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Boomtastrophe 

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

Wednesday, May 2 2007
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The reaction exposes their dual identity as the country's wealthiest generation and its least frugal. Boomers leverage their personal finances as if they were running a banana republic, with one-third of them reporting retirement savings of less than $25,000; close to half anticipate they will need to work past age 65. Fleetwood Mac said don't stop thinking about tomorrow. Boomers instead took to heart Jim Morrison, spending money like today was the end.

So the generation that replaced private pensions with the 401(k) wants its public benefits paid in full, on the grounds that, after picking up the entitlement tab for their elders, Boomers merit similar recompense. "There's nothing selfish about that," says Carol Orsborn, author of 15 books on her generation. "Boomers have lived their lives believing that society is supposed to deliver on its promises."

Shuttling between Napa and Washington, D.C., Orsborn works for the public-relations firm Fleishman-Hillard as an expert on marketing to Boomers. She regards the benefits debate as a "false dichotomy" that artificially pits her generation against subsequent ones. Citing the willingness of Boomers to prop up their adult children, the so-called Boomerangs who return to the parental nest, she asserts that "a society that won't take care of its old people or [conversely] its young people is in trouble."

There's only one problem. As a massive voting constituency abetted by proxies in Congress and the White House, Boomers have already chosen to cheat the young. They endorsed Bush's tax breaks without concern for the swelling federal debt that in time will wallop their kids and grandkids. They shrugged as Bush and Clinton alike gutted social-service programs, cutbacks that betrayed scarce empathy for the children of the poor.

The two Boomer presidents may stand on opposite sides of their generation's undying cultural war, but their shared arrogance bridges the gorge. "Bush is a feckless Boomer who thinks he's never made a mistake," says Martin Nolan, a San Francisco author and social historian. "And Bill and Hillary had that attitude of 'Aren't you lucky to have voted for us?'"

Like Nolan, Nancy Pelosi belongs to the Silent Generation, the almost 50 million Americans born between 1925 and 1942. In age and political status, the 67-year-old House speaker wields the authority to urge Boomers to relinquish their childish ways for the sake of their children. As Nolan says, "She has less sympathy for their bullshit, so maybe she can get something done [on entitlements]."

Then again, if she can't, rest easy. We'll all be dead.


Pelosi and her colleagues could solve the looming benefits crisis with one stroke of political boldness. Suppose Congress granted tax breaks to Baby Boomers if they promised to commit suicide when they turn 65. A generation obsessed with wealth and youth could find itself tempted by the opportunity to both earn more money and miss out on incontinence.

Alas, at the moment, the proposal remains rooted in fiction. The scenario propels the plot of Boomsday, Christopher Buckley's new novel that satirizes the generation that "made self-indulgence a virtue," in the sneering opinion of one character. Buckley skewers "the wrinklies," as he describes his aging peer group, with keyboard firmly in cheek. Yet the virulent anti-Boomerism circulating the Internet offers hope that, much like The Jungle spawned the FDA, Boomsday will inspire what it merrily dubs "voluntary transitioning."

The Web site Die Boomer Die takes as its credo "There is no political left or right, only failed Baby Boomer leadership." Run by someone identified as Dead Hippie and featuring a photo of a Kent State shooting victim, the site posts news articles critical of Boomers and ticks down the days until they hit 65. Similarly, Boomer Death Counter keeps a running tally of the percentage who have died, 7.048 percent as the week began, while blogs burst with random generational screeds. A recent posting on It Comes In Pints? conveyed a common sentiment: "I swear, if I see one more story, book, news report, or PBS special about how wonderful and inspiring and inventive and interesting "Baby Boomers' are ... oh, just FUCK OFF."

The backlash spikes every 10 years, when they reach another age milestone and the media react as though covering the simultaneous return of Elvis, Jesus, and Lee Van Cleef. A decade ago, as the oldest among them turned 50, Boomers assured us they still felt spry, engaging in such youthful activities as C-sections. At 60, save for keeping the nearest plastic surgeon's office on speed dial, they're more willing to concede time's march. But they'll have us know they refuse to simply retire and die like their parents, who survived the Great Depression, won World War II, and rebuilt America and Europe, then had the unspeakable desire to rest.

Envy, vanity, immaturity — whatever the precise cause, the Me Generation rejects the popular designation of its parents as "the Greatest Generation." Historians define the 63 million Americans born between 1901 and 1924 as the G.I. Generation; those born in the latter half of the period earned the "Greatest" tag for their heroics at home and abroad, and produced most of the baby boom. Nonetheless, their children brand them as meek conformists, contending that they waited to confront myriad social ills — racism and sexism, starched collars and Glenn Miller — until Boomers forced matters. Their efforts, argues Leonard Steinhorn in his valentine to Boomers, The Greater Generation, has turned the U.S. into "a more ... virtuous nation than at any time in our history."

Now entering life's liniment stage, however, those righteous Boomers continue to deride their parents' quiet approach to retirement. According to Boom, a book Orsborn co-authored last year about marketing to Boomer women, the G.I. Generation's golden years proved utterly leaden: "They looked old. They acted old. Mostly, the only individuals who even considered working past 65 were those who absolutely had to. The only future they faced was one in which a depressing decline was inevitable."

About The Author

Martin Kuz

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