How Boomers Left Us With an Ethical Deficit

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This post is part of our forum on Michael Kinsley's October cover story exploring the legacy of the Baby Boomers and what they owe the country. Follow the debate here.As I write this I am sitting in a hotel in Times Square. Around the corner is a massive billboard for a new book by the skin care guru Dr. Nicholas Perricone. It says just about all we need to know about the problem with the Baby Boomers:

STOP AGING!
FOREVER YOUNG

Yes, I know the assignment here is to respond to Mike Kinsley's incisive and revealing essay about his generation, not to deconstruct a piece of outdoor advertising. But "Stop Aging/Forever Young" encapsulates the mindset of tens of millions of Boomers. One might call this yearning American, not generational -- but it was the Boomers who truly made it so. Do we think the GI Generation indulged such aspirations? The Founders? The Civil War generation? Even the Gilded Age or Jazz Age zeitgeist never got as recklessly narcissistic as this. Kinsley asks whether Boomers will leave a net-positive legacy. I submit that there's a prior unanswered question: whether they want to.

Let me start by saying that in some ways Kinsley is too tough on his generation: these are the people, after all, who populated the civil rights and women's rights movements, who have made American life an order of magnitude more inclusive and tolerant and creative than it was when they entered the scene. Kinsley, from whom I have learned a lot over the years, embodies much of what has been great about the Boomers as they have shaped our politics and culture: he is not wedded to old ways, he is imaginative, he is attuned to big ideas. He knows, in a way Gen Xers like me have never been able to assume, that when folks his age speak, markets move and nations change. He takes seriously the charge that his cohort squandered a multigenerational legacy of sacrifice, and he proposes a concrete way of making up for it.
Can the Boomers Save America?
And yet something is unsatisfying about his proposal. I'm all for an extensive (and progressive) estate tax. But even if it were enacted and brought in the $8 trillion or more Kinsely envisions -- indeed, even if it enabled the last Boomer to leave the country's books completely balanced - there still would remain an ethical deficit that extends beyond the fiscal one. The Boomers have modeled a set of bad habits, and one grand gesture is not going to unwind all those bad habits.

In Kinsley's essay is an ambivalence that reveals a deeper problem. On the one hand he gently mocks "civic hoo-hah" and national purpose; on the other he wants his peers to volunteer to give up what's theirs -- for the good of the country. While he impresses upon you that he is not a sucker for earnest causes or a bore, he offers up a proposal that is earnest and, yes, boring. Cool kid and smart kid. Arch observer, spirited joiner. This isn't splitting the difference; it's wanting it both ways. And this tic in Kinsley's essay brings to the fore an unfortunate aspect of the Boomers' impact: the creation of a norm and expectation that we can have it all, that we needn't set priorities and give some things up.

This is understandable, given that the babies of the Boom were born into unprecedented security, prosperity, and possibility. When Daniel Bell wrote of the cultural contradictions of capitalism -- that a self-denying work ethic leads to the affluence that gives rise to self-gratifying play ethic that ends up corroding the affluence - he could also have described the life cycle of the Boomers. Like the "little emperors" of one-child China, too many Boomers were taught early that the world was made (or saved) for their comfort and enjoyment. They behaved accordingly, with a self-indulgence that was wholly rational, given their situation. So rather than impugn the character of this generation, it might be fairer to say simply that Kinsley's cohort was shaped by the circumstances of unmatched plenty.

But as any parent knows, understanding the origins of self-centered, short-sighted behavior is not the same as excusing it. Americans need to call on Boomers, in their next act onstage, to behave like grown-ups. And there is no better way for them to do this than to guide young people to lives of greater meaning, effectiveness, and purpose. If every Baby Boomer today committed to becoming a mentor to a kid in need of a caring adult, that would be a gift far more animate and lasting than a bloodless, even if massive, refund to the Treasury. It would change schools, neighborhoods, cities. Boomers represent the biggest potential crop of mentors America has ever had.

Kinsley contemplates (and dismisses) the idea of reviving the draft. But there are plenty of Boomers who don't need a prod to serve. Marc Freedman, author of Encore, has organized many of his generation to focus on "encore careers" dedicated to the public good - to pass on what they know, to serve, to share the wealth of their experience. Freedman has helped create a well-funded Purpose Prize for great social entrepreneurs over the age of 60. He is sparking a little movement, and the more Boomers who join it, the better for them and for all of us.

Here, again, historical circumstance may speed behavioral change. Though the Great Recession is not the Depression, the reset button has most definitely and painfully been hit. Now that legacy is much less likely to be measured in dollars, perhaps it can be measured in a currency that matters as much: how we teach kids to be responsible, pro-social human beings. The Boomers will eventually have to accept that it is not possible to stay forever young or to stop aging. But it is possible, by committing to show up for others in community after community, to earn a measure of immortality.

The debate continues here.

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Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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