With this post begins Chapter 2 of Baby Boom Delusions and Solutions. This chapter focuses on five demands that the Baby Boom must make on our policy and law-makers. If these demands are not realized, the negative experiences visited upon Deborah Anne Chase and her family--as recounted in Chapter 1--will be visited upon millions of Boomers and their families.
A GREATER GENERATION?
Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book, The Greatest Generation, tributes his parent’s cohort, the one that mobilized, fought and helped the Allies win the Second World War. Millions of relevant examples can be recounted that illustrate the effort and sacrifice of the American generation born between 1910 and 1924. They rose to the challenge of a world threatened by the ideologies of fascism and militarism. Many did it enthusiastically. Others grumbled and groused but did it anyway. The overarching reality was a national effort and sacrifice in blood, money and deprivation. The Greatest Generation’s contribution from 1941 to 1945 was primarily as the military muscle. When blood was spilled, it was mostly theirs. They didn’t choose to play this role but they did it when history brought it to them.
Here are a few examples of that effort. Deborah Chase’s father piloted an Army Air Corps C-47 Skytrain and ferried airborne troops to North Africa, Sicily, Italy and France. He was wounded by flak fire on D-Day just after he had dropped paratroopers behind German lines. Deb’s grandparents, her mother and the others on the American home front endured shortages of critical raw materials, lived with rationed gasoline and foodstuffs, tended “victory gardens”, gathered scrap metal and bought War Bonds. It was a brief time of effort and sacrifice for the common good. Brokaw has a case.
When the war was over, the Greatest Generation then produced Deborah’s generation, the Baby Boom. Using Brokaw’s yardstick to compare the Baby Boom to the Greatest Generation, how do we Boomers measure up?
In terms of sheer numbers there is no doubt that the Baby Boom can claim the title of America’s biggest generation. Those of us born between January 1, 1946 and December 31, 1963 make up the largest generational cohort in American history: 77,000,000. Raised and educated in a prosperous post war society, the Baby Boom is the bull in America’s demographic China shop. Being big, however, doesn’t mean being respected and it certainly doesn’t mean general popularity.
Even a cursory review of things written and said about the Baby Boom will often include such descriptions as: “selfish, self-absorbed, entitlement mentality, navel gazing, irresponsible, immature, self-important, smug, frivolous….”, you get the drift and may agree. As a Baby Boomer, I squirm a bit considering that these descriptors could be more right than wrong. But are we as bad as our general reputation?
Very few voices have risen to defend us. One of those voices is sociologist Leonard Steinhorn whose 2006 book The Greater Generation, In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy, suggests that the Baby Boom is generally getting an unfair evaluation. Steinhorn says that Boomers “created, reinvented, invigorated or sustained the great citizen movements that have advanced American values and freedoms” since the mid 20th century. Among these movements he includes environmentalism, consumerism, women’s rights, civil rights, gay and lesbian rights and openness in government. Well, maybe.
To be sure, Boomers took up many of these causes and provided the ground troops and some ballot muscle to change America for the better. However, in virtually all cases, the visionaries who first stepped out of line to challenge society on these seminal issues were from the generations that preceded the Baby Boom; Martin Luther King, Jr. (civil rights), Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan (womens’ rights), Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Bob Hunter (environmental awareness), Franklin Kameny and Barbara Gittings (gay rights) were all born before 1946. To claim that that the Boomers created these movements just doesn’t match the calendar.
The Baby Boom’s contribution to these social sea changes has more to do with lucky timing than with pioneering vision. The social movements of the 60’s and 70’s occurred when Boomers were very young adults, teens or adolescents, the perfect rebellious age for latching onto causes that parents and society were resisting. Unlike China’s Cultural Revolution, which harnessed the same age-related energy for destructive social upheaval, America’s turbulent 60’s and 70’s were fueled by the participation of Baby Boomers for the common good. But the leaders and visionaries behind these movements came from the ranks of the Boomers’ parents or older brothers and sisters.
Steinhorn also asserts that Boomers had an important influence on remaking the American workplace as soon as they began to enter the job market. “In the seventies,” he says, “at the precise moment that a critical mass of Boomers was entering the workforce, it became painfully clear to them that the economy was collapsing under the weight of shortsighted management decisions that protected the status quo at the expense of investments needed to keep our economy a step ahead. As Boomers saw it, the dinosaur organizations their parents embraced stifled not only creativity but fulfillment on the job.” (Italics, mine)
I was one of those early Boomers entering the workforce in 1972 and I can assure you that I was not thinking about any of those things and I doubt that very many of my contemporaries were either. We barely knew what an organizational chart was. We were just happy to have jobs. Granted, as our careers and business savvy matured and as younger Boomers entered the workplace behind us, we changed the American workplace, but then each new generation does, whatever its sensibilities. I don’t think that this makes the Baby Boom special, except for the sheer number of plum jobs that we now occupy. Deborah Chase attained one of those good jobs.
While Baby Boomers might want to take credit for most of the cultural good that has emerged in America since the 60’s, I think it's a stretch for Steinhorn to label it the “Greater Generation” in pointed comparison to the Greatest Generation. To quote Brokaw’s book, “In the World War II generation, ordinary people found common cause, made extraordinary sacrifices and never whined or whimpered.” To date, we Baby Boomers may have found several good common causes to rally around but the quantity of self-sacrifice has been measurably less than experienced by the Greatest Generation and we have not developed a comparable reputation for stoic acceptance of whatever burdens we have assumed. We tend to be a bit whiny.
Whether you agree or disagree that the Baby Boom has earned the appellation of “greater generation” based on its vision and sacrifice for the common good, I believe that there is one final chance for the cohort to truly earn (or burnish) such a reputation. This chance comes with the aging, decline and eventual death of the Baby Boom itself. It is an eventuality that is only now dawning on Boomers; a process and finality that most Boomers would rather not ponder. Many boomers are under the delusion that they will be spared.
The Baby Boom has prospered and the great majority of us will live long. History, therefore, has presented our generation with a monumental challenge based on our newly experienced longevity. Living long has some down sides.
America’s current social service policies, entitlement programs, health care systems, end-of-life care standards and support structures are ill-prepared for the onslaught of Boomers as they age beyond good health and independence. These shortcomings are plaguing the very old in America today, but the dependent elderly are, as they have been for many decades, not a powerful voice for change. Even now, millions of Baby Boomers are observing the challenges discussed in this book because they are grappling with the frustrations of care for their own parents. It’s amazing that this experience hasn’t already created a loud and long outcry for change.
If the Baby Boom wants better and more effective policies dealing with their own care, decline and death than are currently in place, the changes must begin now, not in 22 years when the oldest Boomers will be 85. Boomers should want to tackle these challenges for three reasons: (1) for their own good, (2) to save their children and grandchildren from a support system that, if not broken, is certainly dysfunctional, and (3) to allow America to regain budget sanity.
These systemic changes will impact how Americans are cared for as they decline and die for generations to come, not just the Baby Boom. And, some of the needed changes will ask for real but reasonable sacrifice from many Baby Boomers, lest the burden fall on their children and grandchildren. So, the changes are for the common good, many of them will require measurable self-sacrifice from Boomers and they need to be done with stoic awareness that they are necessary. Given these elements, it can be argued that if the Boomers take up the challenge and succeed, then the claim to be a great generation has traction.
Observoid of the Day: Anywhere is within walking distance if you have the time.