The Least We Can Do

Self-absorbed, self-indulged, and self-loathing, the Baby Boom generation at last has the chance to step out of the so-called Greatest Generation’s historical shadow. Boomers may not have the opportunity to save the world, as their predecessors did, but they can still redeem themselves by saving the American economy from the fiscal mess that they, and their fathers and mothers, are leaving behind.
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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 Millennials—but these labels tend not to stick, because they have less reality behind them.

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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.

Whether the Boomers would have risen to the challenge of World War II is impossible to know. But the comparison with Vietnam is misleading. Winning the World War required the total mobilization of society. Vietnam never required more than a small fraction of draft-age men (and of course an even smaller fraction of all draft-age Americans). Most Boomers never served their country in the military, because most were not needed. Nevertheless, some of the poison in American politics over the past generation can be traced back to the unfairness of the Vietnam-era draft. The Atlantic’s James Fallows presciently predicted this in October 1975, in a Washington Monthly article called “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” Even though almost all of the American soldiers who fought in Vietnam were Boomers, and even though there is general (though not universal) agreement that the Vietnam War was a mistake, the fact that Boomers from privileged backgrounds mostly avoided the fight has left a vague impression that Boomers as a generation failed some test.

But even if the anti-Boomer critique is mostly a bum rap, Boomers are right to feel at least a bit like a failed generation, because they—at least those who consciously thought of themselves as part of a generation—had hopes. They had an agenda. Peace and love—whatever happened to them? It is a crushing disappointment that Boomers entered adulthood with Americans killing and dying halfway around the world, and now, as Boomers reach retirement and beyond, our country is doing the same damned thing.

In his recent biography of 20th-century media baron Henry Luce, professor Alan Brinkley of Columbia discusses Luce’s famous 1941 essay, “The American Century,” in which Luce urged Americans to take on the burdens of world leadership, and “to promote, encourage and incite so-called democratic principles throughout the world.”

Brinkley, a Boomer but usually the most reticent of narrators, can’t resist stepping out of the story at this point to comment that he first read Luce’s essay in the 1970s and it struck him as “an obsolete relic of an earlier … and now repudiated American age. Little did I know how soon its sentiments would be popular again.” American exceptionalism—the belief that the rules of nature and humanity don’t apply to us—and American hubris about promoting our values in the world got us into Vietnam. This was the analysis of most anti-war Boomers. (The ones who rejected America and its values were a tiny minority.) Mainstream Boomers believed that Vietnam inoculated us against these vanities and would keep us out of trouble. (Hawks feared they were right.) But the inoculation lasted less than a decade. We started small, with Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada, and now, like other imperial powers before us, we’re mired in Afghanistan.

But we’re still spry. It’s not too late for a generational gesture, something that will be the equivalent of—if not actually equal to—our parents’ sacrifice in fighting and winning World War II: some act of generosity or sacrifice that will inspire or embarrass the next generation, as the sacrifices and achievements of the “Greatest” generation inspire and embarrass many Boomers.

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Michael Kinsley is an Atlantic senior editor and a columnist at the Atlantic Wire. More

Michael Kinsley is a longtime political journalist and commentator. He has an accomplished record in print, television, and online. He graduated from Harvard, went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and came back to study at Harvard Law. While in his third year of law school, Kinsley began working at The New Republic. He was named editor and wrote that magazine's famous TRB column for most of the 1980s and 1990s. He also served as editor at Harper's, managing editor of Washington Monthly, and American editor of The Economist. Kinsley was a panelist on CNN's "Crossfire" from 1989 to 1995. In the mid-1990s, Kinsley started working for Microsoft and became the founding editor of the company's online journal, Slate. He worked as a senior writer and columnist at The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire in 2010. In 1999, the Columbia Journalism Review named him Editor of the Year, and in 2010 he was inducted into the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame. He is famous for defining a gaffe as the moment when a politician tells the truth.

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