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The generation born between 1915 and 1935 wasn’t granted the luxury of contemplating what to do after high school or college—“finding yourself” wasn’t an option for them. So they grew up fast and dutifully marched off to Europe and Africa and the Pacific to save the world from Nazi fascism and Japanese imperialism. Those who missed World War II were treated to World War 2.5 in Korea. They returned home to hold back Moscow’s Iron Curtain—and ultimately tear it down. We should never forget that the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed while one of their own sat in the Oval Office. Unlike their parents and their children, they would not leave their unfinished business to another generation. Duty and responsibility were ingrained into them. Their willingness to serve and sacrifice grew from a patriotism that many of their children would scorn and many more of their grandchildren would never quite understand. It’s telling that Reagan and Kennedy’s generation reached for the moon. Obama’s generation shut down the space shuttle and lowered America’s sites.
That brings us back to the Boomers. While their parents saluted when their country called, many Boomers responded with a shrug. To be sure, some 2 million Boomers served in Vietnam, fighting for their country, just like their dads had done. But sadly, they were overshadowed by those in their generation who burned their draft cards, “dropped out” and found something—anything—to protest. The historical record shows that Baby Boomers waved North Vietnamese flags while North Vietnamese bullets and bombs were killing American boys. There is simply no analogue to that from the World War II generation.
This is not to say that the Boomers’ parents were perfect. Reagan conceded his generation’s failures in his 1967 diagnosis. Moreover, it was Reagan’s generation that mismanaged the Vietnam War. But the Boomers’ parents get credit for their previous record (in World War II, they sacrificed more than any generation) and for their motives (they believed the Free World and the American way of life were worth fighting for). So many of the Boomers, on the other hand, seemed to conclude that nothing was worth fighting for.
Amid depression, scarcity and war, their parents had to grow up too fast. But many of the Boomers never seemed to grow up at all, never seemed to understand that they couldn’t “have it all”—sex without consequence, knowledge without truth, freedom without responsibility, life without the healthy limits of “no.”
Their parents saved civilization; the Boomers assaulted it—marriage and family and religion were upended in their wake.
Their parents walked among us without pretense, like silver-haired Clark Kents. But so many of the Boomers chose a different demeanor: showy and pretentious, myopic and narcissistic. There’s a reason they were known as the “Me Generation.” Just contrast, say, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush—who spoke in terms of “we” and “us” and “our”—with Barack Obama, born at the end of the postwar baby boom—who incessantly talks about “I” and “me” and “my.”
There are many exceptions, of course. I can think of two in particular—my mom and dad, who lived lives on the sensible and selfless side of the Baby Boomer spectrum. But so many of their peers didn’t—and still don’t.
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