OK, I’ll admit it.
As someone born at the height of the baby boom, my instinctive reaction to the currently fashionable ridicule being directed at my generation is a snarky defense.
Did our young critics face anything like the Vietnam draft, or struggle with staggering inflation or job markets choked with fellow boomers, or watch their political heroes being murdered one after another?
But where does that kind of reaction get us?
No, it is better to recognize and acknowledge the many ways it may well seem to younger people that we boomers have been selfish, self-righteous and have really screwed things up for them.
Probably paramount among our failures is not addressing the existential threat of climate change. Given the scientific evidence, that is inexcusable.
But also grievous is how we have fostered an economy and taxation system that exacerbates the wealth gap between young and old. And, unlike the generation before us, we have utterly failed to make long-term investments in infrastructure such as highways, high-speed rail and subways.
And we have blithely enjoyed a short-term sugar high by running up a massive national debt and leaving the consequences for younger people to face.
We have failed to protect children from firearms in schools, and have been slow to fully embrace gender equality and to attack longstanding cultures of sexual harassment in and out of the workplace.
We have countenanced both the ugly racial backlash against Barack Obama’s presidency and a hysterical anti-immigrant movement. Both should have made us take to the proverbial streets.
We haven’t done enough to invest in shaping economies of the future, and instead have thrown up our hands and blamed technology, deindustrialization and globalization. The kind of strategic, long-term action that is probably needed might be inconvenient and costly, so we kicked the can down the road.
Shared sacrifice? What’s that?
And that list doesn’t even include two of the most explosive issues of generational conflict — access to adequate and affordable health care and the skyrocketing costs of education and the resulting crisis of debt.
Looking at it from their perspective, and accounting for their different life experiences, one can see why they think we’ve screwed things up.
Against this mea culpa backdrop, I think about a recent Washington Post opus focused on how 2019 was not only the year of “OK boomer,” but one in which “the generations were at each other’s throats.”
The story describes how age-based prejudice appears to be the last bastion of acceptable bias in proper society. Decent people feel free to sling nasty generalizations across generational lines that they would never dare utter about race, gender or sexual orientation.
Predictably, the coarse and filter-free world of social media has played a major role in all this. It’s an “intergenerational quipping contest, fueled by the rapid, reductionist and unrestrictive nation of social media, which makes it far too easy to cast verbal stones,” asserts the Post writer, quoting academics who study such things.
And many of the generalizations feel so unfair. The story says some older pundits were upset that 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was named Time’s Person of the Year instead of Nancy Pelosi, who is 79. Personally, I was elated at the Thunberg choice on its merits, but also because it so riled our thin-skinned president.
In researching this column, I read a trove of what I regarded as self-righteous and egocentric jabs from both sides of the generational divide. If I found the younger generation’s comments to be self-centered and immature, the criticisms from my generation seemed stubborn and incurious.
We have to get beyond this.
Because this year we face an existential threat to our democracy. Our freedom to choose our leaders is imperiled by a national wave of voter suppression, widespread installation of blatantly partisan judges and grotesquely manipulated political boundaries across the country.
Freedom of the press is under assault like at no time in my lifetime by a president who embraces dictators and fantasizes about jailing journalists. The New York Times just reported that Donald Trump used the term “fake news” 273 times on Twitter in 2019, a 50-percent increase from 2018. He declared two Post reporters “shouldn’t even be allowed on the grounds of the White House” and accused the Times of treason.
One party in Congress refuses to ever hold the president accountable for anything and continues, 1950s-style, to be dominated by old white men who cling to a past in which they were always on top. (That spineless behavior, I would note, is not both parties and all boomers, but a self-selected assortment of good old boys and their mouthpieces on Fox News and conservative talk radio.)
Making things even more challenging for the future of democracy is the penchant of the most rustic and probably uneducated of Trump’s supporters to make chilling threats about how many guns they possess to demonstrate some crazy zealotry.
Against that backdrop, do you really think this generational squabbling is a good idea?
Because before we can act on climate change or college tuition or anything else, we first have to save democracy from Trump.
Yet the two most prominent cleavages that seem to divide Democrats relate to age — one directly, one not.
The first is the grousing about whether Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Mike Bloomberg, all past 70, are simply too old to be president. The flip side of that concerns whether Pete Buttigieg, at 37, is too young, even if he is a Rhodes Scholar and a war veteran.
The second cleavage connects less directly to age, but generally pits younger progressives who demand more radical change such as Medicare and free public college tuition for all against other Democrats — generally older ones — who define themselves as pragmatists and see the best opportunity for actual change as coming in increments, as Obama did.
Sadly, those age-linked issues, more than any other master narratives, have dominated and been divisive in the primary season thus far. One must fervently hope that those divides won’t weaken the eventual Democratic nominee, whatever that candidate’s age or penchant for major change.
No, what seems clear to me is that Americans across generations who share a revulsion at this obscene Trump era should look beyond intergenerational grievances and slogans.
Because confronting Donald Trump is the only conflict that really matters.