Was there ever a generation more filled with self-doubt, even self-loathing, than the baby-boomers? If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you are supposed to feel guilty for trashing the economy, for the demise of the family, for endemic cynicism and selfishness, for an addiction to government handouts and for flared trousers. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a baby-boomer, confessed to a graduating class recently that his had been “the grasshopper generation, eating through just about everything like hungry locusts.”
Look, everybody makes mistakes. A bit of greed here and there shouldn’t obliterate all the good that baby-boomers have done for Gen X, Gen Y and whoever else happens to come along. It’s about time for some Boomer Pride. Here are 27 (there are lots more) ways that we (yes, I’m one of them) have improved the universe.
* * * * *
1. You’re still here, right? Gen X and Gen Y didn’t live through the Cold War with its military strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, its fallout shelters and a Doomsday Clock set at two minutes to midnight. While Iran may have nuclear weapons, no one (except Israel) is worrying about being bombed back to the Stone Age. Baby boomer statesmen in the US and the USSR found ways to defuse the mad arms race. How about a nice little thank-you?
2. Capital punishment is vanishing. Maybe not in China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, but most Western countries have abolished the death penalty as an inhumane and vengeful punishment unworthy of a civilised society. Even in the United States, where it is still legal, only 43 people were executed last year, compared to about 130 in 1945.
3. No more polio. No more smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella or whooping cough, either. Most members of Gen X and Gen Y never heard of infantile paralysis, never shivered at photos of vast hospital wards filled with crippled children. There’s something to thank God and the boomers for.
4. No more beehive hair-dos. Boomer women embraced the simple and natural hairstyles pioneered by Vidal Sassoon. The women of the Greatest Generation had their heads tortured with spiky rollers, baked under driers, and teased and lacquered into shapes that could withstand hurricane-force winds. This was more truly a liberation than the Pill, a more radical return to nature than shedding corsets, and did more to get women into the workforce than maternity leave (just think of the time saved at the mirror each morning). Despite attempts to bring back Big Hair, wash-and-wear is hair to stay — and it’s all thanks to the Boomer babes.
5. The rise of Africa. After two centuries as the Dark Continent, Africa is about to make a breakthrough. Some African economies have the highest growth rates in the world. Africa will provide most of the world’s population growth in the 21st century. With more education and more political stability, African nations will become big players on the world stage.
6. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Beegees. Popular music will never be the same after the 70s. These musicians passed on an undying legacy with their lyrics, experimentation and harmonies.
7. Mobile phones. Wireless communication is not just for Gen Y to use as a texting toy. Mobile phones are making a huge difference in accelerating economic development in the Third World.
8. Marriage has turned a corner. Agreed, marriage is on the rocks after the legalisation of no-fault divorce, abortion, the rise of co-habitation and a push for the legalisation of gay marriage. But the fever has reached its peak: a number of scholars and policy makers have begun to articulate the real meaning of marriage and to demonstrate the contribution made by stable families. Even the “Greatest Generation” had its doubts about the family. It was up to Baby Boomers (some of them, anyway) to forge convincing arguments defending marriage as the fundamental institution of our society.
9. Shattering the glass ceiling. What employment opportunities were there for talented women before, during and after World War II? Sure, women (and men) should put families first, but if we really believe in the equality of the sexes, opportunities should exist for women to bring their unique gifts to public life. Now they can.
10. Communism is kaput. Somebody has to take credit for dismantling an inhuman system which was responsible for the deaths of 100 million people in 50 years. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it’s obviously the baby boomers.
11. Living with disability. Paraplegics and quadriplegics are well cared for, can live relatively normal lives, and can be part of the work force.
12. The welfare state is on the skids. FDR created the New Deal in the 1930s. In the UK, Sir William Beveridge declared war on Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness in 1945. Baby boomers benefited from the welfare state, but they also proved that it stifled initiative, created a culture of dependence and was unsustainable. Everywhere it is being dismantled, privatised and starved. Good riddance.
13. Voyager 1. Launched in 1977, the space probe Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to leave the Solar System. This is a landmark in the history of civilisation comparable to Notre Dame de Paris or Michelangelo’s David.
