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The Least We Can Do

Boomers can still redeem themselves by saving the American economy.

Cherry blossom used to spell out the word Peace and Love, on a playing field

— Ashley Cooper/Corbis

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.

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