Saturday, December 06, 2008

Pity the Boomers

As their golden years begin to tarnish.  Such, at least, is the suggestion of Michael Schaffer in Obit.  (Yes, you read that right:  Obit, the online magazine of death).  After all, he says, they 

... played by the rules, doing what financial advisors suggested while planning for a retirement that is fast approaching: investing the 401(k) to grow over time; buying property to build up equity with every monthly payment. Today, that wisely diversified 401(k) has fallen by a third and the 75 percent of that house that a 55-year-old boomer might own has shrunk by a similar figure.

True enough, and we are concerned. 

On the inevitable other hand, let's remember that the present crisis, like much of the America in which we live these days, was manufactured by the Boomers. At one level, it has been Boomers who have helmed our government and major corporations for years now -- Clinton, Bush, Bill Gates; the Detroit 3 CEOs all born between 1948-1957; Lehman's Richard Fuld, etc. An another, and far more powerful level, it has been the Boomers as a cohort, with their relentless self-obsession, who have driven the course of our markets, our pop culture, our politics and -- in no small measure -- our religious institutions since the 1950s.  

As Schaffer points out, Boomers were the force behind both the Students for a Democratic Society and the religious right of twenty years later.  To a greater extent than anybody wants to recognize, the much-lamented polarization of US politics in recent years has been the result of Boomers playing out their generational psychodrama in public.   As the SDS's Port Huron statement said,  Boomers were the first generation of Americans “bred in at least modest comfort” in the “wealthiest and strongest country in the world.”   The argument between the left and the right was over what use to make of America's wealth and strength.  Schaffer goes on to observe that

... [n]either side [of the polarized Boomer political spectrum] spent a great deal of time contemplating a future where the wealth and the strength themselves were threatened. Getting used to that involves the same cycles of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as getting used to a death.

Well, sure.  But it is frustrating to those of us who did spend time contemplating such things, and who were dismissed as alarmists, pessimists or depressives.  Decades ago, both the Greatest and X Generations began pointing out, in various ways, that the Boomers were screwing up the world.    The critiques were different, to be sure.  The older folks correctly identified the problems of self-indulgence, contempt for tradition, and consumerism.  The younger ones didn't mind those as much, but objected to the dilettantism combined, paradoxically, with a commitment to identity politics.  (The Boomer changes identities every few years, and then begins fighting for the rights and privileges of that identity; the elders never changed, and the juniors don't care).

So yes, we are sad about the pre-retirement set losing its nest egg.  And we are close enough in age to have the same worry for ourselves.  But pardon us if we consider some of this to be, in a phrase the Boomers will remember from those miserable 1960s they never shut up about, "the chickens coming home to roost."

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