14. The internet. Instant communication. Fingertip knowledge. Can you imagine life without this immense force for good? Remember the recent photo of a forced abortion in China? Within days it became the most popular topic on Weibo, China’s Twitter. This shows that a simple farmer can now force change upon one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.
15. Tom Yam Goong. In every city in American, Australia or the UK, you are bound to find Thai restaurants. More than great meals and occasions for appalling puns, these are a sign of an increasingly cosmopolitan and culturally tolerant society. Another Thai-riffic step forward brought to you by Baby Boomers.
16. Locking in civil rights. Blacks in US still have it tough in many ways, mainly as a result of the welfare state, but the Jim Crow laws are gone and racism, formal or informal, is dead or dying. This was the signature cause of the Baby Boomers. “We shall overcome” has become “we overcame”.
17. The democratization of computing. The power of computers has changed the world, but if it were only accessible through mainframes, our lives would be completely different. Baby boomer innovators like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gave us the personal computer (and smart phones and tablets).
18. We wear seat belts. The seat belt was invented in 1885 but the world’s first mandatory buckle-up law wasn’t passed until 1970, in the Australian state of Victoria. Since then, hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved, despite complaints about government busybodies and lack of freedom.
19. No World War III, not even World War II.5. Korea, Vietnam, Biafra, the Congo, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Iraq… The list of wars since 1950 is long and bloody. But in World War II, 60 million people died, give or take 10 million. Somehow the baby-boomer generation managed to ward off the worst tragedy known to man.
20. We can work past 60. Nowadays turning 60 is no longer a professional death sentence. People can work as long as they like, keeping their experience and skills alive. It’s a small advance in human rights and human dignity.
21. Gary Larsen and Garry Trudeau. Why are the world’s greatest cartoonists both named Gar(r)y? Larsen’s widely imitated style, with his anthropomorphised animals and deconstructed cultural cliches was pure genius. And Trudeau’s anti-establishment narratives have become part of the establishment. See if you can improve on that.
22. At least we didn’t do tattoos. Admittedly, some baby boomers have weakened (the wife of Lord Steel, former leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats acquired a jaguar tattoo for her 70th birthday recently) but most are standing firm against this hideous habit.
23. Steven Spielberg. Born in 1946, America’s most acclaimed director is the ultimate baby boomer. His stock in trade is clever cinematography and cultural candy: sentimentality, stereotypes, broken families and wistful nostalgia. But the world would be poorer without Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, and Saving Private Ryan.
24. We are comfortable in a global village. We now live in an interdependent world. Thanks to modern communications, we can know about what happens in Azerbaijan and Paraguay as soon as it happens. We can rejoice with them (sometimes) and grieve with them (more often) – and we realise keenly that our lives are intertwined through the media, trade and the environment. No longer are any of us tempted think that we are superior just because we live in a rich and self-sufficient country.
25. We’re man enough to say “I’m sorry”. Has there ever been a generation which has apologised more often and more profusely? It has become a compulsive gesture for some politicians – for the Crusades, for the Opium Wars, for the Holocaust, for Japanese internment, for eugenic policies, for the slave trade, for discrimination against Chinese, for medical experimentation, for racism and many more. It takes courage to say “I’m sorry”.
26. You’ve still got an environment, guys. It was the baby-boomer generation which rang alarm bells about the destruction of natural habitats, endangered species, and pollution of waterways. Silent Spring, published in 1962, was possibly the first book to warn people that the benefits of technology were double-edged and that we could not continue to enrich ourselves and impoverish the world around us.
27. We’ve screwed up social security so badly that no one will ever do it again (touch wood). Because birthrates have been low and entitlements have been high, the burden of non-taxpaying dependents in Western countries is growing unsustainably. Social security benefits are unfunded. Governments are running deficits year after year after year. The US debt clocked up by baby-boomers is – who knows really? – about $14 trillion. That was a mistake. We’re sorry. But at least we taught Gen X and Gen Y a lesson they’ll never forget.
Michael Cook is a baby boomer and also editor of MercatorNet.