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The Least We Can Do

Boomers can still redeem themselves by saving the American economy.

As they prepare to leave the stage, even Boomers themselves concede that things have not exactly gone according to script. Generalizations about generations are often foolish. Who’s to say when one generation ends and the next one starts? And people are individuals: any characteristic intended to describe almost 80 million people will be inaccurate in most individual cases.

But the Baby Boom generation is more real than most. It had a clear starting point: 1946, just long enough after the end of World War II and the return home of American soldiers. (Its end point is set as 1964, although that certainly wasn’t the last year a World War II veteran fathered a child.) The Boomers’ heyday — the 1960s — stands out, even half a century later, as one of our more influential decades, which we romanticize (even if we were too young or too old to enjoy it at the time) and whose long tentacles still entangle us as the 1950s or the 1970s do not.

Most important, many Boomers — more than the generations before and after — have self-consciously thought of themselves, and have been thought of by others, as a generation. To be specific, they have thought of themselves as the “younger generation.” Boomers claimed a patent on the idea of “Youth,” even as people still younger inexplicably materialized — often in the Boomers’ own households. Every few years comes an attempt to carve out and name a generation of these post-Boomers: Generation X, Generation Y, the Millennial — but these labels tend not to stick, because they have less reality behind them.

The indictment against the Baby Boom generation is familiar, way oversimplified, and only partly fair. In brief: the Boomers’ parents were the “Greatest Generation,” a coinage by Tom Brokaw that looks as if it will stick. Toughened by growing up through the Great Depression, the GGs heeded the call and saved the world in 1941–45. Then they returned home to build a prosperous society. They forthrightly addressed the nation’s biggest flaw (race relations), and defeated Communism on their way out the door. The GGs’ children, the Boomers, were “bred in at least modest comfort,” as the Port Huron Statement of 1962, the founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, startlingly concedes. They ducked the challenge of Vietnam — so much smaller than the military challenge their parents so triumphantly met. They made alienation fashionable and turned self-indulgence (sex, drugs, rock and roll, cappuccino makers, real estate, and so on) into a religion. Their initial suspicion of the Pentagon and two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, spread like kudzu into a general cynicism about all established institutions (Congress, churches, the media, you name it). This reflexive and crippling cynicism is now shared across the political spectrum. The Boomers ran up huge public and private debts, whose consequences are just beginning to play out. In the world that Boomers will pass along to their children, America is widely held in contempt, prosperity looks to more and more people like a mirage, and things are generally going to hell.

Nobody actually wants the Boomers dead (or at least nobody has been impolitic enough to say so), but many wouldn’t mind if they took early retirement. From the day John F. Kennedy said “The torch has been passed to a new generation” to the day George H. W. Bush headed back to Houston, seven members of the World War II generation occupied the White House, for a total of 32 years. The Boomers had just two presidents, Clinton and Bush the younger, over 16 years, before the citizenry said, “That’s enough. Let’s move on.” Barack Obama, born in 1961, is technically a Boomer, but consciously ran against a version of Boomer values, and got a lot of self-hating Boomer supporters as a result.

Last year, a Wall Street Journal article noted and quoted from a few commencement speeches in which prominent Boomers (Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, etc.) apologized for their generation. Daniels (born 1949, age 61) said Boomers as a generation have been “self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and all too often just plain selfish.” Friedman (born 1953, age 57) said his was “the grasshopper generation, eating through just about everything like hungry locusts.” Filmmaker Ken Burns summarized: the Baby Boomers “squander[ed] the legacy handed to them by the generations from World War II.” Whether fair or not, this will be the Baby Boom generation in a sound bite unless Boomers act to change it.

This same story could be told with a different spin, of course. The so-called Greatest Generation came back from World War II to create a bland, soul-destroying prosperity, unequally shared, and then mired us in Vietnam, a war that should never have been fought. It was the Boomers, not the Greats, who forced the nation to address civil rights. And it was the Greats, not the Boomers, who got us addicted to debt. The GGs’ willfully blind sense of entitlement turned the government — and many private companies, too — into machines for taking money from working people and giving it to “seniors” (in amounts far in excess of what they had contributed). The collapse of the Soviet Union happened on their watch, but this victory was devalued by McCarthyism, the blacklist, CIA misbehavior, and, ultimately, Vietnam and Watergate. The Greats were the ones who got us into Vietnam and the Boomers were the ones who got us out. They did this by convincing a majority of the country that it was a mistake, which it was. (Their disinclination to kill and die for a mistake was, if not noble, certainly not cowardly.) Even as they “sold out” and eased into middle-class life, they changed it for the better. They made environmentalism, feminism, gay rights so deeply a part of middle-class culture that the terms themselves seem antiquated. They created an American popular culture — particularly music — that swept the world, and still dominates. They created the technological revolution that revived capitalism. And they did their share of sacrificing: they paid for their own schooling with student loans — becoming the first generation to enter adulthood already burdened by large debts. They also paid, publicly and privately, for their parents’ generation to retire in greater comfort than they themselves can reasonably expect. And now — talk about selfishness — many Boomers are supporting their children, too, into their 20s and beyond.

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