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AARP The Magazine

How the Boomers Saved Everything

Yes, we’re spoiled rotten. We’re self-absorbed. And it seems like we’ll never shut up. But the boomers made a better world for everyone else. You’re welcome

Boomers didn't exactly create a race-blind society, but the kids we've raised might.

This dawned on me when my daughter was 9. She came home from school asking about adoption; she didn't quite understand what it meant. My wife and I explained and said, "You've got friends who are adopted."

"I do?" my daughter answered.

"Suzie Duncan," we said. "Suzie was born in Ethiopia. The Duncans adopted her when she was a baby." The Duncans are pink, freckled, short people of Scots-Irish extraction. Suzie is tall and thin with a luminous anthracite complexion.

My daughter said, "I thought Suzie looked different than her mom and dad."

But boomers haven't made life perfect, the way we promised we would back in the 1960s. We promised we wouldn't fight any wars. We were fibbing — we've had seven or eight since Vietnam. However, we did make them smaller. The United States has suffered more than 5,800 combat deaths in the three decades of the post-Vietnam era. The number is painful, but it's also less — by almost a thousand — than the number of U.S. servicemen who died in just five weeks during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

It would be nice to think the boomers did something to make the world less warlike. More likely, our voracious consumerism has just made the world richer. Gross world product — the total of all the goods and services produced on Earth — increased fivefold between 1975 and 2012, to almost $72 trillion. There's a theory that rich people don't like to fight huge wars — itchy uniforms and ugly shoes. China's economy is nearly 40 times larger than it was in 1978. Let's hope the theory's true.

Our own standard of living hasn't climbed at that heady rate, the way the Greatest Generation's did. But we didn't get to start with nothing. In a world destroyed by the Depression and war, every Levittown bungalow looked like the Ritz-Carlton, and a $20 pay raise was a winning lottery ticket. American family income, adjusted for inflation, grew by about $25,000 between the late 1940s and the middle 1970s. Since then, it's grown by only about half that amount after adjusting for inflation and has in fact declined overall since 1999. For a so-called sandwich generation — pressed between the demands of kids who aren't yet independent and parents who are getting less so — we haven't put many bean sprouts in the pita pocket.

But a lot more things now come standard with our standard of living, thanks to all the great stuff we've invented. In 1978 few people had a personal computer, and if they did, it took up half the house. There was no GPS in your car. The Greatest Generation was lost all the time. You had to go to the library to look things up, and then you couldn't because the Dewey Decimal System made it impossible to figure out whether Dewey ran for president against FDR, defeated the Spanish navy in the Battle of Manila Bay or invented the Dewey Decimal System. We may not have managed America's money well, but the boomers' demand for more and better gizmos has filled the nation with amazing playthings, from tiny talking computers to gigantic flat-screen TVs with roughly 2,000 channels to watch on them. We're the generation that will die with the most toys.

Until that day finally comes, we'll still be riding our bicycles, jamming in garage bands, and wearing jeans and T-shirts. We're famously careful about the way we raise our kids, because somebody has to grow up. It won't be us.

And what about those kids? Will Generation X and the Millennials do a better job running the world than the boomers have? Let's hope so. But first they'll have to move out of our basements.

Humorist and political reporter P.J. O'Rourke is the author of The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn't My Fault) (And I'll Never Do It Again).

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