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Baby Boomers: Incapable of Greatness

Several years back – about twenty, by my count – I expressed my views in a local newspaper about the manifest failings of my Baby Boomer generation. What I considered then to be revealed truth is now truer than ever.

When was the last time you stopped to ponder who’s been running the country for the past two-plus decades – and, moreover, what it all means? If the Trump presidency, especially in the face of crisis and tragedy, has done nothing else, it has pied us in the face. Failure, thy name is Boomer; Boomer, thy name is Failure. We have now truly reached the zenith – make that the nadir – of our achievements. We are suffering from the worst of the worst my generation has to offer this country in the way of “leadership.” 


In virtually every walk of American life – government and politics, to be sure, but also business, religion, education, science, and the arts – we Baby Boomers have been in charge, and it’s been an ugly picture. I’m not only not proud of being a Boomer, I’m embarrassed, even ashamed. I could name names, but I don’t need to. Just look around: at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the domestic heartland more generally, or internationally. And If you think you want to call my hand by offering up counter-examples (a Bill Gates, maybe, or an Oprah Winfrey, or a Michael Jordan?), I’m willing to bet your examples are either popular celebrities or, more likely, anonymous “little people” whose consistent good deeds on behalf of the rest of us little people are known only to us. 

What distinguishes our generation’s so-called “leaders” is that they owe their standing, such as it is, to nothing more than having occupied positions of leadership, not to actually leading. These individuals, and many more like them, aren’t the brightest or best, nor the most virtuous or competent, among us. Generally, quite the opposite. But they have clearly been the most ambitious; as such, they define who we are and how history will remember (or forget) us.

Whatever we Boomers may have been or done in our individual capacities, on the big matters that legacies are made of we have been outclassed, out of our depth, unable to offer the strategic leadership that would leave something of value to posterity. Most importantly, we have shown ourselves singularly incapable of greatness.

Maybe there’s something to former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw’s claim that the World War II generation of our parents was “the greatest generation any society has ever produced.” We’ll overlook the fact that they bequeathed us the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and McCarthyism. What defined that generation (and supported the claim to greatness), Brokaw has noted, was sacrifice, selflessness, modesty and, most of all, signal achievement.

By contrast, Boomers have, for the most part, never had to make significant sacrifices. We didn’t live through crippling depression, and we didn’t have to wage a grand, glorious, unifying war against regnant evil. Ours was a pointless, prolonged, desultory (and did I say pointless) war that divided the few who served from the many who didn’t and left a permanent scar on the psyche of a generation.

Boomers are anything but selfless and modest. In the main, we are totally selfish – self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-serving. Our most visible members are unrepentantly shameless self-promoters, intent on being someone rather than doing something. Given the choice between mingling with celebrities and bettering the human condition, we’ll take the former every time.

During our coming of age, when inexperience and unworldliness should have made us the most modest, we were the most impatient and intolerant. We had all the answers, even if we didn’t understand the questions.

Hypercritical then, we are hypocritical now. Those who refused to serve when it was our turn are now among the most strident, hawkish flag wavers around. And most of those who were vehemently anti-establishment then have now sold out to (or bought into) “the system.”

Most notably, there’s the matter of achievement. Remember the famous lines from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night? “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.” Given the improbability of being born great and the random infrequency of great events, true greatness is almost all about achievement.

So, have we Boomers achieved anything worthy of the ages? The answer, plain and simple, is no. We’ve been too busy getting ahead. Greatness requires vision, courage, and boldness, none of which we have to offer. We’re reformed malcontents turned myopic creatures of convention, perpetuators and exploiters of the status quo, technocrats posing as statesmen. Opportunism is our motive force, rhetoric our métier.

From us you’ve not gotten, and won’t get, sweeping new ideas, institutions, or initiatives that can live in perpetuity and inspire future generations. We still don’t have a clue how to get beyond the Cold War, achieve comprehensive health care, reform education, end racism, or rid politics of the corrupting influences of money and incompetence. Surely you don’t expect us then to live up to the rhetoric of our youth and eliminate poverty, injustice, or war, craft an enduring post-millennial ideology, or create futuristic global institutions. What’s in it for us?

There’s a verse of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s that is especially relevant here:

                                                                Lives of great men all remind us

                                                                We can make our lives sublime,

                                                                And departing, leave behind us,

                                                                Footprints on the sand of time.

How regrettable that my generation, oblivious to what it takes to achieve sublimity, seems destined to leave no imprint on the sand of time. One only hopes we have set the bar of achievement so low that succeeding generations will clear it with ease – for the country’s good.