Welcome to The Leftist Review

Please join our discussion community.

You must log in to your account to leave comments. If you do not have an account, simply register and begin posting comments on articles now. To register, you will need to create a user name and provide a valid email address. Your privacy is guaranteed--your email and information will never be shared. Your password will be sent to your registered email. Thank you!

Member Login
Lost your password?
Not a member yet? Sign Up!

The Most Expensive Orgy in History?

January 23, 2011
By

In this new year, with the first of the Baby Boomers beginning to turn 65, there has been much introspection regarding the legacy this generation will eventually leave behind.  Interestingly for a generation known for its self-reverence, not much of it has been positive.  Take British journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s harangue the other week in the Guardian against his fellow Boomers.  In Wheatcroft’s analysis, “My generation squandered our golden opportunity.”  All that’s left now, he says, is for his “crappy generation [to] slink away in shame, and let a younger generation see if they can manage things better.”

In this sentiment Wheatcroft is not alone.  Indeed, a whole new literature has recently sprung up, put forward by the Baby Boomers themselves, self-flagellating at the feet of public opinion, history, good taste, and their own children.

Just this past October, a massive cover story by Michael Kinsley in The Atlantic declared this to be the “Boomers’ Last Chance,” since “They Ruined Everything.”  The subtitle carried a description of the Boomers as “self-absorbed, self-indulged, and self-loathing,” and remarked that “the least we can do” for the country and the next generation was to fix the U.S. economy.

This theme, not surprisingly, is fairly consistent, both economically and emotionally.  At the turn of the new year, the New York Times ran a piece titled “Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65.”  The writer of the piece, himself a Baby Boomer, cuts to the core of the problem: Boomers “will be redefining what it means to be older, and placing greater demands on the social safety net,” especially since they will be living longer – a positive but challenging trend, to be sure.

However, even more ominously in many respects, the piece explains that many Boomers nurse disappointments “about how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.”

Disappointment and self-pity have many outlets, the easiest of which, apparently, is apology.  University commencement speeches are therefore increasingly littered with mea culpas from the grey-haired and eminent.  Thomas Friedman told a college in Iowa that his generation was akin to grasshoppers, “eating through just about everything like hungry locusts”; Colorado Senator Michael Bennett, a Boomer as well, told graduates in his home state that “we have limited the potential of future generations by burdening them with our poor choices and our unwillingness to make tough ones.”

It’s just like the Baby Boomers to give speeches solely about themselves.  (As Roger Daltrey sang years earlier, “I’m Talkin’ – ‘bout my – GENERATION”.)  But in this case they’re not wrong to do so.

My own father, in his empathetic way, regales me with stories, not of having to walk 10 miles to school in a freezing blizzard with no shoes, but rather about how much easier things were in his time.  As a student in Los Angeles in the late-‘60s (already an objectively winning proposition), his rent was dirt cheap, new cars were affordable, you didn’t have to mortgage the next 30 years of your life to pay university tuition and, you know, there were actually jobs out there.

As I write this, I’m visiting my parent’s South Carolina home, situated in a classic suburban community where the average age hovers around the interstate speed limit (65).  A normal conversation in the neighborhood inevitably revolves around retirement, and with it, the tantalizing specter of Medicare and Social Security kicking in to augment people’s pensions and 401ks.

In sharp contrast, I literally haven’t met one person in my own peer group of 20-somethings who believes that in forty years time we’ll even have Social Security.  Not one.  And yet we contribute every pay period to keep the whole Ponzi-like enterprise solvent.

This isn’t a problem confined strictly to America, though.  Wheatcroft, a Brit, was probably right to generalize in a Western, if not global, sense.  Europe itself is aging terribly and putting a greater burden on less of the young to support more of the old.  The Economist for similar reasons recently described Japan as entering what it called a “demographic vortex.”  At least one commentator has called the uprising in Tunisia “a demographic revolution: the revolt of the frustrated young against their corrupt elders.”

Martin Amis, the enfant terrible of English fiction that is himself pushing 62, made waves last year by warning of a coming “silver tsunami” of aging people in Britain.   “They’ll be a population of demented very old people, like an invasion of terrible immigrants, stinking out the restaurants and cafes and shops,” Amis said.  “I can imagine a sort of civil war between the old and the young in 10 or 15 years’ time.”  He concluded, (self) sardonically:  “There should be a [euthanasia] booth on every ­corner where you could get a martini and a medal.”

While Amis’ satire is useful in focusing the mind, clearly, inter-generational civil war and suicide booths aren’t the answer.  But an awareness of the problem is the first necessary step toward some kind of amelioration.

What we don’t need, however, is the rather ridiculous sight of French high-school and university students protesting against the slightest of rises in their parents’ retirement and pension ages, as they did last October.  Under present circumstances, and absent wholesale structural reforms, France, like other welfare states (including the U.S.), simply can’t afford to continue as it has if there is to be any social welfare for future generations.

Similarly, on the more wizened side of the ledger, the Baby Boomers themselves likely need to follow up all these heartfelt apologies with tangible sacrifices and, nearly as important, a greater and wider understanding of just how broken things have become under their watch.

By now the litany of transgressions of recent decades is long and well-known: epidemic de-regulation, pure financial speculation replacing actual economic output, blind faith in markets and the private sector, and all the while epochal rises in inequality and the evisceration of the middle class (to name but a few major issues).

Perhaps worst of all, the word “liberal” (to say nothing of “leftist”) was allowed to turn into a pejorative term.  From the labor organizers of the early 20th century, FDR’s New Dealers and the anti-totalitarian Left, to the civil rights movement and the progressive Cold Warriors like JFK and LBJ, to what we have now – moderate Democrats like Bill Clinton, and, it has to be said, Obama.

The striking thing, therefore, about the political story of the Baby Boomers is just how much blame there is to go around:  it cuts right across political parties and affiliations, and can’t solely be laid at the doorstep of conservatives or Republicans.  After all, Clinton himself signed into law the Republican-sponsored Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed Glass-Steagal, Obama is now apparently intent on cozying up to Wall Street ahead of his 2012 reelection bid, and Bob Dylan seems to be fine with making commercials for Victoria’s Secret.  It is, for lack of a better word, generational.  The hope and idealism of youth, slowly transmogrifying into cynicism and apologetics.  Judging from the recent self-criticism, the Baby Boomers themselves might be coming around to the realization that their prior disillusionments will have very real future consequences.

F Scott Fitzgerald termed the Roaring ‘20s, just prior to the Great Depression, “the most expensive orgy in history.”  Is it any wonder that after a generation of self-indulgence, the bill for a nearly as expensive orgy is now coming due?

Neri Zilber is a writer on international politics and culture based in New York City

Share

Tags: , , , ,

3 Responses to The Most Expensive Orgy in History?

  1. Benjamin on January 29, 2011 at 11:22 am
  2. globalcitizen on January 24, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    The French students are a bulwark against the wealthy having everything. Americans simply lie down helplessly and accept the rich and their corporate engines, hogging ever more of the pie. Americans, sadly, think choosing between two corporate sponsored politicians every two or four years is democracy.

  3. [...] keep reading, you can click here or visit The Leftist Review [...]

Leave a Reply



Archive