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DAVID WEBBER: Maybe there should be a generation gap

Tuesday, April 9, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

The Atlantic Monthly on Oct. 10 published "Who Destroyed the Economy? The Case Against the Baby Boomers," where Jim Tankersley affectionately recounts a debate with his 63-year-old father about the hypocrisy of the baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) in leaving such a large fiscal debt for their children. I recently stumbled on this article and find it disturbing.

While agreeing with the accusations the younger Tankersley hurled at his dad's generation (the large federal debt, the high cost of education, the net winnings of $200,000 Social Security and Medicare that, on average, baby boomers will receive), the article grossly over-generalizes the unity among baby boomers. Of course, the terms "the Greatest Generation" and "Generation X" are part of our social vocabulary as if each is a standardized group of same-aged and same-minded folks. But most baby boomers don't have much in common with Bill Gates, stereotypical members of the tea party or the Occupy movement based simply on their birth cohort.

Tankersley accuses his dad's generation of lucking out into an easy job market with low interest rates and expanding opportunities compared to their children's future of stagnant middle class incomes, higher energy prices and escalating health care costs.

Tankersley briefly nods to the baby boomers' accomplishments of expanding social and economic opportunities for "women, minorities and people with disabilities" (although the chief sponsor of the Americans with Disabilities Act was Sen. Bob Dole, a member of the Greatest Generation). Tankersley quickly condemns the baby boomers, however, by pointing out that when they had the opportunity to pay down the debt during the booming 1990s, we voted ourselves tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. Unless Tankersley's father was in the Bush administration, and in a highly ranked position at that, he needs to back off a bit.

Tankersley blaming baby boomers for the 2003 Iraq War is a little irritating. It is hard to see Dick Cheney as a baby boomer — he isn’t technically; he was born in 1941 — although lots of baby boomers quietly went along with the war, and some opposed it.

Tankersley startled me with suggesting his dad is hypocritical for preaching to always leave a campsite cleaner than you found it, while the baby boomers are leaving behind big tax bills, global warming, unfunded pensions and decaying infrastructure. The former is strictly a personal action and the latter involves millions of people in a joint decision-making process. His dad should not personally be blamed for the deficit, but I get the point.

After mulling over Tankersley's argument for several weeks, I realized he does highlight a central truth: baby boomers are better off than their parents, and we are concerned that our children won’t have the same quality of life that we do, but we have not done much about it. We might have taught them to clean up their campsites, but we have not effectively taught them to take care of the common good. Many business, education and political leaders seem to take good care of their own welfare while ignoring large collective problems. I doubt this is because they are baby boomers, however.

As I reminisce about the 1960s and the birth of political activism of that era, I realize what is missing from today's political discourse — the generation gap. Heck, back then we openly blamed our parents for social problems. Some baby boomers preached, "Don't trust anyone over 30," and some shouted down public speakers not wanting to hear their explanations. On the other hand, my roommates used to chuckle about guys wearing bell-bottoms talking about draft dodging and "the establishment."

There are certainly important differences between baby boomers and their children. These differences are illustrated in books such as "Generation Me" by Jean Twenge and captured in songs such as Green Day's "21st Century Breakdown," but somehow it has not motivated a generational political response. Children of baby boomers are not energized about the budget and environmental debts they will inherit in the same way many of their baby boomer parents were mobilized by the Vietnam War or the first Earth Day in 1970.

I first dismissed Tankersley's article as a sentimentalist way to write about his great relationship with his dad using current economic and public opinion data, but now I wonder if there isn't much more here. Perhaps this is a socially acceptable way to challenge the claims of the AARP and the retiring generation about the financial burden that has grown in the past 40 years. Perhaps Tankersley will be a pioneer in pointing out generational disparities in the current state of America. Perhaps there will be a resurgence of a generation gap that motivates baby boomers' children to realize there is a fiscal gap, and unless they take political action, the parents will be the big winners.

David Webber is an associate professor of political science at MU where he is currently teaching a course on "Is America in Decline?" He can be reached at webber@missouri.edu. Questions? Contact opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.


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Comments

Ellis Smith April 9, 2013 | 7:15 a.m.

Yes, let's initiate a "war" between generations. We really need another manufactured and hyped situation to continue our quest to tear the United States of America apart. It's so cool when one can sit on the sidelines and enjoy watching it.

Some folks need to get a job - a REAL job.

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