The Corner

Boomsday

Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, delivering the commencement address at Butler U. on Saturday:

We Boomers were the children that the Second World War was fought for. Parents who had endured both war and the Great Depression devoted themselves sacrificially to ensuring us a better life than they had.  We were pampered in ways no children in human history would recognize.  With minor exceptions, we have lived in blissfully fortunate times.  The numbers of us who perished in plagues, in famine, or in combat were tiny in comparison to previous generations of Americans, to say nothing of humanity elsewhere. 

All our lives, it’s been all about us. We were the “Me Generation.”  We wore t-shirts that said “If it feels good, do it.”  The year of my high school commencement, a hit song featured the immortal lyric “Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today.”  As a group, we have been self-centered, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and all too often just plain selfish.  Our current Baby Boomer President has written two eloquent, erudite books, both about..himself.

As a generation, we did tend to live for today.  We have spent more and saved less than any previous Americans.  Year after year, regardless which party we picked to lead the country, we ran up deficits that have multiplied the debt you and your children will be paying off your entire working lives.  Far more burdensome to you mathematically, we voted ourselves increasing levels of Social Security pensions and Medicare health care benefits, but never summoned the political maturity to put those programs on anything resembling a sound actuarial footing. 

In sum, our parents scrimped and saved to provide us a better living standard than theirs; we borrowed and splurged and will leave you a staggering pile of bills to pay.  It’s been a blast; good luck cleaning up after us.

In Christopher Buckley’s recent satiric novel Boomsday, the young heroine launches a national grassroots movement around the proposal that Boomers should be paid to “transition”, a euphemism for suicide, at age 75, to alleviate this burden.  That struck me as a little extreme; surely 85 would do the trick.  Buckley meant his book for laughs, of course, but you’ll find nothing funny about the tab when it comes due.

Our irresponsibility went well beyond the financial realm.  Our parents formed families and kept them intact even through difficulty “for the sake of the kids.”   To us, parental happiness came first; we often divorced at the first unpleasantness, and increasingly just gave birth to children without the nuisance of marriage.  “Commitment” cramps one’s style, don’t you know.  Total bummer.

A defining book of our generation was Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which chronicled the exploits of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, practitioners of the drug-taking ’60s counterculture in its purest form.  On the last page of the book, in a pseudo-intellectual, LSD-induced haze, Kesey chants over and over the phrase “We blew it.”

In that statement, if in no other way, Kesey and his kind were prophetic.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.

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