Boomers Are the Next Generations’ Pandemic
We have burdened our children and their children with nearly intractable challenges
Acceptance of responsibility
To every new generation chronicling the graying landscape dotted by the slumping and shuffling old fogies that came before them, the senior citizens of the world are usually not much more than speed bumps or Waze warnings on the highway of youthful travels. Speaking as one of those speed bumps, I used to sigh the obligatory sigh, wring my stereotyped wrung hands, and harrumph my comic book-like harrumph. But now I do something else, I start to write the truth: my generation fucked everything up and we did so despite having the very real opportunity to get things right.
As the father of three — all now in their 30s — I remember all too well the eye rolls and “oh-dads” that accompanied any of my attempts to apply my ancient experiences to their modern-day problems. It’s not that they didn’t appreciate whatever wisdom that was about to flow from my reservoir of memories, it was the fact that my worldview, informed by five decades (at the time) of living, bore little resemblance to the world in which they were living. And in that, they had a point. My worldview, although improving, still does not keep up with the dynamics of a world in crisis.
Everything I learned when I was in my teens, twenties, and thirties should have been enough to make me take the reins of responsibility for the following generations, but I let those golden opportunities pass through my fingers and in doing so, passed the burden on to my children and their successors.
What was important to us then means nothing to anyone now
I can’t blame today’s young people for their sideways glances and barely concealed yawns when forced to listen to the retelling of the McCarthy hearings, polio scares, the Soviet Union, the Korean War, the Cold War, duck-and-cover drills, fear of Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the wonder of having a transistor radio, automatic transmissions, jet engines, stereo phonographs and 33–1/3 and 45 rpm records (with those little plastic inserts so you could put them on the spindle in a stack), penny loafers, drive-in movies, poodle skirts, jeans (“dungarees”), sock hops, cigarettes in the senior courtyard, “colored only”, lynchings, Freedom Riders, “Reefer Madness” (look it up…it’s a hoot), no seat belts, racial epithets I cannot print here, ethnic jokes I cannot retell here, the advent of the Interstate Highway system, the assignment of ZIP codes and Area Codes, telephone party lines, the cost of long-distance phone calls, phone booths, fluoridation of water, racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes in popular cartoons, Playboy magazine and the objectification of women, cancer as a disease you only whispered about, Kennedy’s Catholicism, above ground atomic bomb tests, Strontium 90 and the milk supply, the scandalous lyrics of “Wake Up, Little Susie,” the banning of “Lolita” and other books. Add to that short list, Vietnam, the Beatles, LSD, Haight-Ashbury, Watts, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and Mayor Daley, assassinations, cities in flames, more Vietnam, sit-ins, love-ins, Woodstock, Dr. Strangelove, Watergate. The list, like the beat, goes on.
There was a train coming
We didn’t heed the warning bells
These topics occupied much of the public dialogue of the 50s and 60s, and colored our everyday perceptions of a world wobbling on the edge of madness, nudged toward the brink by hedonism, consumerism, war, and selfishness. You would think that with all the signs that were in front of us, and all around us like the neon Strip in Las Vegas, we would have seen what we needed to do and put our shoulders to the tasks at hand. But, after a tumultuous beginning, we passed on taking “the next step.”
A good start, a lousy follow-through
We did start out on the right path. We lobbied, we staged sit-ins and demonstrations, we marched, we wrote important protest songs, we tried hard to draft politicians who would represent us, some of us refused to pick up a gun and put on a uniform we didn’t believe in, some of us tried hard to make the world a better place.
All for naught, in the end. Even today, 50 years later, we shake our heads and wonder why we gained no traction at a time of national need. Faced with a new breed of “No Nothing” politicians, it is no wonder that the coronavirus has the run of the field. But let’s be real. Coronavirus has nothing on the disease of selfishness that swept through the Boomer population once we hit the workforce. We gave in to the paper chase and the pursuit of the almighty dollar, and we left our ideals in a trash bin for our children to empty. We saw the future as we wanted it…not as our children would need it.
We never listen, yada, yada, yada
Perhaps it has always been so. History tells us that the runups to wars were ignored until the wars spilled out; financial crises were often preceded by unbridled spending, unsupported investing, and greedy accumulation of wealth by a tiny percentage of (mostly) men. And plagues and pandemics regularly ravaged a world overarched by religious shaming and murdered by medical ignorance.
