A friend recently sent me an op-ed by historian Walter Russell Mead on the myriad failures of the baby boomer generation, roughly in terms of delivering on the moral promises of the 1960s – in Obama’s words, of making the world a better place for its kids. There is much to chew on, and some fine small points – Mead is killer when it comes to Boomers’ impotent, fantasy-world policies on climate change, for example. He claims that the damage is extensive and all but irreversible, pathetic when juxtaposed against the achievements of the prior Greatest Generation:
What the Boomers as a generation missed (there were, of course and thankfully, many honorable individual exceptions) was the core set of values that every generation must discover to make a successful transition to real adulthood: maturity. Collectively the Boomers continued to follow ideals they associated with youth and individualism: fulfillment and “creativity” rather than endurance and commitment. Boomer spouses dropped families because relationships with spouses or children or mortgage payments no longer “fulfilled” them; Boomer society tolerated the most selfish and immature behavior in its public and cultural leaders out of the classically youthful and immature belief that intolerance and hypocrisy are greater sins than the dereliction of duty. That the greatest and most effective political leader the Baby Boom produced was William Jefferson Clinton tells you all you need to know.
Here he makes a classic historians’ error in looking at vast numbers of different people and assuming they all operated, at any time, on the basis of something resembling a simultaneous free will. His overall argument can’t escape its own aggro-conservatism, suggesting in so many words that another WW2-sized trauma is needed to create a “mature” generation of Americans. Does that sound like a fair deal to you? Whether or not life has been better without such an event is another debate entirely, but if you follow my line of thinking – and if you don’t, please comment below – this seems an almost terrifyingly patriarchal attitude.
Did I miss the script? Fact is, Mead is a boomer himself who fiercely advocated the Iraq War; his disappointment suggests a different, but nevertheless similarly busted-ass, pair of rose-colored glasses. His thesis implicates everyone, but I find it dubious that any generation wouldn’t “miss” Mead’s idyll of maturity, when offered a life of voluntary military service, suburbs, 9-5s, cable television, a reasonably forgiving higher education system, TV dinners, widespread recreational drugs and a cash-crazed juggernaut of an entertainment industry. A rough survey of government policy, 1945-present, actually leaves me with the conspiratorial suspicion that lawmakers actually wanted a less diligent society! Our presumed right to laxness is, in a funny way, what so many pissed-off college graduates worldwide are demanding from their governments as we speak.
This is not to say such a model is, by any means, economically sustainable – but society is prone to learning these things firsthand. At risk of being optimistic, I’ve always felt that the death of American hegemony, particularly in market terms, will create personal, vexing problems, which we will (however pigheadedly) rise to meet. Maybe we’re doing it already; I spend as much time as anybody rolling my eyes at post-68ers who bemoan the passage of their glory days, but the fact that Mead makes no mention of the Occupy movement suggests an allergy to linking the ideals of his generation and mine. I can only read this exclusion as an accidental concession that a potential American conscience runs deeper than Mead wants us to believe.