Regardless of the outcome of the U.S. presidential primaries, it's clear that a post-boomer politics is beginning to take shape. By the same token, it's clear that a post-boomer economy—and economics—may be doing so as well. Generalization is the great professional privilege (and pitfall) of every columnist. But it's not too much of a stretch to note that those of us under a certain age (this writer was ushered onto the world stage in 1967) operate with a set of baseline assumptions about how the world works, about work, trade, globalization and economic relations, that differs sharp-ly from the operating manual of our boomer forebears.
After all, the earth-shattering changes that forged our world were simply part of the landscape in which we learned to walk. History didn't end in 1990, as Francis Fukuyama argued. But for all intents and purposes, economic history did. The long-raging battle of the 20th century between the forces of market capitalism and government control essentially ended in those exhilarating days in the fall of 1989 when everything we learned in college about political economy crumbled along with the Berlin wall.
Since those peaceful revolutions, the global economy has been in the throes of a continuous revolution that has turned what used to be a collection of largely independent systems into a single, massive, integrated one. And so we travel the globe and work for more foreign-owned companies and read about the exploits of oligarchs and get better cell-phone reception in Mombasa than in Milwaukee. The falling of trade barriers and the integration of billions of humans into a single system has created enormous economic benefits. For post-boomers, recessions are like bell-bottom jeans—a relic of the 1970s. Since 1992, the United States has suffered a single, shallow recession. The flip side, and the fundamental dichotomy, has been microeconomic turbulence amid macroeconomic stability.
It's common to hear boomer politicians marvel at the fact that the typical worker will change jobs seven times before the age of 35. For post-boomers, the response is: duh! "For a lot of the boomers, the sense of having a job for life was a default bedrock assumption about the kind of world they'd have, and when it didn't pan out, they felt affronted and cheated," says Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. "The new generation starts out with that as a baseline." Along with that goes assumptions about benefits—401(k)s, not pensions; health insurance, maybe. My colleagues in graduate school didn't expect to enter into tenure-track positions immediately upon completing their Ph.D.s. And my colleagues in the magazine world certainly don't expect their publications to exist in their current forms in 2028.
Technology—among other forces—has fundamentally reordered the way people approach the most basic economic function: work. And it goes beyond job security, says Daniel Pink, 43, author of "Free Agent Nation." "For post-boomers, work isn't a loyalty-for-security bargain, it's an opportunity-for-talent bargain," he said. "You recognize that your employer is giving you opportunities—to earn money, to do something new—but you don't go in looking for any sort of lifetime security or enduring loyalty."
The economy has not lost its capacity to induce angst. Job insecurity, concern over benefits and the fear of falling afflict post-boomers, especially as they begin to form families. But bubble-surfing post-boomers have proved adept at riding the waves. You know the type. She got a law degree in the 1990s, worked as a management consultant, joined a dotcom in San Francisco in the late 1990s, moved to Orange County, California, to work in real-estate development in 2002, then joined a hedge fund in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 2005. Today, she's in Mumbai.
The typical post-boomer career path—at virtually every level of the income ladder—is more like a maze than a straight line. Just so, the economy at large is more Google than Microsoft—distributed, constantly evolving, thriving on chaos, open rather than proprietary, allergic to order. As such, it is far more difficult to model, to predict and to navigate than the 1.0 version. Forecasting, difficult in ordinary times, is a near impossibility today. Find me the economist, who, six years ago, would have projected the following set of events for 2008: oil near $100 per barrel, the United States approaching recession but the globe booming, Persian Gulf countries importing Western universities and museums, and vast sovereign wealth funds taking stakes in U.S. banks.
It's common to think of post-boomer politicians as post-ideological. In the 1970s and into the 1980s, notes Jeffrey Liebman, professor of economics at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, macroeconomics was presented as a battle between Keynesians and monetarists. But post-boomer economists have forged a consensus around issues like deregulation and the primacy of monetary policy. Debate over demand control is over. The markets rule. "Even liberal economists are interested in studying the ways government policies are affecting behavior in a way that wasn't done in 1980," says Liebman. We're all supply-siders now.