Finger-wagging advisories from older to younger generations have rarely been heeded, and most elders’ admonitions against precipitous and selfish decisions fall on young deaf ears. But the sad fact is that the urgent cries for leadership that well up from today’s well-informed teens, Gen Xs, and Millennials fall on the increasingly deaf ears of my generation — the generation that for right now has most of the money and virtually all the seats of power. I wish I knew why that is. Perhaps the fact that I even have to ask myself that question shows my ignorance of the problem even as I try harder every day to comprehend my generation’s failings.
The obscenities are everywhere
When I see the obscene amount of money that members of Congress have in their stock portfolios, and how they so easily slough off any media attempts to hold them accountable — I want to puke. When I see children in cages inside our own country, and a wall of hate being erected along our border, the sorrow inside me flows. When I see a president and his shambling, dull-witted and inept family — and all the other nepotistic administration officials — taking the nation for a ride on a gold-plated sled to oblivion, I rage against the machine that gave them their frightful power.
And when I watch, day after day, the denials, the lies, the staff’s fealty, the self-appreciation, the sheer madness of this president’s inability to be fucking presidential about the coronavirus and his absolute commitment to never taking responsibility for endangering all our lives…the sense of doom overwhelms me.
Who cares about the world we knew?
The world I knew between 1955 and 1965 is hardly the world that my children know in 2020. A world globe manufactured in 1950, or a classroom pull-down wall map printed in 1960 are today worthless aids for identifying international boundaries or even the names of dozens of countries. Such maps, marked in the mid-20th century to delineate political regions (the Soviet Union, for example), have no value to students studying the transformation of Eastern Europe’s and the African continent’s changing socio-political affiliations.
The point is that the maps Boomers knew and countries we had to recite in Geography class are meaningless except to historians and cartographers.
So too has technology undergone a transmogrification my generation never dreamt of; some changes simply were not imaginable to our 10-year-old selves in the 1950s. We didn’t know what we couldn’t know. Our reference points, formed when we were most curious and capable of absorbing knowledge, were hard-wired to a great degree by what we knew at the time — not what we would experience ten or twenty years later when much of our brain’s wiring was fixed in place.
And just as Boomers are trying to replace their old wiring to fit into the 21st century, we are seeing very familiar 20th century threats to our families, neighbors, communities and country that are showing up again, threats that today’s generations — the Zs, Xs and Millennials — have just begun to develop experiential wiring with which to analyze and compare.
There is a real existential threat
The shock waves are hitting us full on
With full consideration of the signal nation-binding calamity that was 9–11 in 2001, people born after 1980 in the United States are feeling the social and political ground beneath their feet tremble, crack, and shift in ways all too-familiar to us olden-timers. But there is a sickening twist — there is a very real possibility that their world will split wide open and swallow their future whole. And my generation seems totally disconnected from solutions.
My generation felt our world tilt way off-axis in the face of polio, nuclear annihilation, assassinations, racial unrest, cities on fire, and a heartbreaking war that was sending too many fine young citizens home in flag-draped caskets. But those problems pale in comparison to the specter of a forever-nightfall that looms over today’s 10–40-year-olds who are experiencing their own uncertain present and future.
We have mortgaged our children’s future
College tuitions are insane, and the resulting debts are placing a burden on their hopes and dreams no society should countenance. Young families — two earners in many cases — are caught between day-care costs for their little ones, and the stresses of widely disparate education opportunities for their K-12 students, not to mention having to send them to schools with magnetometers at every entrance, shelter in place drills, and teachers and administrators with guns. As for the teachers who today are doing more with much less, how can we keep asking them to be a frontline defense against ignorance when we are reluctant to pay them what they are worth?
I believe there is a direct correlation between the rise in gun violence and the massive amount of money politicians are eager to take from the NRA and the weapons manufacturers. The fact that I will in all likelihood receive nut-case messages from AR-15 huggers only buttresses my point.
