Out with the olds
They ducked the challenge of Vietnam—so much smaller than the military challenge their parents so triumphantly met. They made alienation fashionable and turned self-indulgence (sex, drugs, rock and roll, cappuccino makers, real estate, and so on) into a religion. Their initial suspicion of the Pentagon and two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, spread like kudzu into a general cynicism about all established institutions (Congress, churches, the media, you name it). This reflexive and crippling cynicism is now shared across the political spectrum. The Boomers ran up huge public and private debts, whose consequences are just beginning to play out. In the world that Boomers will pass along to their children, America is widely held in contempt, prosperity looks to more and more people like a mirage, and things are generally going to hell.Arguably unfair, Mr Kinsley concludes, but the Boomers are right to feel a bit disappointed in themselves. However, he continues, "it's not too late for a generational gesture." They can't win the second world war, but they can make their mark in some other area, tackle a major problem, leave the country demonstrably better off on their way out the door, redeem themselves a little.
A fine goal for any generation. But what are the Boomers to do? The question had also occurred to Joe Klein at Time magazine, who suggested that the Boomers fight to legalise marijuana. Mr Kinsley recoils at the idea: not nearly big enough, and bad branding—self-indulgent to the very end. Mr Kinsley's own suggestion is that his generation should raise a bunch of money to pay down the national debt:
Fair? Of course it’s not fair. That’s the point. If it was fair, the gesture would be meaningless. Boomers are not primarily responsible for America’s debt crisis. Blame goes mostly to the World War II generation, which in this regard was not so Great. They’re the ones who notoriously want to “Stop the Government from messing around with our Medicare,” and Boomers are the ones who have been paying to support the last vestige of old-fashioned fee-for-service medicine—for the old folks. The Boomers themselves and their children are more likely to go to an HMO.That passage actually sounds like something that might come from Generation X—independent, cynical, entrepeneurial. In any case, there are actually two goals here. Mr Kinsley wants (1) his generation to redeem itself by changing its ways, and (2) to knock out one of America's big problems. But the ability to accomplish (2) is contingent on the success of (1), and (1) is a massive undertaking. Are the Boomers meant to become mature, magnanimous, and selfless overnight? That's not going to happen. The project will have a greater chance of success if the Boomers can tackle it as they are. Better to find a (2), that is, that doesn't require a (1).
But that’s okay. You won World War II, so we are going to take care of your debts, cover your extravagances, and go along with your little pretense that you paid for it and are entitled to it.
My suggestion: prison reform. We imprison far too many people for far too inconsequential reasons, warping millions of lives in the process. The Boomers, having done many things that many people are currently in prison for (see Mr Klein's argument above), can credibly make the case that this is silly. It would connect to the values the generation had at one point, of peace, love, and sticking it to the Man. It wouldn't require much personal sacrifice on the part of the Boomers—just a willingness to raise and press and pursue the issue in the public sphere—and if reform were to happen, it would save a lot of money, which connects to Mr Kinsley's thinking. A reasonable goal?