The new year is but a few days old, and already, before it has had time to grow whiskers and wrinkles, 2014 can claim its very own historic milestone. The youngest baby boomers have begun turning 50.
Along with that big five-oh, come discounts — yay! — and something more, too. Namely, blame. Baby boomers are blamed for practically everything these days.
At 78 million strong, boomers, those of us born between 1946 and 1964, are one of the largest generations in U.S. history. We’re often clumped together, but truth is we are as different as any group born during an 18-year period. The older boomers protested the Vietnam War, mourned two Kennedys and a civil rights hero. The younger ones don’t remember where they were when JFK died — if they were even born — but neither do they recall life without the Pill and the sexual freedom that accompanied its introduction to the masses.
For purposes of finger-pointing, however, we are criticized equally, regardless of our birth year. Boomers are everybody’s favorite whipping boy. Browse through any magazine or website in the past year, and you’re likely to come across headlines that reproach us for a long list of calamities, both current and future ones.
It’s not enough that we’re suffering the indignities of aging just like every other generation — turns out we’re not so special, after all! — but now we must endure verbal sticks and stones as well, many hurled by our own children. We’ve been called parasites and leeches. Accused of being selfish. Condemned for being greedy.
Then again, maybe, maybe, there’s a filament of truth in these generalities. I’d give us a C in Improving the World 101, that undergraduate-level course every generation must take regardless of ability or preparation.
Under our watch, the health of our planet is far from what it should be. Global warming is a fact, no matter how much the Polar Vortex makes us shiver for a few days, no matter how many deniers shut their eyes to reality. The global average surface temperature has been going up since the 19th century and scientists have warned that it will continue to rise if we keep adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. The consequences will be both far-reaching and disastrous. Think rising oceans, water shortages and extreme weather.
What have we done about it?
Under our watch, we’ve turned our heads as economic and educational opportunities have shrunk for the less fortunate. A Pew Charitable Trusts report found that 70 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder never make it to the middle. Those who do are more likely to be white, college-educated and live in dual-earner families.
As racism persists, as college costs skyrocket and divorce and single parenthood become the reality for certain socio-economic groups, what have we done about it?
And under our watch, too, we’ve presided over a dysfunctional Washington and allowed gridlock to choke off the possibility of real changes in programs that cannot be sustained in their present form when so many of us are living so much longer. The cost of healthcare is a monstrosity and the national debt threatens future generations. Yet … yet …what have we done about it?
Milestone birthdays offer an opportunity for reassessment, a pause to take stock in our past and in our future. So along with the cake and the candles, let me leave my generation with one suggestion: We’d better hurry. We’d better cram for Improving the World’s final exam. Whether we’re turning 50 or 68 this year, time’s running out on our legacy.