The Worst Generation

January 8th, 2013

Our grandparents survived a Great Depression and fought against and beat back Nazism. For that, they are rightly hailed The Greatest Generation.

It pains me to admit that my generation may just prove to be The Worst.

Years ago, when I became National Chairman of the Young Republicans, my Co-Chairman Kevin McCarthy (who is now U.S. House Majority Whip) and I sat down and tried to come up with motivating goals for our group to tackle.  After much thought, we both agreed that as a generation, we’d been a pretty lucky group.  There was no “defining moment” we could point to.  We’d been quite young at the end of the Vietnam War and the economy, while not always great, was generally stable throughout our lives. There was, of course, the Gulf War, but in that one a volunteer army took care of Saddam Hussein in what appeared to be relatively short order.

This was in the late 1990s.  Obviously, September 11th, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently the collapse of the financial markets followed.

As Kevin and I spoke, a lot was actually happening to our generation.  We just didn’t realize it yet.  Like a cancer that slowly spreads through the body before the patient is even aware, the seeds of one of the biggest crises in American history were being sewn and our generation was oblivious to it.  Only recently has this all become so clear.

I’m a Baby Boomer born in the latter years of that demographic phenomenon.  As a group, we’ve provided social scientists with a lot to look at.

Because our parents and grandparents survived World War II and the Depression, they felt strongly that our generation should never suffer anything so horrible or unpleasant.  In fact, they did everything in their power to shield us from any similar difficulties.  This led many of us to feel rather entitled to a certain quality of life.

By the 1980s, they’d even come up with a name for our general attitude.  We were the “Me Generation.”  Books were even written encouraging us to aspire to our more narcissistic impulses.  According to the basic argument of these works, other people can’t possibly be happy unless you make yourself happy first.

At about the same time, credit card companies recognized that all this “happiness” cost a lot of money that we probably didn’t have yet.  They offered us credit cards which we gladly accepted and often used to the point of pure abuse.  I recall one friend at the time sharing with me her habit of paying off one card with another.  I’m not sure when this financial strategy finally caught up with her, but I’m certain it did.

Sadly, with so much personal credit, many of us began to live well beyond our means.  This is certainly something our grandparents would never have done.  They knew what it’s like to worry about finding your next meal or rationing rubber to save the country from invasion and collapse.  We didn’t.  We just knew that when the next bigger or better car or television set came along, we had to have one, even when we couldn’t afford it.

Unfortunately, we’ve taught our own children the same thing.  We’ve even gone further.  Not only can they never suffer deprivation of things, we’ve made sure that no one dare question their abilities or effort.  We give them trophies for just showing up.

As the years went by, we didn’t just restrict our conspicuous consumption to our personal lives, we voted for it as a nation as well.  As far as we were concerned, borrowing from others to fund your own excesses was such a great idea that we’d apply that policy to our nation’s fiscal management.  Before we knew it, as a country, we collectively owed more to others, including many foreign nations, than we could reasonably pay back without a great deal of pain.

We don’t like pain.  As a generation, we studiously avoid it.

So far, we’ve done our best to keep the pain at bay by finding a way to push it all on our own children and grandchildren.  They’ll pay for our excesses.  For that, I’m sure they’ll remember us like we remember our grandparents.  There is an importance difference though.  While we herald our grandparents as the best, our children and grandchildren may curse us as the worst.

One bit of irony in all of this is that as Baby Boomers, we will soon retire in droves.  We will be at the financial mercy of our own children and grandchildren to take care of us while trying to dig the country out of the mess we’ve made.  It will be interesting to see how generous they’ll be towards us as things become more and more difficult for them.

I don’t want to be all gloom and doom here.  There is that old saying, “Better late than never.”  We still have an opportunity to redeem ourselves.  It’s not going to be easy, but it can be done.

Otherwise, we should not bemoan the Scarlett Letter history will paint on us.  Sadly, we’ve earned it.