“Talkin’ about my generation”: the Who song once expressed the hope and self confidence of the Baby Boomers as they reached biological if not emotional maturity. It was an attack on the older generation, a defense of the young, but it includes an ominous refrain: “Hope I die before I get old.” Already, perhaps, the shadow of generational failure hung over the twenty something Boomers. Those shadows have darkened considerably as the Boomer sun moves past the meridian and an unmistakable air of twilight infiltrates into the declining hours of the long Boomer day.
Talking about our generation is not going to be as much fun for the Boomers as it was in those long distant days of infinite promise. My generation has some real accomplishments under its belt, especially in the worlds of science and technology. And we made important progress in making American society a more open place for people and groups who were once excluded. In every field of American life, there are Boomers who have made and are making important, selfless contributions: in hospitals, in classrooms, in government, in business, in the military. You name it and we are there.
But at the level of public policy and moral leadership, as a generation we have largely failed. The Boomer Progressive Establishment in particular has been a huge disappointment to itself and to the country. The political class slumbered as the entitlement and pension crisis grew to ominous dimensions. Boomer financial leadership was selfish and shortsighted, by and large. Boomer CEOs accelerated the trend toward unlimited greed among corporate elites, and Boomer members of corporate boards sit by and let it happen. Boomer academics created a profoundly dysfunctional system that systemically shovels resources upward from students and adjuncts to overpaid administrators and professors who by and large have not, to say the least, done an outstanding job of transmitting the cultural heritage of the past to future generations. Boomer Hollywood execs created an amoral morass of sludge — and maybe I’m missing something, but nobody spends a lot of time talking about the towering cultural accomplishments of the world historical art geniuses of the Boomer years. Boomer greens enthusiastically bet their movement on the truly idiotic drive for a global carbon treaty; they are now grieving over their failure to make any measurable progress after decades spent and hundreds of millions of dollars thrown away. On the Boomer watch the American family and the American middle class entered major crises; by the time the Boomers have finished with it the health system will be an unaffordable and dysfunctional tangle — perhaps the most complicated, expensive and poorly designed such system in the history of the world.
All of this was done by a generation that never lost its confidence that it was smarter, better educated and more idealistic than its Depression-surviving, World War-winning, segregation-ending, prosperity-building parents. We didn’t need their stinking faith, their stinking morals, or their pathetically conformist codes of moral behavior. We were better than that; after all, we grokked Jefferson Airplane, achieved nirvana on LSD and had a spiritual wealth and sensitivity that our boorish bourgeois forbears could not grasp. They might be doers, builders and achievers — but we Boomers grooved, man, we had sex in the park, we grew our hair long, and we listened to sexy musical lyrics about drugs that those pathetic old losers could not even understand.
What the Boomers as a generation missed (there were, of course and thankfully, many honorable individual exceptions) was the core set of values that every generation must discover to make a successful transition to real adulthood: maturity. Collectively the Boomers continued to follow ideals they associated with youth and individualism: fulfillment and “creativity” rather than endurance and commitment. Boomer spouses dropped families because relationships with spouses or children or mortgage payments no longer “fulfilled” them; Boomer society tolerated the most selfish and immature behavior in its public and cultural leaders out of the classically youthful and immature belief that intolerance and hypocrisy are greater sins than the dereliction of duty. That the greatest and most effective political leader the Baby Boom produced was William Jefferson Clinton tells you all you need to know.
Too many Boomers high and low clung to the ideology of youth we developed back when we didn’t trust anybody over thirty and believed that simply by virtue of our then-recent vintage we represented a unique step forward in planetary wisdom and human capability; those illusions are pardonable in a twenty year old but contemptible in those whose advancing years should bring wisdom. Too many of us clung for to that shiny image of youth and potential too long, and blighted our promise because we were hypnotized by it. This is of course narcissism, our greatest and most characteristic failing as a generation, and like Narcissus our generation missed greatness because of our fascination with our glittering selves.
What begins in arrogance often ends in shame; there are some ominous signs that the Boomers are headed down that path. Sooner or later, the kids were going to note what a mess we have made of so many things, and now, it seems, the backlash has begun. From the Washington Post comes this column by 31 year-old Thomas L. Day. The immediate stimulus for Mr. Day’s piece was the latest sorry tale from Penn State involving despicably selfish and unheeding choices by a 58 year old man, but Day — like many others of his generation — is beginning to draw some broader conclusions.
