Walter Russell Mead: Listen Up, Boomers: The Backlash Has Begun

Roundup: Historians' Take

Walter Russell Mead is professor of foreign affairs and the humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of The American Interest.

“Talkin’ about my generation”: the Who song once expressed the hope and self confidence of the Baby Boomers as they reached biological if not emotional maturity.  It was an attack on the older generation, a defense of the young, but it includes an ominous refrain: “Hope I die before I get old.”  Already, perhaps, the shadow of generational failure hung over the twenty something Boomers.  Those shadows have darkened considerably as the Boomer sun moves past the meridian and an unmistakable air of twilight infiltrates into the declining hours of the long Boomer day.

Talking about our generation is not going to be as much fun for the Boomers as it was in those long distant days of infinite promise.  My generation has some real accomplishments under its belt, especially in the worlds of science and technology.  And we made important progress in making American society a more open place for people and groups who were once excluded.  In every field of American life, there are Boomers who have made and are making important, selfless contributions: in hospitals, in classrooms, in government, in business, in the military.  You name it and we are there.

But at the level of public policy and moral leadership, as a generation we have largely failed.  The Boomer Progressive Establishment in particular has been a huge disappointment to itself and to the country.  The political class slumbered as the entitlement and pension crisis grew to ominous dimensions. Boomer financial leadership was selfish and shortsighted, by and large.  Boomer CEOs accelerated the trend toward unlimited greed among corporate elites, and Boomer members of corporate boards sit by and let it happen.  Boomer academics created a profoundly dysfunctional system that systemically shovels resources upward from students and adjuncts to overpaid administrators and professors who by and large have not, to say the least, done an outstanding job of transmitting the cultural heritage of the past to future generations.  Boomer Hollywood execs created an amoral morass of sludge — and maybe I’m missing something, but nobody spends a lot of time talking about the towering cultural accomplishments of the world historical art geniuses of the Boomer years.  Boomer greens enthusiastically bet their movement on the truly idiotic drive for a global carbon treaty; they are now grieving over their failure to make any measurable progress after decades spent and hundreds of millions of dollars thrown away.  On the Boomer watch the American family and the American middle class entered major crises; by the time the Boomers have finished with it the health system will be an unaffordable and dysfunctional tangle — perhaps the most complicated, expensive and poorly designed such system in the history of the world....

We cannot change our past, but the time that remains is still ours to shape.  It is too late for us to be remembered as a generation of wise statesmen, great leaders, selfless role models, responsible business people, faithful spouses, sacrificial parents, and builders and renewers of great institutions.  We have too much pillaging, wrecking and looting, too much heedless consumption of scarce social capital and too little forethought in our history for that.  But we could still be a generation that learned, that got better before the end, and that gave its final decades to help the next generations succeed where we, alas, did not.

The owl, they say, is the bird of wisdom, and it flies at dusk.  Perhaps as we Boomers go gray, we may finally find ourselves and at long last begin to deliver on some of that promise that blinded us with its splendor so many golden years ago.

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