The boomer gen­er­a­tion busted it all

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Book re­view by Dana Milbank

The na­tion is hope­lessly split be­tween left and right, Democrats and Repub­li­cans, facts and al­ter­na­tive facts, re­al­ity and Sean Spicer. But there is one no­tion that could, and should, unify us, or at least all of us un­der the age of 53 or over the age of 76: Pretty much every­thing that has gone wrong is the baby boomers’ fault.

Boomers took over the gov­ern­ment in the early 1990s, when Bill Clin­ton’s 1992 vic­tory in­stalled them in the White House and Newt Gin­grich’s Repub­li­can Rev­o­lu­tion of 1994 gave the gen­er­a­tion a ma­jor­ity in the House that per­sists to this day.

And how has that worked out for them? Well, the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion sur­vived the Great De­pres­sion, won the Sec­ond World War, brought about the enor­mous post­war eco­nomic boom, out­lasted the Soviet Union in the Cold War and es­tab­lished the United States as the sole su­per­power. Since then, the boomers — the Worst Gen­er­a­tion, if you will — have

squan­dered most of that.

The United States, chal­lenged all over the world, is re­ced­ing and turn­ing in­ward. The econ­omy still hasn’t re­cov­ered fully from the fi­nan­cial col­lapse of 2008, the worst since the Great De­pres­sion. The fed­eral debt is out of con­trol, and in­equal­ity is worse. Boomers ex­panded en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams that are wreck­ing the na­tion’s fi­nances; they failed to act on global warm­ing; they presided over de­clin­ing faith in vir­tu­ally all in­sti­tu­tions, from re­li­gion to the Supreme Court; and their chil­dren may be the first gen­er­a­tion with dim prospects of do­ing bet­ter than their par­ents did.

And now they’ve given us a pres­i­dent who is the epit­ome of boomer ex­cess: nar­cis­sis­tic, im­pul­sive and un­com­pro­mis­ing.

This de­te­ri­o­ra­tion on the boomers’ watch was no ac­ci­dent. They grew up self­ish and un­yield­ing and have gov­erned that way, cre­at­ing the po­lar­iza­tion that has par­a­lyzed our pol­i­tics and left us un­able to solve the na­tion’s prob­lems.

Given my own Gen X griev­ances against the boomers, I was de­lighted to learn that an­other Xer, ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Bruce Can­non Gib­ney, shares my gen­er­a­tional hos­til­ity. In “A Gen­er­a­tion of So­ciopaths: How the Baby Boomers Be­trayed Amer­ica,” Gib­ney de­liv­ers an un­re­lent­ing cri­tique of the Worst Gen­er­a­tion. Per­haps too un­re­lent­ing. He blames boomers for a lot of bad things that they did — and a lot more bad things that they didn’t do.

The core of Gib­ney’s ar­gu­ment, that the boomers are guilty of “gen­er­a­tional plun­der,” is spot-on. He ac­cuses them of “the mass, demo­crat­i­cally-sanc­tioned trans­fer of wealth away from the young and to­ward the Boomers,” and he’s right. In ad­di­tion to mak­ing a mess of So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care, Gib­ney notes, they dragged the na­tional sav­ings rate down to 5 per­cent be­tween 1996 and 2016, from 10 per­cent be­tween 1950 and 1985.

But Gib­ney blames the boomers for every­thing: abor­tion, di­vorce, overeating, high in­fla­tion, tak­ing de­fer­ments dur­ing Viet­nam, fail­ing to launch a mass move­ment call­ing for the re­build­ing of Viet­nam after the war, crime, poor ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards, cor­po­rate tax rates, ad­junct pro­fes­sors. At one point, he rails about “Pat Robert­son ful­mi­nat­ing about ho­mo­sex­u­als, fem­i­nists, and pray­ing for the de­flec­tion of hur­ri­canes while his web­site min­ions opined on the after­life of pets.” Robert­son was born in 1930, a decade be­fore the old­est boomer. Gib­ney also has words for “feck­less non-en­ti­ties like Marco Ru­bio.” Ru­bio, born in 1971, is nearly a decade younger than the youngest boomers.

Gib­ney com­plains that “many young boomers leapt at the neo-Malthu­sian non­sense ped­dled in the 1960s and 1970s by a slightly older gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers.” So is this the fault of the young boomers or of the Silent Gen­er­a­tion’s Paul Ehrlich (b. 1932), who wrote “The Pop­u­la­tion Bomb”?

Even Earth-in-the-bal­ance Al Gore is crit­i­cized as anti-en­vi­ron­ment, in “his orig­i­nal form as pork-bar­rel­ing scenery wrecker.”

Gib­ney is just a wee bit sweep­ing when he pro­nounces that “the story of the past forty years has been the sub­sti­tu­tion of sen­ti­ment for sci­ence” and that “the Boomers were the first mod­ern gen­er­a­tion to harbor re­ally neg­a­tive feel­ings about re­al­ity and sci­ence.”

Surely we can give the boomers the blame they de­serve for trash­ing the coun­try while ac­knowl­edg­ing that they have also been re­spon­si­ble for ma­jor ad­vances in medicine and sci­ence, in arts and cul­ture, in civil rights and the rights of women, dis­abled peo­ple and gay peo­ple. Can we at least give them some credit for rock-and-roll?

I’m no more qual­i­fied than Gib­ney to give the gen­er­a­tion a psy­chi­atric di­ag­no­sis, though I think the boomers are more prop­erly la­beled a gen­er­a­tion of nar­cis­sists than a gen­er­a­tion of so­ciopaths. (Our own cyn­i­cal gen­er­a­tion has trended more to­ward the so­cio­pathic.) Gen­er­a­tional the­ory tells us that the boomers are “ide­al­ists.” They be­lieve pas­sion­ately in their view of the world, and they are un­bend­ing. The prob­lem is there are two halves of the baby boom: the Wood­stock coun­ter­cul­ture types and their ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­sites, those who cre­ated the mod­ern re­li­gious right. Th­ese have been at war since the 1960s, and that war, con­tin­ued in pol­i­tics, is what has par­a­lyzed the coun­try for a gen­er­a­tion.

“As a group, the Boomers man­aged to be si­mul­ta­ne­ously for the war and against serv­ing in it. Their re­sponses to Viet­nam were con­fused,” Gib­ney writes. But they weren’t con­fused. Gib­ney is con­flat­ing two en­tirely dif­fer­ent groups of boomers.

It isn’t ill in­tent, or so­cio­pathic in­stincts, that caused boomers to make such a mess of Amer­ica. It is the col­li­sion of two strongly ide­al­is­tic co­horts within the same gen­er­a­tion. Their shared self­ish­ness led boomers on both sides of the di­vide to be­lieve that only they had the right an­swers and that there was noth­ing to be gained by com­pro­mise. Lib­er­als in­creased spend­ing on gov­ern­ment pro­grams. Con­ser­va­tives cut taxes. And both al­lowed the cul­ture wars to rage — on abor­tion, re­li­gious lib­er­ties, gay rights, gun own­er­ship, civil lib­er­ties and more. Nei­ther side yielded. Now they’ve left the rest of us, Gen Xers and mil­len­ni­als alike, to clean up their mess.

Dana Milbank is a Wash­ing­ton Post opin­ion colum­nist and the au­thor of three books.

A GEN­ER­A­TION OF SO­CIOPATHS How the Baby Boomers Be­trayed Amer­ica By Bruce Can­non Gib­ney Ha­chette. 430 pp. $27

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