The Boomers: Will they help us out of the mess?

If the Baby Boomers don't get serious about economic changes in the nation, their retirement prospects, and those of everyone else, will be at risk.

Crosscut archive image.

Cheech Marin, a Baby Boomer cultural figure, appeared in Vancouver, B.C., in 2008. Early in his comedy career, he was associated with humor about marijuana.

If the Baby Boomers don't get serious about economic changes in the nation, their retirement prospects, and those of everyone else, will be at risk.

Ah, Boomers. Condemn them, defend them, whatever, they are never far from our consciousness. 
That is because we cannot escape them. Since at least 1992 they have dominated or run most of America's public and private institutions. Knute Berger, in a recent Crosscut piece, offered a quasi-defense of his age group — that is, those born between 1946 and 1964 and numbering 76 million.
Former Seattleite Michael Kinsley, in a current Atlantic Monthly article, also offers a quasi-defense of his fellow boomers while at the same time suggesting ways they could help pull the country out of the financial/economic morass they partially created.
I have known both Kinsley and Berger for some 30 years and regard them as "good Boomers." That is, they are not the narcisstic, self-obsessed, and irresponsible Boomer archtypes so often pilloried by generations before and after them. But some others of their population cohort fully deserve the shots they receive.
First, to clarify. 
The boomers who get blasted constitute only part of their age group. There are millions of Americans, born in the same years, who have more in common with the so-called Greatest Generation, which fought World War II and launched postwar domestic reform, and my own often-overlooked Korean War Generation, born in Depression, few in number, and largely unacknowledged by media and social analysts, than with high-profile types in the public eye. (Our Korean War Generation's archtypical figures probably were Democratic presidential candidates Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis, serious, honest, hardworking, and conscientious men who seemed pale to the country at large.)

These less noted, silent Boomers — some now entering retirement — have worked unglamorous jobs, raised families, bought homes, saved for retirement and their kids' educations, volunteered in their churches and neighborhoods, and have not run for office, been TV commentators or big-media columnists, or regarded themselves as intellectually or socially superior to their peers. Some of them are active, now, in the Tea Party movement, which constitutes at least partially a rebellion against the elitist, do-as-we-say habits of self-designated elitist boomers.
Even Kinsley, in his otherwise balanced Atlantic piece, falls into easy boomerism when he blithely states, "It was the Boomers, not the Greats (of the Greatest Generation), who forced the nation to address civil rights." Not so. Most Boomers were in grade school when the Greats and we Depression kids put themselves at risk on the road to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the defining civil-rights achievements of our time. Boomers have done at lot of "values posturing," as philantrophist Pete Peterson puts it, about civil rights in ensuing years but were nowhere in sight when the battles were fought. 

Boomers — that is, the politically active, high-visibility members of that generation — deserve credit for their opposition to a mistaken Vietnam War. But, truth be told, many were there to get high, get laid, or do social networking as much as to challenge a serious policy error. Tellingly, protests fell off sharply when President Richard Nixon abolished the military draft and Boomers' own hides no longer were at risk.
As chance would have it, I served as policy director and/or national platform coordinator for several Democratic presidential candidates of the 1960s and 1970s. A large share of my time and energy, in those roles, was consumed with resisting "We demand!" Boomers who wanted their presidential candidate to give marijuana legalization and lifestyle issues equal billing with war-and-peace and gut economic issues.  (Some of those demanding young 1960s-'70s activists, by the way, have since served in the White House and Congress). Kinsley points out, in his Atlantic article, that Time magazine columnist Joe Klein, who considers himself a Boomer tribune, has recently come up with what he regards as the signal issue Boomers should stress to capture public imagination: marijuana legalization.
Boomers of the elitist strain have notably received blame for their public or private roles in the recent financial and economic collapse. They deserve only partial blame. Because of their ages, they happened to be the ones at the helm when the ship hit the rocks. It could just as easily have happened to older or younger counterparts. Because they are in charge, however, they now must deal with the huge public and private debt burdens left in the wake of the collapse.
How to do it?  Kinsley suggests a radical change in the estate tax as a way to pull out of the debt hole. Others have suggested a value-added tax — a national sales tax applied in Europe and elsewhere to generate large amounts of public revenue. We previous-generation relics would suggest, however, that it will be necessary to do it the hard way.
Discretionary public spending for marginal purposes must be reduced. Pentagon spending likewise. Ways out of the Social Security and Medicare holes have been readily at hand for many years, but elected officials have lacked the guts to apply them. Tax rates should be reduced, and fewer brackets used, while billions in special-interest "tax expenditures" extended to favored companies and sectors should be scrubbed from the code — along the lines of the Bradley reforms of 1986, long since overriden by new loopholes.
It won't be enough to employ generational phrases such as "Mistakes were made," "We did nothing wrong," or "We made some bad choices" to brush away the aftermath of the current financial/economic distress. If our Boomer leaders are to get out of this mess, they will have to step up to do hard, slogging work as others did in prior generations. If they don't, their own retirements and their kids' futures will be at risk.  Maybe that will make them get serious.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of