I write these lines on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day. That day in northern France was the pivotal day and its story was the pivotal event of the 20th century. As Omar Bradley pointed out, every man who set foot on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, was a hero — the men who took the cliffs to fight tyranny and took back a continent for freedom. I dare you to try to watch film footage of and about that horrible, dreadful, wonderful day with dry eyes or a cold heart.
Here’s to the boys of Pointe du Hoc. In the words of the poet Stephen Spender, these are men who in their “lives fought for life and left the vivid air signed with [their] honor.”
For what they did at D-Day and beyond, we describe that group of men and women as the “greatest generation” — who had, in FDR’s phrase, a “rendezvous with destiny.”
They were largely born in a time of promise and prosperity shortly after what was supposed to be “the war to end all wars.” But instead they saw many of their dreams dashed by depression and yet another world war. Still, they persevered. They left us their legacy of liberty and so very much more.
When they “left the field” to us, America had become the world’s sole superpower, with an economy that was the greatest the world had ever known and filled with opportunity for those with the industry and ingenuity to make the most of it, a tremendous educational system, a vibrant middle class, state-of-the-art infrastructure and a functional and representative government.
America has been left largely in the hands of us baby boomers, more than 75 million strong. And even though we’ll deny it vociferously, the evidence is clear that we’ve made a mess of things pretty much across the board, in large measure due to our unwillingness to put the interests of our children first. In sum, we are selfish, entitled toads who hate our kids.
At least we come by our selfishness and sense of entitlement naturally. Consider the “cookie experiment” led by Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner. In this study, teams of three students were instructed to produce a short policy paper. Two members of each team were randomly assigned to write the paper while the third member was handed a leadership position by being tasked to evaluate the paper and to determine how much the other two would be paid.
After 30 minutes of work, a plate of five cookies was brought in to each team. No one was expected to reach for the last cookie on the plate, and no one did, consistent with good manners.
But what about the fourth cookie? It was still an extra and also one that might be taken without any awkwardness. It turns out that even just a little bit of power went to the heads of the leaders — none of whom even earned their status. These leaders not only tended to take the fourth cookie. They also displayed signs of “disinhibited” eating, chewing with their mouths open and scattering crumbs widely. They ruled the roost and acted like it (after just 30 minutes!).
This study confirms what we already recognize from experience: power tends to corrupt.
As leaders of this country, we boomers have not handled power very well. In stark contrast to our forebears, we look out for No. 1 at the expense of our kids. We’re not the greatest generation — not by a long shot.
Our biggest failing (among several big ones) with respect to our children is the lack of substantive opportunities we are providing them today. As noted, we boomers are more than 75 million strong and the first of us turned the traditional retirement age of 65 just a few short years ago. However, we are increasingly postponing retirement and thus crowding out opportunities for the younger generation. Our reasons include our poor savings records, a weak economy, a volatile stock market, home values still less than we’d like and even self-actualization. Whatever the reason, however, it is an unfortunate reality for our kids.
Perhaps even worse, as we boomers retire, we will be net sellers of equities, putting downward pressure on stock prices, hurting us as well as our kids — who may just be beginning to save and invest. Indeed, our children are already terrified of the stock market and are afraid to invest generally.
Moreover, our K–12 educational system is in shambles for reasons ranging from severe and ongoing funding cuts to the lack of support, commitment and involvement of parents (us again). Meanwhile, the cost of higher education continues to grow at a pace nearly double to that of inflation (as it has for decades), leaving recent graduates with an enormous debt burden. Total student loan debt has reached more than $1.2 trillion and now even exceeds credit card and auto loan debt. Today, 94 percent of those graduating with a bachelor’s degree are in debt (averaging over $35,000) compared with 45 percent two decades ago.