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Measuring the Me Generation

Posted By Alan W. Dowd On April 23, 2012 @ 12:10 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 36 Comments

Stephen Marche has written a thought-provoking piece about what he terms the “war against youth.” Although a bit whiny at times and sprinkled with class-envy rhetoric—he warns of “flowers of rage,” derides “virulently purified capitalism” and writes approvingly about “the protesters, the occupiers, the kids who screamed themselves hoarse in the parks of New York and Oakland last year”—the thrust of the essay highlights the selfishness of the Baby Boomer generation and the consequences of that selfishness.

Here are a few of the consequences that Marche identifies: Pointing to the “economic cloak of unreality that the Boomers have wrapped themselves in,” he argues that “There is a young America and there is an old America…One takes from the other.” He cites a 2009 Brookings Institution study to support his case: “The United States spends 2.4 times as much on the elderly as on children.”

Thanks to what he calls “30 years of economic and social policy that has been rigged to serve the comfort and largesse of the old at the expense of the young,” he notes that “in 1984, American breadwinners who were 65 and over made ten times as much as those under 35. The year Obama took office, older Americans made almost 47 times as much as the younger generation.”

Maintaining a political-economic system that serves “the comfort and largesse of the old” helps explain the untouchable nature of the tax-guzzling Social Security and Medicare programs. Marche notes that the Social Security system will run out of funds in 2036, “so there’s just enough to get the oldest Boomers to age 90.” Indeed, he makes a compelling case that “the whole of American society has been rearranged so that the limits of vision coincide exactly with the death of the Boomers. Nobody wants this. The Boomers did not set out to screw over their kids. The wind just seemed to blow them that way.”

In other words, the Boomers will likely eat through the safety net their parents handed down to them. Yet many Boomers loudly oppose reforms to the system that could extend its life. A PBS report found that simply raising the Social Security retirement age to 71 by 2040, and to 75 by 2070, would save enough money to cover the looming shortfalls. Likewise, to preserve the system for future generations, Medicare needs to be reined in, means-tested and trimmed down; some elements of Medicare need to be phased out altogether.

But those are non-starters, which means the Boomers’ kids and grandkids will work longer and receive a far smaller return on their “investment” in Social Security and Medicare. Again, Marche offers helpful evidence in this regard: He notes that a wealthy retired couple today will pay $899,000 into programs like Medicare and Social Security and receive $1.01 million in benefits; a low-earning retired couple today will pay $510,000 into the system and get $821,000 back. Post-Boomer generations won’t see anything like this.

Indeed, it could be argued that the spending and debt debates in today’s Washington are basically debates over how much the Boomers will take from their children and grandchildren.

If those are some of the public-policy consequences of Baby Boomer selfishness, what are the causes?

Ronald Reagan offered an answer way back in 1967. Speaking to a gathering of young Baby Boomers at Eureka College, he concluded that his generation had given his children’s generation—the Boomers—too much. “Because we had to earn,” he explained, “we wanted to give…‘No’ was either a dirty word or dropped from our vocabulary.” He lamented that “our motives have been laudable, but our judgment has been bad…I am afraid we shortchanged you on responsibilities.”

The words may sting, but they proved prescient.

“No” and “responsibility”—with all their limiting power—are words that too many Boomers have never understood, grasped or used.

Just contrast the Boomers with their parents.

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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