Booming Spongers

The birth rate boomed across the industrialized countries that fought in the second world war: Germany, Japan, Britain and the United States, though the birthing take-off took off at different times. The war’s only tangible victor, the U.S., had particularly fervent fertility.

The boomer generation was not as prosperous as they were proliferant. But they made themselves so by readily robbing the next generation.

The population boom propelled a dynamic of growth. Women entered the work force en masse for the first time. The economic bon-ton-roulet was further fueled by debt of every sort: personal, corporate, and sovereign. In short, boomers put themselves and their children in hock to finance a generational bubble of prosperity that was illusory, because it could not be sustained.

What also could not be sustained was the environmental destruction that proceeded at an accelerated pace. The natural world was considered practically limitless in its exploitative potential. The exuberant fouling of water and air were curtailed only when they overwhelmed. “Better living through chemistry” was glorified by killing pests of every sort, while ignoring as much as possible the knock-on effects of environmental poisoning. Similarly, global warming was kicked into high gear, though that would not become apparent until the boomers were retiring.

As the boomers moved into middle age, their bulk gave them political heft, which they used to reward themselves with generous benefits. Government deficits exploded as tax rates were slashed; justified, for those that gave it any thought, by the same voodoo economics that became conventional wisdom: growth is good, and going into debt incidental. This was as if a financial perpetual-motion machine existed: that debt generates its own payback via prosperity.

Each American born in 1945 can expect a lifetime net transfer of $2.2 million from the state. All told, in the U.S., those who turned 65 in 2010 are eligible for $333 billion more in benefits than they paid in taxes.

But of course, the butter was not evenly spread. Those well-off fared better. Facing retirement age, the lower class, less politically powerful, are turning into toast.

The convergence of environmental, economic and financial malaise is finally being felt, albeit unevenly. The well-off and well-connected are naturally less concerned. After all, in the autumn of one’s years, what is to be done but enjoy the joy ride to its end.


Ishi Nobu, Spokes of the Wheel, Book 6: The Fruits of Civilization (pre-publication).

“Sponging boomers,” The Economist (29 September 2012).