I have ruined America, apparently.
Not single-handedly. I and my 76 million co-conspirators born between 1946 and 1964.
That was the theme of a recent edition of Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast.
We Baby Boomers saw Earth’s climate changing in dangerous ways and did nothing about it.
We saw racial injustice persist after the passage of landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation and did nothing about it.
We saw the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and did nothing about it.
We saw soaring housing, healthcare and education costs and gun casualties, and did nothing about any of it.
I could go on.
Naturally, my first impulse when I stand accused is to defend myself. So let me just say that, I would never have chosen to be a Baby Boomer. Put me on this Earth 20 years sooner and I could have gone to the jazz clubs where Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk played and the ballyards where Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider played.
Instead, I picked my curly Jewish hair into an Afro, wore paisley shirts and bell-bottomed pants, and argued with my stoner friends about who was better, Clapton or Hendrix.
And then, next thing I knew, I was driving three kids to soccer games in a minivan.
Strictly speaking, generations don’t do anything. Individual members of generations act or refrain from action and those actions and inactions add up. Maybe.
I used to read a picture book to my kids called “Amos & Boris,” by the great William Steig. Amos is a seafaring mouse. Boris is a whale who saves Amos from drowning. Amos vows to return the favor.
Years later, Boris is flung ashore by Hurricane Yetta (my grandma’s name!). He must get back in the sea or he will die.
This is Amos’ chance to keep his promise, but, as Boris muses, “what can such a little fellow do?”
Indeed, what can any of us little fellows do about the world’s myriad intractable problems?
Whenever we’re born, we know, when we come of age, that we must make a living and we want, reasonably enough, to have a nice life. We Baby Boomers were maybe not so conscious that attaining a nice life was not just a matter of merit, but of luck – of what we now call privilege.
By the end of the 20th century, a lucky member of the middle class could afford more than one car and television, home computers, frequent meals at good restaurants, overseas travel, house cleaners, gym memberships, and so on. So engrossed were we lucky ones in our families, our careers, our leisure pursuits and our self-care that we maybe lost some of the progressive zeal of our youth.
George Saunders addresses Boomer guilt in “Love Letter,” published in the New Yorker last year. The story is set sometime after the 2024 election, when, after Trump finishes his second term (dodged that bullet!), one of his odious progeny has succeeded him. First Amendment rights have been abrogated and a grandfather advises his grandson not to risk aiding a friend whose unspecified subversive activities have run afoul of the authorities.
Gramps tries to articulate his bewilderment at how he and his wife – how their generation – could have let things come to such a pass. They voted, they demonstrated, they wrote letters to their elected representatives, but they also trusted that norms would be observed, and that in the ebb and flow of our national politics, things would be pulled back from the extreme and toward the center.
In the meantime, there was one’s life, which one lives more or less in accordance with the norms of one’s time – shaped, to a great extent, by those who want to sell us stuff.
After listening to Ezra Klein’s left- and right-leaning guests agree that Baby Boomers are responsible for the mess America’s in, while disagreeing on which aspects of the mess we’re responsible for, I concluded that no, these attempts to distinguish Boomers from Xers from Millennials are not terribly useful or meaningful.
And in any case, doesn’t every generation leave a mess for the next generation to clean up? And doesn’t the fault always lie first and foremost with those who have the money and the power to call the shots?
Yet there’s the example of resourceful Amos the mouse, who recruits a pair of elephants to push Boris the whale back into the sea, thus saving his life.
None of us has the power of a Biden or a Pelosi or a Bezos or a Zuckerberg, but if we all – not just Boomers, but all adults who ever dreamed of a better world — had been less preoccupied with tending our own gardens, we might have done a better job of acting in concert to nudge the beached whale back into the sea.