My late French grandmother is smiling down from heaven now that I have finally used her mother tongue, and for social commentary no less…
On Sunday night (March 07) 60 Minutes did an extremely disturbing heart-wrenching piece called Homeless children: the Hard Times Generation. It described 2 million more kids in the U.S. (about 16 million or 25%) now live below the poverty line. This is the largest number since the Great Depression. While pundits try to convince us that adjusting [their] tax rates back to Clinton-era levels is the equivalent of socialism and class warfare, that in this country formerly middle class kids are reduced to doing their homework in the dark with flashlights and candles because their parents can no longer afford to pay the electric bill. Such scenes are more typical of news reports from Afghanistan — or at least they used to be.
Listening to their stories, one realizes this Hard Times Generation is being taught to appreciate and empathize with the plight of others in ways the generation that placed them in their current predicament seems to have forgotten. I accuse my generation of Baby Boomers, brought up in post-war wealth, with the hard fought limitless possibilities presented to it, for the plight of this new Hard Luck Generation. We bare collective responsibility because of the decisions made on our watch when we were primarily at the helm. Every generation has a shot at running things, and the Swan Song of the Baby Boomers as we reach retirement is:
- The Great Recession
- Massive debt due to an unsustainable credit binge that everyone indulged in
- Monumental economic disparity where the top 1% now account for 33% of the National Income
- Loss of ground in health and education statistics vis-a-vie the rest of the world
- Loss of standing in the rest of the world due to diminished wealth and perceived strength
- An unsustainable energy policy that President Carter warned us about
- Servitude to a military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about
Ok, we are the generation responsible for the PC, IPOD, the Internet, and incredible new advances in science and technology. Who knew dinosaurs had feathers, hobbits existed in Indonesia and that depression could be cured with a pill (if you were willing to accept suicidal tendencies as a mild side effect)? We are also the generation that reintroduced religion and the fuzzy separation of church and state back into our politics after such activism had receded many decades before. We are a generation that used religious dogma to politically divide our citizens while eschewing religious charity to help our fellow man or be good stewards of the earth.
We are also a generation that fought for civil rights and gender equity. That’s worth a gold star or two, right? Unfortunately, the equity balances we created for gender and race were frittered away creating new economic class inequity that threatens to undermine our society. According to Sam Pizzigati, associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. “Over the past 30 years, the income of the top 1 percent, adjusted for inflation, doubled. The top one-tenth of 1 percent tripled, and the top one-one-hundredth quadrupled. “Meanwhile, the average income of the bottom 90 percent has gone down slightly.” Wages for most Americans didn’t improve from 1979 to 1998, and the median male wage in 2000 was below the 1979 level, despite productivity increases of 44.5 percent. To make up for lost income, credit card debt soared 315 percent between 1989 and 2006, representing 138 percent of disposable income in 2007.
Our parent’s generation won the World War and the Cold War for us, and we repaid them by going on a personal and national spending binge, with money we didn’t have. We are now in hoc up to our eyeballs to a debt-holder with same the communist ideology they regarded for decades as the single greatest threat to our way of life. So how in only a few short decades did we move from the “Greatest Generation” characterized by self-sacrificing citizens to this more “Shameful Generation” of Baby Boomers characterized by self-indulgent consumers?
Back in the 60’s and 70’s our generation fought for its rights. Now it’s fighting just as hard for the right to keep all the tangible stuff it’s accumulated over the decades. The shift started as an SNL parody, Al Franken’s “Me Generation” in the 80’s, followed by a movie featuring Gordon Gecko and his famous creed “Greed is Good”. Outrageous stuff nobody could truly take seriously. However, Al Franken is now in the Senate and Wall Street took Gecko very seriously, and what started out as parody and entertainment is no longer funny. Our political and private sector leaders have let us down — and those leaders, fellow baby-boomers – are us…
Too many of us don’t vote, and too many of those that do are willing to vote against their and the country’s long term interests in the vague hope that the policies promoted will allow them to aspire to the top 1% — and screw the rest. We talk about the future debt burden to our children while we let the kids featured Sunday night on 60 Minutes fall through the cracks now. We expect the same level of services and fight any attempt to raise taxes or lower entitlements by throwing elected leaders with practical solutions out of office… Can anyone spell I-N-S-A-N-I-T-Y???
Some blame Ronald Reagan for the national shift. While he may have started the pendulum swinging in the “Right” direction it would be rather hard to reconcile his policies, politics and the way he interacted with the other party with his fellow Republicans today. His generation still believed in shared sacrifice and the shining city on the hill — for all Americans. Those who came after him and attempt to speak in his name think more in terms of gated-communities in the valley — for themselves.
The America of today is the result of a cynical, selfish and entitled generation; a generation that turned its back on the same tenants that allowed our society to grow, flourish and provide prosperity to the greatest number of people in the post-war era – Ironically the same era that bred it. What are these values that we now eschew?
- We no longer value “Made in America.
- We no longer believe banks are in business to invest in the economy and not themselves.
- We promote business schools that teach short term shareholder gains at the expense of long term national economic interest.
- We no longer value limited disparity between rich and pure.
- We think we value education even while we revile the educated.
- We think we value science while we employ our political system to undermine it.
- We aspire to ethical standards and a national ethos no higher than a typical episode of Survivor, and The Apprentice.
Societies don’t function stably for very long with the kind of disparities we now allow – with millions of people falling into poverty and unable to afford healthcare and a decent education. There are a lot of things we used to think would never happen in America. We should not be so naive to believe we will escape social unrest as a reaction to deepening economic disparities at some point in future if we don’t try to correct them. My dear grandmother comes to mind again recounting the history of our Russian branch of the family and the great-aunt who was never quite the same after her husband was killed and she was stoned by fed-up peasants in full revolt as she beat a hasty retreat from the Revolution in 1917.
I have greater hope that this new generation can right things. It knows economic despair, is by nurture more collaborative, and can empathize with its fellow citizens more than Baby Boomers seem to be able to anymore. And maybe if we leave them bankrupt, less educated, unable to afford healthcare and living in a devastated hell scape of extinct species, depleted energy and natural resources it will spur them to exceed even our “Greatest Generation” in turning things around. After all, we Baby-Boomers were left with just the opposite and look how we left things?
Jonathan Peizer is the Principal of Internaut Consulting supporting foundations, nonprofits, governments and socially responsible private sector initiatives. He is the former CIO/CTO and Director of the Open Society Institute’s Global Internet Program.