Book review: The Theft of a Decade, by Joseph C Sternberg

Detail from the cover of The Theft of a Decade
Detail from the cover of The Theft of a Decade
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‘The boomers broke it – but it’s rapidly becoming our mess to clean up,” writes Joseph C Sternberg, a senior Wall Street Journal scribe, in this assertion on the idea that the older generation has effectively robbed the piggy bank of its children and grandchildren.

That said, Sternberg does acknowledge the hurdles baby boomers have themselves faced and the often-comfortable lifestyle millennials can enjoy. But he asks: “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?”

A millennial himself, the author undertakes a forensic and often bleak look at the topic, claiming his generation has been mugged “in broad daylight”. He starts out with a relatively lighthearted if pertinent focal point of the debate – the much-discussed claim that millennials are spending too much on avocado toast and not enough on house deposits.

What follows is a focus on key factors such as education, work, home ownership and social security, comparing the experience of the two generations. Sternberg examines the boomers’ relatively prosperous fortunes, and, crucially, criticises that generation’s responses to the unravelling financial crisis for prioritising its own interests as millennials hit adulthood and were “left to pick up the pieces” from 2008 onwards.

He details the implications of the complex financial tools deployed by baby boomers in authority, moves he says which show that they failed to learn fundamental lessons from history.

Some of these measures were also used in the UK, although Sternberg’s study is by and large America-centric, including sections on its unique healthcare challenges.

The UK does make an appearance, if only as a cautionary tale under the heading “Cruel Britannia”. Sternberg describes this country as an “instructive and frightening proving ground” blighted by soaring house prices and a lack of new homes coming to market.

Sternberg includes a great deal of meticulously researched data, although he does also interweave some welcome, vivid anecdotes, such as his own experience of driving around town in his mother’s emerald-green Plymouth Voyager minivan, and arriving in Washington, DC as a “bright-eyed” journalism intern.

The pace really picks up with a compelling, concise summary of the earliest stages of the financial crisis, although here a few more individual stories could have helped illustrate the often devastating personal impact of statistics and trends.

A self-proclaimed conservative, Sternberg does not hold back in criticising left-of-centre politicians’ approaches, although he does aim his ire at both sides of the political fence. Nor does he refrain from scaremongering, for example warning that millennials are “going to have to work forever”. He also makes the somewhat bold assertion that millennials are “one of the smartest, most ambitious generations the world has ever known”. I don’t want to sound bitter, having been born too early to be a millennial, but really?

There is no lack of opposition to the kind of theories put forward by Sternberg – in her recently published book Stop Mugging Grandma, for example, Jennie Bristow argues that any perceived intergenerational conflict is in fact a smokescreen obscuring fundamental housing, education, pensions and employment issues. It will certainly be interesting to see Sternberg’s perspective in another decade or two as he and his peers reach middle-age, while technology wields ever-stronger influence in every area of our lives. - Emma Newlands

The Theft of a Decade: How the Baby Boomers Stole the Millennials’ Economic FutureBy Joseph C Sternberg, Public Affairs, 288pp, £22.99