“Indeed, if there is one sentiment that unites the crises in Europe and America it is a powerful sense of ‘baby boomers behaving badly’ — a powerful sense that the generation that came of age in the last 50 years, my generation, will be remembered most for the incredible bounty and freedom it received from its parents and the incredible debt burden and constraints it left on its kids.”
Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, wrote these observations last July while visiting Athens, Greece, where he apparently achieved a commanding view of the debt and unemployment crises confounding his homeland.
Several weeks later while I was watching Fareed Zakaria’s GPS news-magazine on CNN, special guest Tom Friedman reiterated his generational vitriol. He criticized Boomers and their “situational values” in contrast with their parents’ generation which maintained “sustainable values.”
According to the celebrated editorial columnist, The Greatest Generation saved prodigiously, consumed prudently, and elevated the nation into an international economic powerhouse following World War II. On the other hand, Boomers have been profligate spenders while failing to leave the nation in better condition than the nation they inherited from their parents.
My parents were members of the Greatest or G.I. Generation, and I respectfully honor them and their generation’s significant accomplishments. They delivered our nation from the evil of World War II and created an enviable post-war economy. They sacrificed much. However, I cannot rebut Tom Friedman’s critique of Baby Boomers without also addressing his hagiography of our parents’ generation.
When I graduated from college in 1972, Boomers faced an arduous employment market due to their large numbers and a tired industrial economy running out of jobs. Interest rates had started escalating to extraordinary heights. Housing prices began inflating beyond reach of many first-time home buyers.
Severe segregation still controlled the nation’s social and cultural institutions. President Richard Nixon’s Watergate crisis had become the obsession of news media. Industry routinely assaulted the environment, with The Love Canal Disaster being paradigmatic. A polarizing Vietnam War inspired outrage from most corners of society while draining the U.S. Treasury. An OPEC oil embargo hovered on the horizon.
I remember well the first credit card offering I received and its alluring promise of “buy now, pay later.” The consumer credit card companies emerging then fell under the direction of financial wizards from the G.I. Generation. For example, Joseph P. Williams, born in 1915, created the first nationwide bank credit card in 1958, which later evolved into the VISA brand. This industry thrived through the last half of the 20th century by encouraging Boomers to spend and consume. Our culture celebrated consumption, fostering debt and imprudent overspending: greed is good.
Nevertheless, Boomers have nurtured a more egalitarian society than previous generations presided over. Minorities and women have a better shot at the American dream today in a society where Fareed Zakaria, who was born in Mumbai, India, could someday gain international status as a CNN commentator. But that isn’t the end of it. Boomers have infiltrated every sector of business, culture, science, and the arts with idealism and a will to improve the nation.
We have witnessed inspired thought leadership on television with Oprah Winfrey; in science with Craig Venter and Francis Collins (genome sequencing); and in literature with Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Cunningham (The Hours) and Richard Russo (Empire Falls). The cinematic arts have been elevated by notable directors such as Steven Spielberg and his Oscar-winning movie Schindler’s List and James Cameron and his epic environmental tale entitled Avatar. For over 30 years, the economy has been a beneficiary of Boomer-led companies, from Bill Gates’ Microsoft to Steve Jobs’ Apple.
The Boomer legacy includes more inclusive institutions, myriad technological innovations, an enduring spirit of entrepreneurship, and worldwide media clout. The nation is still imperfect, but still America percolates with opportunities awaiting optimists.
Even though the nation is embroiled in two wars, young males today do not face military conscription upon high school graduation. Even though times are rough economically, hordes graduating from colleges today demonstrate the extent to which their parents have advocated and enabled post-secondary education. Even though traditional American industries are under enormous pressure to change, the nation charges forward with enviable innovation in biotechnology, healthcare, alternative energy, and the Internet.
We may be experiencing difficult times, but our problems run deeper and wider than the actions or non-actions of a single generation. Every generation has fallen short of perfection. Every generation has confronted its own unique challenges. Every generation has helped forge a more perfect union.
Immediately following his interview with Tom Friedman, CNN host Zakaria turned to the final report of his show: death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who Zakaria lauded for Jobs’ vast business and cultural accomplishments even after overcoming two significant failures: dropping out of college and being fired at Apple.
Zakaria did not mention Jobs’ generational affiliation or how substantially this inventive genius represented signature values of his generation: a determined work ethic, zest for creative self-expression, personal empowerment, transformation, romanticism, anti-authoritarianism, entrepreneurship, and individuality.
These seem like sustainable American values to me.