I’m 31, an Iraq war veteran, a Penn State graduate, a Catholic, a native of State College, acquaintance of Jerry Sandusky’s, and a product of his Second Mile foundation.And I have fully lost faith in the leadership of my parents’ generation.
Mr. Day continues:
One thing I know for certain: A leader must emerge from Happy Valley to tie our community together again, and it won’t come from our parents’ generation.They have failed us, over and over and over again.I speak not specifically of our parents — I have two loving ones — but of the public leaders our parents’ generation has produced. With the demise of my own community’s two most revered leaders, Sandusky and Joe Paterno, I have decided to continue to respect my elders, but to politely tell them, “Out of my way.”They have had their time to lead. Time’s up. I’m tired of waiting for them to live up to obligations.Think of the world our parents’ generation inherited. They inherited a country of boundless economic prosperity and the highest admiration overseas, produced by the hands of their mothers and fathers. They were safe. For most, they were endowed opportunities to succeed, to prosper, and build on their parents’ work.For those of us in our 20s and early 30s, this is not the world we are inheriting…Our parents’ generation has balked at the tough decisions required to preserve our country’s sacred entitlements, leaving us to clean up the mess. They let the infrastructure built with their fathers’ hands crumble like a stale cookie. They downgraded our nation’s credit rating. They seem content to hand us a debt exceeding the size of our entire economy, rather than brave a fight against the fortunate and entrenched interests on K Street and Wall Street.
The coming generations will argue about what we got wrong. Was it, as Mr. Day suggests, the reckless policies of the George W. Bush administration? Or does the rot go deeper? There is, I fear, plenty of blame to spread around. The culture of narcissism and entitlement can be found on the left and the right.
No generation gets it perfectly right, and every generation has a lot of diversity in it. But it is hard to avoid the sense, as the Baby Boom generation prepares to transit to overburdened retirement and health care systems, that somehow in our quest for new frontiers, shiny new ideas, and most of all that uncompromising demand for personal fulfillment at all costs — we neglected the most important things.
We are the generation that accepted the behavior of the multi-millionaire CEO with the trophy wife. We are the generation that failed to protect its children from a tide of filth and debasing popular entertainment without parallel in the history of the world. We are a generation that deliberately and cynically passed the cost of its retirement down to its children. We are a generation that preferred and rewarded financial engineering over business construction. We lost control of the borders and failed to make provisions for the illegal immigrants our fecklessness allowed into the country. We embraced a free trade agenda that accelerated the hollowing out of manufacturing and took no thought about what to build in place of the industrial economy we condemned. We shopped until we dropped, and then we got up and shopped some more. On a scale unprecedented in American history, we broke the most solemn vows human beings can make in order to pursue something we deemed much more important than honor and fidelity. We chased chimeras and started at fantasies but failed to take sober measures to prevent a clearly visible and, once upon a time, easily preventable budget crunch.
Failed parents often do better with their grandchildren. Perhaps the Boomers can go out on a higher note, learning from our mistakes and spending the rest of our time smoothing the path for new generations rather than endlessly nurturing our narcissism, our selves. As a generation the hardest lesson for us to learn appears to be that in the end it is what you give rather than what you get that really counts. It is never too late to learn.
There is still time to do better. We can, for example, step up to the plate and sacrifice a few benefits, putting the well being of future generations ahead of our own. We can gracefully step back to give new generations more of a chance — even if many of the mistakes they make remind us painfully of our own younger, more foolish selves. We can do something to rebuild the religious and community institutions our self-centered, busy lives have left gutted and empty. We can set an example now, as we sadly failed to do for the last forty years, of forward thinking: saving money so as not to be a burden to the young, bearing the disappointments of age with fortitude and dignity, giving without thought of return and in general acting like the grown ups we tried for so long not to be.
We cannot change our past, but the time that remains is still ours to shape. It is too late for us to be remembered as a generation of wise statesmen, great leaders, selfless role models, responsible business people, faithful spouses, sacrificial parents, and builders and renewers of great institutions. We have too much pillaging, wrecking and looting, too much heedless consumption of scarce social capital and too little forethought in our history for that. But we could still be a generation that learned, that got better before the end, and that gave its final decades to help the next generations succeed where we, alas, did not.
The owl, they say, is the bird of wisdom, and it flies at dusk. Perhaps as we Boomers go gray, we may finally find ourselves and at long last begin to deliver on some of that promise that blinded us with its splendor so many golden years ago.