Philip Bump looks at baby boomers’ impact in ‘The Aftermath’

The Washington Post reporter crunches the numbers on the generation’s lasting effects on politics and the economy.
Journalist Philip Bump's first book is "The Aftermath."
Journalist Philip Bump's first book is "The Aftermath." [ AMY DRUCKER | Amy Drucker ]
Published Jan. 26

As one of a dwindling number of baby boomers left in my newsroom, I’ve heard the wisecrack from younger colleagues: When will we see the headline “Last baby boomer dies”?

It’s true we’re aging. But the boom lasted from 1946 to 1964, so the youngest boomers will just be turning 60 next year. Given advances in longevity, Philip Bump writes, the “endpoint of the baby boom will probably come no later than the year 2083.”

That’s just one of a whole lot of numbers Bump deploys in his first book, “The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.” Bump, a self-described “sardonic member of Gen X,” is a political columnist for the Washington Post whose stories often deal with the statistics behind the politics.

“The Aftermath” is stuffed with enough charts and graphs to make any data-driven wonk swoon, including one that tracks the relationship between the ages of the actors who have played James Bond and the much younger ages of their Bond Girl co-stars.

In between, in clear and lively prose, Bump delves into the changes the baby boom wrought on America and looks ahead at the effects they still might have, on the economy, politics and more.

The boomers have been impossible to ignore from the start just for their sheer numbers: 76 million babies born in 19 years. (Those numbers, by the way, had less to do with how amorous soldiers were after World War II and more to do with medical advances like vaccines and antibiotics that brought enormous reductions in maternal and infant mortality.)

The nation scrambled to build more schools for those 76 million kids in the 1950s, then expand colleges in the ’60s, then deal with a tsunami of young people entering the job market in the ’70s, complicated by a serious recession in that decade.

Bump touches on the cultural impact of the boomers, but he’s more interested in their shared characteristics as a group. They were a historical anomaly in ways other than their numbers; for example, because of a clampdown on immigration before and during the war years, they are the whitest generation in American history, before or since.

“More than 70 percent of boomers are non-Hispanic White, compared to 55 percent of millennials,” he writes. And that, he explains, has a great deal to do with their political impact today.

Not that anyone ought to assume they’re all alike. Just consider that, for almost 30 years, the U.S. has had baby boomer presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Clinton, Bush and Trump were born within a two-month span in 1946, the beginning of the boom; Obama in 1961, near its end. (President Joe Biden, born in 1942, is a member of the silent generation.)

Bump has covered Trump extensively for the Post, and he’s an outsized figure in this book as well because of the complex relationship between his political career and shifts in the politics of the boomers.

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Although boomers were often reviled as left-wing political radicals in their glory days, in 2016 they put Donald Trump in the White House — more than half of Republicans are 50 or over. But that old saw about people’s politics turning conservative as they age is too simple, and not always accurate, Bump explains.

Trump played successfully on widespread fears of the nation’s changing demographics, the predictions that within a decade or two the U.S. will be a majority minority population, less than half of it white.

Those impending changes evoke a sense of grievance in many white voters, Bump writes, but didn’t have the same impact on all boomers. Education was a huge factor; white boomers with college degrees were significantly less likely to have voted for Trump than those without. And college-educated boomer women opposed him by a notable margin.

Looking ahead to how that demographic shift will affect future politics, Bump writes that it’s not simple. A chapter that looks at the U.S. Census shows us that race and ethnicity themselves are not clear-cut concepts but fluid, complicated things, and their intersection with politics will become even more complex. But boomers will continue to have an impact.

You can’t write about baby boomers without writing about Florida, which has one of the oldest populations of the 50 states.

Bump visits The Villages, a boomer haven and “among the fastest-growing regions in the United States,” and talks to the owner of Tallahassee’s Midtown Reader bookstore, a former GOP operative who quit in disgust after Trump’s election.

He harks back to an inaugural speech by Gov. Bob Martinez in 1987 in which Martinez celebrated Florida’s rapid population growth, fed mostly by an influx of baby boomers.

The population is still growing, as Gov. Ron DeSantis celebrated in his inaugural speech this month, and the boomers are still arriving in droves. “Is Florida an aberration, or is it a preview?” Bump asks. “Since older voters skew more Republican and more White, that suggests an influence on state politics that other places won’t share” as demographics shift, he writes.

Other than age, though, Florida’s population is most similar to the distribution predicted for 2060 in terms of race and ethnicity. And right now it’s led by a governor who, Bump notes, has based his career on the kind of culture wars and racial divisiveness that propelled Trump.

Bump writes about many other issues: how the aging of the population will affect jobs, housing, the distribution of wealth and more. I wish he’d given some space to second-wave feminism, a boomer-driven movement that had a huge effect on the workplace, reproductive rights and gender issues, and certainly had some influence on all those women who didn’t vote for Trump.

But he covers a great deal of ground and does it clearly. If I had to bet on a prediction, though, I might pick this one:

“’I remember somebody asking me on social media who will be the first millennial president,’ Marquette University’s Julia Azari told me, ‘and I was like, baby boomers are just going to holographically project themselves until the end of time.’”

The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America

By Philip Bump

Viking, 416 pages, $30