our job prospects—to say nothing of the effects terrorism and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had on our general sense of security—it still felt as if things would work out for us in the end. The economy appeared to be rebounding from its post–dot-com and terrorism trough. It wasn’t yet clear (as we’ll see in coming chapters) that from that point forward America’s postrecession recoveries would be “jobless,” failing to re-create lost employment opportunities.

And sure enough, those of us older Millennials who had the good fortune to graduate earlier in the 2000s did enjoy a few reasonably good years. The 2004–2006 period was a boom. It felt as though most members of my graduating class from the College of William and Mary were landing on our feet in the working world. My first job was at a small quarterly magazine in Washington, DC, and although the pay was hardly glamorous (it took me months to save up the money to buy an Ikea dresser so I could store my clothes somewhere other than the floor), I got an above-inflation raise within the first year, and an even bigger pay bump when I moved into my second job. The only sour note was a property market that, especially in areas like DC, was so hot that it was clear ownership would have to wait for a few years. By late 2006, when I got a life-changing job offer to go work for the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, I’d managed to move far enough up the career-and-pay ladder to afford luxuries like occasional nights out, a growing collection of books, and a new set of pots and pans in the kitchen of my first solo apartment.

I was incredibly lucky, and so were the other Millennials born at the same time who followed roughly the same trajectory. Because by 2007—when we were just turning twenty-five and barely starting to hit some of our prime career-building years—the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression had started. We’d struggle to hold on for dear life as the crisis and ensuing Great Recession threatened our jobs and nascent prosperity. Those who were born just a few years after us would struggle to stay afloat at all. Millennials born after 1990—and many born in the years just before that—have only ever known one of the deepest recessions and the slowest postrecession recovery in American history during their working lives.

The Theft of a Decade

This book calls that phenomenon—the uniquely serious economic challenges Millennials have faced since 2008—the theft of a decade. It’s important to be clear from the start about who stole what from whom, and how. The “how” is in some ways the easiest question to answer, although it will take the bulk of this book to dig into it in depth, and my conclusions may be challenging for both the political Right and the political Left.


  • "A thoughtful, nuanced, and important light on the plight of Millennials. Crucially, Sternberg does it from a center-right, pro-market perspective rather than from the more familiar, center-left view that often gets mired in larger identity-politics formulations."—Jonah Goldberg, National Review
  • "Thoughtful and nuanced... Sternberg successfully makes the case that millennials face real problems because circumstances have changed. Those problems should generate both sympathy and solutions."—Ramesh Ponnuru, Bloomberg Opinion
  • "The Theft of a Decade by borderline millennial Joseph Sternberg (born in 1982) exhibits unexpected sensitivity towards its villains... Sternberg, a US-born, London-based member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, prefers earnest discussion of Clinton-era labour reforms to cultural boomer-bashing... He slams misguided fiscal reforms and loose monetary policy for fuelling the financial crisis that left millennials entering the job market during a historic downturn and convincingly attributes the slow recovery on the fact that the establishment's solution consisted of more of the same - job-killing regulation and Fed-fuelled money out of a helicopter... Sternberg is sharpest and most persuasive when applying a conservative lens to debates such as those around tax cuts or the gig economy."—Financial News of London
  • "A compelling summary of the conversations the Millennials are most interested in having."—LSE Review of Books
  • "A suggestive essay in demographics and political trends."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Riveting.. This is a must-read for cash-strapped millennials seeking to learn precisely how employment, investment, taxation, and the government's social safety net programs have changed drastically over the past generation."—Publishers Weekly
  • "If you're a Millennial, I strongly recommend this engaging book. It will arm you with all the facts you need about the problems you will face in the labor market, education, housing, and paying down the enormous debt left by your Boomer parents. And after you read it, PLEASE don't forget to vote!"—Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and author of Forgotten Americans: An Economic Agenda for a Divided Nation
  • "The Theft of a Decade shows how the same solutions tried over and over by Republicans and Democrats alike have not worked, and cannot work in the future. Both sides recognize that something has gone terribly wrong in our economy. But so far, neither has been willing to do the hard work of rethinking our approach to everything from education to monetary policy. Joseph Sternberg makes the strong case that we need to offer a new approach to solving our nation's problems, and resist the urge to double down on the failed policies of the past. This should be required reading, not just for millennials, but for all Americans."—Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI)

On Sale
May 14, 2019
Page Count
288 pages

Joseph C. Sternberg

About the Author

Joseph C. Sternberg is editorial-page editor and European political-economy columnist for the Wall Street Journal‘s European edition. He joined the Journal in 2006 as an editorial writer in Hong Kong, where he also edited the Business Asia column. Born in 1982, he lives in London.

Learn more about this author