Jay Leno and the Baby Boomer Persecution Complex

Jay Leno is leaving the Tonight Show, again. With NBC still smarting over the colossal screw-up of the last attempt at ushering Leno out the door—one that caused a public breakup between the network and Conan O’Brien—they’re trying to make the transition as easy as possible for Middle America, whose fondness for Leno and his endless supply of Bill Clinton jokes remains substantial.

And still, Leno can’t go gracefully. Or at least, he can’t go without making it clear he’s being dragged out, leaving claw marks in the floorboards.

On 60 Minutes last week, Leno attempted to compliment his replacement Jimmy Fallon, but made it clear he wished Fallon wasn’t replacing him—because he’d prefer to stay. “It’s not my decision, and I think I probably would have stayed if we didn’t have an extremely qualified, young guy ready to jump in,” Leno said. Even more grating was the set-up 60 Minutes gave to the segment, with reporter Steve Kroft casting Leno’s replacement as “part of a demographic shift that’s beginning to affect millions of baby boomers being pushed aside to make way for a younger generation.”

First of all, if there’s a trend of baby boomers being pushed out of the way for younger workers, somebody should really let the younger workers know. In the real world, they’re working longer hours for less pay than their parents did, if they’re lucky enough to find work at all.

Secondly: Jimmy Fallon will be 40 this year. Johnny Carson was 37 when he took the helm of the Tonight Show. Leno himself was 37 when he started substituting for Carson, the gig that would eventually land him the full-time job. Even without taking into account the O’Brien unpleasantness, Fallon has had to wait even longer for this shot than his predecessors did.

That’s not a world-historical injustice, and Fallon isn’t complaining about getting a pretty sweet gig. But it’s also not human rights abuse to ask an extremely wealthy 63-year-old man, as Leno is, to gracefully bow out and make way for new blood.

The broader problem, if one can be said to exist at all, is actually the opposite of young’uns coming to take all the jobs away: people are retiring later and later, with baby boomers staying in the workforce thanks to a not-so-happy cocktail of financial anxiety and longer lifespans. There’s a growing body of work out there for human resources employees about how to manage intergenerational conflict in the workplace because of it.

Or look at the housing market, where baby boomer empty-nesters are overwhelmingly choosing to age in place instead of downsizing to a condo. And why not? The whole point of owning property is to be able to make that kind of choice. But if you’re looking for a family-sized home in a major Canadian city, you can just keep on looking until mortality opens up the market.

Ideally, we could have a discussion about what kinds of policies we should have to encourage empty-nesters to move out of spacious homes they don’t need so that young people can move in and start families. In theory, it wouldn’t even be that great a hardship: the result would be us asking our parents for permission to give them lots and lots of money to play with in today’s real estate market.

But we don’t live in that ideal world. Rather, we live in one where baby boomers bristle at being called “seniors” even as they pass 60, 65, and (next year) start turning 70. It’s not possible for us to have a rational conversation about this stuff if we can’t use rational language. So instead, we’ll keep trudging through the world we have, with anxious baby boomers constantly looking over their shoulders as their children wonder if they’ll ever be allowed to catch up.

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