The Boomers Broke It; Can Gen X-ers Fix It?

The Baby Boom generation traded the early revolutionary impulses for a status quo of greed, selfishness and temper tantrums. Now it is up to us, their children, to rescue their legacy.

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If the 21st century’s opening decade has revealed anything about American life, it’s this: We’re a nation that’s much better at breaking things than fixing them. We opened the epoch by thrashing about the globe, looking for something to smash in reaction to 9/11. We’ve closed it by wallowing in the inevitable wreckage of our winner-takes-all economic culture. As a nation, we’ve become a big, overgrown toddler, gleefully knocking the building blocks over, then growing quickly frustrated when asked to stack them back up.

Progressives would blame the 21st century’s destructive zeitgeist on George W. Bush and his band of belligerents. Conservatives would dub it the legacy of Bill Clinton and his permissive pals. But Bush and Clinton are peas in a pod. They indulged the same reckless impulses; Clinton just channeled his into sexual conquest rather than jihad.

Which is not to say that Democrats and Republicans share equal blame for today’s problems. Surely, Bush’s policy choices did far more structural damage than Clinton’s, and the broader political left has tried, failingly, to promote sustainable governance for decades. Rather, something larger than presidential politics is at play. Today’s mess is more aptly understood as the legacy of the Baby Boom generation as a whole. And ironically, it’s the Boomers’ successors -- those of us in the supposedly slacker Generation X -- who must clean it up.

My parents’ generation started with a revolutionary, liberating break from the past. They demanded sexual freedom. They fought to liberate women from the stifling straitjacket of sexist family structures. They rejected war. And, of course, they drove the final nails in Jim Crow’s coffin. But after striking all of these dramatic blows to the old order, they never quite got around to building a new one.

Instead, the feel-good generation morphed into one defined by greed, selfishness and bursts of anger. By the 1980s, Jerry Garcia was out and Gordon Gekko was in. The Cold War ended and a hot one soon replaced it. The sexual revolution gave way to a sexually transmitted plague that everyone chose to ignore rather than confront. They stopped worrying about Mother Earth and started fetishizing ex-urban McMansions and SUVs.

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