But what else is there to be concerned about? Well, let’s look:
We once had a beautiful world
For Gen Zs, Xs, and Millennials, the environmental crimes perpetrated by the Boomers’ unchained and uncaring industries catering to a throw-away society and 100 years of automobile emissions have no parallel in American history save for the Robber Barons and corrupt mayors and party machinery of the 19th and early 20th century. Watershed and ocean pollution, droughts here, floods there, endangered, dying, and extinct species, rainforests ablaze, rising sea levels and shrinking ice caps have all been sending Macedonian cries for help for decades — to no avail…until now.
My generation laid the groundwork for some of these obscenities, and in the short time we have left, many of us are trying to atone for our ignorance, but we realize why the generations who will inherit our failures shrug off our attempts. The generations following us are angry and disappointed, and who can blame you?
I could list more social ills facing the nation: gang violence, homelessness, unresolved poverty and low-income helplessness, the opioid crisis, gentrification at the cost of once-viable communities that have become easy pickings for developers, medical costs and access to care that have become obscenely unfair to those without insurance, or those who live in rural America in health care deserts. Loneliness, isolation, suicide rates that rise and rise…what a terrible place we have become to so many disenfranchised vulnerable citizens — young and old.
Economic disparity is tearing us apart
But perhaps nothing rankles the 20–40-year-old demographic more than the state of politics and the economic disparity in America. Abysmal is one word that comes to mind when it comes to describing where we are as a representative democracy (and I use that word with caution).
My generation cannot begin to explain the decent into chaos that has become our nation’s portrait of dystopic times to come. Nor can I begin to fathom the obscene difference in the wages of workers and the salaries of CEOs, or the vast wealth accumulated by one or two percent of the population.
My generation is not licensed to explain it because we are so much a part of it. It’s all us old white guys whose self-serving, office-protecting, K-Street lobbying dreams opened the door to someone like Trump. The fact that I didn’t vote for him doesn’t mean I did the right thing; had I done the right thing 10, 20, 30 years ago, there would never have been a rat’s chance in Hell for a Trump to emerge.
Plenty of Boomer blame to go around
Had the Republicans (of which I was one, once) had one iota of common sense and a shred of decency back in 2015, they would have kicked Trump’s ass out of contention before the first debate. And had the Democrats had a better candidate — someone who didn’t require a nose-holding at the ballot box — we may still have had to deal with the novel coronavirus, but we would have leaders who would inspire and, well, lead!
Our votes still matter, if we vote our conscience
Some of us Boomers believe our votes this November still matter, and we will cast our ballots for a return to national comity, rationality, progress, and transparency. While it is becoming evident that the Democratic candidate will be Joe Biden, many of us who will vote for him will also be supporting down-ballot progressive and young candidates. I for one, want a woman president as soon as possible, and I believe that many of Bernie Sanders plans for the future will not die with Biden’s inauguration.
Our intentions when we were young were bent toward purity of purpose and dignity of human life. When we envisioned 2020 from our 1960 campuses and communities, we really did see a shining city on a hill, where the battles we fought in the streets and in the ballot boxes would forge a new and more equitable future. We believed we could change the world, overthrow the corrupt political order, reduce the monied class to economic servants, and open the doors to equality for all. So many of us still bear the scars — emotional and social — of those fights.
We weren’t wrong in our methods…we just didn’t win enough of our battles to change the world, and we gave up; that’s it, pure and simple. We had it within our grasp to wring fundamental changes out of a corrupt system, an unfair system, an oppressive system, but rather than stay the hard course, we — many of us — put on suits and joined the ranks of the opposition because that was where the money, stability, and the path of least resistance were.
Some of us continue to support the dream
To the credit of many of my peers, social activism and compassion are not lacking in what is arguably the final act of their lives. They work in food banks and they document environmental crises. They volunteer in hospices and they become grandparents raising their children’s children. They return to school — as students and as teachers — and they man suicide prevention hotlines. Some are writers, adding their older voices to the embattled journalists who speak truth to power. Despite — or because of — their age, they are doing what they can to make a difference, remembering what it was we all tried to do so long ago.
But, in the end, our efforts today will not be enough to cover the sins of our omissions when we actually had the power to create a better world. That we did not accept that responsibility and allowed political and economic usurpers to take over what rightfully belongs to our children is an unconscionable failing…a failure that those of us who understand the scope of the tragedy we enabled will take to our graves.