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Baby Boomers hoped to die before they got old. They lied. And now they’re dragging the whole country down.

Wednesday, May 2 2007

Page 2 of 5

All of which confirms Bush's squareness in the view of his generation's liberal bloc, whose ranks include no small number of the 10 million Boomers in California. Beyond the Red-state/Blue-state rift, however, he represents his cohort's abiding self-interest with as much fidelity as his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Boomer-aged voters supported Bush and Clinton in huge numbers in their respective presidential bids. Bush appealed to them with tax cuts; Clinton appeased them by honoring his pledge to "end welfare as we know it." The combined fiscal policies of the two Boomer presidents have split the U.S. along a different color line, argues Santa Cruz sociologist Mike Males.

"There's been such a rapid increase in Boomer wealth, it's created a racial segregation that's worse than what we had in the '50s and '60s," he says. Consider the city that sired the Summer of Love. In the Western Addition, walk-ups worth $1 million or more border the district's chain of public housing projects, where minorities comprise most of the resident population. Neighbors live a street and a world apart.

Yet as Boomers voice faint concern about the widening economic divide — everything's fabulous on our side, thanks — they persist in lionizing their role in the civil rights crusade. "They don't like to admit hypocrisy," says Males, who's writing a book titled Boomergeddon, an analysis of his generation's influence on America. "They like to think, 'We are good, we are just, we do almost no wrong.'"

The tendency of Boomers to claim the moral high ground as their private domain explains the popular perception that they alone agitated for civil rights. In fact, their parents and grandparents, the Silent and G.I. generations maligned by Boomers as social conformists, supplied the movement with brigades of foot soldiers and its most visible leaders — Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Stokley Carmichael, and Rosa Parks, among others. "Boomers take the credit, but the Silent Generation should get it for civil rights," says social historian and author William Strauss, an expert in generational studies. "What the Boomers were doing was starting riots."

Strauss exaggerates — somewhat — for humor's sake. Undeniably, the largest generation in U.S. history invested bodies and passion in the fight for civil rights, feminism, and nuclear disarmament, as it did in protesting against the Vietnam War. Boomers magnified the urgency of every cause they joined.

Still, just as undeniably, advocating for the greater good now holds scant appeal to them. They're too busy living well. The nation's richest generation to date, its members devote their days to attending Pilates classes and scouring organic-food stores for the finest saffron. They host home spa parties and fret over whether their wine collection needs more pinot noir. They sleep with a copy of Real Simple under the pillow.

Boomer apathy toward the economic underclass parallels their disregard for the green movement, one more cause they deserted in favor of that other kind of green. Starting in the mid-'80s, seduced by greed's goodness, hippies "evolved" into yuppies and cashed in with most everyone else in their generation. Soon enough, Boomers were driving Ford Explorers and living in McMansions, their memories of VW vans and communes dissolving like bong residue.

Boomers piously insist that conservation remains high on their to-do list. After all, they haul their recyclables to the curb each week and volunteer to clean up riverbanks every Earth Day. They saw An Inconvenient Truth (Al Gore is one of theirs, don't you know). Some sat in a Prius once.

Over on the "Killing Earth" side of the ledger, fully one-quarter of Boomers own a second home, and roughly half of the SUVs and RVs on the road belong to them. To this generation, conservation means buying a smaller Cessna.

Last month, as part of its ongoing series that chronicles the impact of Boomers on the culture, Newsweek examined their lifelong love affair with cars. The magazine interviewed a 59-year-old Kentucky lawyer and self-avowed ex-hippie who, after years of driving fuel-efficient vehicles, recently treated himself to a Hummer H2. "I refuse to feel guilty," he said. "I've already saved the environment for most of my life. If I'm abusing it a little right now, I can live with that."

No doubt Bush, that staunch supporter of global warming, would like to give the man a backslap and a nickname — something clever, like Humm Baby — to honor their mutual myopia. As the president once said when asked how history will judge his decision to invade Iraq, "History, we don't know. We'll all be dead."

Well, no. Boomers might be on the dark side of the cemetery lawn. The rest of us will be taking their name in vain for the mess they bequeathed. "The psychology of Boomers is, 'There is no future, we are it,'" Males says. "That's an easy way to excuse your behavior."

Their expedience, besides burdening the country with Vietnam's sequel and ever-more greenhouse gases, poses another threat. The U.S. spends in excess of $1 trillion a year on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, or 40 percent of the federal budget. By 2030, when the number of people age 65 and over will top 71 million, double the current figure, the three entitlement programs could devour almost 80 percent of the budget. Covering the soaring costs may require enormous tax hikes in coming decades, increases that would land hardest on post-boom generations.

Boomers bear fault neither for their sheer numbers nor for aging, even if once upon a time they hoped to die before they got old. But their mulish resistance to reforming the benefits system betrays the allergy to sacrifice that defines their generation. Economists contend that pruning payouts to affluent recipients or raising program eligibility ages would avert a budget meltdown. Boomers counter with a less nuanced argument: Gimme, gimme, gimme.

About The Author

Martin Kuz


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